August 1, 2010

Summer Music Fests: What We Talk About When We Talk About Pitchfork

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

7:35 PM (CST)

Pitchfork Music Festival

Grant Park

Chicago, IL


Dusk settling now on the Chicago evening, sky smoothing to a milky gray. A propitious breeze fanning around, providing momentary relief from what has been a weekend of infernal incalescence, water imbibed by the bottle-full and stultifying fatigue. I am standing literally limb to limb with four or five of the several thousand fans awaiting a set from the festival’s final and most buzzed-about performers: Pavement, recently reunited proto-indie titans.

Accompanying and now abreast is good friend-cum-traveling partner-cum-credentialed photographer, Toby, who is “shooting the festival” with a neon pink digital camera scavenged off the gracious and accommodating U of Chicago girls letting us sleep on their floor this weekend. The camera is drawing bemused looks from our neighbors, and not exactly bespeaking a fluency in polished and professional journalism, but is of high quality and better than our alternative. Which, due to lack of foresight and initiative, is no camera.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

8:00 PM (CST)

Pitchfork Music Festival


Thirty minutes from the show. Big Boi, one (putatively lesser) half of the rap super group Outkast, is finishing a very Outkast-heavy set on the adjoining stage. Greatest hits performed include: “Ms. Jackson,” “So Fresh, So Clean” and “Ghetto Music.” Andre 3000’s absence is pronounced throughout, especially when his likeness appears in the music videos being shown on screens flanking the stage.[1]

Toby and I have managed to nudge our way approximately thirty feet from the front of the Aluminum Stage (so dubbed — like its fellow stages, Balance and Connector — for reasons unclear other than perhaps some sort of chi-related comfort to be derived from their alphabetical continuity). Said neophyte photographer is now straining, much in vain, to take a photo of the stage unobstructed by the cranium of one extremely tall fan in front of us. The resulting shots show an impressive swath of the crowd from an almost but not quite bird’s eye view and — in the foreground, mid-rotation, perched on a gawking, lanky frame, bowler’s cap atop — this dude’s head. Photographer shows me his handiwork and shakes his head as if to say, “this guy,” which, in fact, he then proceeds to say.

Sky becoming darker now, air increasingly cooler. Extemporaneously constructed condom balloons — just one of the many inexplicable fixtures of this festival — being batted around by idle fans. To my left bobs a woman with a Wowee Zowee tattoo coloring most of her upper right arm. To my right a small contingent of ad hoc parents tend to an infant crying in a stroller — yes, an infant crying in a stroller — as the actual parents comb the festival grounds for a pair of miniature earplugs. Of all the outrageous displays of flamboyance we’ve seen this weekend, Baby in Front Row for Pavement has to be, in a blowout, victor.

*  *  *

Saturday, July 16, 2010

12:15 AM (CST)

Hyde Park Apartment

Chicago, IL

For reasons assorted though all fair and valid — but not really germane to this piece and thus left unelaborated here — we arrive in Chicago early Friday evening, decide against scrambling to the festival for the day’s headliners, Modest Mouse, and opt instead to rest our road-fatigued bones and try for an early start Saturday.[2]

Friday evening we pass in a state of delirium, exhaustion and mild yet unswerving drunkenness that, as the night coasts along, yields to a vague sense of malaise. Our hosts, all rising sophomores (or Second Years, as they rather irritatingly call them at U of C), are having a party at their place, and the thrill and novelty of the experience is beaming off the faces of these callow underclassmen and providing for this recent graduate a somewhat unsettling and strong dose of nostalgia. Maudlin sentiments preoccupy the mind as I rummage through the fridge for a beer, dimly aware of the farcical melodrama into which I am writing myself.

I sulk for a moment and find Photographer, who, when confided in, tells me in so many words to suck it up and leave him alone.

Night proceeds in mostly jovial fashion.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

10:30 AM (CST)

(Neighboring) Hyde Park Apartment

Chicago, IL

Photographer and I are sleeping in our hosts’ friend’s apartment (to which hosts have a key) within the same complex. Despite the ostensible soundness of this arrangement, something still feels awry; given Photographer’s and my typical ethos of bumbling misadventure, it seems too fortuitous a development for a place of this caliber — wood panel floors, spacious living room, high ceilings, all in a swanky section of Hyde Park — to be ours for the having. Hosts assure us we are welcome to sleep there, they have already asked their friend for permission. Not entirely convinced but too tired to protest, Photographer and I sequester ourselves in air-conditioned living room and immediately pass out.

