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Feature Mon Jul 20 2009
So once again, the dust has settled on another long weekend of music in Union Park. With bass still thumping in our ears, and soy ice cream still staining our shoes, we take a look back on what the past three days held for music lovers at the Pitchfork Music Festival.
Many of you are probably nursing a hangover from the excess of music that was Pitchfork Music Festival this weekend. Another successful year under our belts, this was the most crowded I've ever seen the festival. It was an unprecedented 70 degrees all weekend--people were donning jackets and scarves instead of sunscreen all weekend, and finding refuge from the rain at times on Saturday.
Walking in on Saturday, I arrived just in time for the beginning of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. While I wouldn't call them shoegaze, they had a pleasant mix of rolling teenesque pop; a nice soundtrack for relaxing under the trees.
Next, while I wanted to see Ponytail, I decided to stick around the A stage for Final Fantasy. I heard that he had opened for Arcade Fire before and was amazing. Owen Pallet takes the stage solo and starts recording and looping, creating his own background for the songs. Think if Andrew Bird took on the stylings of Jamie Lidell. While his music isn't as compelling as Bird, he has a much heavier classical influence. I would love to see him in a smaller venue.
Wavves were delayed for about 20 minutes while crews were beefing up the barrier in front of the stage that came apart during Ponytail. Anticipation for this group was huge after Nathan Williams' freakout in Barcelona at the Primavera Sound Festival where he basically od-ed mixing too many drugs and alcohol, barely able to function and was booed off the stage. Then, last week he broke his hand, so I was interested to see what would transpire, or if Williams would take the stage at all. Well, they didn't live up to the hype. I spent most of my time thinking how good Yeasayer sounded on the opposite stage.
The B stage was running behind for the rest of the day after the initial delay, and Lindstrom took the stage 15 minutes late. Donning a yellow cowboy hat and working the laptop, out came some serious techno groove. There really wasn't anything groundbreaking to be heard, but it was good lounging music.
You can't help but smile when you're watching Matt & Kim--their high-energy stage show and happy pop music is infectious. I find most of their songs, and especially Matt's vocals kind of annoying, but I was really enjoying their set, the crowd energy was undeniable. They closed with their most popular song, "Daylight," right after playing "Final Countdown."
I closed out the evening still on the B stage with The Black Lips, I decision I was kind of regretting after hearing how amazing The National was on the main stage. Still, The Black Lips put on a great show. It was loud, it was punk, it was dance, a super '60s The Kinks vibe.
Sunday I arrived early, just in time to see the tail end of The Mae Shi. The Flaming Lips' lighting rig was already up on the stage, creating a heavy anticipation for the entire day (especially when I was constantly hearing reports of Wayne running around backstage and the crew blowing up balloons prepping for the show). While I didn't see much of The Mae Shi's actual show, I did see that Kid Static had joined them on stage and used the soundboard to ask Pitchfork to review their album. "We sent it to you!" he yelled, "Give us a four! We don't care, just review it!"
Frightened Rabbit and Blitzen Trapper were next on the main stages. Both groups were comparably mild, good daytime music. Blitzen Trapper brought their alt-country rock, and Frightened Rabbit's Scott Hutchinson brought a Scottish touch to Snow Patrol's alternative aching romance rock. As much as I want to hate that type of desperate longing, Frightened Rabbit are a really good band with strong songs. Seeing them later at Bottom Lounge for one of Pitchfork's official after-shows just reinforced that opinion even more.
I popped over to the B stage a little early to see Women at 3:35 and caught the end of Killer Whales and found four shirtless skinny white guys. Their performance seemed kind of chaotic, but one thing was for sure, they were enjoying themselves. Women was the band I was most excited to see at this year's fest (besides The Flaming Lips that is) because I love '60' psychedelic rock and their self-titled album has an incredibly heavy Velvet Underground influence. I believe it was overlooked as one of the best albums to come out last year. I was slightly disappointed that they didn't sound as good as on the album; at times vocals were even pitchy. It didn't help that they were up against hip-hop artist Pharoahe Monch on the other stage and even though I was on the far left side of the stage, the sound was bouncing off a building. The highlight of the set though, was their most known song "Black Rice" and the crowd was excited. They ended the song (as they ended most every song) with an exciting drone noise wall.
