Monday, July 31, 2006

Pitchfork Music Festival 2006

It came and it went, kittens, and now we're left to contend with the sunburn, dehydration, and exhaustion that the Pitchfork Music Festival has left us with--not to mention the digital pictures, posters from Flatstock, calluses on our thumbs from refreshing our favorite music blogs this morning to see when and how they'll weigh in on the weekend, and a hankering to dust off our copies of Alligator, Destroyer's Rubies, and The Tyranny of Distance.

Sure, this fest was more hot, more crowded, and had more stuff to be taken in than Intonation last month, but the sheer scale of it all pretty much forced me to focus my attention on the acts that I was really and truly psyched in advance to see. You just can't fake that shit in 90+ degree heat.

We arrived on Saturday to the stompy, circusy sounds of Man Man. I had hoped to catch some of their set based on Pitchfork's insanely glowing concert review from last week, but from many accounts, their live show is better served by a more intimate club setting than an outdoor fest anyway.

Band of Horses was up next, and after three different people have made a specific point to tell me that I'd really dig them, I had no choice but to catch up with the end portion of their set, after bearings (and snackables and beer) were gotten.

Bed Bridwell's vocals made more sense to me live than they ever have on the few MP3s (incl. "The Funeral") I've downloaded, and the band's stonerish good nature was just as appealing as their meaty guitar sound. I'm looking forward to checking out the album.

I've been surprised by the handful of negative remarks about the Mountain Goats' set that I've read on the interweb, as I've recently landed like an anorexic Ukrainian gymnast firmly and triumphantly on the John-Darnielle-can-do-no-wrong side of the mat.

I can understand how some might have thought his banter went on a little long for an outdoor show, but dude is so witty, what with his self-flagellation about the stupidity of writing up a set list that included a brand new song in the second slot and rants about enduring a '70s Californian upbringing that brought endless rounds of singalongs with fuckin' guys in the fuckin' park with fuckin' acoustic guitars and his jokey fake-out that we were all going to join together to sing "Imagine" (we sang "No Children" and "Terror Song" instead), I don't know how anyone could not have been won over, even if his music wasn't someone's usual cup of tea.

Destroyer was the band I was most excited to see on day one. (Also, Dan Bejar is the indie rock musician I would most like to hug. I'm pretty sure this is not the normal reaction elicited by such an intensely cerebral songwriter, but, gah, brutha just seems to me like he could use a friendly squeeze around the ol' midsection.)

A propos of Zoilus's quoted observation that Bejar is the "hardest working music critic today," even the bloody stage banter during his set was meta. I was warning my companions not to expect pretty much any talking at all, based on his comment in this June interview in Pitchfork that "I don't banter with the audience, cause I don't have anything to say to them," but when he eventually approached the microphone, with air-quotes nearly visible around his head, and asked "is this thing on?" I felt like I was watching some Andy Kaufman-level performance art. He later went on to introduce a new song by proclaiming, then trailing off, "this song is about...ahhhh...", summarized another with "one quarter of that song was a protest song" (one of his band members--I couldn't see which--waited a beat before sallying, "protesting what? The other three-quarters of the song?"), and he bid farewell to the crowd before finishing up with "Looters' Follies" by mock-apologizing, "I know we've taken up a shitload of time with witty stage banter." But because he wasn't sneering behind any of those bons mots, the intellectual pleasures yielded by this acknowledgment that he was self-consciously Performing the Act of Playing an Outdoor Summer Concert merged with and buoyed the sumptuousness of his melodies and arrangements. (Though, I do have to wonder how it feels to be a grown man in his band belting out an alternating series of "la-di-das" and falsetto "wah-wah-wahs." That shit is funny, and intentionally so.) They went heavy on material from Destroyer's Rubies, which suited me just fine, but the few he played from earlier albums (the set list on Fluxblog cites "Crystal Country," "Modern Painters," and "It's Gonna Take an Airplane") only served to confirm that I need to start delving into his back catalog.

Because Ted Leo is so consistently solid, and because I'd already seen him play live twice before, I made the foolish, foolish mistake of stepping away from the stage about halfway through his set.

Yes, which means I heard "Biomusicology" from inside a porta-potty and "The Ballad of the Sin Eater" with a palmful of the interesting paste created when baseball diamond dust and hand sanitizer meet. Damn, damn, damn.

