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Now That the Baseball Diamond Dirt has Settled: The Pitchfork 2011 Wrap-Up

written by: on July 29, 2011

Day One:  Friday, July 15

I looked forward to this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival with mixed emotions—there would be great music to hear, some new, some familiar, but I also knew the festival gets bigger each year (it’s the biggest outdoor event for the “indie rock” cognoscenti), and it is July in Chicago. Meteorologists are breaking out the dramatic hyperbole with which to describe the heatwave of the coming weekend, so I’m preparing for the worst.

I catch most of EMA’s set to kick things off Friday afternoon at 3:30, and right away I’m thinking this might be a solid afternoon of music. Having read some of the buzz on Gowns’ EMA, I’m looking forward to Erika Anderson’s guitar work and songs, and she and her ensemble do not disappoint. EMA ended her set just as she began it—like a rainstorm. Her quavery alto with a country twang melded here and there with her fuzzed out guitar riffing. A slot at Pitchfork, even the first slot on the first day, can be an intimidating prospect, but Anderson and her frank language did not appear the least intimidated. Her final song, “Fuck California,” was accented by some lovely violin, and she sang some verses from “Camptown Races,” throwing down her mic at the end with a loud bang, only to pick it up to say “thank you!” before leaving the stage. Such a polite young lady, but angry just the same.


Battles and tUnE-yArDs proved one of the more difficult sets of the festival to choose, and this was only the second time slot, with a mere five minutes of overlap. Having seen them before, I have an idea what to expect from Battles, but it seemed like the instrumental trio was building up to something, and they weren’t getting there fast enough for me. Although their rock doodlings were never indulgent or superfluously complicated parts, just the same didn’t add up.

By contrast, tUnE-yArDs sound was fully formed and fleshed out on all of them, including her breakout single “Bizness” which wrapped her set, and saw many a white guy in the crowd singing with faux-African dialect “don’t take my life away, don’t take my life away.” Of course, the sheer unlikelihood of any of them losing their lives compared to the people of Africa is of ethical and moral quandaries that the driving force behind tUnE-yArDs, Merrill Garbus struggles with on a daily basis. But, she’s not a “trend”-hopper who just came upon this idea as a way to make a quick buck. Indeed, she’s been fascinated with African music and their way of life since she was 10.

Through the magic of looping her voice and drums multiple times tUnE-yArDs was able to recreate an African chorus and phalanx of drummers, a chaotic but invigorating melodic mix that she reproduced almost flawlessly, with the help of the addition of a killer sax player, a violinist and a number of capable role players. Her pre-show buzz generated a packed crowd under the Blue Stage.

Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore brought the passion as well, but his delicate solo set tended to get lost in the Pitchfork shuffle, which was a shame, given the complexity and the thoughtfulness of the arrangements as conveyed by focal points of acoustic guitars, harp and violin. If Superchunk were planning on doing some “Majesty Shredding” on Sunday, this was what acoustically shredding must sound like. Moore bookended his contemplative set much as EMA had earlier in the afternoon, but going in the opposite direction, ending on some quiet acoustic notes and fading away.  No question that some of his subtleties were lost in the big field he tried to fill—he might have been better suited to the smaller, more enclosed Blue Stage where tUnE-yArDs had performed.

Guided By Voices frontman Bob Pollard was a good sport about landing a 6:25 p.m. slot, singing into the sun. And, his bandmates didn’t hold back their energy either. He kept his drunken rambling to a minimum, as if sensing their festival set couldn’t help but give short shrift to their extensive and rich discography. Whereas Pollard’s idols The Who are a mere whiff of what they once were, his revival of the allegedly “classic” line-up has reinvigorated the long-dormant group, and the quintet powered through a veritable grocery list of “hits,” many of which came from their lo-fi breakout classic Bee Thousand. That record’s “Echos Myron” kicked off their set, featuring surprise guest Neko Case on backing vocals and tambourine. Otherwise their set was animated but perfunctory, with Pollard’s by-now obligatory leg kicks and microphone swinging. Then again, racing through an extensive set list is easy to do when most of your songs are two minutes long. As if to make up for giving the record minimal attention on their previous “reunion” tour, GBV’s 19 song set included nine numbers from Thousand, the highlights of which were “Gold Star For Robot Boy,” “Hot Freaks,” “Tractor Rape Chain,” “Gold-Hearted Mountaintop Queen Directory,” their breakthrough single “I Am A Scientist” and my favorite, “Kicker of Elves.” “Watch Me Jumpstart,” “Exit Flagger,” and “Cut-Out Witch” were also energetic rocking and riffing highlights. Tobin Sprout’s single lead vocal contribution, “A Good Flying Bird,” from Alien Lanes was a welcome and whimsical detour that provided a welcome breather from the balls-to-the-wall rockingness. Although Bob’s face was redder and his hair was whiter, their set today was more satisfying than their set at The Riviera last fall.

