When Pitchfork announced that they’d be throwing a festival, I had mixed feelings. I was enamored with the lineup, as anyone invested in the current independent scene would be. On the other hand, I was somewhat hesitant, realizing that the powerful, sometimes pretentious website was growing more aware of its strength. I was even more nervous when they used the phrase “curated by” in the advertising campaign. However, like everyone else, I’m weak in light of curiosity and I was eager to go, despite the expected record heat.
As I looked around at the concertgoers filling the Union Park early Saturday, I saw an expected mixture of people: boys in girls’ pants, people who manage to overdress from a thrift store, and beards, beards, and more beards (the author included in the latter). Amidst all the hipsters were a few of the average summer concert-goers, slightly older than the target demographic, prepared with requisite lawn chairs. I spotted the occasional person dressed head-to-toe in black pants and a long sleeve black shirt. With the expected high temperatures for the day, I had visions of them collapsed by the medical tent doing an impression of a lost Legionnaire struggling toward a phantom oasis. (I did, however, notice that, for the second day, one of the overdressed gentlemen chose garments with shorter sleeves, though not lighter colors.) The booming t-shirt market was evident with this crowd, enough that Neighborhoodies had a booth for those that needed an abstract slogan slathered on a shirt that couldn’t wait until they got home. My personal favorite was a sleeveless number with the words “It ain’t gonna suck itself” written on the front; the gentleman wearing it was clenching a beer in his fist as he walked by.
As a consequence of the massive morning lines, most people ended up missing the entirety of Head of Femur’s set. They served as a functional addition to the lineup, with a sound that had similar characteristics of what you’d expect from what has become known as a “Pitchfork Band.” The lead singer’s voice rang with a sort of Oberst-y earnestness that made it appropriate for the day. As described by a friend who was waiting in line for the duration of their set, “It was good waiting-in-line music.”
During this early moment in the festival, when the park wasn’t seething with people and the sun wasn’t yet as strong as it would be, I wandered around and took in what I knew was going to be, if anything, an interesting weekend. I was pleased that a number of local businesses were represented. Goose Island Brewery, a local establishment with headquarters not too far from Union Park, provided the alcohol, and The Abbey Pub, a concert venue and eatery, had one of the many food booths with reasonably priced (and tasty) fish and chips. Amidst all the independent vendors was a rather large truck emblazoned with the Xbox logo; well, I guess the money has to come from somewhere.
Local act Pelican played a solid set to the morning crowd. Their music is quite at home with the other bands on their label Hydra Head, though I felt they were stylistically set apart from the other acts of the festival. The songs off their recent release, The Fire in our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw, aren’t as heavy as older ones and are more accessible. The small crowd that gathered around the stage seemed passive though engaged in the set. As much as I love the band, the early time of their set just didn’t seem suited to their music.
Next, The M’s hit the stage, and I quickly realized that this wasn’t my style of music. During the set, while hiding in the nearby shade, another friend thought he heard a cover of an Iggy Pop song. Later, while waiting in the growing A.C. Newman crowd, I could have sworn I heard a bit of Bowie’s “All the Young Dudes.” The band managed to pull from influences I definitely like and make something that I wasn’t terribly interested in.
Then A.C. Newman of the New Pornographers opened his set with “On the Table” from his recently released The Slow Wonder album. Something wasn’t right with it, though I figured that maybe it just sounded off because I had only heard the album in the car the day before; maybe live he just had a different kind of tone. But when he finished the song, a bandmate of his leaned over and whispered that his guitar was out of tune. Embarrassed, he quickly fixed the tuning, and then launched back into a more in-tune version of “On the Table,” sheepishly introducing it as his first song. A few songs later, the shade seemed more inviting than standing out in the growing heat. Even after just one passing listen to the album, his songs were easily recognizable, but the urge to get out of the direct sun beat out my interest in power-pop. Since then, I’ve found myself revisiting his album a lot in an attempt to figure out if I actually like his music. Though I haven’t reached a decision, I still listen to the album often…if that says anything.
Four Tet arrived next as the first solo electronic artist to play the festival. It’s nice to see how things have evolved with the widespread acceptance of electronic music. As proof that we’re living in the post-Aphex Twin days, one man with a few laptops and a mixer was all that graced the stage. Kieran Hebden stood tall and lanky against his rig, with a curly mop of brown hair. Dressed in a polo, he nodded along, occasionally looking up for audience reaction as a DJ would. His music was an interesting mash up of skittering rhythmic elements combined with warm computer-manipulated organic samples. To some, this is wonderful music, but to an older couple sitting at the far end of the field, it sounded like “listening outside the door of a video arcade.” He did spend some time wandering off into the land of abstract noise, which I’m sure could have alienated anyone in the crowd.
