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Feature Mon Jul 21 2008
Having listened to their singles collection, 03/07-09-07, (out July 22nd on Thrill Jockey) over the last week I could tell that the duo of Robert Barber and Mary Pearson (aka High Places) had a complex sound and I wound how they could possible translate to the stage. The stage they played on Sunday (Stage B) was running a half-hour behind, and I want to say that it took these two maybe five minutes to set-up for their performance. They stood in front of a folding table filled with electronics and cables and shells and bells. I would have loved to take a look inside the case that they had spread over table, and witness the various homemade instruments that contribute to High Places unique beats and noises. Robert focused mostly on percussion, while wearing a t-shirt that read "Support The Scene", and Mary sang and added extra sound. She several bracelets made of bells, and smiled and sang with the same joy and innocence as her songs would suggest.
The second to last slot of summer music festival is a challenging one to play. The crowd is a mixed bag of the exhausted, drunk, burnt, stoned, and the dedicated. When Dinosaur Jr. took the stage J must have made the same observation because the small grin cracked the normally stoned-faced and silent Mascis. He stood there in front of the six stacked Marshall amps and quietly said "Thank You" before tearing into "It's Me" from last years album Beyond. When the band first reformed back in 2005 they vowed they would only play the songs they had written when they were together which limited them to four albums worth of material. However, they have now opened up the entire catalog and performed classics like "Out There", "Feel The Pain", and "Wagon". The set was filled with body surfing, nostalgia, and a surprising amount of energy. As it progressed both the crown and the band heated up, J's solos shifted from structured and album ready to wild and roaring by the time they closed the set with 1988's "Freak Scene". The crowd demanded an encore, and they got their wish as the band came back and continued to rock for just one more song.
Pitchfork weekend was a weekend of t-shirt slogans, and Jacob Duzsik of the Los Angeles noise band HEALTH really took it to heart by wearing a white t-shirt with the words "If it's illegal to rock then throw my a** in jail" scrawled across in red marker. Yet, it wasn't just a clever saying, he did rock. The four member band was spread around the stage and thrashed and dance violently to the brutal noise they created. Burying the rhythm and melody deep under a raw blanket of what had to be freestyle noise, the band jolted the crowd. Most remarkable was the way Jacob held one mic for screaming and used the mic on the stand for hushed Radiohead-like singing. He would switch fluently through out different songs. Towards the end of the set the band looked almost to be in pain from all of the high energy banging and dancing. Each movement felt labored, but they finished strong and drenched in sweat.
Saturday morning got off to a nice, slushy start with overcast skies and intermittent rain, which just meant the hipsters got to break out their galoshes. The Balance Stage was where it was at, and kicking off the first set of the day was Serbian ten-piece gypsy brass ensemble Boban I Marko Markovic Orkestar. The lengthy warm-up left a few listeners cold, but once the party started — boy howdy! Led by father/son team Boban and Marko, the band burst into one quick 'n dirty song after another, even inciting the crowd to dance to a rousing "Hava Nagila." Luckily, the Boban set was one instance where it was really apparent that the Pitchfork sound system had been upgraded: Instead of last year's squelches and slurriness, the horns came off as bright and crisp. In case your lazy self missed the set, you can check the group out again tonight at Martyr's .
Following in Boban's Balkan footsteps, the similarly inspired A Hawk and a Hacksaw played a more subdued, though no less musically complicated, set. The Albuquerque-based duo added two more multi-instrumentalists to the mix, filling out their Eastern European-inspired set. Violinist Heather Trost is nothing short of amazing, and accordionist/drummer/singer (all at the same time, mind you) Jeremy Barnes managed to draw a sizable crowd despite Jay Reatard's rival set across the way. Unfortunately, AHAAHS suffered from some technical setbacks — the mixing was slow on the take, and as a result many of the instruments were lost, particularly the drumming.
Icy Demons experienced the same mixing-based messy unevenness that befell A Hawk and a Handsaw (particularly with the vocals). The maybe-kinda Chicago-based group seemed to have some personnel changes in the group. Most notably missing was Man Man drummer, Pow Pow, who was replaced by someone who looked an awful lot like him. Anyway, as much as I appreciate that Icy Demons can play a zillion styles of music &mdsah; switching from bass-booty '80s beats and Latin grooves to squiggly jazz and electronica — their method of using every single song to showcase another style just made the performance feel like a sampler platter. It was hard to get a real sense of what the band was about. My favorite descriptor came from my cohort, Arpad, who summed up one of their more rock numbers: "It's as if King Crimson got commissioned to do a song for a Super Mario game."
