[On July 13, several members of The A.V. Club staff attended the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. This is their report.]
Friday, July 13
7 p.m.: The members of Slint sit down for "Don, Aman," the six-minute-plus track from their seminal Spiderland, which they're playing in its entirety here as part of an evening co-sponsored by All Tomorrow's Parties' Don't Look Back series, in which artists perform their best-known albums. The moment captures the band's greatness and its greatest weakness: Slint completely lacks stage charisma, and playing a deathly quiet, moody song on a big outdoor stage just doesn't work. The festival's opening-day sound problems, which caused organizers to overhaul the system on Saturday, obviously don't help.
7:45 p.m.: GZA takes the stage to a sea of (overwhelmingly white) hands flashing the Wu-Tang sign, which more than a few festivalgoers note with snarky quips. The Genius lets the crowd know the stakes of this performance: "I'm missing a Wu-Tang show in Amsterdam tonight, ya'll gotta represent like I represent." The crowd accommodates by cheering.
8:25 p.m.: GZA leads the crowd through chants of "Wu-Tang" before dropping a lengthy promo for the upcoming Wu-Tang album 8 Diagrams, stopping just short of giving out the Amazon address for pre-orders.
9:04 p.m.: Tim Tuten, co-owner of Chicago bar/venue The Hideout, reprises his MC role from last year, prefacing bands with the long-winded introductions he's known for. His mention that Yoko Ono will headline Saturday elicits as many boos as cheers. Oddly, after Tuten's rousing intro, Sonic Youth doesn't immediately appear. But when the opening chords of Daydream Nation's "Teen Age Riot" ring out, the crowd goes into spasms of joy.
9:05 p.m.: Let's just skip the whole "Sonic Youth plays like a band half its age" talk, shall we? Such trite platitudes are admittedly warranted: Thurston Moore seems particularly invigorated tonight, whipping his lanky frame around. Too bad the soundman hasn't quite caught up, and anyone not standing within 50 feet of the front of the stage is treated to a tinny, underwhelming wash. The cries of "Turn it up!" start almost immediately—a pattern that will repeat all weekend long.
9:25 p.m.: Just as "The Sprawl" winds to a close, somebody yells out, "Boooring!" in a voice loud enough that even Kim Gordon might have heard it. He isn't exactly wrong, but the set picks up considerably around "Eric's Trip," with Lee Ranaldo's voice cutting through loud and clear while Moore hammers at his guitar with a drumstick. Maybe there isn't anything particularly revolutionary about Sonic Youth's approach any more, but the band deserves credit for not "reworking" its material into, say, a Police-style jazz fusion.
12:43 a.m.: Why didn't Pitchfork invite the blazingly exciting hip-hop trio Yo Majesty—three women from Florida that rap about "Kryptonite Pussy," among other things—to play? They're in town all weekend, and they rip it up at a Sonotheque after-party.
Saturday, July 14
2:20 p.m.: Voxtrot's Ramesh Srivastava moans, "I thought the sun was going away. I was happy about that." Still, no matter how much he wants to play the Mancunian moper, Austin's premier indie-pop band is ideal for a lazy, sunny afternoon.
3:02 p.m.: Recorder solo! The crowd near the stage is surprisingly attentive, and a cool breeze lends the set an idyllic air for the time being—so, against all odds, this whole afternoon-slot-at-a-festival thing ends up suiting Grizzly Bear's stark, spacious feel. The only obstruction further up is a view-blocking V8-fro.
3:10 p.m.: Grizzly Bear's set is derailed in its second song, with a low frequency from the clarinet (how rock 'n' roll is that?) apparently blowing out one of the speakers. Chris Taylor seems genuinely embarrassed, saying, "I have all this shit down here, and it's never been a problem until now. It's the last show of the tour, and now I'm doomed." In spite of the (very brief) setback, the band's set is a festival high point. During the opening strains of "Knife," a guy over my shoulder starts singing along, drowning out the band. He breaks off to ask, "Hey, who's the lead singer? That blond guy?" Uh, right now, you are, dude.
4 p.m.: Boost Mobile's "Meet & Greet" tent is a little misleading: Fans wanting to "meet" Voxtrot, for example, are instead handed a phone and given one minute to have a forced, awkward conversation. Even more disappointing, a nearby sign indicates that Yoko Ono has already cancelled her session scheduled for later that day. So much for asking her if her refrigerator is running. (She'd probably just say it's "making love," anyway.)