There has been so much hating on the Walkmen recently that seems so excessive and so, well, wrong, that I thought surely their tight set here would serve to bring some back into the fold. Nope.

I honestly don't get it. They seem a little less manic than they used to, but isn't that a good thing? A sign of becoming more assured, more mature musicians? Which is not to say that their songs lacked immediacy or energy or whatever. Matt Barrick was missing in action due to the impending arrival of his firstborn child (congrats!), but the secret of their success certainly can't be tied that directly to his propulsive drumming. I was nothing but impressed with what I heard on Saturday. Paul Maroon's confident guitar work especially stood out for me.

I'm a newcomer to the Silver Jews' output and only know Tanglewood Numbers, but I was certainly excited to see the notoriously reclusive David Berman live.

He was marvelously smart and droll, bidding us to mind our manners as the crowd started getting squirrely during emcee Tim Tuten's overly long intro, and confessing that he doesn't really like Brian Wilson at all. But, he also ended up, probably unintentionally, depressing the hell out of us with some of the song selections (closing with "There Is a Place"? Yowch), with his story about playing a gig in Tel Aviv a few days before things got really scary there, and, well, just with the weight of what it means for him to be here playing for us at all. I was especially taken with Cassie's presence on stage there with him. She was an amazing sight to behold with her short dress, wild hair, and enormous bass guitar, and her musicianship certainly was not to be denied, but I can't imagine the emotional gymnastics she must have to go through to be able to make it through all those songs, standing right there next to him every night. A formidable woman, indeed. The rest of the band was ace; I couldn't help commenting later in the car on the way home that it's so great to see slightly older musicians playing so well, with such ease in their stage presence.

I had every intention of making it back down to the park to see, if not Tapes 'n Tapes, then at least Danielson to kick off day two, but I was so unexpectedly wrecked the next morning that it was all I could do to arrive about halfway through Jens Lekman's set.

We heard him playing "Black Cab" as we walked over from the El, which felt like such a good omen for the rest of the day. The crowd was loving him (and, assuredly, his foxy all-girl horn section) and you could hear him sending the love right back out with his strong, smooth vocals. I'll be interested to see what he ends up doing with his next full-length.

The National. Holy fuck. That is what I came to this festival for. Without a doubt my favorite act of the whole weekend.

I was distraught over missing them at the Double Door earlier this year but consoled myself with knowing I'd see them this weekend. But, as my summertime music selections have taken a turn for the breezy and sun-soaked, I'd forgotten how much the brooding, wintry songs from Alligator mean to me until I started hearing them pour out of the speakers: "Abel," "Lit Up," "Looking for Astronauts," "Mr. November," and, holy Christ, "All the Wine." This was the only band that brought me near to tears all weekend. And not just misty eyelash blinky tears either; I had to choke back a few full-throated sobs heating up the inside of my face. Absolutely beautiful stuff. Matt Berninger looks variously like a Southern Californian movie star, an Austrian Olympic athlete, and a French thug, and sings like he's dealing with some genuine mental illness (in, y'know, the best and sexiest way possible). I saw him later walking around the Flatstock tent but was way, way, way too nervous to even risk talking to him. I cannot overstate how much I loved their set and can't wait to see them live again.

I don't know how I scraped myself together afterward, but LK and I headed over to the Biz 3 tent, with a few hundred of our closest friends, to catch the waning minutes of CSS's set. It's worth exploring the cansei de ser sexy tag at Flickr or heading over to Gorilla vs. Bear to see some pictures because they were every bit as wild and fun as they're supposed to be. We were standing outside the tent, behind the stage, on the righthand side, so our view wasn't the greatest (and, personally, I had to rely on LK to narrate most of what was happening for me anyway, as I really couldn't see much over the heads of the assembled crowd), but we could definitely feel the love. It was also nice to hear the songs fleshed out with the full band and a little less in-your-face with the slickly produced bleepy-bloopiness.

My curiosity about Devendra Banhart has only increased since last fall, especially after downloading "Hey Mama Wolf" and "Quedate Luna" from Cripple Crow.

