And lo, the flock of hipsters descended upon their annual roost on Chicago’s near west side, drooling over a weekend of music deemed just weird enough to be cool (or just cool enough to be weird?). Getting off the Green Line at Ashland this one weekend of the year is like becoming part of a living blob of flannel and tight denim, chattering and adjusting eyeglasses.
Yes, it’s that time of the year again. The Pitchfork Music Festival returned to Union Park once again, but this time it had even more hype than it ever has. Nearly every local paper lauded the Fork’s edge and cool, its unique uniqueness… Anyway, it was a real thing that happened, too.
Friday, July 17th
Tortoise’s John Herndon kicked off the weekend on a depressing note: “This set is dedicated to Thax, who passed away this morning.” Those who know Chicago’s rock poet Thax Douglass whispered back and forth in disbelief. As it happens, there had been rumors back and forth on the internet (fueled by someone claiming to be Thax’s father) of his death. Thankfully, it seems that Thax is alive and well, having posted two new poems to his Myspace and updating his Facebook since his alleged passing.
Matthew Avignone / Matthew Avignone Photography
But, after this sad note, Tortoise got the Write the Night portion of the festival underway in grand style. After a quick look around, the epic guitar blast and dual crash cymbal thundering of Standards opener “Seneca” (which has to rank as one of the best album openings of all time) rang in 2009’s edition of the Pitchfork Music Festival. Herndon and John McEntire pummeled their way through the set, consistently keeping things moving. After a few tracks off of the classic albums Millions Now Living Will Never Die and TNT (including the swank, Morricone-esque “Along the Banks of Rivers” and the triple-mallet vibraphone masterpiece “Four-Day Interval”), Herndon returned to the microphone to discuss the fan’s part in their set: “We’ve got a new CD,” he said with a grin, “but no one requested that new shit.”
Yo La Tengo quickly took the stage across the field as the crowd moped its way over. Kaplin and co went through their set of fan favorites quietly, with a Zen focus. Highlights included the sugary “Tom Courtenay”, scrappy “Sugarcube” and “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind”, which clocked in at over ten minutes of noodly guitar solo goodness.
But the crowd that night was there for the newly reformed Jesus Lizard. This was evident from the massive cheer that came up from the mainstays at the Connector Stage as “Pass the Hatchet” finally ended, where Jesus Lizard fans had had enough Yo La Tengo. Not much later, singer David Yow dives into the crowd with his mic, before the rest of his band can even get their first song started. Yow’s manic presence was something not to be missed.
Matthew Avignone / Matthew Avignone Photography
Clad in a black Hot Doug’s t-shirt, Yow yelped through “Seasick”, shouting the lyrics about his ability/inability to swim while swimming through the extended arms of the crowd. No matter where he got tossed around, Yow was directly on point with every line. Throughout the immaculate set, he’s a whirlwind of spit and venom, hula dancing or trying to get his shirt off while Duane Denison’s guitar, David Wm. Sims’ bass and Mac McNeilly’s drums remain nothing short of vicious. Whether it’s “Monkey Trick” or “Bloody Mary”, the dudes rampage through the song with enough force and grit to destroy. The true MVP of the set may have been the crew running back and forth behind the scenes, trying to make sure Yow didn’t wind up wrapped up in his mic cord. “That guy used to chase down tennis balls” he sneered, as one crew member crept near.
After a two-song encore (from a non-headlining band at a festival?! How dare they?!), Built to Spill was finally allowed their moment in the spotlight. Unfortunately though, they didn’t quite grab it as much as it let it fall on them. “Liar” opened the set, a great song, but way too mellow and vanilla to follow the brain-scrambling chaos of Jesus Lizard. Doug Martsch’s graying beard and plain baseball cap seem just about as comfortable as the set. Everything’s very pleasant and nice, with melodies to spare. “Chicago still looks pretty nice”, he noted, with about as much enthusiasm as anything else. The repeated re-tunings of the guitar, the woozy “Strange”, it all seemed so much slower than it may actually have been.
