Saturday, July 21, 2007

Pitchfork Music Festival 2007

Whoops. So, I guess this is coming, like, a week too late, huh? Anyway. Um, Pitchfork. Right, so that happened.

I kind of can't believe it's over already. The weekend came earlier in the month than it did last year, and, as such, it really snuck up on me and then whizzed by fairly breathlessly. So let's just jump right into it, shall we?

Because that's pretty much what it felt like last Friday night, taking the train down to Union Park after a full workday: jumping right into it. I felt like I'd landed in a foreign country when I arrived there, dizzy and out of sorts and nowhere near as drunk as I needed to be to get loose and have fun. I'm not really knowledgeable at all about any of the three albums that were being played front-to-back that night as part of the Don't Look Back thing, so I guess it was kind of refreshing to walk in without any expectations to manage. Slint were very cool, and I can only imagine how great that album would sound if I were suddenly sixteen and full of suburban angst again. GZA's performance of Liquid Swords got a weekend full of hip-hop highlights rolling in fine style. The epically geeked enthusiasm of all the white boys approx. ages 25-32 in the crowd who very clearly spent a large portion of their early adolescence listening to and loving the Wu-Tang Clan was utterly adorable. From where I was standing, there were a lot of supremely patient and indulgent girlfriends/spouses in the house that night, sweetly feigning (and/or being swept up with) enthusiasm as they watched their otherwise mature and responsible bfs throwing up some Wu. As far as my day-to-day listening habits go, I've totally missed the ball on getting into Sonic Youth--because, as with my similar intimidation of Yo La Tengo's or even Pixies' back catalogs, where does one even begin listening?--but I was, of course, thrilled to get to see these legends perform live that night. The passion and energy and pure physicality that these grand elders of rock put into their show made me feel slightly ashamed of how tired I was just standing there watching. Thurston Moore may, in fact, be the coolest man alive.

I had hoped to make it down to the park last Saturday for the Twilight Sad and Califone, but the public transportation situation was atrocious that day, so I rolled in later than I would have liked, to the sounds of Voxtrot giving off a sugar-rush of good cheer. Seriously, I think I started laughing out loud, in that good and happy way, when I got swept into the whole circus and saw Ramesh Srivastava bouncing around on stage in his black-and-white stripy shirt. I still have to make a point to pick up their first full-length.

I've never fallen in love with Grizzly Bear the way I thought I might, but, that being said, I was way more excited about seeing them on Saturday than I thought I would be. The harmonies really are everything they're cracked up to be, and when they start getting those wonderfully dense thunderstorms of sound The only drawback was the fact that their time slot was at 3, when the sun was high and their tendencies toward cough-syrupy soporifics started putting everyone in the mood for a nap. Subsequent acts Beach House and Iron and Wine suffered the same kind of pacing troubles, which, I dunno, the pessimist in me feels like may have been intentional on Pitchfork's part, just to make the weekend feel like it had some sort of arc or build to it over the course of the three days. No one wants to peak in the middle of the afternoon on the second day, though, right, so I guess I get it. But still, it did kind of feel like the dumping ground for acts that they maybe didn't quite know what else to do with. I mean, going from Grizzly Bear to Battles? Then from Battles to Iron and Wine to Mastodon? Just kind of awkward. Anyway.

I had been told by JWard in no uncertain terms to be sure to catch some of the Beach House set in order to witness the awesome charisma of her former schoolmate, lead singer Victoria Legrand, but the side stage area where they were performing was quite crowded by the time I was able to get over there, so I was squeezed in at a sufficiently bad angle that only allowed me brief glimpses of Alex Scally's head. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to really sink into the mood they were creating, so the whole thing just kind of came off sounding like an underwater roller rink. And I'm bummed that, for all that, I didn't even get to hear "Tokyo Witch."

Having been burned in the past by seeing other technique-driven spastic freakout bands perform live (Niacin, I'm looking at you), I didn't feel much need to get too close to the stage for Battles, despite my passing interest in John Stanier's drumming. (I must be getting soft in my old age: I should have been annoyed by the whole four-foot-high ride cymbal thing, but instead I just found it kind of cute.) I got as much of them as I needed watching the monitor on the other side of the lawn and listening with one ear.

Tim Tuten, Hideout main man and repeat-offender MC for the fest (along with ex-Trenchmouth and current Eternals member Damon Locks), kept his shambling intros much shorter this year, but was definitely long on the funny. Going into his rant about staying hydrated to the crowd assembled for Iron and Wine's set, he stopped himself and said, "What am I saying? You guys are Iron and Wine fans, not Iron and…Vomit. I should be making this announcement before the Mastodon set." Again, maybe I'm just getting soft, and maybe I was more forgiving since there weren't as many acts at the fest this year I was already rabid about, but I found this all wonderfully amusing. Go Tim!

