It’s another gorgeous day in Chicago. Warm, no humidity, a cool breeze. People are paddle boating on the Chicago River between the Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune buildings. Idyllic and impossibly perfect weather for festival going. Everyone is in a good mood. I head to the Chicago Art Museum to see the Magritte exhibit before taking the Pink Line to Union Park and taking refuge in the silent company of strangers.
A couple of reflections on the festival thus far:
- A lot of kids try to practice the art of looking cool, with off-colored sunglasses, ironic t-shirts. They like to practice smoking cigarettes. You can tell they’re early smokers by the way they hold them; lightly, between the tips of the thumb and forefinger, attentively. Look at me. I’m smoking, they seem to say.
- Whenever you’re trapped in a crowd, trying to get to the stage, but there’s just too many fans to break through, wait for an ambulance fan. Invariably, a hefty and determined die-hard fan will come along and begin to carve their way through the traffic, chipping away at the open spaces of the crowd and making new space where none existed a moment ago. As they pass by, take the leap and jump into the space just behind and follow them. But you have to move quickly, as the traffic will close up around him after they push through.
- Some crowd goers seem more interested in the festival surroundings than the bands themselves: Flatstock, food booths, beer lines, the CHIRP record fair. Some are just sitting around talking with friends, like they might be at a park. I don’t get you people. Call me old-fashioned, but it seems disingenuous to claim you saw a group perform if you never actually paid attention to their set. I refer to these people as scenesters: people who are interested in having the ability to claim they were at a place or event for bragging rights, but showing no interest in that place or event whatsoever. As in the following sentence, “Look at all these fucking scenesters at Pitchfork.”
1:15 | TWIN PEAKS
This Chicago-based group is a bold, brash, in-your-face rock group with nuances of melodic grunge, 70’s punk and echo-drenched pop. They orchestrate and alternate guitars and vocal lines, with a snarling, obstinate swagger that evokes Black Lips (one of my current music obsessions). The set ended in guitars being smashed, singer Cadien James jumping into the crowd, regardless of the fact that he sang and played from a fucking wheelchair. That’s what I’m talking about; not even a broken ankle can stop these guys. A massive wave of heartbreak after the set was over - it was criminal that they weren’t higher-up in the order of bands, but these guys are definitely going places.
1:50 | KA
Ka is more lyrical street magician than street rapper, living out hip-hop the way it’s meant to be lived; like a bulletproof vest. The way it should be. Darkly lyrical and slightly menacing, KA adopts a street thug mentality with a poet’s heart, but it’s the latter that shines through. The crowd is digging it and I’m reminded of what Sun Kil Moon’s Kozelek was talking about yesterday: “There’s a lot of white people at this festival,” he said. I amuse only myself. But that doesn’t put Ka off his game and he breaks into another winner, “You Know It’s About”. The fans are loving the beats, but some seem lost. Like they’d rather be somewhere else. Ka seems itching to get off stage and get back to his creative juices. “I got more writing to do after this last joint,” he confides, before “Cold Facts” kicks out of the amplifiers. The crowd is enthusiastic and gives their approval in hollers and fist pumps. KA let’s them know he’s not going anywhere soon. “I got more shit coming, I’m a be here for a while.”
2:00 | CIRCULATORY SYSTEM
Planes fly overhead, suggestive of the massive trip the crowd is about to take with this group’s mind-bending and infectious sound. A semi-psychedelic grab-bag of indie, fun house rock, and chamber pop, formed by singer/painter Will Cullen Hart. Fan favorite “Just In Time To See You All” made the setlist, a Beatles-inspired jam that sounds like a demo the fab four would have cut in their “let’s discover ourselves in India” days. The group of multi-instrumentalists, who effortlessly move from drums to guitar, clarinet to violin, oboe to synths, prove that this is a band on the run and having fun. The set is a little dampened by a security guard busting a young kid for smoking dope. Seems like Pitchfork is cracking down on it today, but it is still fairly pervasive. The kid tries to play dumb, but it’s not working. Even after the kid offers the security officer to take a hit. I don’t think the officer appreciated that, but you have to admit, it was mighty courteous. In the meantime, I amuse myself by sucking in plumes of second hand smoke floating past to see if I can and obtain a contact high.