I can hardly believe it myself, but I think after taking in his set this weekend, I've pretty much been won over. He does what he does with such sincerity, and he and his band carry it off with some impressive musicianship that I wouldn't have expected from my impression of the lo-fi, we're-recording-inside-a-rusted-meat-locker wankiness of his earlier albums. As is his custom of late, he brought a kid up on stage to play a song near the end of the set, and I was just so touched by the selflessness of it all. He (Devendra) described being able to do that as an honor and one of the best things that comes out of his life as a touring musician, and I didn't doubt it for a moment. There was such an incredible beauty in the way he embraced the kid after he was done playing and held on to him like they were brothers reuniting after a long separation. Save yr e-mails, I know, I know: I'm such a hippie.

I listened to Yo La Tengo from across the lawn, as I wanted to stay put to be sure to get a good spot along the barricade for Spoon. From what little I know of YLT's stuff, they sounded pretty solid.

Spoon's roadies started trickling out onto the stage while YLT was wailing away, tuning and plugging stuff in, and eventually were joined by Jim Eno and the boys and later Britt himself. We cheered when Britt walked out, and he held a finger to his lips, politely shushing us so we wouldn't disturb the other show in progress. He assessed the crowd with a pleased look on his face, and I'm about 85% sure that he smiled at me. I was standing against the railing, facing the stage and beaming, not like a freak, but just like a perfectly content person who was looking forward to seeing one of her favorite bands for the first time. I'd like to think that that was his small way of greeting and acknowledging my happiness.

There was, perhaps predictably, a lot of material from Gimme Fiction, which, hey, I'm not going to complain about, and they also got some great stuff from Kill the Moonlight in there, including "Someone Something," "Stay Don't Go" (no beatboxing, unforch), and--wowza!--"Paper Tiger." (I love it when musicians subtly make fun of their own songs by slipping funny different lyrics in there, and Britt got away with a good one here by singing "I will no longer do the devil's dishes.") They closed with "My Mathematical Mind," and Britt absolutely played the fucking shit out of his guitar. Down on the knees, feedback shrieking into the night air, the whole bit. It was a rousing end to a set that, while solid and satisfying, didn't exactly reach transcendent heights for me. And, music aside, I salute Britt's decision to go with green pants. Come on, guys: green pants!! I don't know why I was so taken with them, but I just couldn't stop thinking, "holy shit, he's wearing green pants." And, even better, he managed to pull them off without seeming self-consciously hip or even, horror of horrors, overtly metrosexual. I mean, I suppose this shouldn't be surprising coming from a guy who wrote a song called "The Fitted Shirt," but I gotta give credit where credit is due. Green pants, man. Green pants.

I didn't have the energy left in me to push toward the front of the crowd to get a good position (or, ahem, good pictures) for Os Mutantes, so I took advantage of the pleasures that can be had from standing in the middle of a field, listening to some supremely groovy music, not elbow-to-elbow (or, in my case, elbow-to-hipbone) with a bunch of other sweaty, exhausted concertgoers: exchanged my last beer ticket for a heavenly cup of 312, chatted with my pals, danced all my kinks out, and watched people unself-consciously dancing their own kinks out as well. The bears, the seemingly out of place shirtless frat boys, the lovey-dovey couple out with their awkward single friend, the college-age kid who looked like he's probably a computer science major doing a modified poopy-pants dance--it was a joy to see them all feeling the music and having fun. The band was bright, happy, and overflowing with goodwill. They sent us out into the night in style.

Big love to LK for tolerating and even indulging my fanaticism, KP for the ride, and DS, JZ, and Nora Rocket for the laughs and the good company.


Anonymous said...

thought you might be interested in this video i got of the national performing all the wine. not of the highest quality but i've seen worse. i know what you mean about the tears, i personally get choked up when they perform abel and get to the "there's water on the bridge, well you better hold my hand through this" lines. i agree i thought they were the best of the weekend. i also the thought the liars were sweet.

allison said...

Hey, this is awesome! Thanks much. I couldn't get the MySpace link to work on my computer just now without fiddling with all the Flash stuff, but I was able to search it out on YouTube (I'm assuming it's the same one?). The audio quality is really great. Thanks again!

brendan said...

I don't get the whole Walkmen hate either, although I would be pretty bummed if Barrick didn't play when I saw them. Dude is the shit on the drums.

I used to have a sweet pair of green pants but the zipper broke and I basically had to stop wearing them. but green pants rule.

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