What attracts music fans to the Pitchfork Music Festival? It hardly offers the starpower that bigger festivals have. It doesn’t feature any sort of immersive camping experience like Camp Bisco or Bonnaroo. Hell, it isn’t even the biggest festival in Chicago; that title belongs to the venerable Lollapalooza Festival, held uptown in beautiful Grant Park. What does Ryan Schreiber’s dream festival give its attendees aside from a chance to deck themselves out in skinny jeans and oogle at cute hipster chicks?
The Pitchfork Festival is unique in that it brings together a set of fans who approach music with a very similar mindset. These are music fans who obsess over minutiae: record release dates, label lineups, colored vinyl, British imports, FLAC over MP3, Robert Christgau reviews, Our Band Could Be Your Life, Thurston versus Kim versus Lee — the list goes on. The typical Pitchfork attendee is omnivorous, equally thrilled by the presence of 90’s pop punk legends Superchunk and the hotly-tipped, absurdly aggressive rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. It’s a peculiar setup that can seem alienating and elitist (and, in a lot of cases, it is), but for those who know the vocabulary, it’s a chance to connect with music fans who acknowledge a certain hallowed lineage, one that is very aware of indie rock’s roots in 80’s hardcore (more than a few mosh pits giddily erupted) and also appreciative of avant-garde electronic stylings spanning the gamut from James Blake’s jazzy dubstep (which former Arts Editor Peter Jacobs identified as “PBR’n’B”) to Animal Collective’s Bacchanalian, naturalistic drone jams. It’s easy to mock — ridiculous outfits, club drugs and feigned ennui abound — but for a certain sect, it’s a lovely oasis of former record store nerds, blog hounds and all-around music nerds.
After overcoming my work schedule, convoluted air security laws (apparently you can’t bring peanut butter onto a plane) and Chicago’s less-than-adequate transit system, I walked into Union Park on Friday eager to take in the scenery and abuse the privileges that come along with a press pass (free water and unchecked baggage, primarily). EMA kicked off the day on the Red Stage. Touring behind the intriguing but inconsistent Past Life Martyred Saints, Ms. Anderson and company peddled their convincing Patti Smith-as-done-by-Kim Gordon quite well, slowly earning the hushed attention of the crowd. “California”‘s harsh opening couplet — “Fuck California, you made me boring” — was mellowed by a sort of coyness, but the rest of the song hit home, detailing the various struggles of growing up in North Dakota. The set warranted a closer look at Past Life — which is definitely a grower — but did little to deter the crowd from gathering in anticipation of Battles’ set, which delivered on its promise of tight, mathy jams. Their performances of “Atlas” and “Ice Cream” were astonishing for their precision and power, despite the absence of a live lead vocalist (the vocals were pre-recorded).
Reunited Dayton, Ohio cult act Guided by Voices followed and, as expected, it was something of a drunken mess. Still, Robert Pollard and co.’s alcohol-fueled exuberance and masterful tunes allowed them to overcome a few screwups, inciting various singalongs and a handful of moshpits. Next up was the evening’s headliner, Animal Collective, who managed to whip the audience into a frenzy despite only playing a few previously released tracks. The night’s take on Merriweather Post Pavilion closer “Brothersport” was interspersed with a new track that, from my perspective, signals that Merriweather may mark the beginning of a particularly furtive era for the group. And, as the cherry on top, they broke out into a brief cover of Battles’ “Atlas” prior to set closer “Summertime Clothes,” abetting their case as possibly one of the most exciting and adventurous live electronic groups going today.
Saturday was a day to absorb the ambience of the festival. There were merch and record tents to explore, and every well-respected indie label had a presence. Saturday’s highlights were extremely varied. Dream-punk upstarts No Age made a formidable racket, especially for just drums and guitar, but the day truly belonged to The Dismemberment Plan. Recently reunited to support the re-release of their classic Emergency and I, The Plan played a blistering set that proved that, perhaps, they were the best kept secret of the 1990s. Drummer Joe Easley was a beast, making even the most complex rhythms seem easy, and frontman Travis Morrison was engaging and technically proficient, sounding exactly as he does on record. His self-deprecating nature suits his band’s output and helped sell such classics as “The City,” “The Ice of Boston” and “Life of Possibilities.” Fleet Foxes closed the evening with their chilled out, pastoral folk, which allowed for a relaxing comedown from the headrush that No Age and The Plan provided.
While Yuck opened Sunday with a nostalgic, Dinosaur Jr.-referencing set, it was evident that a majority of the crowd was there to witness the chaos known as Odd Future. Tyler the Creator and his crew did not disappoint, jumping into the rapturous crowd and barking such incantations as “Kill people, burn shit, fuck school!” The crowd was out of control; I was genuinely concerned for their safety and my own. Still, it was a definitive moment for the group and stood as proof that there is something of a cult following emerging.
Amid the debris of the Odd Future set, some aging hipsters gathered to catch a superb set by Superchunk, who, once again, proved how underrated their catalogue is, ripping through great song after great song. Deerhunter followed and kicked a significant amount of ass, hypnotizing the crowd with their washed out jams and even breaking out into Patti Smith’s “Horses” in the middle of “Nothing Ever Happened.” TV on the Radio bore the honor of closing the festival quite admirably, exhibiting a tight, cohesive chemistry despite the recent loss of bassist Gerard Smith. Their closing cover of “Waiting Room” by Fugazi was the perfect ending to the festival. Not only did it exhibit their power and good taste, it paid homage to indie’s hardcore roots and allowed the audience to delight in their recognition of a genuine, but obscure, classic.