2:42 | WILD BEASTS
England’s Wild Beasts are a frontrunner for fan favorites, as their darkly luxuriant 80s new-wave set showed Chicago what it was missing. I thought this band might actually summon the clouds to cast over our pretty day, but I think it actually intensified the colors of the afternoon sun. The need for people to dance in slow time was excruciating, with more kids making out than I would have expected. Like No Age or Wild Nothing, the group utilizes a lot of low-end synths and bass to reign in a good mood before the drums kick in and set a driving pulse. They excel at crafting keyboard hooks and letting the fans bob in the ocean of the crowd before reeling them in, as kids push through to the stage to get closer. Their attitude is tangible: a slight-snarl is bandied about on stage, before the singer picks up a bass guitar and starts playing/singing a melodic falsetto as the heavy bass thumps harder and before you know it, a hit is born. Alive and breathing. A howling, bemoaning, neon-infused caterwaul, set outside for young lovers learning the intricacies of who they are, who they could be. I have to secure a good spot for Cloud Nothings, so I depart, but I hear the singer between cuts, “We’re from England, we’re not used to this sunsine. Or people looking so pretty either.” Proper lads with a proper way about them.
3:00 | EMPRESS OF
Bjork-like beats and rinsing synths, punctuated by short bursts of electric horns. This is a surprising sound that is instantly digable. I’m reminded of Canadian band BRAIDS or maybe a set of bonus tracks from the Drive soundtrack. Brooklyn singer, Lorely Rodriguez, cute as a button, bounces up and down to get the crowd addicted to the down beats. The live drumming adds gravitas to the dance beats. Some of these acts have been hit or miss but Empress Of is really great at selling herself in this genre and ended her set with several new fans.
3:20 | CLOUD NOTHINGS
Recently, Dave Grohl gave the keynote speech at SXSW, lamenting the loss of rock and roll and calling on a new generation to find their voice. Cloud Nothings have found their voice; now they are on the cusp of bringing back the rock and roll. They’re a grunge punk trio. A rock and roll wet dream. Visceral and vitalic, singer Dylan Baldi rocks hard on a dingy white Gibson SG and creams into the microphone. Cloud Nothings are really what good rock is all about. Energetic. Lucid. A resurrected memory of a musical ethic long forgotten. They rip through fast chords and hard-hitting triplets and the crowd goes haywire. They’re the perfect amalgamation of low end thrust, bass kicks to the nuts and indie-rock strut. Just the way a solid rock band should be. Dave would be proud.
4:55 | PUSHA T
Pusha’s set was short lived as he was over ½ hour late but the crowd hung on like death; such hip-hop was not easy. Someone asked if he is trying to pull a Lauryn Hill, making all his fans wait til the last possible minute. Unfortunately, Pitchfork has a schedule to keep and wouldn’t allow him to play longer. Fans weren’t going anywhere until they had the chance to bust-a-move to some of his top cuts from his lauded album, “My Name is My Name.” Anger and frustration begins to set in, but Pusha T is able to recover as soon as he and his DJ set feet on the stage. I find myself caught in a bevy of kids raising their fists in the air and singing along to every hard-fought lyric, impressed that this many people know all of his lyrics. For really having the worst set of the festival so far, everyone in the whole park is chanting to his “King Push” lyrics: “I rap nigga about trapped niggas, I don’t sing hooks. ” He is only able to play a handful of songs before giving up the stage and letting tUnE-yArDs take the spotlight.
5:05 | THE RANGE
The crowd for The Range is diminished due to Pusha T’s push in the schedule. When he does, the crowd gravitated to the one-man block party there, leaving James Hinton of The Range to digitize philosophic with die-hard fans. DJ samples metamorph into a full-course of hypnotic house techno and club dance, replete with break dance demeanor. It’s as expansive as an atmosphere and just as invisible, creeping up on you slowly, unobtrusively. Before you know it, you’re breathing the whole thing in. Hinton sings out, along with all his samples, a clear indication of how invested he is in his craft.
5:18 | tUnE-yArDs
Merrill Garbus, the African-indie rock goddess that incorporates more third world trouble than any third world country in her highly acclaimed group tUnE-yArDs, brings everyone in the entire park together. Her wildly rhythmic drumming, windmill dancing and neon-infused setting seems brighter than the late afternoon sun. And she doesn’t waste any time, saying “I’m gonna shut up so we can pack as much music in this little time that we have.” Then the band launches into “Real Thing.” These are definitely big-anthem, singalong hooks made for festivals. Soulful and funky, the patchwork of influences utilized is both disorienting and astounding. In short, it belongs in a class all its own. When the opening wail of “Gangsta” is heard, the entire crowd mimics. Union Park becomes one big police siren. Then the hit “Powa,” with three-part vocal harmonies and distorted ukulele. The crowd can’t get enough. Be sure to see them at The Ready Room in September. Expect it to sell out; they are definitely the real thing.
5:59 | KELELA
Brings the indie R&B deep cuts, with beats that drop slow and heavy, backed by electronica that is forward-thinking. With only the help of a DJ, Kelela prowls the stage like a girl on a mission, donning Army-green overalls and stalking fans from above; this girl is ready for war.
This is the kind of slow jam burn, a dreamscape soul-aura that only partially satisfies, leaving you wanting more. And that feels good somehow. The crowd does seem a bit torn between seeing this and tUne-yArDs, but ultimately the latter wins out. However, this is too damn good to miss entirely and I decide to stay for the remainder of the set.
