Beck and a head-butting St. Vincent amped up 2014’s Pitchfork Music Festival
Kendrick Lamar (Photo: Stephanie Koch)
Kendrick Lamar (Photo: Stephanie Koch)

Beck and a head-butting St. Vincent amped up 2014’s Pitchfork Music Festival

There’s almost nothing new to report about Pitchfork Music Festival this year, and that’s a good thing. The crowd seemed noticeably bigger, but it’s still perfectly easy to move from stage to stage—there are still three, despite the appearance of a fourth, which turned out to be a viewing platform or something. Lines are present, but never unmanageable. And the vibe skews so much smarter than the bigger local festival who shall not be named: There are plenty of kids at Pitchfork, but they seem to be there for the music, not just the event. And there was plenty of music, as always, with something at least interesting—and frequently excellent—to see from the minute the gates opened.

Best anti-smartphone argument: Jeff Mangum’s decree against photography—prohibiting both still and moving pictures—during Neutral Milk Hotel’s set left the Green Stage’s video screens blank during Saturday’s headliner set. No matter: There’s not much to see of Mangum beneath the thick hermit’s beard he’s sporting these days, and multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster’s wild pogoing was likely visible from Ashland Avenue. With no glowing screens in sight, the set felt more like a wilderness gathering centered on the ramshackle NMH songbook, the densely packed crowd united in the heady rush of reciting “Holland 1945” and “Song Against Sex” out loud. The choir of voices was quieter during the set’s closer, the epic solo strummer “Oh Comely.” It was an awed hush worthy of the song’s finale, which found Mangum’s bandmates trickling back to the stage, reunited in sound and forming a snapshot-worthy tableau—if such a thing would’ve been permitted by the artists. [EA]

Closest to just playing an arena: Kendrick Lamar is on top of the rap world, which meant he could do pretty much whatever he wanted with his headlining set Sunday. Lamar chose to turn himself into a serious rock star, in most senses of the term. His backing band provided some interesting arrangements of the familiar songs off Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City though, as a few people close by remarked, it was maybe a touch too reminiscent of his collaboration with Imagine Dragons, and the backing videos of people and locations in his hometown of Compton strained for “meaning.” None of that mattered, though, during “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “M.A.A.D. City,” or any of the other songs that set the crowd on fire, reminding everyone why that’s King Kendrick to you. [ET]

Most popular: St. Vincent wasn’t Saturday night’s headliner—that was Neutral Milk Hotel, who she played right before—but she certainly provided the day’s biggest dose of star power. Ripping through songs from her whole catalog, Annie Clark acted with mechanical efficiency and incredible ferocity, even punctuating “Birth In Reverse” by head-butting a bass drum. With this year’s fest even more low-key than normal, Clark’s sense of theatricality and showmanship was much appreciated. Beyond that, it proved that while Clark might still not draw the numbers that, say, Neutral Milk Hotel does, she’s clearly bound for bigger and better things. [ME]

Best Beck show: If nothing else these days, Beck is consistent. Clad, as always lately, in a button-up shirt, jacket, and wide-brimmed hat, Beck brought his B-game—as in “Beck game”—to Friday night’s headlining slot. While most of his set was devoted to newish cuts off albums like this year’s Morning Phase, the singer also ran through some Odelay oldies like “Devil’s Haircut” and “Where It’s At,” as well as tracks like “Debra” and “Loser.” With his longtime wrecking crew of a backing band, Beck’s set was tight, polished, and impeccably rehearsed, even on tracks like a well-timed cover of the Moroder-produced “I Feel Love.”  It wasn’t exactly a raw or raucous 90-some minutes, but that’s not what Beck’s really known for these days. [ME]

Most under-appreciated jam: Where the trip-hop of her recent Blank Project can be a little tough to digest in the studio, Neneh Cherry and backing band RocketNumberNine brought it to life live. For her first American show in 20 years, Cherry brought it—if there was any real flaw in the set, it was that, early in the afternoon on Friday, she tried for more energy than the crowd could muster. She might not have been headlining, but Cherry was plenty exciting if you were only paying attention. [ET]

Cutest living legend: Seventy-four-year-old Giorgio Moroder might look every bit his age, but he’s a 19-year-old club kid at heart. The Daft Punk-boosted disco legend gave ’Fork Fest fans a lesson in dance music history Friday night, running through an expansive set that included everything from songs he recorded with Donna Summer (“I Feel Love,” “Love To Love You Baby”) to a funked-up version of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.” When he wasn’t cuing songs, Moroder led the crowd in slightly geriatric claps and waves, which, while a bit slow, were still adorably infectious. The whole effect was both charming and educational, with thousands of the fest’s underage fans surely going home with a whole new sense of respect and understanding for Moroder’s influence on the music they love today. [ME]