A break from the B-stage was needed, as well as a break from heady world music. London's own Dizzee Rascal provided a good hip-hop escape. Mr. Rascal deftly ran through his singles, including "Fix Up, Look Sharp," "Sirens," and "Where's Da Gs." As the sun came out, off went his shirt (Dizzee's really cut — who woulda thunk?) and up with the hands in the ay-yer. Overall, his set went fairly without incident, and though his performance was missing some of the vocal flips that usually make his albums a lot of fun, Dizzee's quick double-dutch rhymes made up for it.
Finally, and oddly, one unexpected (but nonetheless well attended) performance was to be found by a clutch of trees. A hand-scrawled sign advertising "Haircuts $2" hung over a fast-working barber who had customers lined up and waiting (see some pics of the barber in action in our Detour photo feature). It turns out the beardy barber was Tim Harrington, the singer for Les Savy Fav. Rogue haircutting! It just doesn't get better.
- Kara Luger
A diverse lineup of bands and a steady fashion parade made for an interesting three days at the Pitchfork Music Festival this past weekend. Add to that rain and mud, treacherous humidity, long lines at the port-a-potties, plenty of shirtless, bearded dudes, girls in hippie-hipster garb carrying gleaming i-phones or designer handbags, and you've got the picture.
For me, the whole thing felt akin to summer camp with the grown-up privilege of beer, as I was there for the whole shebang, soaking up the music and the crowd, and talking up this fine website at the Gapers Block table. I traipsed across muddy fields, braved scary toilets, made new friends, ate unfamiliar food, sat in the sun, eyed cute male creatures, watched the bands come and go, said hello and goodbye. I arrived home on Sunday with boots caked in mud, and fond memories of a distinctly summer-like Chicago weekend.
Friday night the folks slowly trickled in, gathering around the stage to see Mission of Burma, still intense and visceral after twenty years as punk rock veterans. The crowd at this point was a bit mellow (no wild dancing or bodies floating on hands in the audience) as things were just gearing up. After the show I walked through the crowds and was confronted with an overwhelmingly white demographic, which sitting around on the grass looking bored appeared to be living up to its reputation as disaffected youth. Yet nothing cures a case of apathy better than alcohol and pot (which you could smell everywhere), and several hours later the crowd was properly soused and happy.
Just the right moment to go see Public Enemy, which swooped down to rescue Pitchfork from being a festival of predominantly white artists playing to a white audience. Being the prima Donna he is, the dynamo known as Flava Flav was late arriving on stage, as apparently he had trouble getting his "family" past security. Sporting his trademark oversized clock of a sparkling white and black variety around his neck (along with several heavy golden chains) he bounced and rapped across the stage, reminding all that it's not good looks but charisma and talent that make a man popular with the ladies. He didn't hesitate to promote his latest reality TV concoction, "All Under One Roof," to which the audience responded with resounding boos. Apparently Mr. Flav is a bit sensitive, as he heatedly retorted by calling everyone who booed him "motherfuckers who should be booing their spouses not him." In the end, it was all part of the Flav schtick, which added an entertaining element to an overall solid performance from these old-school rappers.
My favorite show on Saturday was Jay Reatard, who I saw for the first time. Memphis-born, Reatard has the je ne sais quois element of no holds barred performer. Reatard didn't waste time chatting with the audience; he simply took to his guitar like a bat out of hell and ripped out a half hour of an explosive, heady set. Reatard and his band is garage punk with a heavy dose of Southern sensibility: no frills and super-charged.
A couple of shows on Sunday caught my attention: High Places, Health, and another Southern wonder, King Khan and the Shrines, but the big draw for me was UK space rockers Spiritualized. Although I was right up front I still couldn't see the elusive Jason Pierce, who clad in white and big sunglasses stood towards the back of the stage (conspicuously out of close reach of the audience) next to the two gospel singers. Space rock amped up to the highest degree mixed together with gospel-soaked blues makes for a transcending experience. The music blared through with me with unabashed emotion and deep layers of sophistication that I can only describe as one part symphony and the other part David Bowie and Iggy Pop fused together on steroids. The band played songs from their new album, Songs in A and E, and at the end of a set that brought three electric guitars to a frenzy, Pierce threw his own guitar in hard rock fashion and walked off stage. Not one to indulge in overkill he came out again not for an encore but to say goodbye with a wave and yes, no words.
A good argument could be made that none of Friday's Don't Look Back participants were performing their best release. (Seriously, Bubble and Scrape?) But that certainly didn't deter a large crowd, even with an early afternoon rain, or keep the acts from owning albums featuring songs that they admitted to not touching in more than a decade (if ever) in some instances.
Since reforming in 2002, Mission of Burma has shown that they have not lost the aggression or work ethic that built their reputation in the early 1980s. Considering Vs. was their only full-length release during their first run, it was the obvious choice to be played, even though it doesn't have what're probably their two most-recognizable songs. Highlighted by "Trem Two" and "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate", MOB kicked off the festival the only way they seem to know how - loud and abrasive. Perhaps the best sight of this set was away from the stage when I spotted a 3-year old girl headbanging with her dad. (Far too many children were without ear protection. C'mon, parents.)