The pride of Chicago, Neko Case was next up on the next stage over, and she provided a welcome antidote to the towers of glass and steel over her left shoulder, the Trump Tower and Sears Tower with the countrified folk approach to her back-roads compositions. The highlight was “People Got A Lot of Nerve” from her most recent solo outing, and it wasn’t the smoothest of sets, but her witty between-song banter with her perennial back-up singer Kelly Hogan made up for it. Case’s powerful country-inflected alto soared over a rich tapestry of banjo, pedal steel and traditional rock instrumentation.

James Blake’s, dubby experimentation echoed across Union Park, and Case occasionally had to cast the crowd’s attention between her more quiet, acoustic songs. The rousing ovation that concluded Blake’s set,inferred I might have missed something.

I never got Animal Collective, not even their much buzzed-about Merriweather Post Pavillion, and didn’t “get” what they were doing this night either. Pretty stage show, with black lights and DayGlo set, but their African-influenced tribal rhythms didn’t interest me, as they didn’t bring any compelling melodies to back them up. I left after a few songs of their electronic boondoggle, still not having been converted into their collective.


Day Two:  Saturday, July 16

Day two started not with a whimper, but with a siren song from Juliana Barwick, who performed with only her voice and her keyboard. I would learn later that Barwick is a veteran of school and church choirs, and the choral sound she created by layering her alto parts created a magical and entrancing effect, similar to the layering vocals of her soprano counterpart of Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser, but without the rhythmic intricacy and guitar atmospherics. Just the same, a few songs into her set, the songs started to sound samey, and her minimalist cathedral of sound was having a hard time competing with the DJ and rapper that had just taken the Blue Stage.

I left to check out local DJ/turntablist/mix master Chrissy Murderbot and rapper MC Zulu, and was not disappointed there either. Zulu, who had the temerity to wear a t-shirt with his own name on it, proved adept at both the deft hip-hop flow role and the toastmaster role, and ably provided a dope counterpoint to Murderbot’s smorgasbord of eclectic samples and beats. The duo also set themselves apart by throwing multicolored plastic kazoos into the sweaty crowd so they could participate in the music making. Of course, many ended up in the grass and dirt on the ground, but some in the audience were willing to stick them on their lips nonetheless. No question that Murderbot, whose real name is Chris Shively and is a Chicago transplant by way of Kansas City, is an up-and-coming star, and the number of projects on his plate at present is a telling testament to his bountiful breakout potential.

Back at the Red Stage I caught a bit of the Woods set, whose focal point is the duo of Jeremy Earl (proprietor of Fuck It Tapes, and the Woodsist label) and Jarvis Taveniere (Meneguar, Wooden Wand). During their sound check, I would have sworn maybe the stages had been switched, as I knew Ryan was a guy and it sounded like a lady singer warming up, so I thought maybe it was Barwick on the other stage. Of course, it was Earl’s high tenor and/or his keyboardist (Taveniere) who was singing through some kind of gas mask thing attached to his electric piano. What I hear is intriguing and quirkily entertaining, as is what I’ve heard of their most recent record, Sun and Shade.

There’s lots of fun people watching at Pitchfork 2011, including cool and snarky band shirts and Star Wars shirts, and a small brunette lady in sunglasses who seems to be wearing nothing for a top but a big grey scarf draped around her neck and a black bra on the outside. I debate mentioning to her that I can see her underwear, and decide (wisely) against it.

I grab some grub and talk to Jay Ryan of The Bird Machine at at rock poster convention Flatstock, purchasing a poster he did for the Mogwai show at Metro from this April with a walrus on it for my mustachioed-tusk-bearing-pinniped-obsessed eleven-year-old son. It was a few years ago that he was here at Union Park with me, and his mom was backstage during The Flaming Lips’ set, refusing to dress as an alien girl in cocktail dress.

I head back to the music, and there singing for Gang Gang Dance on the Green Stage is the short brunette in the sunglasses, scarf and black bra. She’s not there for long, as she ventures off the stage and into the crowd, as do a number of her henchmen in Gang Gang Dance, as they power through a blistering barrage of electro-techno grooves propelled by tribal rhythms. Maybe not the most original retro-amalgam, but still highly danceable and they worked their crowd into a sweaty, sun-soaked frenzy.