4:06 p.m.: Shouldn't Battles be way more confrontational than this? Maybe it's the distance between the crowd and the band, but it feels itchy instead of scary. The set tweaks some songs to the limits of recognition, yet the band, which often sounds like it's deliberately messing with its audience on record, just seems to be having non-antagonistic fun here. Perhaps "ka-chunk," "scratch," "bleep," and "bloop" make for a friendly sonic vocabulary after all.
4:11 p.m.: From Union Park, the Sears Tower looks like a giant robotic middle finger. Maybe it's a Transformers tie-in.
4:53 p.m.: Festivalgoers use masking tape on the asphalt of Washington Boulevard near Ashland Avenue for an impromptu game of foursquare, which proves popular all weekend long. One guy coaches his friend from the sidelines by yelling, "Stop dancing around like a little homo, son!"
5 p.m.: Even as a full band, Iron And Wine apparently likes to keep it slight. Except for those within about 100 feet of the stage, everything from Sam Beam's voice to the drums and guitars remain relatively faint. A few songs in, Beam and the band assert themselves a little more (or get turned up), stirring up a slow, mysterious blues groove accented with vibes and other textural touches. It doesn't get much time to sink in, though, thanks to…
5:30-6 p.m.: Interruptions from Mastodon's sound check. Those really close to the Iron And Wine stage will be fine, but anyone near the middle of things is going to hear Mastodon's two guitarists noodling over Beam's whole band. Beam has a regal beard and mane, but Mastodon guitarist-singer Brent Hinds looks like a demon troll. A local student who writes for her high-school newspaper gets the privilege of introducing the band, which she lovingly describes as "metal most primordial." This draws cruel laughter—from people who presumably came to rock out to lyrics like "A vast calm wilderness / the call to adventure comes / lead and land atop this rock / infinite path carved with unrivaled skill." Of course, Mastodon is a lot better at stomping down its own corniness factor. It's exactly what the fest needed, and soon the front of the stage grows dusty from what is probably the festival's first pit ever. The Georgia band's performance proves to be one of the weekend's highlights. Take note, Pitchfork Fest organizers—next year: Converge!
5:20 p.m.: The "Balance Stage" is hands-down the worst venue here. It's crammed into the end of a narrow alley strewn with food stands and overflowing garbage cans. It's impossible to see anything, and the sounds emanating from the speakers are whisper-quiet. Brooklyn's Professor Murder is nearly drowned out by young whippersnappers calmly discussing the merits of The Bloodhound Gang. Professor Murder's Liquid Liquid-esque dance-punk—which its effervescent frontman/drummer Michael Bell-Smith (coming off like an indie Tito Puente) cheerfully likens to "Stomp a.k.a. Blue Man Group a.k.a. Louie Vega"—is admittedly fun, but not interesting enough to justify standing in this fetid nook any longer.
5:45 p.m.: The freestanding hand-washers outside the portable toilets have already run out of water, something many concertgoers find out only after covering their hands in liquid soap. That's bad news for the shirtless dude who wanders out just before Mastodon's set, chest and legs covered in puke, hair matted with dirt. He nonchalantly crosses his arms and joins the line. Everyone gives him a wide berth.
6:11 p.m.: A woman walks by wearing a black T-shirt with giant white letters saying "THE ONLY BUSH I TRUST IS MY OWN." It is, sadly, the classiest of the T-shirts The A.V. Club sees noting how the president's name is also slang for female pubic hair. Yawn. Another notable T-shirt, this one on a 10-year-old kid: "Xiu Motha Fuckin' Xiu." Nice.
6:30 p.m.: The novelty of Mastodon's thrash-metal begins to wear off shortly after the 10th sludgy instrumental breakdown. One fan in the front row has been throwing devil horns for so long that his arm grows tired, so he reaches behind his head and supports his elbow with the other arm.