Nascent suspicion sprouts into fully-grown fear when a stout 20-something Hispanic male in board shorts, sandals and a cutoff t-shirt opens the doors to the by now arctic living room, glares at our deer-in-headlight visages, and, with all the equanimity of Generalissimo Franco, barks, “Who are you guys?” A bit shell shocked and not entirely convinced of waking state, I offer a feeble explanation that includes the first names of our hosts, and insist we are not, contrary to appearances, squatters. Photographer’s offer to telephone hosts interrupted by fairly unambiguous instruction to “Get the fuck out.”

Saturday, July 17, 2010

11:30 AM (CST)

Salonica Restaurant

Chicago, IL

While getting the fuck out, your narrator, intrepid journalist that he is, leaves wallet and car key in dead-bolted apartment, then fails to convince owner of apartment — named, not at all surprisingly, Cesar — to allow him reentry. “Sorry boss,” Cesar says, strutting across the apartment courtyard. “Can’t do.” Hosts’ overtures to Cesar on our behalf roundly rejected.

Stomachs churning, Photographer and I settle into booth at nearby Greek diner and stuff faces with eggs, bacon, toast and hash browns. After 5 or 6 cups of coffee, I feel amply energized to confront dilemma of missing wallet (and ergo, ID and money), so long as basic motor functions are still intact with all this caffeine surging through my bloodstream.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

1:00 PM (CST)

U of C Library

Chicago, IL

In the aim of printing a copy of my passport photo, Photographer and I use our journalistic legerdemain to obtain visiting student passes at the U of C library. Though requiring twenty minutes, one printing card, two visits to the reference desk, three botched print attempts and a final, successful intervention from Photographer, passport photo is eventually printed.

Leaving the library, Photographer wonders how I would ever survive reporting from a region more volatile than the Upper East Side of Chicago.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

3:15 PM

Pitchfork Music Festival

Titus Andronicus

A 45-minute bus and train commute from Hyde Park brings us, finally, to Union Park for the 2010 Pitchfork Music Festival. The woman doling out press passes — like a shockingly high percentage of the female folk at the festival, beautiful and reading highbrow literature (Henry Miller, in her case) — sizes me up a tad skeptically as I present to her a crumpled copy of my passport photo. Photographer is carrying a messenger bag so as to project an air of professionalism; not sure it’s working. Besides being penniless, I am carrying nothing on my person other than a miniature moleskine, phone and transit pass. Somehow we are granted entry as members of the press.

Moments after we arrive, Titus Andronicus begin their set. Photographer and I sidle up to the far left side of the Connector stage. Titus Andronicus are from New Jersey, and they play brash, shoot-from-the-hip rock-and-roll fashioned most closely after Bruce Springsteen (or, a more contemporary if less applicable touchstone, The Hold Steady). Their latest album, The Monitor, is something of a concept album revolving around the Civil War, which might perhaps explain lead singer Patrick Stickles’s burly Lincolnesque beard and the American flags draped over the band’s keyboards, amps and monitors.

My initial fear — that these flags, as well as the “U!S!A!” chants ringing up from the crowd are intended as emblems of hipster irony ­— is realized when Stickles,[3] stumbling around stage and ruffling his hair, looks across the festival grounds at his image on a video screen and grabs the microphone. “It’s a metaphor for our post-modern condition,” he says, this sententious remark provoking, predictably, a range of approving reactions from the assembled hipster crowd. Stickles then instructs everyone to dispose of their waste in the proper “trash reciprocals,” and I find myself imagining with not much lucidity what a trash reciprocal must look like.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

3:45 PM

Pitchfork Music Festival

Food Vendors

Photographer and I have left Titus Andronicus in search of food. It is unreasonably hot out. Sweat-through-your-shirt-while-standing hot. The kind of hot you can’t help but remark upon every five minutes or so. “It’s so hot,” “can’t believe how hot,” “hasn’t been this hot.” The hot that makes everyone just a little bit batshit. Minute-long monologue on color of urine garners no response or even acknowledgment from Photographer. Make mental note to drink more water.

The vendors here are arranged alongside one another down a stretch of parking lot bordering the park. It takes probably five minutes to get from one end of it to the other, with people traffic. Without people traffic you could probably do it in two or three.

A combination of the heat and the stress of navigating through a veritable sea of hipsters make it difficult for Photographer and me to settle on a vendor. Longest lines are for — surprise, surprise — The Chicago Diner (a vegan restaurant) and Whole Foods. Other options include Robinsons #1 (ribs), Connie’s Pizza, Star of Siam (Thai), Cevapcici (Balkan meat … don’t ask), Wishbone (Southern homestyle) and Abbey Pub, where I settle (regrettably, in hindsight) for a chicken sausage.

