Thursday, July 24, 2008

Pitchfork Music Festival 2008

Is it fair to say that this was the most enjoyable Pitchfork Music Festival for me yet? Well, whether it's fair to say, or even true, I'm gonna say it. This was the most enjoyable Pitchfork for me yet. I gotta believe that not having super-high expectations for any acts that I was dying to see probably helped, as it allowed me to just kind of peacefully float through the park and catch what I fancied catching at any given moment over the course of the three days. Being in the moment tends to yield pretty high returns, y'know?

That being said, I feel like this was also the first year that there was too much good stuff going on--enough so that I had to make some hard choices about what to miss. And it's not like I wasn't pretty diligently on my feet for most of the weekend. Yet I didn't see any of Les Savy Fav, Spiritualized, Atlas Sound, or Chicago faves the Occidental Brothers Dance Band International, I only caught the last few minutes of Dizzee Rascal's set (but managed to take some of my favorite photos of the fest while I was there), I was entirely too tired to fight my way into any position to catch Dinosaur Jr. on Sunday night, and I didn't really make any OMG new discoveries like I did last year with Jamie Lidell. Not to mention that I completely missed a bunch of impromptu shit like King Khan giving away ice cream and Tim Harrington giving $2 haircuts. But, I did Just Say No to the mud. (Well, as best I could.)

On to the music!

For the second year in a row, the Friday night ATP/Don't Look Back thing was the least essential portion of the festival for me, mainly because I didn't grow up listening to any of the three featured albums and hence have no real emotional attachment to them. Which is actually a pretty good test, I think, for how well they, or the groups in question, hold up. Does the music translate to someone not listening to it through a haze of nostalgia (or a haze of expectations, depending)? For the most part, yes. Mission of Burma killed it, just motherfucking nailed that shit to the wall, setting a weekend-long precedent for me of preferring the older, more established bands on the roster to the sexy young guns. Sebadoh utterly bored me to tears; it seems even they realized there was no reason for them to have been playing the gig. They just kind of shuffled and stammered through the tracklist, basically apologizing for taking up so much time. Public Enemy made me wanna fight the power, though, man. Plus, I always love watching dudes in the crowd flip out during hip-hop shows. There was a gaggle of guys of all different races around me shouting along to every lyric and affirming back everything Chuck D said. Flavor Flav was totally insane, but it's hard not to appreciate his sincerity when he cops to the fact that, even though he's all embroiled in the reality TV thing right now, Public Enemy will always be his first and only love.

One of the very few moments of legitimate panic I had all weekend was worrying if public transportation would get me to Union Park on Saturday afternoon in time for any part of Caribou's set. I know I'd just seen them a few months ago, but, based on how much I loved that show, and how much I've been obsessing over The Milk of Human Kindness since then, I needed to see them again. Fortunately, I got there for about half the set (after the rain ended), and boy was it worth it. I don't know what it is about this band, but they have something special going on. The melodies, the rhythms, the song structures, the trippy but also krautrocky vibe--they're just doing everything right, and right on the money, with humility, but workmanlike pride in a job well done, too. Dan Snaith is totes my new indie rock boyfriend.

It was something of a decisive moment for me after Caribou's set when I decided, fuck the Fleet Foxes. I think I'm a bit more susceptible to hype, in general, than I'd like to be, but I just decided I couldn't be arsed. Um, instead, I decided to succumb to hype on the other end of the spectrum and headed to the third stage for Fuck Buttons. Maybe I was just hoping to recapture the feeling of seeing them open for Caribou in April, or pay homage to how important that night was for me or whatever, but even if I was, they utterly surpassed my memory of that springtime show. How did they manage to do that in the middle of the day, in an open field, while I was totally sober? I don't know, but it was transcendent. The clouds even broke for a while in the middle of the set. The band is 100 percent cool, but somehow the experience of their music leaves no room for cool on the receiving end. You're either into that shit or you're not. It was delicious just to give in to it. That gauzy electronic thrum will totally envelop you if you let it, will dissolve you in the moment. It also helped that the audience was great--they cheered for every mood change, tempo shift, and distorto bass assault. It was totally inspiring.