Back under the forest canopy at the Blue Stage, Swedish quartet The Radio Dept. provide some much needed Chills-ish guitar pop to cool down to. As Tribune critic Greg Kot tweeted during their set, they were in danger of being drowned out by the cicadas in the trees above, but nevertheless, they provided a mellow and understated set of guitar-driven leisurely pop accented with keyboards. This group might find themselves in the same department as The Chills, The Clientele and fellow Swede ensembles (and Labrador label mates) Sambassadeur and The Mary Onettes.  Although their vigorous approach was not at all laid-back, the sound they created didn’t successfully communicate the winning if winsome melodies of their latest record, 2010’s Clinging To A Scheme. More often than not, the hooks and melodies got lost in the trees.

The Dismemberment Plan raced through a blistering set of their genre-hopping
über-punk, comfortably blending a vibrant mishmash of indie, ska-punk to produce an amalgamation that defied easy categorization. Although my vision was obscured, multiple sources reported that Travis Morrison was playing keyboards with his forehead, even riffing on lines from tUnE-yArDs’ “Bizness” vis-a-vie “don’t take my life away.”

Despite the hype generated by his 1996 debut Endtroducing…, the only thing DJ Shadow proved was that he much better suited to the interiors of a club environment than an outdoor, festival venue and the only thing his balloon-like set piece proved was that he should check when the sun sets next time, for the effect was largely lost on the audience, or at least it was on me. At least he deserves credit for trying to give his show a stage presence, even if the projections on his balloon were lost in the daylight and it was unclear where he was on the stage.  (Turns out he was inside the balloon thing, I think.) I got bored left for Zola Jesus.

Wowee-zowee, Zola Jesus!  This must have been like seeing Diamanda Galás or Bjork or Tori Amos or Lady Gaga before they were discovered. It goes without saying that Zola Jesus is not this Wisconsin native’s real name, and that maybe her only resemblance the original Mr. Jesus was her bare feet. However, she certainly commanded a crowd as if she were preaching to her apostles, and her beautifully harrowing songs were delivered with artful talent and incredible energy. Zola ran about the stage in a grey shimmering dress that looked like a cake decoration, jumping into the crowd to serenade them and running up and down all sides of the stage as her band (including a violinist) accompanied her. Yes, she was on the Blue Stage, and yes, maybe she didn’t draw as big a crowd as DJ Shadow, but those who were there were clearly mesmerized. Focus your star watch on this young lady.

The Fleet Foxes were pretty much as expected—if you closed your eyes you could pretend you were at the reunion of Crosby, Stills, Nash and maybe even Young. The stage show was as barebones as one might expect—the occasional blue spotlight and the occasional transition from yellow to green lights were the minimal bells and whistles. The real show was the music, the acoustic based mournful wailing and finely tuned four part harmonies. The highlights were their early hits “Mykonos” and “White Winter Hymnal,” but what I’ve heard of the new record is engaging as well.  Needless to say, they didn’t exactly bring the house down, but this was the headliner that I wanted to see above all, the ones I had missed the last time they played Pitchfork.


Day Three: Sunday, July 17

Note to self:  If it’s going to be this hot and sunny, don’t forget your hat and definitely don’t wear a black T-shirt. I stick to the shade like a spider in the desert, so I take it as an omen of some kind that a ball of beetles falls from the tree I’m hiding under.

San Francisco’s The Fresh and Onlys kick off Sunday’s festivities with a rousing set of pop-rock with suitably psychedelic overtones that at times embraced their riff-induced grooves. While not exactly saying anything new revolutionary, the quartet gave the notion that rock is dead, much less pop-rock. However, one got the sense that some of the hooks to their melodies were getting lost in the largely empty field in front of the Green Stage.

England’s Yuck provided the perfect next step in Sunday’s sonic sustenance, bringing the laid-back approach of The Replacements on one song and the angular intensity of indie rock heroes Versus on the next. Their two-part harmonies were particularly engaging on “Milkshake of My Mind.” Their resemblance to Scott Miller of The Loud Family/Game Theory was not only in the similar coiffure of the lead singer, but also in the winsome pop melodies propelled by tenor vocals. Just as The Beatles and The Stones took American blues and sold it back to us, so Yuck are with American indie rock of the ’90s. Their final song slowed to an almost Codeine-/Low-like pace and led to an orgasm of electronic feedback and squalls. I had seen nothing this musically enthralling since seeing My Bloody Valentine blow apart the Ritz in New York City at the New Music Seminar in ’92.