Photographer and I spend the fifteen minutes before Raekwon’s set wandering through a record store tent adjoining the vendors’ alley. At first I think I’ve stumbled upon a gold mine of material. But my attempt to gather quotes for an “Overheard at Pitchfork” feature tanks pretty spectacularly, as I discover that: a) The vast majority of people passionate about records are nothing like Barry from High Fidelity; b) I am actually enjoying myself. Decide not to stay long for fear that with my cutoff shorts, Ray Bans and beard someone might actually mistake me for a hipster.

Imagine that.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

4:45 PM

Pitchfork Music Festival


While I’d prefer to stay far, far away from a disquisition on race — such commentary being the province of more serious writers and probably superfluous, self-indulgent and insufferable here — I feel I should at least touch upon some of the glaring, rather discordant demographic realities of the Pitchfork festival. Namely, how all but, oh, fifteen festivalgoers are white.

Yes, there is definitely something incisive and important to be said about Raekwon’s set and the homogeneity (racial and otherwise) of the hipster movement — but I’ll just go for obvious and jejune.

Almost nothing is more entertaining, or tragic, than white people at a rap concert. I would have to include myself among this hapless bunch, as my default mode of live music viewing — normally a series of staid and private expressions of enjoyment (understated head nodding, maybe a vigorous leg bounce) — doesn’t much apply in a rap show’s unapologetically ebullient atmosphere.

You’ve got to give the crowd here credit, though; a few of them are definitely trying. One bookwormish couple next to me is performing a sort of full-body sway — a fusion of interpretive, hippie and belly styles. Lots of rubbernecking around them.

Raekwon’s set finishes with a guest appearance by Chi-Town Finest Breakers, a group of adolescent break dancers who provide the crowd with a much-needed jolt. Their performance is a truly remarkable physical display (if a slightly jarring one as well, these sub-ten year-olds bouncing along to “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F’ Wit”). Undisputed highlight is the lone girl break dancer spinning on her head for what seems like upwards of 100 rotations.

Raekwon now imploring the crowd to throw hands in the air. Avoid doing so by pretending to write feverishly in notebook. Resulting notes uniformly vacuous and useless in any compositional sense (e.g., “rappers onstage taking turns rapping”).

Saturday, July 17, 2010

7:15 PM

Pitchfork Music Festival

Wolf Parade

Maybe the performance of the festival here. Fronted by Spencer Krug (also of Sunset Rubdown) and Dan Boeckner (Handsome Furs), Wolf Parade is a Montreal-based quartet currently touring in support of their third full-length LP, Expo 86. Their music is fraught and fragmented, messily cohesive. Jaunty guitars and keyboards twist and lock as Krug and Boeckner — often in counterpoint — sing, shout and yelp in nasal, half-demented tones. Melodies and hooks swim among odd meters and distortion-drenched keys, submerging and eventually resurfacing, the songs marching forward in aggressive, shifting cadence. It’s pop music on some serious juice.

Perhaps most extraordinarily, Wolf Parade manages to package their sometimes coldly cerebral arrangements with lyrics of transparent, accessible emotional grade. “Give me your eyes / I need sunshine / Your blood, your bones / Your voice, and your ghost,” Krug sings on “I’ll Believe in Anything.”

Onstage Wolf Parade skip many of their albums’ production tricks for a more straightforwardly rock-and-roll approach. Their ten-song set is hit-centric: “Ghost Pressure,” “I’ll Believe in Anything,” “This Heart’s on Fire,” “What Did My Lover Say?” Like I said, will be very hard to top this one.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

10:00 PM

Pitchfork Music Festival

LCD Soundsytem

Or maybe not. James Murphy and the rest of LCD Soundsytem just threw a dance party — or the closest thing hipsters have to it — in front of and around the Aluminum Stage. Showing little regard for the still sweltering heat and claustrophobic crowd dimensions, Murphy and Co. plowed through a set of pretty much unflaggingly up-tempo dance songs, up until the closing number, “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” (into which the band cleverly worked the refrain from Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind”).

And yet, it wasn’t good at first. Photographer’s decision to bring messenger bag and affect appearance of professional reporter backfires when he can’t figure out any place to store or hold bag before the start of the show. Immediate atmosphere is hot and muggy. A putrid stench of body odor and weed proving impossible to escape. Several fans trying to walk through the crowd prompt confrontations and tense exchanges. Dehydration still an issue. Girls behind us don’t approve of Photographer’s placing bag on ground, claiming what sounds like eminent domain on that six-inch of patch of grass. Photographer justifiably indignant.

Thankfully there’s the music to distract us. LCD Soundsystem begin with “US v Them,” a cut off of Sound of Silver, their 2007 breakthrough album. Pace only increases from there. The ensuing songs (“Drunk Girls,” “Pow Pow,” and “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House”) bring the crowd to the point of fever pitch, and the fifth song, “All My Friends,” delivers catharsis. “You spend the first five years trying to get with the plan / and the next ten trying to be with your friends again,” Murphy sings, drums driving, piano rumbling. All is well again.