Vampire Weekend was fine and all; it would be backlashy of me to kvetch too much about them. Esp. considering that, whether the humor is intentional or not, I don't think most people give them credit for being as funny as they are. There's a part of me that reads their whole snot-nosed, uber-privileged east coast shtick as total performance art. This Marathonpacks post on the band from last fall is about a million percent smarter and more on-point than anything I have to say here, but Eric's description in the first paragraph of how "Ezra Koenig fondly remembered the last time the band came to our fair college town" makes me giggle with glee when I think about the sniffly disdain (if not outright rage) that the band has inspired in various and sundry internet folks. Anyone who's going to get their classist panties in a twist about this freakin' band of all things probably deserves the high blood pressure. We're all indie as fuck now, and the decision to dress their career up in polos and wry collegiate charm is, depending on how you look at it, maybe one of the most punk rock moves they could have made. Which, even if most of the crowd wasn't as tickled by it as I am, is at least is registering at some level. Ezra was going into some spiel before playing "M79," inviting us to shout along with that "whoooah!" bit, and some kid standing near me kind of jokingly mused, "there's a lotta rules with these guys" and some other guy shot back, "that's because they went to school." That killed me. At any rate, they took the tempo on "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" down a few clicks, which served its lecherous preppy beach house vibe well, and I was entertained by how physically their bassist plays.

I thought maybe I was kind of over the Hold Steady, but...nope. Still fun to the max. I love that Craig Finn and Franz Nicolay seem to be actively competing for the honor of being the biggest fan of their own band, and I forgot how much the "how'm I s'posed to know that you're high if you won't let me touch you?" line in "Chips Ahoy!" always sucker punches me in the throat. In a weird way, their performance reminded me a lot of what I love most about seeing hip-hop sets at big festival shows like this--there's a million different, equally entertaining people running around on stage, they have the chops to fill the space to its utmost with physical grandstanding and noise, and there's a generous sense of inclusiveness looping like a Mobius strip between the band and the fans. I like this group an awful lot, but wouldn't call myself a superfan to any extent, yet when Finn ends the show by singing, "we're all the Hold Steady," I kinda feel like, "yeah! I am part of the life of this band and this experience right now; thanks for noticing and acknowledging it." It's such an easy trick, but it's a good one. And it works.

Ah, Jarvis. I don't know his--how you say--oeuvre well at all, but I was transfixed the entire time he was on stage. I had a really great sight line, thanks to a tallish Bettie Page look-alike photographer who insisted I stand in front of her (thanks, Bettie!), and used it to my advantage to take a slew of pictures. It's so nice to feel, as an audience member, that you're in the hands of a truly capable performer. Every move he made all night was fascinating, whether it was a knowingly lascivious hip swirl or simply telling a story about pre-concert anxiety dreams. There's a warmth and a professionalism in what he does that seems to stem from the perfect combination of experience and the fact that he's just a born performer. A rare treat indeed in the realm of (loosely defined) indie rock.

And then there was the sheer audacity of an Animal Collective headlining set. People, Animal Collective are not a headlining band. But...the fact that they were billed as such anyway completely delighted me with its perversity. The audience may have been actively digging it closer to the front, but back where I was standing, there was a palpable air of "huh?" in the crowd. "Do we dance to this? What's going on? How am I supposed to interact with this?" No matter--it was the perfect music at the perfect time as far I was concerned. Their songs felt like the night air, kind of drowsy and thick with a beguiling combination of leftover warmth and breezy, clammy cool. I involuntarily shouted "holy shit!" when that huge, massed chorus effect announced the beginnings of "Comfy in Nautica"; any other band, I probably would have been disappointed and merciless about the fact that Panda's vocals were more than a bit flat on the upper end, but I could not have given less of a fuck in that moment. Not to mention that I went utterly apeshit-level bonkers when they played "Peacebone." That song has got to rival "Hey Ya!" for being way less easy to dance to than you think it is, but I gave it my all anyway. (Um, there was much bouncing involved? I believe I waggled my arms above my head a few times?) Some angel somewhere near the park actually shot off a little spray of fireworks during "Fireworks," and I was deeply touched by the fact that Avey ended the song with two repetitions of the "you're only what I see sometimes" line instead of going back to "I'm only all I see sometimes" like he does in the album version of the track. Even if it was just a simple lyric bobble, I don't care. That's one of the key lyrical transformations in one of my favorite songs of the past five years (it's one of only 27 MP3s in my entire iTunes library currently designated with a five-star "perfect song" rating) and hearing it that way warmed me all over like a good shot of whiskey. To make the set even more special, who, of the hundreds of people crammed into the park at that point, should walk directly past me during one of the low-key droney moments but Dan Snaith. I kind of grabbed him by the shoulder and shouted that I really enjoyed his set from earlier in the day, and he thanked me and gave the most comically broad and good-naturedly dorked-out Canadian grin he could muster. A personal festival highlight, for sure.