Headlining Friday was Public Enemy playing It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. Once Sebadoh finally finished (after "Sebadoh sucks" chants from the PE audience), the Bomb Squad opened with a short set showcasing their talents as premier hip-hop producers for 20+ years. As soon as they ended, the crowd began humming the sirens that begin the legendary hip-hop album. Since Nation of Millions had never been performed in the US, it was the first time many had heard some of the tracks live. And aside from fouling during "Bring the Noise", Flavor Flav proved to many that the parody he's become on television is mostly an act. Even though Chuck D was the star, Flavor was on his game, except when trying to plug his latest reality show. Once they wrapped up the album, they performed a few other monster hits for the crowd that, especially far back from the stage, was dancing like it was their business. Even in the mud.
Again the crowds were not deterred by heavy rains on Saturday as the grounds filled with people toting blankets and chairs to wildly inappropriate spots. (Between the soundboard and stage should be standing room only for obvious reasons.) Coming off Thursday's tight preview show at Pritzker Pavilion, Fleet Foxes drew a large crowd for a mid-afternoon set that sounded sublime as the sun parted the clouds and relieved everyone bracing for more storms. Near the merchandise booth during Vampire Weekend's humdrum set, Les Savy Fav's Tim Harrington drew a sizable crowd by cutting hair for $2. (This makeshift barbershop had many people wondering how much Les Savy Fav was getting paid for what was one of the weekend's most entertaining hours.) Later in the day !!! turned in a set heavy on their keen musicianship and the three dance moves that Nic Offer's been getting by on for at least five years. Nonetheless, they were definitely one of Saturday's highlights. However, when it came to showmanship, no one topped Jarvis Cocker. The Pulp singer split his time almost equally between songs from his first solo album and the rockers that'll be on the followup still being recorded. Even though he didn't play any of the songs that made people adore him in the first place and he talks a bit much between songs, he was terrific. It's doubtful he made many new fans since he was clearly performing for the already converted. Although, to ingratiate himself with the crowd, he did cover the Chicago house classic "Face It" by Master C & J. Closing out Saturday was Animal Collective with a spectacular light show that kept the interest of those who've previously never had any desire to hear more than two minutes of their music.
Unfortunately, the weekend's two biggest disappointments were both on Sunday. In the afternoon, the Japanese power trio Boris were plagued with power supply issues and forced to cut their thunderous set at a half-hour. But in that time, they put on a performance worth remembering by everyone. And Australian electro group Cut Copy were caught in flight delays that got them to the festival in time to play just four songs before the 10pm curfew. (When traveling intercontinentally, I usually go a day before I have plans. But I guess not everyone thinks that's necessary.) Their short set dominated the faithful crowd that spurned Spoon and withstood a horrendous jam session from various musicians. However, there was much else to like - such as Apples in Stereo playing their indie psychedelic pop in the beating sun, HEALTH wowing with an energetic set and Ghostface getting huge cheers split between genuine and ironic.
Sunday's 4pm hour created a situation where the 40,000+ audience was split between two of the most potentially entertaining acts of the weekend — King Khan & the Shrines and Les Savy Fav. Neither choice was wrong. King Khan put on one hell of a show that was mightily influenced by Screamin' Jay Hawkins. From the wardrobe to the freakouts to telling people to throw trash (and there was a whole lot of it), it was raw and dirty like any good rock'n'roll performance should be. Across the field, Les Savy Fav's hour was a whole mess of insanity. While the band flew through a good mix across their albums, Tim Harrington was clearly the show, as usual. When watching him perform, it's hard to not try to imagine him away from the stage because he couldn't really be all an act, right? Maybe.
Now, a few days ago, I realized that Spiritualized would be playing in daylight and something about that didn't seem quite right. They just don't come across as a band that'd perform well with the sun out. Somehow J. Spaceman pulled it off with a tremendous "Come Together" and a wall of sound that may or may not have been unplugged in its final seconds. (The sound cut; the band kept playing; the sound came back; Spaceman smashed his gear.) Shutting down the festival were Dinosaur Jr and Spoon. J Mascis and Lou Barlow rolled through a predictably loud set (3 Marshall stacks for Mascis?!) that even delved into the post-Barlow years with "Out There" and "Feel the Pain." The sound was a bit muddled and the play was sloppy, but it was quite tolerable. No one sees Dinosaur Jr because they're concerned about precision anyway. Later in the evening, Spoon contrasted their predecessors by recreating a note-perfect mix of their music in front of an enormous crowd stretching all the way out to the gates. As they wrapped it up (and Cut Copy put the finishing touches on their abbreviated set), everyone who'd stayed was more or less pleased with the weekend. Yet on the way home I heard two people wondering who'll play next year. How about savoring this year for a day, ok?