Saturday was the first full day of the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. All three stages are dedicated to music, all day. In case you are unfamiliar here is a very brief overview: Main stages (A and C stages) alternate with hour long sets. As one band plays on the A stage another is setting up on the C stage, so all one has to do is walk, or simply turn 90º and see continuous music on the main stages. The B stage, however, runs more or less independently and is across the park. If you want to hang out at the B stage all day you have to wait through set-ups and tear downs, and the set times overlap with those of the main stages. So, basically, you are able to see continuous music all day long no matter what you do. The park is large enough where there isn’t too much sound interfering from mainstages to B stage, and small enough where you can walk from one end to the other in a matter of minutes.
The first band I caught, Free Energy seemed quite excited to be playing to such a large crowd. The park was crowded right from the get-go on Saturday, which is good to see. Their music reminded me more than a little of J. Geils Band from the 70’s. Not necessarily saying that that is a bad thing, but it isn’t really the kind of thing that I would go out of my way to see. Their classic rock influences are proudly worn on their sleeves with their rockstar posturing, big arena rock sound and gratuitous guitar solos (some taken right at the front of the stage, guitar pointed towards the sky as if offering up alms to the ever present God of Rock ‘n Roll). Their music has some hints of decency, but it also seems like they ran out of ideas pretty quickly.
Real Estate was one of the bands that I was really looking forward to hearing at the festival. It was great to hear them play new tunes (I counted 3), one of which featured the other guitarist as vocalist. What was also promising is that the songs that they played from the record had extended sections worked out a bit more, some noticeable tempo changes and some parts added. The fact that the band is not content to just leave the songs as they are bodes well. They have taken the time to evaluate their work and are changing things, bringing the songs through a process of evolution. They are making the old (even though it really isn’t that old at all) new again. Their mix was good, everything came through and the band is very balanced in general. The new songs sound a bit more focused and less jammy than the tunes on the first album. They were an early highlight of the day. Their songs work well in a large outdoor setting, especially with the bright early afternoon sun blazing down on us. Their music is so relaxed and uplifting in a way that the setting just made them all the better. Meanwhile over at the B stage Kurt Vile was getting ready to bring his psychedelic garage rock to life. I have heard a lot about him before seeing him at this festival, but have never actually heard any of his music. That being said, this was one of the acts that I was ready to have impress me. Every year I try to catch as many bands as possible that I know absolutely nothing about. This year was a little bit leaning in the other direction because I
am so familiar with so many of the bands that there were only a few that I would be able to catch for the very first time. His band featured a harpist on stage left, in lieu of a bassist. Her sound brought a certain depth to the music. The percussive attack from the harp would percolate through the flanged, delayed layer of guitars that were washing over the vocals. At times the harp seemed to act as a piano, other times it would break through with intricate little lead lines that really brought some focus to some of the noise all around. All in all his set was pretty good, and I’m glad I caught it.
Now for the real action. Titus Andronicus. Holy shit. They brought it, and they brought it hard. Right up front I’m going to say that this was quite easily the highlight of the day for me. Their performance was spectacular, and this was the 3rd time that I have seen them. The first time was at the Pitchfork Music Festival in 2008, where they opened up Saturday, in the rain and I don’t think very many people were familiar with them at all. I certainly was not. The 2nd time I saw them was only 3 days before this most recent performance, but in a small room in Buffalo. That gig in Buffalo familiarized me with their songs a bit more, and they have recently released a new album. When they took to the main stage the crowd was so large that I couldn’t force my way any closer than the sound booth, about halfway back. It was good to see them from there though because I could see the crowd bouncing with the music, shouting along, pumping their fists and making the whole set like a huge celebration. The band was running around giving it all they got. Patrick, the leader of the group, jumped into the crowd while continuing to sing his powerfully emotional and heartfelt songs to an audience that was supporting him in every sense of the word.