7:03 p.m.: The two brothers of Clipse sneer into their set with forbidding, nasty aggression, sparking much more excitement than GZA did on Friday. Clipse sticks with the bleak Neptunes production, adding an extra bass-y thud that stretches across the park. The two give Pitchfork repeated shout-outs, which somehow seems really, really funny. The raucous crowd chants "Keys open doors!" along to "Keys Open Doors" from Hell Hath No Fury. Of course, "keys" here means kilograms of illicit substances, and it's funny watching the indie-inclined audience sing along like seasoned snowmen. Like GZA, Clipse plays louder and meatier than anyone else simply because they don't have to worry about mics or amps. Voxtrot's Ramesh Srivastava watches jealously before confiding, "Next time, I'm just going to put everything on a DAT."
7:30 p.m.: Clipse begin asserting that Hell Hath No Fury is the "album of the year." Also, gratuitous gunshot sound effects follow just about every other song. Malice and Pusha-T chum up to the crowd between songs, but they still give off that uneasy feeling that they could turn on you—not just some third party, but the audience itself—as soon as the coke market slumps. Pusha introduces "Chinese New Year" by saying, "Chicago, y'all ain't foolin' nobody. We know it get real grimy out here. So get your mask and your gloves and let's do this." The crowd whoops and hollers like it knows exactly what he's talking about.
7:55 p.m.: Clipse ends its set by breathlessly plugging the upcoming We Got It For Cheap Vol. 4 and the next Clipse album. "We just think we better," Pusha concludes. They certainly have everyone else beat in the self-promotion department. He then rips into "bitin'-ass rappers bitin' our style" before concluding with "Mr. Me Too," then emerges for one of the festival's only encores for a swaggering version of "Virginia."
8:01 p.m.: Cat Power, featuring an all-new lineup, starts off strong with the title track from The Greatest, but things quickly devolve into crushing cover-band boredom. Chan Marshall's new sidemen—including Judah Bauer from the Blues Explosion, Jim White of The Dirty Three (who's played with her quite a bit in the past), and Gregg Foreman (of the late, lost Delta 72)—played like a capable bar band, and Marshall stuck almost exclusively to covers: "Theme From New York, New York," "Satisfaction," "Tracks Of My Tears." These may be fun for Marshall—even though she complained quite a bit about the sound—but on seven out of seven days, the people would rather hear her struggle through her own amazing songs than breeze through other people's. Everything turns to vanilla soul sauce.
9:03 p.m.: As Yoko Ono's set begins with an interminable, inaudible video about using flashlights to say "I love you" to the heavens (seriously), Girl Talk's set continues on the smaller Balance Stage. The bass is booming over Yoko's video, and the ecstatic cheers of the crowd over there makes it the place to be—not standing in a big field trying to figure out what the hell this video is supposed to mean. After a few minutes, the crowd is seriously confused. "Say I love you from the top of buildings, from mountains, using whole buildings, using flashlights," she says over and over (and over) again.
9:10 p.m.: Ono takes the stage to rapturous applause, dressed in a black fedora, white scarf, and Ray-Bans. "She looks like Jim Belushi!" someone calls out.
9:15 p.m.: Ono emits her first braying "Wa-a-a-a-a" and the crowd collectively doubles over with laughter. An odd feeling of relief is palpable, like no one was certain until now how seriously they were supposed to take this.
9:20 p.m.: When the recognized elements of music—beats, a bassline—finally start, the crowd cheers… until Ono starts, um, singing. Her grunts and screams sound simian, and the crowd's mass exodus begins. "We can say we've seen her," says one couple on the way to the exit. Another person standing nearby is more blunt: "You've gotta be fucking kidding me." Elsewhere: "Homewrecker!" and "Shut up and ROCK!" After the first song, Ono performs what appears to be a mini-play, voicing the parts of a couple of characters. It is, like the rest of her set, excruciating. As our packed bus heads up Ashland, we can only pray for those left behind. The only question is whether to call this event the Yokocaust or the Onopocalypse.
Sunday, July 15
1:12 p.m.: After an announcer notes with glee that we're all standing in the shadow of a nearby Baptist church this fine Sunday, Deerhunter singer Bradford Cox slinks out, dangling what appear to be tiny puppets from a glove on one of his hands. Cox's spindly figure (sort of explained here) and the dress he's wearing make people expect a crazier set than what the band delivers. That's the theme, at least for the first few hours of the day—various rising indie bands sounding great, but a little rushed and cramped. Or, in this case, not cramped enough. Cox's otherworldly mating calls and the band's crude chugging could use some confining club walls to rattle.