6:15 | DANNY BROWN
The DJ takes a few minutes, a few preliminary songs to warm up the crowd before DB even comes on stage. But as soon as he does, the party has officially recommenced. It’s almost as though he was riding the wave left behind by Pusha T. Immediately stepping into his high-pitched crazy rap hooks, he flows through line after line of blatant and belligerent lyrics, disregarding the principles of conformity when it comes to rap and hip-hop. And this crowd wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t think he was able to push the crowd to the frenzied extremes of Pusha T, but he’s equally as foreboding and definitely more surreal than any act so far. His is a mercenary brand of rap that takes no prisoners. An amazing set.
7:00 | THE FIELD
A technological meditation on the values of beats which, measure for measure, builds the audience excitement in moments, in tiny leaps of musical evolution, pleasure for pleasure. A live drummer adds an analog feel to the digital beats overtop the synths and DJ samples. Chicago fans unite and love it together -- even the trees seem to sway to the songs. Each cut is an extensive jam that fluidly bleeds into the other, soaking up everything slowly, until a tripped-out Rorschach blot emerges in your mind. With only a couple of key spots that are lower and sort of deflate the energy level, the set is flawless and well received.
7:25 | ST. VINCENT
I’ve never seen St. Vincent play anything so much as a spot on Jimmy Kimmel, but this was a true act for the ages. Her intense brand of indie pop is from another planet. She shimmies out her body onstage, her own unique, indelible version of the duck walk, fueled by outer-space synths and low-end keys. Excitement abounds. The band kicks off with “Rattlesnake.” Dressed all in black with a large, oversized gold painted flower arrangement on her shoulder, her hair is pulled tight around her head and painted silver. By the second song “Digital Witness”, she is adorned with a guitar and rips into an effect-heavy solo. “What’s the point of even speaking?” she sings. That’s what I’m talking about. The fuzz pedals are doing most of the heavy lifting for her, but she clearly knows what she’s doing. She shimmies back some more before shaking it all out and casting her body forward over the guitar, as though it’s controlling her and not the other way around. She’s done a lot of great work with David Byrne recently and the lessons from those collaborations seem to be paying off. She is 100% performance, 110% of the time and elicits a commanding confidence that emanates from the stage, the amplifiers and the artist at large. It’s a monolithic sound that refuses to be ignored. And no one does.
8:00 | FKA TWIGS
Pick-pocketing roughly 1/4 of the crowd from St. Vincent is london-based FKA Twigs and my attention is officially captured by this this sex-laden trip-hop artist. Another soul bird songstress holding romantic high notes as love letters and sending them to anyone in the crowd, like a cosmic message in a bottle. The big beats and booming bass is guaranteed to break the bed and bend your mind. The R&B serenity is a condition of the organic intricacies of her voice and was fractured momentarily when yet another person is caught with weed. Only this time, he gives chase, creating quite a spectacle. Like-minded individuals cheer him on. But I digress. Three electronic drummers help create the enemy-at-the-gates boom that reverberates through the entire park. Hard to compete with her sullen cat walk on stage or her echoing sound. St. Vincent may have met her match.
8:30 | NEUTRAL MILK HOTELThe emotional and triumphant return of one of the greatest indie-bands of the 90s started off with “Holland, 1945” a jangly, poppy, neutral-milky pop anthem. Horns blared. And the crowd leapt about in an ecstatic fury that has been building since the band’s demise in 1999. The fan-favorite “Kind of Carrot Flowers” is next, with lead singer Jeff Mangum singing “I love you Jesus Christ.” Big, happy horns add to the big happy sound which is brashly overcome with fuzz-loved guitar. They sound so good, it’s crazy. Like they never went anywhere. They employ a clever use of the 90s quiet/loud dynamic without using it for nefarious, angst-fueled purposes like most bands relied upon back in the day. ‘’I really love to hear you sing with us on this next one,” Magnum confides to the crowd. Can’t he hear everyone in Union Park singing every lyric? I can. It’s the biggest campfire sing-along that ever existed. Willis Tower’s lit up spires in the background, a cool 60 degree breeze casts piles of litter about my feet. It’s almost as if there is a temperature control in heaven and God has set it to chill the fuck out man. Neutral Milk Hotel are back together for one night only. “Two-Headed Boy” is next and is a romantic reminder that life is beautiful, that people are strange and beautiful. It could put the devil in a good mood. However, I was most excited when they launched into “Song About Sex,” the lead track from their first album. It’s amazing how music you listened to at a certain time of your life can transport you there, like a time machine. Their terrific set ends with “Oh Comely,” a reminder of Magnum’s folk roots and a surreal and lovely send-off to end day two of Pitchfork Fest.