During Broken Social Scene, I found a spot in the shade and just stretched out in the grass. Things finally were calming down as evening approached. With the remaining sun warming my legs, I relaxed and listened to the music. It’s an experience that really is only accessible at the odd summer music festival. It’s ultimately irrelevant whether the independent music scene is now large enough to market a festival of this size or Pitchfork is progressive, bent on spreading its mentality by smartly marketing its target audience in the summer sun. The reality was that with the first day not yet finished, I could already tell that this was a successful affair. The constantly growing crowd was proof of that. Personally, the number of bands on the lineup that I’ve unhappily passed on seeing in separate venues all brought together for such a cheap price was a winning equation in and of itself.
Wandering back to the stage for the next band, I had no idea what really to expect of The Go! Team. Their album sounds like it relies on various amounts of studio trickery, and I’d read an interview which lead me to believe that they were still working out the kinks of their live dynamic. The pastiche of ‘70s horns, ‘80s rapping and ‘90s big beat doesn’t sound like anything I’d appreciate on paper, but somehow it managed to hold itself together in the studio, and even more successfully in a live context. The six-member troupe traded off on instrument duties, save the lead singer, whose style at times evoked that of a head cheerleader. The lyrics are often simplistic, stripped down to energetic phrases and shout-outs that often involve the band’s name.
However, despite the simplicity, the lead singer (confusingly named “Ninja”) managed to successfully amp up the crowd along with the music. There was a gorgeous energy in their performance that I’ve not seen in a long while. The entire band all seemed to be genuinely happy up to be up on stage, and that feeling was equally conveyed to the audience. I wouldn’t be terribly upset if they became a higher-profile band. This could be somewhat inevitable, because their music seems ripe to be co-opted for car commercials, Olympic anthems, what have you. It’s sunshiny, and the cynical bastard that I am strangely enjoyed it, even as I watched the band invite a bunch of neighborhood kids up on stage to dance through the finale. Normally, this would have seemed incredibly lame to me, but for some reason, after being bombarded by an entire set of their music, I just couldn’t fight it. Yet, as much as I found myself affected by the band, my enthusiastic quizzing of some friends after the set landed a few responses of “What are you talking about, they annoyed the hell out of me,” and I realized that The Go! Team isn’t for everyone.
Prefuse 73 took an alternate route for electronic artists performing live; he took to the stage with a bassist, drummer, a keyboardist (Johnny Herndon, on loan from Tortoise) and himself playing a variety of musical roles. They managed to faithfully recreate a few of the choice numbers from the past few albums, though I felt something ultimately was missing. It was a solid though uncompelling setup that felt like a band simply trying to reenact a complex studio creation. This, I think, is a challenge that faces many who rely heavily on electronics.
I’d heard Death From Above 1979’s first EP and enjoyed the cacophony they created. Then, one night, I caught their performance on Conan O’Brian, and I was puzzled if what I saw on the TV would hold any weight live. After a prolonged sound check, DFA 1979 began their set and I learned that they function even better than I could’ve imagined. Immediately a cloud of dust was thrown up from the crowd’s enthusiastic writhing. What they do is wonderfully simplistic and drenched in feedback. Still, there’s a fantastic range that is above and beyond what other pop two-piece bands do. A lot comes from a solid stage presence; the lead singer’s bluesy, aching wail and the bassist’s amp-humping posturing embody a kind of lost Rock & Roll that isn’t seen much today without a heavy veneer of irony. Their set quickly lulled the critic in me to sleep and I spent my time simply enjoying the intense performance. The highlight of the set was an outstanding rendition of “Black History Month,” one of the slower numbers on I’m a Machine, You’re a Woman.
Tortoise, the closer for day one of the festival, served as one of my key introductions to post-rock avant music when I was in high school, so I’ll admit it upfront: I’m a bit biased. They were one of the bands that I could definitely call myself excited about. When I moved from New York to Chicago, my realization that it was home to both Tortoise and Thrill Jockey records helped me realize that leaving the East Coast couldn’t be a completely bad idea. As a reviewer, I’m probably not supposed to put things like “Holy Shit!” in print when trying to encapsulate an experience, but I found myself saying it quite a few times during their set. When they launched into the chaotic opener “Seneca,” I knew I’d be incredibly satisfied by the set. There were moments where their technical prowess, especially in the realm of using two drummers, left me with a huge shit-eating grin on my face. Now, Tortoise isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m the type of person who enjoys a finely timed squall of atonal sax noise. In a live context, they fleshed out album cuts and showed their strength as Jazz musicians. The tracks they played off the 2000 album Standards, was heavy on the Pro Tools production, came across amazingly well. The versatility of the members of the band allowed for even more powerful renditions to be created live.
Day one was now in the history books. Look for day two of the festival in next week’s feature.
Previously published on Loose Record