Friday, July 24, 2009

Pitchfork Music Festival 2009

Haters Gotta Hate Edition

It's not like I didn't have a good time last weekend. Any excuse to spend two and a half days bopping from performance to performance to performance in the company of (mostly) like-minded strangers is generally OK by me. But this was the first year that the festival struck me as straining against itself. At first, it was the little, mostly organizational things: the long line to gain entry to the park on Friday night. The fact that the porta-potties were tucked into weird locations that weren't well laid out for folks to form lines that went much deeper than about four people. The fact that the stages weren't adorned with the Jay Ryan-designed banners like in previous years. Maybe this stuff just slipped through the cracks for one reason or another? But then as the weekend hurtled headlong toward its big Flaming Lipsian climax, I realized that this is no longer the little indie festival that could. (I know, I know: I'm just realizing this now? But hear me out.) There was so much less room allowed for the pleasure of surprise this year, as they've started to recycle bands from previous years' rosters (Yo La Tengo, the National, Grizzly Bear, the Walkmen) and as they're hewing with Mafia-like protectiveness to acts they've saddled with the dubious honor of being best new music despite well-documented evidence that maybe they're not quite ready for that level of exposure yet (Wavves, Vivian Girls, etc.). There seemed to be a certain kind of vague cynicism permeating everything--a weird combination of "we're just giving the people what they want"/"we're just doing what's expected of us"--that fell way short of the former "holy crap, guys, let's organize a big old show with all our favorite musicians!" vibe that was evident in spades in previous years. Let's hope this was an anomalous year and that 2010 will find the fest back in joyous, celebratory form. But for now, a quick rundown of 2009:

It's not entirely clear to me why they chose to schedule four bands on Friday night, instead of three as in previous years, and to start at 5 pm. I'm sure there were folks who traveled in from out of town and could arrive at the festival grounds early in the afternoon if they wanted to, but the rest of us schlubs worked a full day then had to contend with public transportation and the aforementioned lines at the gate before we could commence with the rocking. Which means I totally missed Tortoise's set. It's not the end of the world, I know, since they're from here and all, but I've still never seen them live and probably wouldn't be inclined to buy a ticket for one of their regular gigs since I don't know their stuff that well to begin with. I thought this would be a good, low-pressure way to check them out. No dice.

Even though this is technically the third time I've seen Yo La Tengo live, I still wouldn't call myself much of a fan (not because I dislike them; only because I still haven't devoted the time to exploring their catalog), so I guess I wasn't too broken up about the fact that they were basically just providing the soundtrack to the beer line. They sounded pretty good, from what I could tell.

I was all kinds of meh about Jesus Lizard. With my documented lack of '90s reference points, this reunion show didn't mean anything to me, and their songs all sounded pretty samey after a while. But, I always gotta give props to old dudes who can still rock out with total fuck-you attitude.

Built to Spill, though, I was legitimately excited to see. Even though I don't have any sort of comprehensive knowledge of their stuff, there's something in me at what feels like a subatomic level that really responds to Doug Martsch's guitar playing. Their set was the first moment of the fest when everything seemed to really click for me; it became more than just standing in an open field listening to some music with hundreds of other people. It became a rock show, with its own unique language and landscape, an energetic exchange both joyously bigger than any of its disparate elements and sublimely simpler than any of its attendant hassles or limitations. They closed out with a triumphant, cascading take on "Carry the Zero," their one song that I was really, really, really hoping to hear. I left the park on a high.

I rolled in kinda late on Saturday, just as Fucked Up was finishing their much talked-about set. I kind of wish I'd caught more of it, for spectacle's sake if nothing else, but...obviously not so much that I, y'know, made the effort to arrive on time for it or anything.

The first set I caught was the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. They sounded exactly like their album--which is to say, cute but not particularly deep or memorable. It seemed like they played a few of their songs more than once, but that's just because they all sound the same. They seemed to be genuinely gracious about playing to such a large crowd, which is always nice to see, but I had my fill after about half the set.

Bowerbirds back on the smaller B stage were nearly drowned out by Pains' bass until you were pretty much right on top of them. They're still doing their smart, gentle folk, and they sound as lovely as ever. They played "In Our Talons," of course, which is, I guess, their version of a big fat crowd-pleasing jam.

