A lot has changed in the last four years. A black man was elected president. The global economy almost collapsed. In an act of collective cultural seppuku, millions of people paid good money to see “Transformers 2.” It’s all pretty disorienting. But there’s one thing you can rely on in our chaotic world: every summer, we at the Quick & the ED send a correspondent to a summer music festival to take the pulse of America’s youth. It was Lollapalooza in 2006, VirginFest in 2007, and Austin City Limits in 2008. This year we headed back to the Windy City, for Pitchfork 2009.
The vibe at Pitchfork is different, less “America’s youth” than “America’s still-working-on-that-dissertation-after-all-these-years graduate student.” The scraggly facial hair ratio was off the charts and the general scene at Chicago’s Union Park was a lot more downscale and de-corporatized. No stages sponsored by mammoth telecommunications companies or tents underwritten by now-defunct mortgage brokers. Just a lot of very good bands.
Maureen and I arrived on Friday evening about a half-hour before Yo La Tengo began. While I still can’t watch the veteran New Jersey-based band without thinking of The Onion’s definitive “37 Record-Store Clerks Feared Dead in Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster” article, it was a reputable way to kick things off, lots of long steady rhythms punctuated by righteous feedback. Next up was the legendary, recently reunited Jesus Lizard. Respect to frontman David Yow, who’s 48 years old now (which is about 80 in substance-accelerated rock ‘n roll years) and took a running headfirst dive into the crowd five seconds into the first song.
This was repeated throughout the set along with shirt-rending and other antics that Wikipedia reveals to be quite tame, historically speaking. (Warning: slightly NSFW and you will never, ever read the words “tight and shiny” in the same way again.)
The final Friday band was Built to Spill–sadly, a letdown due to an abominable sound mix or some kind of similar audio catastrophe. Which was too bad, imagine a group of very talented homeless guys obsessed with electric guitars, that’s Built to Spill.
We slept in Saturday morning, spent a couple hours at the Art Institute, and sampled the local cuisine. Who knew that caramel- and cheddar cheese-flavored popcorn rival chocolate and peanut butter as the all-time greatest combination taste sensation? Major discussion item over coffee: Does attending the Pitchfork festival constitute an endorsement of the Pitchfork Web site and its too-frequently obnoxious and logorrheic reviews? (See again the Onion for the last word: “Pitchfork Gives Music 6.8“) Our admittedly self-serving answer: No! (Although I feel some obligation to do penance by listening Rilo Kiley’s “Under The Blacklight” and other albums that have been criminally denigrated by Pitchfork for the mortal sin of accessibility.)
By 1PM we were back at the park, where we browsed through the biggest collection of rock poster vendors I’ve ever seen before getting close–but not too close–to the stage for F&@#ed Up. (Not their actual name, this is a family blog.) Not too close because of their heavier-than-thou punk assault plus the lead singer is this gargantuan shaved-headed scary dude. They were smart, loud and energetic, plus near the end both guitar players dove into the crowd while continuing to play, which requires the execution of a deft 180-degree horizontal mid-jump rotation so as to avoid breaking your guitar over the heads of the crowd below.
We ambled over to the “C” stage for The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, who were just as their name implies: young, earnest, and wide-eyed. And a lot of fun. We bummed around for an hour and then came back for Yeasayer, who are, like every other band in the whole entire world, from Brooklyn. While I approached them with some skepticism I got steadily more enthusiastic as the set progressed; they’re obviously tuned into to the general TV on the Radio thing and there’s nothing wrong with that.
From there, dinner (food was above average), more posters, browsing through the sticker and CD booths, then back to the big stage for The National. No sound problems this time–they were focused and rock-solid, sounding just like a veteran band that’s coming off two consecutive great albums that they’ve been steadily touring behind for a couple of years. Highlight: “Mr. November,” for obvious reasons. We took the train back to the hotel and had really, really good dinner at restaurant called Avec.
Sunday morning back to the Art Institute for another couple of hours, a little shopping, then off again to Union Park. First set: Frightened Rabbits, who we last saw in January the night before the Inauguration at Rock ‘N Roll Hotel on H Street in DC. While The Midnight Organ Fight has been in heavy rotation on my iPod all year, they weren’t as good this time around–the lead singer’s voice was half-gone and frankly the early Sunday afternoon bright-sunlight slot doesn’t usually bring out the best in anyone. (See The Kills at ACL ’08 for an extreme example.) From there we scooted over to see Blitzen Trapper, which was kind of eh. It’s allegedly unfair to dismiss them for hippie jam-bandish tendencies, and I’ll admit to clear bigotry in that regard, but it still seemed like the noodling quotient was unacceptably high.
At 4:15 we were back for The Thermals, who sound like the ’90s never ended, in the best possible way. Highlight: “Now We Can See.” Which reminds me, I don’t know who it was (A.C. Newman?) who pointed out that songs with choruses that consist of syllables but no words (e.g. “hey na, hey na, hey na, hey na-ah” from”Bleeding Heart Show”) are very often the best songs–but that’s definitely true. I wonder why? It seems like the emotional power of music ought to be augmented by meaningful or resonant words but empirically speaking Newman (or whomever) has a valid point.
Immediately following were The Walkmen, who had apparently played a festival gig in Spain less than 24 hours prior in which the crowd booed and threw stuff at the stage. So they were jet-lagged and worn and yet tremendous, probably my single favorite act of the weekend. “You & Me,” which came out in 2008, is one of those classic “grower” albums that doesn’t immediately grab you but rather sneaks up on about the 8th listen and then you find yourself obsessively turning back to it for months. We caught the back half of the Vivian Girls set over on the smaller “C” stage, not bad but, fair or not, they’re no Sleater-Kinney. Then back across the grass to see Grizzly Bear, much touted throughout the weekend, but really pretty disappointing. We cut out halfway through to grab a decent spot for the festival closer, The Flaming Lips.
Is there a more sui generis band than The Flaming Lips? The dominant visual aesthetic at Pitchfork–and indie rock generally–is total unadornment, nothing but a blank black stage, instruments, a few electrical cords, and sound. The Flaming Lips stage show, by contrast, is a trippy 21st century acid rock phantasmagoria, a lifetime’s accumulation of substance-influenced “wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if’s” packed together on-stage in a deceptively coordinated fashion. So in addition to the requisite strobe lights, hydraulic streamer and confetti cannons, legions of dancers dressed in stripper gear and spacesuits, and gigantic polyurythane crowd-surfing balloon, the band has added a huge semi-circular video screen that alternates between extreme close-up shots of lead singer Wayne Coyne and intricately timed R-rated video clips, one of which the band began the set by emerging through in a manner best left to the imagination. It’s hard to believe it’s been seven years since the Lips followed their 1999 masterpiece The Soft Bulletin with the even greater Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. They may never reach such heights again, but their live show remains a unique and gratifying spectacle in every sense of the word.