The crowd was starting to thicken as folks got in place for the evening's headliner as I made my way back to the blanket camp we had laid out by the main stages. The Thermals were already on and rocking a high energy set. The crowd went crazy for their hit songs "Pillar of Salt" and "Now We Can See" (which they closed with). Their set was filled with covers from Nirvana, Breeders, Sonic Youth and Green Day. I started to wonder if they had enough material to fill an entire set, but I couldn't deny that the covers were actually really good and fun, and Hutch Harris' unique vocals added a nice touch.
M83, The Walkmen and Grizzly Bear were a little hard to sit through while waiting for the evening's spectacular ending. All three groups are pretty mellow--I actually slept through most of The Walkmen's set. M83 was good, but would be better in an indoor venue. Some of their spacey, dreamy effects felt lost in the open air. They started to jam in about the third song and the sun came out and added a little bit of warmth. The energy really picked up towards the end as super rave swells put the crowd's hands in the air.
I had to take a break before writing The Flaming Lips portion of this review. It was, as it has been every time I have seen them, one of the most incredible sensory overload things I have ever seen, and certainly the most mind-blowing thing I saw all weekend. As I've noted, anticipation was building all day for the band's performance. If the lighting rig wasn't enough of a reminder of what was to come, I heard that Wayne was practicing getting in and out of his bubble backstage, I saw pictures of balloons ready for the stage, orange "construction " crew members were prepping the stage throughout Grizzly Bear's set, one lone balloon was sent out across the crowd and there were a couple confetti test bursts.
The opening image on the video screen was no surprise to anyone who has seen Christmas on Mars with the focus on female anatomy (see our photo set on Flickr). The band entered the stage by coming through the video screen at just that point. Then came Wayne's signature crowd surfing in an inflatable bubble. It's pretty amazing when you know that you will have a big enough draw to pull something like that off and engineer it as a staple in your stage show. With Wayne back on stage, confetti lit up the sky and the band launched into "Race For The Prize."
The group took the "Write the Night" picks as more of a suggestion than a rule, Wayne stating that as much as they love Pitchfork, they play the fan favorites every night. List in hand, many of the songs they played he would just state where they fell: # 7 was "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song," #2 was "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" and #1 was the closing song "Do You Realize?" One thing they did take the opportunity to do was play some old favorites that only hardcore fans would know. One song was dedicated to Sun Times music critic Jim DeRogatis, one that Wayne said they hadn't played live since '96 (later corrected that they played it once in '99). They also played "Enthusiasm For Life Defeats Existential Fear" for the fans in the front row that follow them to almost every show.
All the typical craziness and interactive-ness was there: this time sheep and frogs took the place of Santas and aliens dancing on stage, the facecam, the big balloons in the crowd (and boy do people get excited when one of those balloons comes near), the air gun blowing confetti and bursting balloons, and, of course, Wayne on the shoulders of a gorilla. Wayne Coyne is one hell of a genuine frontman, but there is humility, and not humble for being humble's sake--he really loves what he does and loves his fans. He wants everyone to have fun, and he has fun doing it.
One of the great things about a music festival is the opportunity to chance upon a band that you'd never see otherwise. There are just some bands that you do not like, whether the reasons are valid or not, and you'd scoff at the notion of seeing them on their own. Maybe you've never heard a song by them that you like (or maybe it's only one), which is a totally acceptable reason to not like a band, or maybe the lead singer looks like an ex's new boyfriend. (I'm really trying to set that aside to like the band, but it's not easy.) Regardless, a festival like Pitchfork's offers those second chances. If you can forget about the past, sometimes you walk away wondering why you'd been ignorant. Now, let's be serious, you still go primarily to see your favorites, but often it's the surprises that leave the biggest impressions. Actually, that can go both ways — good and bad.
For years I've loved "The Rat" and disliked the Walkmen apart from it. Nothing else ever did anything for me. (And I've had numerous arguments with their fans about it since they all seem to despise "The Rat.") But I had a little lull in my schedule on Sunday and decided to give them another chance, secretly hoping that they'd open with "The Rat" and I could see Japandroids or get more delicious ice cream. But then a funny thing happened; I loved them. Their songs came off fuller (thanks to the trumpets on many), tighter, and more impassioned than I'd ever heard them. Hamilton Leithauser's vocals weren't like nails on a chalkboard anymore. Their off-kilter brooding post-punk won over the crowd who simply stomped their feet and nodded with approval. Following them, M83 turned in a sublime set full of arrangement surprises on popular songs. From different spots in the park, they sounded from excellent to just ok. Although, I have to say I think I missed something thanks to the screaming conversations always surrounding me, which was a constant problem. (Seriously, I heard more complaints about chatterboxes than anything else all weekend.) The texts from friends watching M83 online at home were absolute raves.