Next was Kurt Vile and the Violaters, and my attempt to understand the buzz surrounding the band, which was met with limited success. Vile’s appearance like Ted Nugent performing “Cat Scratch Fever” notwithstanding, he proffered familiar riffs like the English beat doing Black Sabbath songs, with a deadpan baritone vocal approach that came off like Eugene Kelly of The Vaselines/Eugenius fame. Aside from the semi-Santana-esque guitar solos and the drummer drumming with a maraca, it was hard to understand why some are rabid Vile fans. Perhaps he’s a lyrical genius of some kind, but nothing I heard this afternoon approached the intelligence ot John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats. I don’t know what all the fuss was about.

Likewise the hip-hop act with the catchy moniker who followed, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (OFWGKTA for short, which isn’t much of an improvement, really). Having generated some attention from their misogynistic lyrics and liberal use of “bad” words, this was the moment of truth for Pitchfork 2011, but it turned out to be kind of a non-event. Having reportedly distributed red velvet cupcakes to some of the booth staffers spreading awareness about domestic violence and female discrimination, the group took the stage to Bob Marley’s “One Love” and proceeded to rap about bitches, blunts, “fuck this” and “fuck that.” Their 2011 Two Live Crew act grew tired pretty quickly, but it seemed to resonate with the white sausagefest throng that crowded to see them.

I much preferred the jazzy but far more intelligent hip-hop of Shabazz Palaces, featuring a former member of Digable Planets. They laid down a bouncy, jazzy groove that was dope and thoroughly enjoyable.

If anything Superchunk have improved with age.  I’ve always loved the band live—I saw them in 1992 and again when they played with The Wedding Present at Metro years later, but in terms of their records, I never felt like the songs were totally “there.” Sure there’s a hook here and there and a catchy melody now and then, but I always felt like they never hit my sweet spot. Their latest, Majesty Shredding, is the best I’ve heard from them, and they brought lots of energetic passion and punk spunk to their all too brief set, Mac McCaughan ran around like a crazy person screaming vocals and banging on his guitar, Laura Ballance pogoed and billetted her bass, and all was right with the world.

Toro Y Moi first came to my attention when they sold out a Tuesday night show in April at The Empty Bottle on the same night The Mountain Goats and The Joy Formidable were playing in Chicago. The group paint a brighter picture than any of the other acts on Sunday thus far, with anthemic but danceable pop confections. They brought a chill vibe to the shade of the Blue Stage, where with the infrequent cool breeze the temperature might have dropped to the mid 80s. Towards the end of their set, Toro Y Moi whipped out some ’70s electro-funk and some ’80selectro-pop and even the most reticent fans couldn’t help but groove to the beat.

By that time, Australia’s Cut Copy had taken the Red Stage in the early evening, and having seen them live a couple of times (once at Metro in Chicago, once at a previous year’s Pitchfork when they went on late and thus their set was shortened), I felt OK about skipping seeing their set, and chose to listen as they played in the distance while Toro Y Moi broke down and the next band (HEALTH) set up on the Blue Stage. Cut Copy’s “Lights and Music” sounded like the group had just watched Empire Records again and really liked that one Edwyn Collins song (“Never Met a Girl Like You Before”). They introduced their latest single “Blink and You’ll Miss A Revolution,” which was catchy as heck but it seemed like the group had blinked when Tears for Fears did “Chains,” for the rhythm part sounded just like that.

Thankfully, by the time my nostalgia meter was in danger of hitting overload, HEALTH hit the stage. Why Pitchfork would put two electronic acts against each other as the penultimate acts of the final day is a question that might have merit on its surface, but it turns out that there’s a vast chasm between the retro melodies of Cut Copy and the pummeling assault of HEALTH. The quartet crafted mighty, wiggy distorto-mountains and proceeded to strip those mountains away like a gigantic strip mining machine of gothic brutality. They take a metal approach to electronic music, and it kicks my ass and leaves me at a loss for words. Proof No. 1 of their complete and utter ass-kickingness is that this is the first time all weekend I’ve been tempted to put in my earplugs, even when I’ve been up close to the speakers to take pictures.  Proof No. 2: The crowd surfer in front of the stage is wearing a gas mask. I couldn’t make out many of the lyrics, but they all seemed to be couched in the pit of despair. In a way it was interesting to see HEALTH perform in this shady glen with a church in the background, for they preached of total annihilation, and I barely survived to tell about it.

Then exhausted and sweaty, I limped out, dirty and wet with sweat, but three days older and more than 20 musical experiences richer, performances that ranged from underwhelming to overwhelming to downright indescribably hyperbole-inducing.

All photos by Samer Almadani