The energy did eventually pick up, though. “Kicked it in the Sun” and “Big Dipper” each soared in the darkening Chicago sky. “Goin’ Against Your Mind” was a clear crowd favorite (though they all were, I guess), the guitars chugging and prowling under Martsch’s gangly vocals. But closing the evening with “Carry the Zero” was an inspired choice. Everything about it screamed sincerity and depth, leaving the crowd ready to go out and face the ride home.
Saturday, July 18th
NYC blog babies Cymbals Eat Guitars kicked off day 2 with plenty of sweeping, big, dramatic guitar-rock tunes. Nothing quite stood out from anything else, but there was nothing truly objectionable about the set, either (which, for my money, would prove to be the theme for most of the weekend). The barroom jangle “Wind Phoenix” and the smirking “Living North” seemed equally flat compared to their recorded versions.
Plants and Animals was ready to impress, and I’m not just talking about frontman Warren Spicer’s giraffe-patterned sunglasses and flat-brimmed Yankees cap. They opened the set with a new, untitled song, a dark, swirling piece that added an interesting new layer to the group’s sound. Parc Avenue standout “Good Friend” was perfect for the afternoon outdoor, with its repeated “I wanna dance”, chiming synth and guitar freakout. But nothing topped utility-man Nicolas Basque’s charmingly awkward, and French-accented song dedication: “I want to send a new song to my girlfriend. It’s pretty romantic and it’s her birthday, so…” While the outdoor set might not be for everyone, it seemed to work, ironically, for Plants and Animals. Their sound was just big enough to keep things fresh and entertaining. Again, ironically, a Pink Line train passed as Spicer yowled “I heard the train, but not for certain”.
George Aye / Gaper’s Block Transmission
Strolling towards the stage where Fucked Up was blaring away was a bit shocking. The big-screens surrounding the stage revealed singer Damian Abraham smashing a beer can on his head. Then he was tearing open one of the many flying beach balls with his teeth and wearing it like a hat. Next there was a de-limbed baby doll in his hands. Creepy. This all seemed odd and alien to me, but I was a little more connected than the guy nearby who called them, “The Yeasayers”. Ouch, guy.
Bowerbirds are about as perfect for the outdoors as it gets. It’s hard to picture them staying indoors for more than a few hours at a time. Having recently added an upright bass to their accordion/nylon-stringed guitar/drums touring group, the Bowerbirds sound much richer this go-round, compared to the last opportunity I’d had to see them live. “All I want is your eyes”, front man Phil Moore croons during “Northern Lights” from this years Upper Air, a line that very few bands could pull off without any pretense. The rollicking “In Our Talons” is their best song, both on record, and in this set.
A short stroll over to the main field revealed Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett looking mighty lonesome on the big stage all by himself. “I’m a little nervous,” he admitted. “I don’t play these kind of shows…for Americans…or anyone really…outside of Canada.” This kind of stilted, bursts of banter is something quite fitting of the brilliant, eccentric virtuoso. It seems a little strange to have Pallett in such prime real estate; his music, while stunning, isn’t exactly the type of thing you’d expect at a festival like this. The charging “This Lamb Sells Condos” and the plucky “The CN Tower Belongs to the Dead” were equally impressive and powerful. Pallett’s awkward demeanor belied the true depth and grip of his outstanding talent.
After being owned by Final Fantasy, I stumbled over to the Balance stage, hoping to get a good position for Wavves. Unfortunately, this meant dealing with some of Ponytail’s set. Now, I’ll admit that the musicians in Ponytail are all damn impressive. The guitar work is stunning, the drums shuddering. But there’s something very off-putting; it’s as if Deerhoof never reigned their bad ideas in, instead trying to be as obnoxious as possible. Ponytail has a huge following though, and its one of the most active crowds since Jesus Lizard. But the talk is about whether Wavves is going to blow up. But there’s some messy business of fixing a barricade to deal with, so that’ll have to wait.