*  *  *

Sunday, July 18, 2010

5:15 PM

Pitchfork Music Festival

St. Vincent

After catching some of Local Natives and Surfer Blood on the foreseeably crowded Balance Stage,[4] Photographer and I drift over to Connector Stage and secure prime real estate for St. Vincent. While waiting, we muse on Lightning Bolt’s impossible-to-ignore set of thrash/noise rock at metronome-shattering tempo on the Aluminum stage. Simultaneously enthralled and terrified by this feat of cacophony, Photographer and I can’t decide if it’s any good, though ultimately end up wishing for it to stop.

By comparison, the music of St. Vincent sounds especially lush, graceful and carefully calibrated. St. Vincent (otherwise known as Annie Clarke) approaches songwriting with a composer’s eye toward dynamics and arrangement. A typical song will start quietly and unthreateningly: swirling woodwinds or a humming bass line; swell; pulsate; and finally explode with equal measures ferocity and restraint. Of course, most prominent and important is Clarke, whose delicate croon and aggressive, distortion-heavy guitar are the blood and veins of the music.

Clarke appears shortly after 5:15 in a lipstick red dress and ray bans, her hair jet black and frizzy, skin fair. She is, well, stunning. Almost everyone in the crowd swoons — guy/girl, gay/straight, white/white. Next to me, a posse of frat bros stand transfixed: all smiling, all unblinking, and one, it appears, beginning to drool.

I’m not embellishing; she has this effect.

Almost at the moment Clarke starts playing, one extremely dehydrated and/or intoxicated fan, walking away from the stage, cuts a path through the crowd and toward Photographer’s and my terrain where, before we can interface, he walks right into a trash can and passes out backwards. Just one of those days.

Perhaps adjusting for the weather, Clarke plays a slightly brooding and atmospheric set. Trimmer songs like “Marrow,” “The Strangers” and “Actor Out of Work” still comprise a good chunk of the set, but the true pleasures are the prolonged passages of sonic layering. In that vein, the climax of “Your Lips Are Red,” the set’s closer, is a knockout — a two minute coda of roaring guitar feedback and distortion and deranged horns, like a marching band hitting a wall.

(A side note: Photographer and I spend a good chunk of the next two days spewing out superlatives for St. Vincent … and her set … but mainly St. Vincent. “Most Desirable Woman on Planet” is the one I keep coming back to. A little sophomoric, yes, but we did spend the weekend with Rising Second Years.)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

8:30 PM

Pitchfork Music Festival


With the light fading fast, Photographer and I find ourselves on the precipice of our Pitchfork experience, Pavement now moments away from taking the stage for their festival-closing set. Crowd getting ever tighter. Unoccupied space behind extremely tall guy looking more and more tempting, if only as a momentary respite from the lobster tank. Baby in Front Row for Pavement still in front row for Pavement, but now clasping plastic Heineken cup with both hands. There is nothing to say, really.

Shortly after 8:30, we are greeted not by Pavement but by Ryan Murphy, a pal of lead singer Stephen Malkmus, who assumes a shock jock persona and pulls one over on the unwitting Pitchfork crowd. Murphy calls Pitchfork “the minor leagues for Lollapalooza” and otherwise incites the near-mutinous crowd, who start throwing bottles, shouting oaths, flicking middle fingers, etc. Crowd apparently not in the market for deadpan.

Pavement start with “Cut Your Hair,” the closest thing they’ve ever had to a hit, and proceed to fly through a 20-song set. Malkmus and his band members are deceptively tight, the rambling, slapdash quality of their songs obfuscating the solid underscoring musicianship. Malkmus seems distracted, though. He starts and stops songs, minimally acknowledges the crowd, walks offstage at one point.

Still, it’s great to hear these guys live. Malkmus’s guitar playing is sharp and jangly, his vocals droning and irreverent. Like it’s ’94 again, and Pavement never broke up. Percussionist/vocalist Bob Nastanovich pounds a mini kit, bounces and bumbles around stage and screams along in accompaniment to most of the songs.  The only major glitch is bassist Mark Ibold’s extremely high levels, which consistently muddle the sound.

One of the most striking things about the set is how fans erupt at the beginning of each song, no matter the song. “Gold Soundz,” “In The Mouth A Desert,” “Two States,” “Grounded“ — all the same. “I was dressed for success,” Malkmus sings at the beginning of “Here,” their penultimate song, “But success it never comes.” For a band that never “made it big,” “rejected” by mainstream radio and audiences, they seem pretty comfortable tonight. Or at least comfortable being uncomfortable.

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Original Author: Liam Berkowitz