1:55 p.m.: The Flatstock Poster Convention, held on the Pitchfork grounds this year, tempts the geekier among us to spend almost the price of a three-day festival pass, sometimes more, on gig posters from around the country. Particularly hypnotic: this Explosions In the Sky poster by Northhampton, MA-based artist Nate Duval. Meantime, an arty $4 notebook purchased from Alabama print shop Standard Deluxe proves much sturdier than the crappy drugstore one that's been falling apart all weekend.
2:30 p.m.: Increasing the feeling that today's first half is a harried indie showcase, Menomena's 45-minute set doesn't really give the band time to build up the drama, but that at least doesn't hamper individual songs.
3:15 p.m.: Junior Boys cap off the cram-a-thon—leave it to the mopiest of the day's acts to punch through the decidedly non-intimate atmosphere, for what that's worth.
4:24 p.m.: Something doesn't translate when The Sea And Cake heads into the studio, because its performance is invigorating and occasionally raw, unlike its albums, which are, if anything, too steady in their production and mood. Also: The Sea And Cake's audience does indeed dance to The Sea And Cake. Or at least one guy does.
5:48 p.m.: Does Jamie Lidell have a gospel choir on stage with him? Because that's how it sounds. Nope, it's just him, but his outfit is vaguely messianic: a golden robe and similarly sparkling headdress.
6 p.m.: Except for some traces of gray in his hair, Stephen Malkmus still looks boyish. His lanky figure and chinos make him look like a cool college TA. For all but two songs, Malkmus plays by himself on an acoustic guitar, which he runs through an amp and distorts when necessary. His occasional flubs make him look a little rusty. About halfway through the set, he's joined by Pavement drummer Bob Nastanovich. Much to the crowd's delight, they play the classic songs "Trigger Cut" and "In The Mouth A Desert" from the band's 1992 debut, Slanted And Enchanted. Malkmus later closes the set with "We Dance" from 1995's Wowee Zowee.
7:38 p.m.: Time for a quick peek at Of Montreal's stage: The guitar player is wearing a big, dirty set of pink angel wings, and three others, including leader Kevin Barnes, are playing mock football in shoulder pads and helmets. What more do you need? They return for an encore and play The Kinks' "You Really Got Me." Frontman Kevin Barnes wears only thigh-highs and a G-string, naturally.
8 p.m.: The New Pornographers start their set promptly at the designated time, but word that vocalist Neko Case would perform here proves false. As the band rips through "Use It," a police car passes on Ashland with sirens blaring. Strangely, it synchs with the song perfectly—more proof that the band leads a charmed life. The set sags just once, when new song "The Spirit Of Giving" (minus Dan Bejar, who sings it on the new Challengers) droops into a coda of "We Will Rock You." But even that's kind of endearing, especially as the band picks right up with "Mass Romantic." In Case's absence, keyboardist-singer Kathryn Calder leads the song and other New Pornos standards, including "The Laws Have Changed." She's been the adequate replacement at previous Case-less shows. Here, her sassy (and frankly adorable) presence stands out with a lot more confidence. Frontman Carl Newman lauds Pitchfork Festival's cheap ticket prices, which don't "fuck you up the ass" like other festivals'. "Did I just say that out loud?" he asks. "I love all festivals—and the money they pay us." The final minutes of "The Bleeding Heart Show," laden with multiple vocal harmonies, are as good as pop music gets. The raucous crowd demands an encore afterward, and the band eventually obliges with "The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism."
9:18 p.m.: Early in its set, De La Soul welcomes DJ/producer Prince Paul, who guest-scratches and rhymes for a song or two, then just kind of sits on stage for the rest of the show.
9:48 p.m.: This must be a party, clearly, because an inflatable orange couch is bouncing across the crowd. De La Soul remains playful and cocky, alternately spreading a welcoming vibe throughout the incessantly dancing crowd and urging those not dancing to "go the fuck home." (Does that include the seated Prince Paul?)
10:30 p.m.: After another 40 minutes of hip-hop chestnuts, corny banter, and various inquiries as to where the party at, De La leaves behind a sweaty mess of a crowd. It's a strong, inclusive finish, and the weekend has also been choosy enough to satisfy its namesake's many fragments of an audience.