I really don't give too much of a shit either way about Iron and Wine, and even tend occasionally toward the suspicious (seriously, Beam, man, let the beard go), but I think I was one of the few people in the crowd that day who wasn't bored to tears by their set. (Well, maybe I should modify that to "one of the few bloggers in the crowd who wasn't bored to tears," based on some of the sniping I've read online this week.) The whispery lo-fi-ness I usually identify as a hallmark of their sound couldn't really be sustained in a live festival setting like that, which for me was a good thing, in that it allowed the pleasantness of his songs not to get overshadowed (undershadowed?) by his usual wind-in-the-trees crooning. Not to mention that the new, versatile band members beefed up their whole sound with a little more heft and variation. It felt kind of nicely hippiesque.

Again, not to harp on the bad scheduling that day, but putting Mastodon on stage around 6, when a lot of folks were experiencing crashing blood sugar levels and were in need of some dinner, was just kind of sadistic. Standing in line, caked in dust and sweat, with slaughteringly loud and intense metal shredding seeking me out across the park grounds like some sort of malevolent, low-lying fog, made me feel despairing, hateful, and slightly homicidal. (Um, the pad thai was worth it in the end.)

But, fucking Clipse, man. These guys were awesome. Standout set of the day, by far. The sort of standard hip-hop "we're the best" trope wasn't just posturing on their part that night; they knew they were lighting the place on fire. Maybe it was just that the sound coming out of the speakers was finally loud enough, maybe it was the exquisite tension of the minimalism in their beats (ohhhh man, that single tambourine shake in "Mr. Me Too" just sounded like the best thing in the world to me at that point), maybe they were just a little bit more willing to hustle for the crowd's appreciation rather than relying on previously established goodwill, but they truly owned the attention of anyone within earshot--no small feat in a setting so full of fickle, easily distracted indie rock kids.

From there, unfortunately, Cat Power was just a big snooze. I never warmed much to The Greatest (why would I not just listen to Dusty in Memphis instead?), but I know an awful lot of people who find her awfully marvelous, no matter where she happens to be on the spectrum of crazy at any given point, so I was keen to check out what she was doing. The set wasn't bad, it just wasn't right for that second-to-headliner slot. She must have been having sound problems in her monitors on stage that weren't translating out into the crowd because she kept apologizing after every song ("I'm really sorry, y'all!"), and the band was content to just lay back, all noodly-spoodly tasteful. Not that tastefulness is a bad thing, of course, it just wasn't what the overall vibe needed at that point. By all accounts, Girl Talk should have been on that main stage instead. We tried to head back there to the third stage to watch him do his thing, but we couldn't get near enough to see what was happening, or even hear all that well, much less dance, so we just headed back to the main part of the field, letting Chan's vocals kind of wash over us.

God bless Yoko for being a million years old and still being willing and able to shriek her lungs out on stage in front of a rock band--there's no denying that's just kind of unassailably rock and roll of her. But…ugh. I have no problem with "challenging" music in a slightly more controlled climate when I'm really able to ponder why something's challenging me in a particular way, but I was just not up to those mental/aesthetic gymnastics in that environment at that point in the day. So we fled, along with many other folks who were assuredly less forgiving in their assessment of her than I.

After using the day on Saturday to basically regain my festival-going sea legs, I was ready for action on Sunday. And action--thy name is Deerhunter.

I have no eloquent defense for what I like about this band. All I know is it's clear they're having a moment (as declareth the 'Gum), and I find them totally intoxicating. This comparison might be sacrilege to some, but I imagine that the kind of feeling I get listening to and watching them must be akin what it felt like to see Iggy and the Stooges in their prime. (In fact, when people start griping about Bradford Cox's behavior, I always think of this Lester Bangs quote: "I'd just like to ask some of these spikedomed little assholes if they think when Iggy formed the Stooges he sat down and said, 'Okay, boys, let's be punks: we'll get fucked up all the time and act like assholes and make a point of not knowing howta play our instruments! It'll make us famous!'...Iggy was just a fucked-up kid who took too many drugs and wanted to have the most fucked-up band in history so as to externalize his own inner turmoil.") Nothing really scandalous happened on stage, though I think most of us assembled there on that bright and beautiful afternoon were secretly hoping for at least a little of something. But, more importantly, they sounded fantastic. For all the hype and notoriety surrounding them, they really do play some remarkably well-crafted music, too. I'm consistently amazed at how relatively accessible their stuff is. The nearly seamless blend of droney, psychedelic swirl, buoyant basslines, and sweet-and-salty melodies is addictive, in the best way possible. Please be sure to check out Cryptograms if you haven't yet.