Final Fantasy = the cutest. I haven't listened to He Poos Clouds in ages, and don't necessarily even have a craving to do so now (I find it's not an easy album to listen to as I'm just running errands around town), but I feel a real affinity for Pallett and his intelligent, artsy, melodramatic, super-queer sensibility. A girl in front of me gushed to her friend "this is the most impressive show I've seen so far at Pitchfork." Granted, it was still early in the weekend, but I couldn't resist somewhat snarkily scribbling in my notes that's because he's a real musician. I don't at all believe that the simple fact of being classically trained automatically makes you a superior musician--there's lots of wankery that can happen if you're too technically proficient and don't have genuinely creative instincts to supplement the skills that can more or less be beaten into your muscle memory--but in the case of someone like Pallett, the training has obviously significantly expanded the, ahem, palette he's able to put in service of his creative vision. The crowd was cheering for every flourish and epic melodic run. It was all really refreshing.

As we were all gathering across the field before Yeasayer, two dudes near me who were trying to decide how far to push toward the stage had the following conversation:

#1: Just wait til everybody mellows out.
#2: Is this going to be mellow music?
#1: It's like...intense mellow.


It had been threatening to rain all morning and finally started sprinkling in the middle of their set. It actually made everyone get really happy and surrender to the experience, and Yeasayer was kind of the perfect band to soundtrack the moment. That being said, they were the first of a handful of bands on the roster (more on which soon) that still kind of make me wonder, incredulously, "so...people actually like this?" Their world musicy dream-catcher aesthetic seems so deeply uncool that, were it not for Pitchfork's imprimatur, I gotta believe most folks would derisively mock it if they were given an unlabeled MP3 or CD of the stuff. Despite my incredulity, I stuck around for their whole set, and enjoyed it. Sinkane is touring with them on percussion now apparently (dude is everywhere!), so their rhythm section was especially impressive. Of course, the crowd went bonkers when they played "2080."

I have to say, the more I think about them, the more I find I can pretty confidently say that I actively dislike Beirut. I'm still not entirely sure why, but, similar to my wonder about why people like Yeasayer's brand of fusiony world beat, I'm always mildly offended by the way Beirut makes people believe they like Eastern European-style brass band music. You probably couldn't get 80% of that audience out to a neighborhood music festival to see a bunch of actual Balkan dudes play their horns and sing, and yet when Zach Condon's on stage, everybody's cheering for trumpet solos and all but throwing their arms around strangers' shoulders with this kind of false nostalgia for some vague notion of a motherland. I know that criticizing Condon for cultural appropriation is kind of a fool's errand at this point, and I know there can be a legitimate kind of beauty that can transcend notions of authenticity when it comes to these kinds of really well done, fictionalized, dream-state interpretations of a genre (sort of a la Kubrick's impulse to re-create New York on a sound stage rather than filming on location for Eyes Wide Shut), and it's not like I have any kind of chanson or Fado bonafides to defend against interlopers, and, believe it or not, I really can hear the sweetness in his melodies. But, I still found myself frowning more and more deeply as the set progressed. Part of this is probably because I get the sense that Condon is inordinately pleased with himself, yet masking it with a kind of false humility. I mean, he kept whispering "merci," all cute and knowingly, between songs, so much so that a couple girls behind me were actually discussing his "accent." Sigh. Even the horn tattoo on his wrist was bugging me. I'm surprised not to find more criticism of this nature anywhere at all online. Save for a delightfully harsh review of March of the Zapotec in Toronto's NOW magazine, everything else I was able to Google up in an admittedly quick search was mostly fawning praise. I wish I were willing to believe that this is just my issue, but somehow I think the definitive Beirut takedown has yet to be written. It's OK to come out of the closet, fellow Beirut apostates, wherever you may be!

At some point early the week before the fest, I was listening to Boxer on my iPod and then realized "holy shit, I get to see the National play live in a few days!" And then I got way excited. As with Animal Collective last year, there's really nowhere else the National would ever be considered a headlining act, which just made me so damn proud of 'em. I don't necessarily think their set would have made new fans out of anybody who didn't already dig what they're doing--I heard plenty of kvetching from various sources about how slow and dour their songs are; as if even their rabid fans would argue that fact!--but as far as I was concerned, they put on a rock solid, if not transcendent, show. Matt looked great and was flat-out funnier than I've ever seen him. He crawled off the stage and into the photo pit during the big climax of "Mr. November"--a gesture that song always calls for--but then immediately proceeded to make fun of himself as soon as the song ended: "I was gonna do something cool, but then when I got to the garbage can, I thought, 'this isn't as cool as I thought it would be.' But then I got over there and thought, 'no, this is pretty cool.'" They played a few new songs that sounded great, if predictably Nationalistic (this isn't a criticism). Looking forward to whatever their next album yields.