His lyrics really spoke to me, and I think to the whole audience. They came off as pieces of advice from the trenches that he was translating to us because he has been there. “You will always be a loser” in his hands is not a defeatist saying. Instead it is a rallying cry. “Your life is over” is said as if not speaking directly to us but through him to others that have given up fighting. He is warning through experience. My personal favorite though is, “But when they see the person that you really are, you won’t be laughing so hard.” It’s not all toughness and struggle though, there are also feelings of vulnerability and honest desperation when he repeats “Please don’t ever leave”. This is hardcore music with truly no fear at all. It must be frightening to bring that kind of honesty and strength to the stage every day. It is all well worth it though, because the connection that was made with the 10 – 12,000 people that were there will not soon go away. Helping the band out through a few songs were members from Boston’s Hallelujah the Hills bringing a trumpet, cello and extra set of hands for keyboards and guitars which really helped their set truly reach new heights. Local Chicago band of extraordinarily young kids, Smith Westerns played the B stage. They have some really good tunes. Basically what you have here is really young kids playing well crafted rock tunes that sound like they are influenced by old 60’s albums and a touch of garage rock. They were catchy enough, though I feel as though the singer really needs time to develop his voice a bit, but he is still young, so it isn’t truly a concern. He is relying too much on his falsetto and that kind of wears on one after a while. Uniqueness bonus for the lead singer playing a left-handed guitar right-handed, perhaps a backwards nod to Hendrix?
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Gritty. Loud. Raw. Epic voice. This is what Jack White wants to be when he grows up. It was good to see a truly veteran performer up on the stage. His confidence showed through his ability to jam on a song for 10 or more minutes of bluesed up abandon. He never lets his guitar prowess put too much of a shine on the dirtiness of the sound. Great balance of raw improv and solid structure.
Back on the B stage WHY? gave us their interesting mix of eclectic influences ranging from prog rock shiftiness to straight up old school rap. The singer’s nasal vocal style is reminiscent of John Linnell of They Might Be Giants. This was the first act of the festival that is truly hard to define in simple terms. Artful arrangements with xylophone, sometimes sparse drums, sometimes aggressive guitar and a declamatory vocal delivery with a fine tuned focus on rhythm with deeply personal lyrics. Really good sound, and interesting. I’d file this under “need to investigate further”. Another surprising discovery for myself at the festival.
Wolf Parade‘s nervous and jittery set of energetic tunes were already blaring from the main stage as we arrived. The crowd had swelled considerably. My best guess is that people were jockeying for position for Panda Bear, who was closing out one of the main stages. The lead singer has quite a recognizable voice. The songs were mostly straight ahead and rocking and ranging from guitar driven to synth-centric, though some did wander in the territory of what I would consider “angular”, bringing attention to their quirkiness.
Panda Bear. Everyone was excited for Panda Bear. After his set everyone seemed to be wondering, “Why was I excited for Panda Bear?”. Yes, of course, he is a member of Animal Collective. That in and of itself doesn’t mean that his set is going to be good. His set got off to a slow start and once it did there were no breaks. If you are into standing in a large crowd to watch a guy stand at a keyboard with a guitar play excruciatingly long and drawn out songs that are mostly developmental headphone music then maybe you would have enjoyed this set. I don’t feel that this kind of music works for this venue. There is really nothing to latch onto. The energy, whatever energy there is, doesn’t really translate very well. There was no chance for the audience to really digest the songs or to even figure out what was happening. Total dud of a performance.
The headliner of the night was LCD Soundsystem who really has a way of making songs that are over 10 minutes long that simply repeat the same groove over and over again into
a constantly growing mammoth tune in spite of itself. As opposed to Panda Bear, this music was EXACTLY the kind of music that plays well at this type of venue. LCD Soundsytem turned the entire Pitchfork crowd into one huge dance party. A conga line was formed that snaked through the crowd. Glo-sticks flew through the air, people sang along and everyone danced. They danced with strangers, they danced by themselves, they smiled, they moved. Everything was great for that 45 minutes. It was a great way to end a night. This was the one night that we didn’t catch a show after the festival.
Two days down and one day to go.