I spent a good chunk of the middle of the day bouncing from stage to stage, enjoying solid sets from bands I didn't have the burden of feeling emotionally connected to in any way. (This was a good thing.) Local kids the Ponys ran up against the technical difficulties with the sound system that seemed to be hanging like a cloud (one of the only clouds, both literal and figurative) over the weekend, but the audience was patient and stuck it out, which I was mildly surprised by. Maybe I was just craving a more stereotypical festival experience, but their brand of fairly straightforward rock 'n' roll was exactly what I wanted to hear that afternoon. Although I still don't think I'm quite ready to jump on the Menomena bandwagon, I did like them about 700x more on Sunday than I did last fall when I heard them open for the Long Winters. I have to admit my inner band geek always gets a bit of a thrill when they pull out that baritone sax. I mean, that's just not something you joke around about. Junior Boys brought the funk a bit later--who knew they were Canadian? Not me. I didn't stick around for much of their set, but was impressed when they got the audience clapping 3 against 4. Took a detour over to the side stage where I was utterly delighted to stumble upon the jazzy afrobeat groove of Nomo, improbably hailing from Ann Arbor, Michigan. A cute blonde chick on trumpet, a bald, female, black, left-handed singing bass player, resilience to power through a shit-ton of feedback that was no fault of their own, and the chops to throw down some Sun Ra shit? What's not to love?

In an example of remarkably appropriate pacing/programming, the Sea and Cake took the stage in the glow of the late afternoon, and their sunshiny 60s pop never sounded better. I was standing next to a skinny young superfan who completely flipped out when they kicked into "The Argument" off '97's The Fawn. "This is, like, my favorite song!" he crowed to a small, dark-haired girl standing next to him. His enthusiasm was such that it was difficult for me to determine if they even knew each other before that moment.

Who the fuck is Jamie Lidell? I don't mind admitting that I thought this to myself pretty much every time I saw his name on the roster for the weekend. I even scribbled it down in my notes right as he took the stage. I think I'd been getting him confused with one of those James Blunt-y wet noodle singer-songwriters and was expecting some acoustic guitar bullshit out of him. I was surprised, then, when he started crooning some Otis Redding-style soul. Notes: "He looks weird, but he sounds great." I was temporarily unimpressed by the fact that he turned out to be singing to a prerecorded track rather than with a live band. But then...he let loose his looping, beatboxing, scatting aural assault on the masses, and I became an instant fan. Seriously. Notes again: "British blue-eyed soul to RULE THE WORLD." He was def the revelation of the fest for me. Like the other best acts of the weekend, he was reaching out beyond the lip of the stage, really connecting with the audience and completely filling the space with energy and sound. (Right before, perversely, kicking into a subdued and gentle ballad, he declared, "there's nothing I love more than making a NOISE!") I think one of the things I found most interesting about him is how this good-looking British guy with such an appealing, powerful, soulful voice turned into such a...well, such a freak of a performer. (The same can be asked of Kevin Barnes, but more on that later.) I don't know anything at all about his background, but it strikes me that he probably could have taken the wet-noodle easy-choice career path if he'd wanted to. Dudes who can croon like that don't have to be interesting musicians. Lucky for us, then, that he turned into the type of maniac who'll wear a gold lamé robe/smoking jacket and a crown of flowing metallic streamers on stage while laying down his own beats, live, and igniting us with the thrill of experimentation supported by some seriously sophisticated melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic sensibilities. According to his post-fest Pitchfork interview (scroll down), he's currently in the studio working on a new album (his first since '05's Multiply); can't wait to see what those sessions yield.

Aaaaand, Malkmus. He didn't blow me away or anything, but he didn't have to. He's Stephen fucking Malkmus. He came out wearing a pink polo shirt and making Jimmy Buffett jokes, fer chrissake. But with the sun beginning to set, the planes passing silently overhead, the trees swaying and rustling, the dust gently kicking up around our feet, the summertime warmth on our arms and faces, and the kids blowing up for the first notes of the Pavement tunes, there was a way that we, collectively, seemed to be saying to him, "tell us about our youth, Stephen." And he obliged, mostly. Full of that signature shambling charm, shrugging off his forgotten lyrics and flubbed chord changes, he didn't have to act important to respect and respond to the fact that it was an important moment for so many of us. (Myself sort of dubiously included.)