Most color-by-numbers (on the board): It’s not uncommon for rap shows to start late, but in a festival setting where everyone has a schedule, Pusha T’s set starting half an hour late was a little jarring. It might not have been his fault (reportedly the holdup was due to his DJ), but the delay did less to build anticipation than dissipate the crowd’s energy. Push mostly plugged G.O.O.D. Music and did a few verses off other people’s tracks (including ending the set with the remix of “I Don’t Like”), even thought he has a catalog deep enough to sustain his own set. Pusha T might have hits, and he might be a fun performer, but that didn’t stop people from leaving during “Numbers On The Board.” [ET]

Best transition to band-dom: A guy near me during Saturday afternoon’s Tune Yards set unknowingly summed up Merrill Garbus’ musical history, albeit in very basic terms: “I saw her open for Arcade Fire in 2007 and it was fucking weird, but this is awesome.” Garbus still maintains her weirdness, but has made it more accessible by implementing a band. She still loops herself, but not nearly as much. She doesn’t need to with two drummers, two backing vocalists/dancers, and a guy on bass and synth. And her ukelele, once glued to her for entire sets, only came into play for two songs from Whokill. They played as a group, and the crowd never stopped dancing. Garbus is no longer a solo act, but a frontwoman, as she said at the end of the set, “We are Tune Yards.” [KR]

Worst person to stand behind at a fest: This woman, who either really adheres to the whole “the higher your hair, the closer to God” idiom, or who was just trying to be the weirdest person at the Fest all weekend. [KR]

Best background music: SZA’s sultry singing is certainly pleasant, and it’s downright entrancing when she nails the hazy, dissociative fog her music aims for. But she hasn’t been able to keep it up over a full release, and, live, her atmosphere couldn’t quite sustain itself—like on her Z EP, the songs are too shapeless to build any momentum or demand attention. It says a lot that the crowd’s biggest response was to “Childs Play,” which jacks the pulse of XXYYXX’s “About You.” (The negligible, but still existent possibility of a Chance The Rapper appearance might have helped.) [ET]

Best (and likely only) shout-out to Wesley Willis: It’s been previously stated that this writer adores Wesley Willis and, by proxy, anyone that appreciates the late outsider artist/rocker, so it only heightened the enjoyment of Speedy Ortiz’s early afternoon set on Sunday when the band gave a slight hat tip to Willis. The band tore through its best and brightest tracks both old and new, but right before ending its set drummer Mike Falcone let out a “Rock over London, Rock on Chicago” call, eliciting cheers from a few enthused attendees. It was a nice end-cap to the band’s slack-rock set, and one that brought smiles to the faces of those who miss the mighty Willis. [DA]

Most graceful aggression: Perfect Pussy’s detractors often fixate on the band’s authenticity–most notably the fact that it doesn’t fashion itself in the atypical hardcore uniforms–in an attempt to tear it down. On Sunday, Perfect Pussy appeared on stage and proved that, even when singer Meredith Graves is wearing a classy striped dress on stage, there’s nothing put-on about the band’s songs. It packed its set of glitchy-hardcore with enough energy and aggression to silence any critics, and Graves proved she’s one of the best band leaders in punk today, switching between gracious smiles and domineering screams in mere seconds. The rest of the band followed Graves’ lead, hitting hard when it needed to, but knowing how to transform its chaos into something wholly fun. [DA]

Token metal band: Metal has never been a hallmark of the Pitchfork Festival, so it’s not uncommon for there to only be a single metal band carrying the torch for the genre throughout the weekend. This year, that band was Deafheaven, an act that, despite calling its last album Sunbather, was certainly bound to have the bright sun of its afternoon set work to undermine its blackened tendencies. Over the course of its four proper songs the band proved why it could stand alongside the rest of the festival’s offerings and make an impact. Frontman George Clarke would spend much of “Unrequited” atop the crowd when he wasn’t working them into a tizzy, showing that black metal can be inviting to a mass audience if it’s willing to leave the corpse paint in the dressing room. [DA]

Set that most resembles your grandpa telling you a long, meandering story: Mark Kozelek has long played the part of indie-rock’s curmudgeonly grandfather, and his Friday night Sun Kil Moon set proved it all the more. From the jump Kozelek seemed disinterested in the proceedings, and as he began acknowledging the fact that he himself was tired, it was only natural that the audience began feeling the same. Even as he broke into songs from this year’s excellent Benji, his confessional stories took the shape of an old man airing grievances instead of searching for an opportunity to relate with those in front of him. It was awkward, tense, and a little too quiet, making for a set that lacked any trace of energy from both the artist and audience. [DA]

Most athletic display paired with calls to smoke and drink: Choosing to omit his introspective material and go full bore with his more party-ready offerings, Danny Brown jumped, danced, and rapped with seemingly limitless energy. During “Smokin’ & Drinkin’” Brown bounced for nearly the song’s duration, as he implored the crowd to follow along with his movements while also indulging in the song’s vices. It’s a juxtaposition that—while counterintuitive—certainly worked, making Brown one of the most high-energy performances to grace the Green Stage on Saturday. [DA]