"How was church? How many people here went to church this morning?" Times New Viking's drummer Adam Elliott asked us first thing Sunday afternoon. The fact that he plays sitting on a brown wooden folding chair, like the kind you might find in a church rec room somewhere, instead of on a regular old drum throne, gave the question a weird sincerity, in a way, before he careened into another Mark E. Smith-esque introduction to "pop song-ah numbah two!" Out from underneath the blanket of aggressively, intentionally disgusting sound quality that I've learned to love on their album, it was easier than ever to hear why they might very deliberately term their music "pop songs." And if my ears hadn't noticed it, I'd hope that the little bunch of daffodils sitting on the beat-up kick drum would have clued me into it eventually. What a perfect visual complement to the essence of this band's charm.

Dirty Projectors were all kinds of great, with a downright scary level of musical talent on stage. But, between the complexity of all the crazy-ass polyrhythms and finger-picking and hairsbreadth-tight harmonies, um, it's kind of no wonder that they're ever so slightly lacking in charisma. Maybe the indie rock master class vibe comes across better indoors, during a longer set? Regardless, Longstreth is like this beautiful Afrobeat-influenced ostrich and his bassist and other guitar player are totally foxy, so...there's that.

There's been a lot of hype surrounding King Khan online in the days since the fest, and he deserves every bit of it. All I can say is buh-nanas. He absolutely gave the performance that Jamie Lidell wanted to give at the Abbey Pub earlier this year. Khan isn't as gifted vocally (or perhaps even as musically) as Lidell, but the barn-burning stage show he cobbled together here was the spirit and genius of pure rock and roll stupidity. And, not to take away anything from his skill as a band leader and performer, but why aren't more people doing this? Even though it requires a largish band (horns + rhythm section + backup dancer and whatnot), the I-IV-V chord progressions are the kind of shit that these guys have been playing their entire lives, so the changes would be easy to pick up and easy to put 100% passion into at more or less a moment's notice. Like I said, Khan's great and all, but this kind of throwbacky, 1950s comic book version of rock and roll seems ripe for reviving on a larger scale. I mean, by the second song, he already had us picking trash up off the ground and flinging it all over the place. There's just nobody out there right now capitalizing on the essentially dirty, juvenile underpinnings of rock music like that. What's more, the audience totally knew how to handle it and took it in the spirit of joy and celebration, like throwing confetti. I was laughing so hard and loving it so much. And when he ended the show with a gospel-style rant, seemingly largely improvised, about crawling up inside of his woman while they were making love--"I pulled my leg in! And I pulled my other leg in! But I took mah shoes off because Indian people alllllways take their shoes off before they do somethin' holy!"--I was fairly convinced that I'd just seen something very, very special.

The Dodos were the weekend's big exception to my 'older is better' rule. Which I'm pretty sure is because they played with a mature kind of confidence and self-awareness (in the best possible sense of the word) that I just wasn't seeing in any of the other younger bands. Obviously, because they're a two-piece (with a Bob Mapplethorpe look-alike occasionally popping up as a third member to bang on a trash can), it's probably easier for them to adapt their set-up to different stage sizes and shapes, but they were really smart to push their gear all the way down front to minimize the dead air space as much as possible between them and the crowd. They also totally availed themselves of the volume levels at their disposal in a festival-grade sound system, which, again, is an important thing for a two-piece that's basically just guitar and drums to be aware of, but there was a vitality and urgency to it that seemed somehow really fresh and surprising. Being pummeled by the sound in that way got me moving and dancing way more than I thought I would during their set--after all, this is music that I've been emotionally associating with taking quiet, melancholy walks by myself around the neighborhood--which, y'know, is never exactly the worst way to heighten feelings of goodwill toward a band. Mostly I was just proud of them for bringing it. They got promoted to one of the main stages, and they definitely made sure they earned it with plenty of mojo to spare. Plus, they make ridiculous faces while they play, which makes them super-fun to photograph.