Which brings us to--oh God--Of Montreal. If Jamie Lidell was the new-discovery revelation of the weekend for me, then Of Montreal was the "holy shit, I thought I liked them before, but do I ever plan on becoming a superfan now" mind-blower. There is just nothing about their set I didn't like. From the hugely orchestral entrance music to the costumes and silly props to the ineffably catchy songs from Hissing Fauna, the whole thing came off like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory meets The Rocky Horror Picture Show meets Cabaret. Not to mention that, cross-dressing and all--hell, especially considering the cross-dressing--Kevin Barnes is like the sexiest thing in indie rock right now. It's almost difficult to quantify the number of places, psychically and emotionally and intellectually, the band hits you all at once. I usually don't need my favorite musicians to do too many things for me; play a nice song with some nice lyrics and show some awareness of how you're using your stage presence and that's usually enough to satisfy me. But I was completely entranced by the multiple levels they were operating on here: cute as hell with the sugary melodies and childlike wonder in the brightly colored costumes, face paint, and balloons, but also deeply perverse with a twinge of pure fright, bolstered by a strong undercurrent of anything/everything-goes eroticism aiming to turn you on almost in spite of yourself. (Correct me if I'm wrong here, but that last point seems to be the main difference between the Flaming Lips' stage show and Of Montreal's. I find Wayne Coyne terribly attractive and charismatic, but he's not playing with different notions of sexuality much beyond putting a bunch of hot chicks on stage in alien masks, am I right?) I'm sure much of this is born of pure instinct and the kind of freaky outsider sensibility that seems part and parcel of the whole E6 scene, but Barnes is also very clearly an extremely smart dude (blah, blah, blah, Story of the Eye, yadda yadda), just now coming into the full power of his talent and stage personae, and it would be a disservice not to acknowledge it as such. It shows even in something as simple as the balloons they brought out as props: not content to merely let them flutter around as signifiers for "party" or "whimsy," they recognized that the most interesting thing about balloons is usually popping those fuckers. Impish and mischievous, darkly childlike, mildly violent, and kind of implicitly sexual with the very tangible representations of "tension" and "release." Then, you put paper cut-outs of Kevin's face on a bunch of them, enacting with kind of a wink and a nudge the psychological and neurochemical trauma that forms the core of Hissing Fauna, and, goddamn, if they haven't instantly leapt beyond most of their music-making peers with a simple, wordless gesture. And then to encore with a cover of the Kinks' "All Day and All of the Night"? I probably would have cried at the perfection of it all, if I hadn't just lost my mind. I've been dimly aware of these guys at least since The Gay Parade ("Fun Loving Nun" was a staple on my college radio show) and have, of course, been loving Hissing Fauna like everyone else this year, but, like I said, I'm planning on really digging into their catalog now. Thanks, Pitchfork!

I'd kind of half-seen the New Pornographers twice before their Sunday set, so I was looking forward to finally seeing/hearing them with my full attention yet also relieved not to have to get into "OMG, must savor every moment!" mode. There's not really much to say about them that you couldn't assume on your own; consummate craftsmanship, songs perfect for singalongs at dusk, and a hefty dose of anticipation for LP4 Challengers (for those of us who haven't already preordered and digitally downloaded it, that is). No Neko, and of course no Dan, but Carl was surprisingly funny (and also surprisingly snarky; if you haven't already, see also his hilariously meta Pitchfork interview) and Kathryn Calder ably handled female vocalizing duties. They also gestured toward the kind of bombast a band usually needs to play one of these big outdoor festivals by interpolating "We Will Rock You" into the outro of one of their new tunes that they weren't sure how to finish. It delighted the crowd, and myself as well, but I also sensed a bit of (unintentional?) cynicism in it. If nothing else, though, they went out with "The Bleeding Heart Show," which was a real thrill to get to hear live. Hey la, hey la indeed.

If I hadn't already been trending toward increased hip-hop fandom (or at least awareness) for the past year or so, then this weekend definitely would have confirmed that desire in me, and no act moreso than headliners De La Soul. With no other sets to line up for by that point in the night, the entire assembled crowd was focused on their stage and they just showered the place with energy and goodwill. Seeing the magnitude of the audience, right from the get-go Maceo announced, "I like these kind of events because we can learn so much about each other, and that's what hip-hop culture's all about." I dunno, call me cheeseball or call me the exact target for the kind of sentiment needed to gloss over the clear racial disparity between the largely white festivalgoers and a Long Island-born black hip-hop group, but I just felt like that was a nice way to get us all on the same page for the duration of their performance. I danced like an idiot by myself near the midpoint of the grounds, shouted when they asked us to shout, threw my hands up when they asked us to get our hands in the air, and just generally felt awed to be in the presence of these dudes who are so in command of their craft and so willing to really put on a balls-out kind of show. Maybe it's just because I've had some experience performing myself, but I'm always fascinated by performers who can stay in control of what they're doing while also modulating their stage presence to meet the demands of the space they're in. And the fact that they, especially Posdnuos, were able to not just project their charisma and skills out into, but to own the attention, ears, and rears of an entire park full of people totally blew me away. They were, quite simply, the perfect cap to the weekend.

The rest of my pictures from the fest can be found here, and, as ever, big thanks to the pals who hung out with me and tolerated my geekery for any portion of the weekend, and to those of you who've been eager to hear my impressions.

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