Rolled in on Sunday in time to catch Frightened Rabbit. It seems like every new year yields at least one token Scottish rock band that everybody's gotta lose their shit over, and as soon as they started playing, I snarked, "how are these guys not the Twilight Sad?" But then they won me over in spite of myself with their infectious energy and clear affection for the Chicago crowd: "I think we've played here more in the past 12 months than we've played in Glasgow!" Plus the lead singer has one of those great, wild, keening voices that you can really only get from Irish or Scottish rock frontmen--a little unhinged, a lot passionate, implicitly acknowledging that it's "just" rock 'n' roll while reminding us that that doesn't mean it's not the most important thing in the world at that particular moment. I'm curious to check their stuff out now.

I had sooo much fun seeing Blitzen Trapper in Austin last Thanksgiving that I couldn't wait to catch them live again, especially considering that I've been living with, and loving, Furr since then. Luckily, they were every bit as delightful as I remember them being. No lie: the title track from that album's as good a song as has been written this decade. Eric Earley was touched by something holy when he pulled that shit out of his guitar. Portland boyfriends!

After a bit of wandering, I caught a good chunk of the Thermals' set. People! I thought we had an understanding here! I thought that when it turns out I've been an ignorant moron who's slept on a band this awesome for far too long you'd have the friendly decency to publicly scold me about it or something. But noooo, I've just been going along with my daily life like it's no big deal that I've never listened to these guys. Clearly, this is a major oversight on my part. They tore the place up with a combination of ferocious punk rock energy and an extremely smart sense of fun. They covered a whole mess of classic '90s "alternative rock" bangers, which somehow, through the sheer force of their chops and goodwill, came off as a successful way to play to the crowd in this specific setting rather than cynically pandering to it. Smiles all around. I've clearly got some musical homework to do now.

Every time I get excited about seeing the Walkmen, I always kinda figure it's a nostalgia thing for me, since I so associate their music with my early days in the city: living in the apartment at 1945 W. Chicago Ave., stealing all Giddy's CDs, drinking too much, making friends with the Grinnellians. But then when I actually see them, I'm always bowled over anew with how fucking solid they are. As my life has progressed over the intervening years, theirs as a band has too--they've grown warmer and richer and deeper (pick the fine wine/Scotch whiskey metaphor of your choice). And, not to make an unfortunate pun on their most well-known song (which they did play, right near the top of the set--to get it over with, I presume), there's something almost Rat Packish about their self-presentation these days. And I mean this in a good way! The jazz inflections in the material from You & Me especially seem to come out a little more emphatically when you see them all casually dressed in nice button-down shirts and when Ham does a little chat to the audience over a song's instrumental introduction. It suits them well. Rather than becoming stale or a parody of themselves, they've truly found a way to continue growing as musicians and performers while still being instantly recognizable as the Walkmen. No small feat, that. Don't write these guys off, y'all, just because you feel like you got the hang of them in 2003. I would strongly encourage you to catch them live the next time they roll through your town.

I like dancey, rhythmic music a lot more than I typically let on, but, holy shit, was I ever unimpressed with M83. I actually laid down in the grass along the periphery of the park, staring up at the sky, too bored to even move. If you can let me know what the big deal about this group is, please do. But as far as I could tell, it wasn't much more than an endlessly recombinant collection of tacky and uninspired tropes--breathy female vocals over gated drum sounds, etc., etc.--somehow apparently legitimized/elevated in the minds of the crowd due to their French pedigree.

I started getting really squirrely at this point, out of relative boredom with the bigger acts that had been scheduled on Sunday evening to feel like some sort of culmination of awesomeness, out of physical fatigue from having been on my feet, drinking booze, and eating crap for two days, and out of emotional fatigue from navigating the sheer quantity of douchebaggery when you get that many people gathered in the same space at the same time. After a quick jaunt to get some soy ice cream (see above re: eating crap), I tried to make my way back over to see part of Grizzly Bear's set and ended up unintentionally wedging my way in front of two meatheads who were actually--I couldn't believe my ears--spitting all kinds of vitriol about the "faggots" and their autoharps on stage. Really, guys? Really? I quickly darted away into another spot but was so keyed up I couldn't soak in the band's sound at all. I suppose it didn't help my ability to pay attention that they were kind of indulging their own worst sonic tics at that moment, too, doing those trademark pummeling explorations of sustained crescendos that I find the least interesting thing about them, even when I'm feeling generous. They did segue into "While You Wait for the Others" soon thereafter, which helped redeem their excesses a bit for me, but I fear the damage had already been done.