M. Ward. Le sigh. I love this man. What more can I say? He looked truly pleased to be playing throughout his entire, pitch-perfect set, his band was ace (was that the estimable Rachel Blumberg on drums? does anybody know?), and if the beefier, more rocked-up sound of all those wonderful songs from Post-War are any indication of what he's going to be doing with his next solo album, I'll be one very happy kitten indeed.

The side stage area was packed for Bon Iver, and I felt super-conflicted about actually remaining there in the throng. Honestly, I didn't really want to. When I managed to weasel my way down near the front but then got crammed in at a bad angle behind a bunch of tall people, that was pretty much the only other moment of panic I experienced after nearly missing Caribou. It was a delightful little stew of panic, too: of panic for my basic personal safety (I was feeling quite claustrophobic) and panic that I was going to miss 'seeing' the show that I was suffering for. Pretty much the only thing that kept me there was a sense of duty toward the album that's shaping up to be my favorite of '08. And it's not that I begrudge him his popularity at all; the album's a true stunner and worthy of the insane flights of adulation it inspires. It's just that weird, uncomfortable conflict of holding this bedroom-intimate music so close to your heart and then being forced to acknowledge in the harsh light of day, "oh wait, all these annoying people like this music too." My relative discontent with the experience wasn't helped by an overly muddy and bass-heavy sound mix that just didn't serve the spindly grace of these songs at all. And yet--I still wept during the sing-along part of "The Wolves (Act I and II)." Going into his customary request that we chime in for the "what might have been lost" swell, he said, "the song doesn't just feature you, it needs you. We need you" which pushed all my sensitive, communal inclusiveness buttons right off that bat, and then, once we all started to sing together, I took out my earplugs for the first time all weekend. I wanted my ears to be just totally blown out by the moment, I wanted to feel consumed and obliterated, shattered into little molecules by the song, by the voices around me, by the sound of my own voice lost in the middle of it all. I also felt it was a fitting offering to make in exchange for all the comfort this music has brought me this year. I'm not going to say that catharsis was worth the hassle of fighting the crowd, but it sure felt good and it sure proved Bon Iver's resilience and strength for the way they can reach up through such a quantity of bullshit to still genuinely touch people after many months of nearly continuous repetition of the same material.

The Spoonsters sounded great and gave a much more muscular and robust show than the one I saw, for all its setlist-associated merits, last year at the Riv. Even as a pretty huge fan, though, I have to admit that a Spoon show is probably never going to change anybody's life. Professionalism has its place, of course, it's wonderful to hear their songs played live, they've had beautiful lights the past couple times I've seen them, they know just when and how to pull out a crack horn section...I just wish that everything about them excited me as much as those albums do. Those albums make me want to run around flapping my arms like a chicken and depants perfect strangers on the street and stub my toe as hard as possible on a fire hydrant. Their shows make me want to shake somebody's hand and comment obsequiously about some random local microbrew and tie a double-knot in my tennis shoes. Ah well. That being said, though, if you're one of those fans of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga that still doesn't get what "The Ghost of You Lingers" is doing on there, I would strongly urge you to find a way to hear them play it live. (To tide you over for the time being, you can check out the track on their Daytrotter session.) That song absolutely soars in live performance, which, given everything I've just said, is pretty funny and ironic considering how relatively (stereotypically) un-Spoonlike it is. No wonder it's turning out to be one of my favorite new songs. Maybe they'll get my arms flapping like a chicken yet.

So there you have it, kittens! The rest of my photos are here (and, I have to say, my new camera was definitely MVP this weekend; I think that thing would make me toast in the morning if I asked it to). I hope you've been tending to your sunburns and rinsing all the mud out of your socks and getting yourself geared up for next year. It always comes around sooner than you think. Which, when it comes right down to it, is kind of never soon enough.


Michael O'D said...

What an outstanding write-up, especially the Animal Collective section. I feel like I've just been blessed with a particularly good issue of Rolling Stone.

allison said...

Aw, thanks, Mike. That's very sweet of you to say.

Brendan M said...

I saw Spoon in Brooklyn a few weeks ago, I suppose before the Pitchfork show. I thought they played amazingly. I saw them at Bumbershoot in 2006 and enjoyed the show but felt a bit "eh" about their live show them But this show in prospect Park was absolutely phenomenal. I knew it was going to be good when they opened with They Never Got You. And you are so right about The Ghost of You Lingers.