Pitchfork Music Festival, Day 1 (Friday, July 16, 2010)

Friday, July 16, 2010 was the first day of the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. The festival is growing year after year from it’s 2 full day beginnings in 2006, to their collaboration with All Tomorrow’s Parties in 2007-2008 that saw bands invited to play their classic albums in their entirety (including Sonic Youth, my personal favorite, playing all of Daydream Nation for the first time on American soil).

Now the festival has grown to 2 and 3/4 days of music, and for some reason comedy (a failure that hopefully won’t happen again), and art. I always try to see as many bands as possible and this year I actually brought a notebook so that I don’t have to attempt to do it from memory. This was my friday:

Sharon Van Etten- The very first musician of the festival. She came out with only a guitar, which I think is a very daring thing to do, but she was fantastic. No effects on her guitar, just a clean tone. Her songs have these really honest and heartfelt lyrics that don’t hold anything back, and don’t hide anything. Heartbreak, loneliness and trying to pick up and start again after failed relationships seems to be the main themes.

During her set, towards the end, she broke a string on her guitar and after managing to make it through one more song she was joined on stage by a roadie that handed her a new guitar to finish her set, to which she excitedly announced to the crowd, “Modest Mouse just let me borrow their guitar!”. It was a beautiful black Gibson hollowbody with gold trim. That was the end of her set. Unfortunately the first two sets of the afternoon are only a half an hour long. I would have gladly listened to Sharon Van Etten’s music all night.

Photo by Kirstie Shanley (All rights reserved)
Marie-Claire (left), of Speck Mountain and Sharon Van Etten (right) Photo by Kirstie Shanley

We decided to skip out on The Tallest Man on Earth to check out the Flatstock Poster Convention. It’s a great showing of many artists that design show posters. Every year I make it a point to stop at the Bird Machine tent because Jay Ryan always does the official Pitchfork Music Festival poster.

From what I did catch of the Tallest Man on Earth set I gathered that it was another singer songwriter, solo, on acoustic guitar. I don’t really feel like I caught enough of the set to make a good judgment on what his music is really like though.

Next up was El-P. I can’t say enough bad things about this performance. The first thing that I have written down in my notebook is “fucking bullshit garbage rap”. This isn’t to say that I hate all rap. That is not the case. I really hate when Pitchfork puts really shitty rap on their festivals, it ruins the whole flow of the festival. GZA did well a few years back, Public Enemy blew the roof of the place a few years after that, but this was just awful. It was mostly pre-recorded. There was no melody, no harmony, seemingly no focus on song structure. It seems that their entire set was spent just trying to get us to “put [our] motherfuckin’ hand in the air”. Why is it that this act gets an hour when Sharon Van Etten only got half that?

After that, which was too loud to avoid, it was time for Liars. Last time I saw Liars they had just finished “Drum’s Not Dead”, album oriented psychedelic (in a sense) concept post-rock. Their set was focused more on long form tunes that seemed improvised to a great degree. This time around they are a roaring tight aggressive and polished band playing more “traditional” (it’s funny to even say that in reference to Liars) rock. They have added 2 members to their touring band, up to 5 from the trio that they previously toured with, adding a guitarist and bassist.

The sun was blinding me during their set. It was good to hear new arrangements of old songs from previous albums due to their new touring lineup. There was more of a guitar focus than the tribal, perpetual drumming of their performance at the same festival in 2006. The set was mostly up-tempo noisy rockers, and the band touched upon each release in their output so far. It was definitely great to hear songs from “They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top”.  Highlights also included “No Barrier Fun” and “Scissor” as well lead singer Angus Andrew’s stage antics including reminding festival goers to stay hydrated by visiting the water stations, including the one located “in [his] pants, so feel free to hop up on stage and have a go.” Their set was the most energetic of the day (and we went to see them after the festival later that night, down the street at the Bottom Lounge)

Broken Social Scene played a set of new songs from their current album “Forgiveness Rock Record” and classics from their catalog on stage with several musicians from Chicago, including string players and the drummer from Tortoise. I suppose they just aren’t comfortable on stage unless there are at least 15 of them up there. The songs were ok, the new ones came off well, but it just seems to me like there are too many cooks in the kitchen. How can you make that music sonic space for that many people up on stage? They seem to want to make this epic statement every time they take the stage. I think that they really need to allow the songs to speak for themselves. If the songs don’t hold up live then the best thing to do would be to change the songs, not continually add more layers on top of things.

I was happy that they played “7/4 (Shoreline)” which is one of my favorites, as well as “Windsurfing Nation”, but the singer that they brought with them had a very breathy voice with no projection and even less stage presence. I just didn’t connect with the set as much as I was hoping to.

The final set of the night was brought to us by the biggest (commercially speaking) act of the festival Modest Mouse. They also had a fairly large band with them, with a few extra members, one of them a multi-instrumentalist. They also played a wide swath of material from old favorites to new tunes, but noticeably avoided playing “Float On”, which I actually feel good about, even though I kind of wanted to hear it. I like when bands seem to know what their “big hit” is, but avoid it. In essence they are saying “we have many many other songs that are equally as good, or maybe better. Perhaps you should familiarize yourself with them, right now. If you want to hear Float On, go home and throw it on the turntable”.

Lead singer, and all around lead-dude Isaac Brock came off simultaneously  insane and focused and in control. He had a crazed look in his eye for most of the set and played the guitar and banjo like he was attacking them or punishing them for something. At one point between songs a glo-stick made its way onto the stage. Brock thought it would be a good idea to bite into it and make his mouth glow. It was not a good idea. He told us immediately that he discovered this was a bad idea, but when he spit it out his spit glowed.

I felt as though the set was pretty polished with a few rough edges. It wasn’t absolutely pristine, which is a good thing. They did a 2 song encore after sort of abruptly leaving the stage the first time.

After that we headed down the street to the Bottom Lounge to catch Liars. That review will be coming soon. It will also be a much shorter review. Next up, the 2 full days of the Festival.