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Tuesday, January 16

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Detour

Certainly it's impossible to think of this weekend's Pitchfork Music Festival without first thinking of the heat. So best to just state the obvious: the temperatures were oppressive. (Indeed, by mid-weekend, forecasts were suggesting local heat wave records might soon be broken.) But that didn't stop crowds from arriving early and staying late.

Having split from the promoter of 2005's Intonation Festival, Pitchfork Media decided to go it alone this year, and, by and large, it succeeded in producing an event that featured an impressive blend of both au courant music and the artists that inspired and influenced it. While last year's Intonation had an air of wonder about it — was this indie extravaganza actually happening and could it go off without too many hitches? — this year's audience clearly came with high expectations. Featuring 41 bands and headlined by Silver Jews and Os Mutantes, the event showed signs of maturing: sell-out crowds of around 17,000 on both days naturally meant long lines for food and toilets, but the atmosphere remained a convivial one as concert-goers focused on beating the heat at what Peter Hughes of the Mountain Goats called an "indie rock Woodstock."

Although neither his band nor Art Brut seems particularly well-suited to a midday, outdoor performance setting, the charisma of their respective frontmen won over Saturday's wilting crowds. Eventually, at least. The Mountain Goats played a set that varied between material from their forthcoming album, Get Lonely, and older songs like "No Children." Despite challenging the crowd to pogo the roughly three minutes one tune ran, it wasn't all upbeat: sometimes John Darnielle's singing voice was barely a whisper. Even still, the audience remained rapt. Art Brut's Eddie Argos, who took the stage two hours later, watched the set from the crowd and looked variously amused and impressed at Darnielle's command of his audience. That command wasn't present at the outset of Argos's performance, but it was there by the end. For both acts, the expected crowd-pleasers still came off with charm. Expressing his disgust at his team's current state, Darnielle led his band — and the assembled mass — through a rousing rendition of the now rarely performed "Cubs in Five," while Art Brut capped off their set with a signature closer, chanting a refrain of "Art Brut! Top of the Pops!" By that time, Argos had won his listeners over, and, in the microcosm of that Union Park field, the claim had a certain accuracy. Going further, in amusing acknowledgment of the larger event, Argos namechecked each of the other bands performing on Saturday's main stage.

Of those other performers, the Walkmen turned in a set that displayed their typical intensity, all while furthering the damage singer Hamilton Leithauser regularly inflects on his vocal chords. They were one of few bands to take advantage of the rest of the bill, employing a couple of Man Man members on brass to round out their last song. Brass showed up elsewhere in a rather unexpected spot: backing electronic duo Matmos. Although the group's recorded material can sometimes verge into barely listenable noise, it revealed itself as a pop act at heart. Rather than simply fall into the category of "laptronica," Drew Daniel, MC Schmidt and their back-up musician bounced from instrument to PowerBook and back, with audience heads bopping all the while.

Silver Jews rounded out the night as the less-than-obvious headliner. David Berman's often downbeat and intellectual poetry is a far cry from what one might expect to cap off a day of rock — the contrast with the rollicking Futureheads, who'd just been on, could hardly have been more striking. Nevertheless, the rarity of Berman's appearances clearly boosted anticipation enough that Silver Jews met with a response that was louder than the well-performed music that prompted it.

Underscoring his status as a cult idol, Berman returned to the stage early Sunday afternoon, in lyrics if not in body. His poetry appears in "You are the Light," the song with which Jens Lekman wound down his set. Lekman's twee pop could have struggled in the outdoor sun, but it was backed by a band featuring — what else? — a brass section that gave it much-needed oomph. He came across as rather shy on stage, but what he lacked in banter, his tunes made up for in apparent charm and sincerity. Sincerity, albeit heavily ironized, was present in the National's tight set, but charm wasn't on the Liars bill — they put in what a friend called a "fuck you" performance. Still, if their abrasive rock wasn't your thing, at least you could say they were trying.

The same couldn't necessarily be said for several of the other main stagers. While Sunday's line-up was appealing on paper, the actual performances ended up a mixed bag. Devendra Banhart's brand of folk was interrupted repeatedly by breaks of barely audible mumbling. Yo La Tengo chose a setlist often inappropriate to the environment — whispering might have worked for the Mountain Goats, but Ira Kaplan's version of precious acted as a momentum killer. And, late in the day, Spoon's anemic performance did little to involve the audience. A roar went up and heads started nodding when single "I Turn My Camera On" started, but the mood was subdued again before the song was half-way over.

The Biz 3 stage remains a somewhat frustrating set-up, both conceptually and logistically. For one, it constantly competes with the main stage acts, which are scheduled with little break between. Beyond that, the tent structure stifles ventilation, leaving heat and cigarette smoke trapped in a relatively small, overcrowded space. Despite those drawbacks, the secondary spot often offered Sunday's best time. Brazilian act CSS turned in what might have been the day's most rock 'n' roll show. Recalling the raucous insouciance of the Donnas (with a bonus "Don"), the group gave a punchy performance, replete with crowd-surfing by manic vocalist Lovefoxxx. And, if Germany's Ada got the indie kids dancing, Diplo had them positively going off. At this point, mashing up Missy Elliott's "Work It" with "Rock the Casbah" may not be entirely original — one might even call it obvious — but that doesn't mean it's not fun. Incorporating a variety of tracks including electronic standards like Daft Punk's "Around the World," Diplo's party hardy set wasn't about thinking, it was about moving.

It may have been overthinking that made the crowd watching Sunday night's festival closer seem more appreciative than overcome. Certainly, it wasn't for lack of trying by Tropicalia pioneers Os Mutantes. The band played with palpable joy, but the enthusiasm wasn't always infectious. The more psychedelic moments elicited the biggest response, and Devendra Banhart's cameo on backing vocals added an element of humor to the spectacle. All the same, it was only in the end that the Baptista brothers and company successfully translated the momentousness of their reunion into a moment of transcendence for their audience.
-- Matthew Peck

Click here to view the photo essay » by Nathaniel Grotte

 

About the Author(s)

Nathaniel Grotte is a Gapers Block staff writer and contributor to Transmission. View more of his photos from the Pitchfork Music Festival (and elsewhere) on his flickr page.

Matthew Peck is also a GB staff writer and Transmission contributor. His thoughts are also collected at Fifty-five hundred.

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