Humblest triumphant return: Sharon Van Etten mentioned from the stage that she had played Pitchfork Fest four years earlier, with just an acoustic guitar and not a ton of confidence. She returned this year as leader of a five-piece band whose Cali-country arrangements mitigated some of the deep sadness of her amazing songs. Her delivery was all impact during the songs themselves, including particularly fiery versions of “Afraid Of Nothing” (the opening track from this year’s Are We There) and “Serpents.” Between songs, she was charming as always, thanking her band and breathlessly telling the crowd that she had helped formulate a new Goose Island beer named after her: SVE. [JM]

Performer you most want to be your uncle: Even big fans of Ka could probably have admitted to being at least slightly apprehensive before his early afternoon set Saturday: His music is cold, lyrically dense, and almost totally inward-facing. But somehow, Ka delivered one of the best performances of the weekend, imbuing his songs with a new live energy (and rapping without his recordings as backup), to the point where people rocked out to “You Know It’s About.” It didn’t hurt that Ka was one of the most endearing performers at the festival, giving lessons like an intimidating, awesome relative, clearly thriving off the bigger audience without requiring their validation. After the set, he disappeared—to get back to his “cave” and keep writing. [ET]

Nicest declaration of dominance: My love for Isaiah Rashad is well-documented, but even correcting for my bias, the youngest member of TDE also had its best performance, easily delivering the most powerful rap show of the weekend and maybe its best set overall. Rashad was not only bouncy and fierce early in the day Sunday, delivering his verses as if his life depended on it, he was also one of the friendliest performers, feeding off the crowd. Though his debut album hasn’t produced any big singles, a shocking number of people, already worn out by two days of the fest, knew and yelled the words to “R.I.P. Kevin Miller,” “Menthol,” and the fiery “Modest.” And even those who weren’t familiar with Rashad came away knowing the next time he performs at Pitchfork, he won’t be relegated to the blue stage. [ET]

Most workmanlike turn-up: No one went to see Schoolboy Q for a display of technical skill—they went to dance to “Collard Greens” and the rest of Q’s Oxymoron. After a quick set from his DJ, Q delivered, getting a midday crowd of bucket hat-wearing fans close to wearing themselves out before the sun had even started going down. Partying to “Man Of The Year” is fun, sure, but Schoolboy Q is all business: His least-choreographed moment was a comment about the heat on stage. [ET]

Most compelling argument for not booking electronic acts at these things: On stage, The Range cuts a rather gawky figure. Pale, bespectacled, and rocking back and forth in an OCD rhythm behind his array of mixers and samplers, the Providence-based James Hinton looks the very definition of “bedroom producer.” But his music is all swagger, arranged around vocal samples of honeyed R&B and braggadocio hip-hop culled from obscure YouTube artists and the occasional ringer (AZ, Das EFX), then given a glitchy, ambient sheen that suggests Hinton is as big a fan of Aphex Twin as he is Illmatic. Of course, that combination makes for a pleasant enough background listen, but even with Hinton’s attempts to put on a show—throwing his arms around, mouthing along to every single lyrical loop—his Blue Stage set still felt like a long warm-up for something bigger, mostly eliciting a few head nods that never matched the energy Hinton was putting out. But hopefully it was enough to convince the uninitiated to go home and try The Range in their headphones, where he properly lives. [SO]

Most compelling argument for booking electronic acts at these things: Every year, Pitchfork’s dedication to booking electronic artists is admirable but impractical: There’s too many distractions, too much sunshine, too few reasons why you wouldn’t be better off just catching them in a club. But The Field, a.k.a. Swedish producer Axel Willner, had one of the weekend’s best shots at overcoming those many hindrances. His two standout albums, 2007’s oft-copied From Here We Go Sublime and last year’s Cupid’s Head, grab hold and don’t let go, building repetitive loops of minimalist trance that glide in and out, but never disappear long enough for attentions to wander. And with the help of a live drummer, Willner managed to recreate that hypnagogic state in his Blue Stage set, which culminated in a version of Sublime opener “Over The Ice” that held the audience in its pulsing thrall for 20-plus minutes. Yes, it would have sounded better in a club, but for a while there, you became so lost in your headspace it didn’t matter where you were. [SO]

Best one-sided rap battle: Thanks to unfortunate timing, British producer Jon Hopkins’ set started just as Schoolboy Q was getting warmed up, and initially it seemed the sparse piano chords and gentle, undulating clicks of opener “Breathe This Air” would be totally swallowed. But before long, Hopkins had segued into a set that focused on the more dance-oriented side of last year’s stellar Immunity, and even Schoolboy’s booming boasts weren’t enough to compete. Hopkins’ spindly arms cut expertly choreographed arcs over his mixers and samplers as he built up the steady throb of “Collider,” barreled right through into the distorted thrum of “Open Eye Signal,” and quickly reclaimed his side of the park for his blissed-out beats. [SO]

[Photos by Stephanie Koch]

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