Before Walkmen's set, the Thermals killed with four covers ("100%" by Sonic Youth, "Sappy" by Nirvana, "Saints" by the Breeders and "Basket Case" by Green Day) along with, you know, some of their own songs from across all of their albums. Their pop punk is basically engineered for a festival. It's light, doesn't require much thought and is a lot of fun. Some of the Flaming Lips fans who spent all day holding spots up front didn't quite seem to get the Thermals, but maybe they were confused by a band that plays 3-minute songs and keeps the gaps between those songs to about five seconds.
And before the Thermals, Pharoahe Monch turned in a surprisingly impressive hip hop set. (Don't pretend that hip hop's default is being good live.) I can't quite nail down what I found to be so good, though, other than the whole stage show simply being entertaining. All the performers seemed to have a plan and there weren't a dozen dudes just hanging out doing nothing. That's a tight ship, as far as live hip hop. Oh, and "Simon Says" slayed. Blitzen Trapper and Frightened Rabbit also turned in good Sunday sets on the main stages, the latter's Scottish angular rock highlighted by their rich thickness and the former's lo-fi indie-folk owned by a grittiness that's not called to attention on their albums.
Closing out my positive Sunday was the Danish dream pop band Mew. It took them a couple songs to get into the groove, but once they did they had undivided attention from the awestruck audience. Jonas Bjerre's famously high vocals were confirmed to not be the work of autotune and the epic "Comforting Sounds" closed their 45 minutes with a barrage of sound that'd even please Kevin Shields.
Now, perhaps the set I looked forward to most this past weekend was from the National. I've been following them since seeing them at Schubas in 2005. I know I'll never see that band again - the one whose sets included pre-Alligator songs, played with an endearing insecurity, and featured a vocalist who smoked and drank to excess. However, I remain optimistic about their future. A handful of new songs stayed in the Boxer vein (like the standout starter "Runaway"), which means no chargers like "Murder Me Rachael" or "Abel", and recognizable tunes were full of arrangement variations so that they didn't sound like studio version clones, but it was far from overwhelming aside from brief moments. (I did find it interesting that their first song to garner a warm reception was "Start a War", which is what they ended their Pitchfork '06 set with to polite applause.)
Saturday highlights included Lindstrøm twisting knobs and pushing buttons, but sounding rich and full (at least once the Balance stage's volume was kicked up a notch so that DOOM across the park wasn't drowning it out); Beirut's eastern European-influenced folk music making me realize I've been confusing them with DeVotchka; Yeasayer's sedate psychedelia hitting and missing through the on/off rain; and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart fine-tuning their shoegaze twee and actually playing a respectable 40 minutes, as opposed to the 25 minutes they called a headlining set at Schubas in February.
Pitchfork's festival is what you make of it. If you go into it expecting your life to be changed by music that an online media zine deems worthy, then you're probably walking away from 2009 a slight bit disappointed. But if you just wanted to hear some good music, not get too bummed out over underwhelming bands, look at excellent artwork, and hang out with your friends, you probably had a lot of fun. So... who's playing next year?
It's Sunday morning. As I write this, I'm listening to Wavves; who eventually became the highlight of Saturday for me. So...Saturday: I began my bike over to Union Square a little later than intended, which caused me to miss a couple bands I was looking forward to seeing: Disappears and The Dutchess & the Duke. I'm told they were great but I choose to believe they never actually played, and it rained sideways throughout their would-be sets. Good thing I was running a little late.
Fucked Up were great; very entertaining. The singer was in the crowd more than he was onstage, which seemed way more than appropriate. The first of the really large and dense crowds I saw develop was for The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. I was looking forward to seeing them, but walked away about 2 songs into their set. I know many will disagree, but I thought they sounded awful. I watched Bowerbirds instead; they were much better. I saw a bit of Final Fantasy before checking out Ponytail. Final Fantasy was impressive, but it never got past that for me. Ponytail were perhaps less-impressive, but more-memorable and wildly entertaining. Wavves were excellent. I will almost always go for the stripped-down approach that places passion over production; Wavves exemplified this. Doom performed. It was around this time when the festival environment started to become a less-than-satisfying one; at least in terms of fully absorbing the music. It's the nature of the beast I suppose. What I caught of Beirut and The Black Lips was amazing. Bathrooms: FAIL.