20 minutes later, Nathan Williams, his badass Chicago Bulls hat and his robin’s egg blue guitar grace the stage and quickly strum into a grinding rendition of “Beach Demon”, complete with the agonizingly repeated chorus of “Goin’ nowhere”. Even with his arm in a cast, Williams crushed every guitar part. The switch into reverb in the middle of “Summer Goth” kicked the crowd into a furor. Though he seems pretty happy, there are moments where those waiting for a meltdown get encouraged. Williams keeps asking for changes to his monitors. After a while, he begins to open up: “Do you guys wanna hear about Barcelona?” he asks, and pauses, before “Psych!” After pummeling through a raving version of “No Hope Kids” and “To the Dregs”, Williams started arguing for more time. “They should let us play more since they took so long setting up [the barricade]” he smiled. But, this only warranted one more song, and was it a doozy. From the opening chords of “I’m So Bored”, the audience was awash with energy. Crowd surfing was in abundance, and everyone, especially Williams, it seemed, left with a big grin.
Heading back to the main field for DOOM, that grin was still there. I arrived just in time to hear DOOM tear through some old favorites. “Accordion” quickly met “Curls”, which quickly folded into “All Caps”, all from the excellent Madlib collaboration album, Madvillainy. He reached further into the back catalog for “Change the Beat”, all the way back to when he went by Viktor Vaughn, and Vaudeville Villain. The irritatingly homophobic “Batty Boyz” got a big reaction, but not nearly as big as Danger Doom’s “Benzie Box”. DOOM’s mask and leaf-covered camo jacket are an unusual sight, to say the least, but his bruising bass is a familiar and amazing thing to hear live.
But, it appears that a large crowd had been camping out here just for Beirut, and they are not to be disappointed. Zach Condon and co fit in beautiful in the dusky park, the horns and ukulele mingling mellowly and sweetly. “Elephant Gun” and “Scenic World” stood out, but, for my money, Condon’s true achievement is the achingly beautiful “Postcards From Italy”. Later, after a densely-packed version of “Mount Wroclai”, Condon called out for Owen Pallett to join him onstage. Together, they played at the heart of a transcendent version of “Sunday Smile”.
Next, I had to make a split second decision. The rowdy, yet simple Black Lips, or the mellow, sleepy National? I eventually opted for the latter, as it was a bit of a closer walk. Bassy, suit-wearing Matt Berninger walked the stage, anxiously, rumbling through Boxer tracks like “Mistaken for Strangers”, “Brainy” and “Slow Show”. But “Abel”, from 2005’s Alligator, really got Berninger going. “My mind’s not right” he growled, over and over. New track “Blood, Buzz, Ohio”, which should be on their upcoming album, was nothing short of outstanding.
George Aye / Gaper’s Block Transmission
Sunday, July 19th
Sunday morning came all too quick, with The Mae Shi and their snotty synths and snarly guitars. The high turnover rate in the group keeps things from getting stale, but it also seems to put them in an awkward, chaotic position. And, apparently, this was the last show in this current lineup. The wacky kid-punk was quickly given a shot of hiphop in the form of Yea Big and Kid Static, a strange, yet seemingly perfect union. “Run to Your Grave” ended the set with a sing-a-long and plenty of hugs to go around.
Early in the day I heard multiple people make unfavorable comparisons between Frightened Rabbit and Coldplay. I’m not sure how accurate this is, other than the fact that both are mellow pop-rock from the UK. Oh, and that neither is all that interesting. The most entertaining bit of the set is this overheard gem: “I was confusing these guys with another rabbit band, I think. I don’t really care anymore. We can leave.”
I’ve never been all that familiar with Dianogah, other than vaguely remembering that artist Jay Ryan (he of the badass posters) plays bass for the group. However, I’d learned more about them recently, unfortunately due to bad news. Recent addition to the band (for the recording of Qhnnnl early in 2008) Stephanie Morris passed away just last month. In a statement on the band’s site, they promised to play Pitchfork anyway, as she’d been really enthusiastic about it. They played a lot of thick, swooning instrumental pieces during their set, but also recruited other musicians to fill in on parts that Morris would’ve played. They ended the set with a touching “We love you Steph” that echoed through the field.
The shirtless, shoeless, pants-cut-at-the-knees quartet flailing around the stage were none other than hometown boys Killer Whales. Halfway through the set, singer/guitarist John Williams made a nice speech in between sips of High Life (which is how you can tell he’s from Chicago). “Ponytail is here. It’s unnerving to be playing in front of those two badass guitar players.” It’s fitting that the two bands would enjoy each other. They share a reckless abandon, the extreme high-pitch vocals and tight musicianship. However, instead of prog-y, expansive rock, Killer Whales derive their raving from funk, reggae and countless other genres. The falsetto wail of “Chain Gang” whipped around the stage, the funky rhythm sidling somewhere between surfy punk and James Brown. Percussionists Cameron Brand and Harry Brenner kept things moving frantically, while bassist Travis Murphy and Williams snapped and popped their way through the set. Ultimately, the falsetto howls moved in and out of obnoxious-ness, but the musicianship was always impressive.