I caught maybe two of Mew's songs back on the B stage and quipped that there was probably a high likelihood that a portion of the stoners in the crowd thought they were actually watching Passion Pit, what with the stratospheric tenor vocals and hella bass. Speaking of bass, that stage always seems to struggle with a too-muddy mix; it was actually so intense that I could only handle a few minutes before I had to wander elsewhere.

And thus began the wait for the Flaming Lips. The park was packed by that point, and I had absolutely no desire to fight forward closer to the stage. But, since so much of the effectiveness of their show relies on making the audience feel surrounded and overwhelmed--by love and joy and beauty, ostensibly; with stuff and noise and spectacle, if you're cynical about it--it ended up feeling like I was sitting on a beach, watching a storm far out at sea. It was epic and magnificent, but untouchable and unknowable, a lovely, distant curiosity. And then at a certain point after they all took to the stage, I kind of chuckled to myself as I realized, "oh wait--when you go to a Flaming Lips show to witness the circus, that means you have to listen to their music, too." Ouch. Look, I respect the hell out of Wayne Coyne, but, much like I feel about Will Sheff and Okkervil River, I'd vastly prefer to read his interviews and his wise, warm, witty quotable quotes than listen to virtually any of the songs he's ever written. The tunes simply don't do that much for me.

After standing on tippy-toes, trying to see as much as I could of what was happening on stage, I bailed out, to check in on The Very Best over at the B stage. Best decision of the weekend, by far. There wasn't much of a crowd back there, but the folks who were there were totally feeling the groove and having a balls-out fun time. My mood shifted for the better immediately and I couldn't help but start dancing. The vast difference that I felt between the two stages seemed like the most glaring example of the way that the Pitchfork fest seems to be buckling under its own weight at this point. Every inch of the Flaming Lips show felt rote and coldly calculated, despite its patina of "OMG, we're just a bunch of crazy guys who dig bright colors and wacky shit!" while everything about The Very Best felt organic and vividly human. That latter feeling is why I make the effort not just to attend the Pitchfork festival year after year, but why I go out to shows at all when I can usually think of a million other reasons--too tired, too broke, too far to travel, too late on a school night, etc.--why I should skip 'em. And, as I said above, that feeling was somewhat in limited supply this year, which made it feel all the more precious at the moment. The group left the stage, and we all cheered wildly for an encore. They came back and said, "you want one more song? Well, we're gonna play two!" the second of which was some kind of remix of Michael Jackson's "Will You Be There." Everybody took their lighters out and generally lost their shit. Since I don't really watch much TV or listen to the radio anymore, I totally missed the onslaught of MJ jams that everyone was revisiting after his death, so this was actually the first time this month that I'd even heard his voice. I got instantly choked up. The whole surprising combination of events was the festival highlight for me, for sure.

Which made going back over to the Flaming Lips for their big finish feel even more lame. After the truly moving musical embrace of that moment, hearing Wayne warbling through "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" felt really shallow...and that's one of their few songs that I actually like! I sort of tolerated the subsequent self-satisfied performances of "She Don't Use Jelly" and "Do You Realize??" and then made my escape from the park in what felt like a really anticlimactic way. In fact, Wayne was still demanding "do you realize??" as I made my way out of the gates and over to the Green Line. I do realize, Wayne, really, I do.

Big thanks to Parowpyro for being a game-for-anything festivalgoing companion for the weekend; you should check out his own entertaining take on the weekend's activities here. The rest of my pictures are posted on Flickr, but for some more professional shots, I would recommend looking through Robert Loerzel's (start here) and, as always, Kirstiecat's, which should continue rolling out over the next few days, weeks, and even months as she perfects them.


Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Sid said...

Thanks for the wrap up. I never went to Pitchfork -- I never felt cool enough. I did like Hideout a lot though I like it better when it's just a small Fri & Sat affair and not an epic all day Sunday event as well. I agree with you on most bands you mentioned btw. We totally missed out on mocking the sad show goers when I lived in Chicago. :)

Eric said...

amazing read!