It's 1:28 a.m. as I write this. My final day of Pitchfork started with the tail-end of Frightened Rabbit's set. Scottish Indie-pop: a great start to the day. Blitzen Trapper were next, and they were very good. The further they strayed from the country elements, the better they sounded. I spent the next hour or so conversing with some friends. Beer and ice cream were involved. The Thermals played well; a pretty high-energy set. I decided to split my time between The Walkmen and Japandroids. The Walkmen sounded fantastic. Honestly though, their live show didn't seem to offer any more than could be experienced on an album, so I didn't feel too bad when I left to use the bathroom and move on to Japandroids. They killed it. It was awesome to watch this duo go off the way they did. Strip away all the unnecessary elements, and just play your hardest: this will always be one of my favorite things to see. Japandroids were a definite highlight. M83 created an amazing atmosphere to consume my veggie-hommus-wrap in. Grizzly Bear were stunning. These guys play and sing some of the most beautiful sounds I've ever heard. Another easy highlight.
The Flaming Lips did not disappoint as headliners. Their set was somewhat short, but filled with great songs. Their stage show was a spectacle to say the least, but it was in addition to the already great performance; not instead of it. As I leaned back on a tree, breathing in the last of the night and weekend; I received a text from a friend that ready simply, "Wow." Agreed.
I made a critical error this weekend at Pitchfork Festival. I didn't request off work for Monday. I was still in a post Pitchfork euphoric state as I hobbled into work, confetti littering my purse, running on only a few hours of sleep, and I think I still had some Sparks residue on my foot from crowd spillage. But it was all worth it, as Pitchfork once again claimed stake to one of my favorite weekends of the year, bringing a diverse line-up, relaxed atmosphere, and quality music to Union Park.
I was like a kid on Christmas morning, as I exited the Ashland stop and headed to check in Friday night. My highlight Friday was witnessing The Jesus Lizard. David Yow bolted across the stage, launching himself into the crowd, only to come up for air with a busted lip, chug a beer, then dive back in. The music was raw, loud, visceral, and real, and many young punk and hardcore bands today could learn a thing or two from The Jesus Lizard.
Saturday was a weird day for me, because I attended a music festival, and didn't get to see any actual music. I'm not complaining though, because I was able to chat with some lovely artists that I admire. I did catch the start of Cymbals Eat Guitars, and was glad to hear that they sounded as hazy and intense live as they do recorded. The vocals were strong, the music tight, and the band sounded like they were thoroughly enjoying their set. Being such a young band, I was worried that they may sound sloppy or amateur in a large setting, but Cymbals Eat Guitars held their own.
On Sunday, I was able to catch some of the chaotic and bubbly sounds of The Mae Shi as I headed to meet up with The Thermals. They were saccharine sweet, energetic, and after the set I was sad to learn that I just witnessed their last show. These things happen though, so thanks for the good times Mae Shi.
My last interview of the day ended just in time to grab a popsicle and head out to catch The Thermals. Michelle and James already reported on their set, so I'll just add that I enjoyed their simple upbeat pop fair, and I think it was a perfect fit for an afternoon festival slot.
I met up with some friends to check out The Walkmen, a band I was always indifferent about. I love going into a show with no expectations, because then you have the possible enjoyment of having your jaw drop and being blown away, which is what The Walkmen did for me. In comparison to their recorded music, their sound was polished, the vocals warm and inviting, and overall The Walkmen live impressed me, whereas their music usually falls short when I give it a chance. I felt exactly the same during M83, who provided a sparkling set as the sun crept out in the late afternoon. Their music was dreamy and emotional, creating the perfect balance of intensity as it crashed over the crowd already gathered for The Flaming Lips.
My night ended with my favorite fearless freaks, The Flaming Lips. There isn't anything to write that hasn't already been said about The Flaming Lips. To me, they are the perfect band to close a festival, full of energy and happiness, a dizzying sea of color and action and a reminder that music, above all else, is meant to be fun. I've seen The Flaming Lips many times, and I'm still in awe and grinning from ear to ear afterwards. They love their fans, they love their job, and it shows in the energy and dedication they have at every show. They are all just normal guys who happen to have one of the coolest jobs in the world, and they just want to share their joy with everyone. And anyone that wants to shower me with confetti while playing some of the catchiest psychedelic pop music around is a band out for my heart. It was a storybook ending to a music nerd weekend. We'll see you next year Pitchfork, save us a spot up front.