Anyone with a cursory familiarity with this site knows that we love The Thermals. So, get ready for another glowing review. Immediately after I’d gotten to a spot near the stage, I’d begun wondering what they would play first. Never would I have guessed a cover of “100%” by Sonic Youth, but there it was. And boy was it a pleasant surprise. Kathy Foster’s booming bass and Hutch Harris’ snarling guitar fit the original quite well. Harris may not quite be Thurston Moore, but it was a fun try. This was rapid-fire followed by the always triumphant “Returning To The Fold” and a crushing version of “It’s Trivia”. But, they weren’t close to done with covers. Nirvana’s “Sappy” and “Saints” by the Breeders had been in recent setlists, but Green Day’s “Basket Case” was a complete surprise, as well. “Do you have the time, to listen to me whine?” Harris, well, whined. Yes, suffice it to say, the entire crowd had that kind of time. But nothing went over as well as the trio of “Here’s Your Future”, “We Were Sick” and “St. Rosa”. There was more crowd surfing between these jams than I’d seen the entire weekend. The set closed with a joyous rendition of “Now We Can See”. Drummer Westin Glass may be having the most fun of anyone playing rock these days. He bounced around the stage, arms lifted and hollering, singing along before scampering back to his kit to add his part to the song.
George Aye / Gaper’s Block Transmission
The Walkmen are always a treat. Their constant cool, their intense performance, their cutting edge (of 1960’s) fashion sense, their growth in musicianship are all things to be admired. This set stuck pretty close to songs from last year’s You and Me, peppering in two new songs (from a promised upcoming album) and a few old ones. The biggest response came for “The Rat”, the frenetic rock that the crowd was demanding. Singer Hamilton Leithauser looked about ready to crush the mic in his fist, or to pop a vein in his neck, whichever came first. The horn section added to songs like “Canadian Girl”, “Red Moon” and “Louisiana” added a shimmering, swirling effect to the sound.
I hadn’t been overly familiar with the Vivian Girls before heading over to the Balance stage for their set. My gut reaction was that they’d fit in perfectly in the grungy world of an Adventures of Pete and Pete episode. Maybe it was the fringed denim jacket worn by guitarist/vocalist Cassie Ramone, or the sugary vocal harmonies over the heavily distorted guitar. They’re some strange fusion of retro (girl groups) and modern (rambling punk), of sugar (melody) and spice (distortion). I may not have been familiar with them before the set, but I’m sure I will be by the next opportunity I have to see them.
And now you’re expecting a gushing write-up about the Flaming Lips and their mind-blowing stage show, right? Well, look elsewhere mon frere. This here reporter decided to head to The Very Best, instead. Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya took to the mic as UK beat-smiths Radioclit laid down plenty of synthy, world-music inspired beat reminiscent of Van Halen’s “Jump” meeting Panda Bear somewhere in a European dance club.
George Aye / Gaper’s Block Transmission
The Very Best first started to get hype for their gleeful worldly remaining of tracks from Michael Jackson, Architecture in Helsinki and Akon. They’ve worked with Santigold and M.I.A., as well. And speaking of M.I.A., early in the set, Mwamwaya sang and smiled over a revision of “Paper Planes”. “Thank you, I love you” he gladly repeated throughout the set. A few moments later he asked for two dancers to join him on stage, though one was stuck seated after taking a walker out onto the stage. After a few more tracks full of slinky, sustained synth and heart-pounding bass, The Very Best pulled out another crowd-pleasing remaining, this time of Vampire Weekend’s “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”. The tell-tale trilling guitar line was still there, sometimes pitched down a few octaves, but always with a thundering bass line. In the end, in avoiding the Lips, I accidentally stumbled onto one of the most fun sets of the weekend.
Soon after, people left, gates closed, garbage was thrown around, yada yada yada.