Most things about Day 1 at the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival could be considered challenging. Or, perhaps described a little differently, most things except the performances. The main factor on Friday was the weather. A glance at the temperature would tell you the heat index was in the upper 90s, and therefore it bordered on oppressive. Then again, it’s nothing particularly new for this festival or mid-July in Chicago. Still, the volunteer staff could be credited as doing a fair to good job of distributing bottled water to the sweaty masses, even walking around with cases of it through the crowd during sets. Yet if you went to one of Union Park’s few water fountains, the lines were long. The same could be said for all the beverage tents. Everyone was in need of some fluids. And while outside of the heat it was a nice and sunny day, it became less so when severe storms rolled in during the evening hours and effectively shut down Bjork’s set 30 minutes early. It hadn’t rained a drop when organizers pulled the plug on the evening, but there was a pretty great lightning show that could hypothetically have put people in danger. The actual rain, as it was reported to me, started about 30-45 minutes after the park was cleared. Hopefully it won’t be a soggy mess for the rest of the weekend. Beyond weather and lines though, let’s talk about the music itself. Here’s a recap of the artists I saw:
After getting a slightly later start than anticipated due to delays at home and then rush hour traffic, I missed the first few sets of the day. That’s too bad, because I heard that Trash Talk was extremely crazy and a whole lot of fun. The good news is that I arrived at Union Park in time to see most of Mac DeMarco’s set, which was crazy and a whole lot of fun too, but in a very different way. See, DeMarco and his band don’t take their live shows very seriously, or at least do a great job pretending not to, because the end product was sloppy, unfocused and thick with sarcasm. Many might view that as a bad thing, but in the festival environment, it’s exactly those sorts of sets that stand out and have the ability to show people a really great time. So sure, there were the obligatory songs from DeMarco’s two album catalogue, which were performed in full and remained largely true to their recorded versions. “Ode to Viceroy” sounded great, as did “Freaking Out the Neighborhood,” among others. He closed with “Still Together,” and in the middle of the song brought out the girl he loves, introduced her to the crowd, and then hoisted her up on his shoulders while he finished the song. That was a nice, tender moment. Prior to that though, there were a number of covers that seemed to be chosen at random, ranging from Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business” to Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff.” They were all performed in quick 60 second hits with complete irreverence and in some cases new, demented lyrics. For example, a cover of The Beatles’ “Blackbird” turned it from a soft, beautiful acoustic song into a screeching, noise-riddled monster. Your reaction could have been gone one of two ways: you could get upset that DeMarco and his cronies ruined some classics, or you could roll your eyes and wonder what they’ll do next. The stage banter wasn’t any less chuckle-worthy, with gems such as, “Thanks for hanging out with us. Make sure you stick around for another Canadian band, Rush, who will be performing on this stage next.” So while DeMarco lacked a true sense of professionalism, he and his band did entertain more than any other set I witnessed on Friday.
Angel Olsen sounds great on record, but as I said in the Friday preview guide, it’s not music built for an outdoor festival setting. What did surprise me though when I showed up to see part of her set was that she had a guitarist and drummer with her to help flesh out the arrangements a little more. That’s sort of akin to what Sharon Van Etten has done in the last couple years with her live show, and it’s helped bolster the energy of otherwise slow and mellow songs. Still, the added help didn’t do a whole lot for Olsen, and the three songs I stayed for were compositionally lovely and matched with her gorgeous vocals, but couldn’t quite connect with an overheated crowd.
Phish was in Chicago performing on Friday night, and I get the feeling they really would have enjoyed Woods’ set. On paper, Woods might best be considered a psychedelic folk band, but they took some of their songs to a whole other level of free-form during their Pitchfork set. Such dalliances were often technically impressive, with some immense guitar solos going on that often extended to a handful of minutes. The crowd went with it, and cheered along the way. For their final song, they ventured into noise rock and drone territory, building to an intense crescendo over the course of 10 minutes. It was nothing short of excellent. Speaking of short, there were a few normal length versions of many songs, including their bouncy single “Cali in a Cup.” Such sun-kissed songs made the extremely hot day just a bit more bearable, and it’s tough to argue with that.
Mikal Cronin is the sort of artist I would classify as “technically proficient.” If that label seems a little bland to you, that was the intention. Cronin’s latest record MCII is an absolute delight and one of the year’s strongest so far. In a live setting, he and his band recreated most of the songs on that album faithfully and dutifully, though with a little less studio sheen. The problem is that’s ALL they did. There wasn’t a whole lot of moving around the stage or trying to interact with the crowd. The three people he has playing with him appear to be solid musicians, but never once ventured outside of what each song required of them. Nerves or general inexperience may have been the cause of all this. Still, the crowd seemed to have a pretty good time, and Cronin’s songs are almost tailor made for sunny days and outdoor settings.
Wire are a pretty legendary band with a pretty legendary catalogue, and when these elder statesmen of music took the stage early on Friday evening, they wanted to show everyone how it was done. Things started out a little slow, and a couple of the guys really started to show their age with the heat seemingly taking its toll, but as the sun began to set and the temperature dropped a couple degrees they rallied. Hard. The energy picked up significantly, they played a number of songs off their early, near-perfect albums, and generally proved they were a force to be reckoned with. It was nothing short of impressive, even though the very young crowd appeared to be more interested in camping out for Bjork for a couple hours than they were getting a lesson in rock and roll from some guys they had likely never heard of.
It’s telling that Joanna Newsom chose to perform her set completely solo. She had only a harp and a grand piano on stage, and alternated between the two. Everything was a delicate instrument, including Newsom’s own voice, which certainly isn’t for everyone. Yet the crowd was quite large for her set (though no other bands were playing at the same time), and they were all extremely respectful by bringing the volume level down to near silence. In between songs you might have been able to hear a pin drop. That in itself was remarkable, but so was Newsom’s performance. She ran through a number of classics from her back catalogue, and was even kind enough to play a couple new ones as well. Apparently she has A LOT of new songs in the pipeline, so we’ll have to wait and see if she’s going to go all triple album on us again. Her voice was in great shape, as was her playing, even though she commented that the harp “didn’t sound right, but that might have been because I was playing the wrong notes.” She was bubbly and effusive on stage, and the crowd was happy with everything she did. Yet as one might expect, it was a bit too mellow for a festival. A couple of my friends said they needed to get up and walk around because they were falling asleep during the set. Amusingly, we got up and wandered over to get some food, and unlike every other band on that stage that day, you couldn’t her a single note or word coming out of those speakers from across the field. I thought at one point Newsom had ended her set early, only to spot her still playing on a video screen. It was like watching a lovely silent film.
60 minutes of Bjork is better than no Bjork at all. That was the logic I and many others used when festival organizers shut down her set and ordered everyone to leave Union Park as a storm was approaching. The weather report at the start of the day suggested there could be some severe weather in the evening hours of Pitchfork, and by the time Bjork’s set started, the clear skies had given way to patchy clouds that didn’t appear all that threatening. Yet those same clouds contained quite a bit of lightning within them, and it made for quite a show when paired with Bjork’s music. As for Bjork herself, she was pretty much as you might imagine her to be. A wild costume that included a gold foil dress and a spiky porcupine-like helmet was her main wardrobe choice for the evening. Though it’s been a couple years, she’s still madly in love with her Biophilia record, which is definitely not one of her best, so that’s what dominated the set list. Here’s the full set list, though the show stopped after “Mutual Core”. Yet at about the halfway point she began to launch into a collection of hits that included “Joga,” “Pagan Poetry” and “Army of Me,” which turned out to be the most immensely satisfying portion of the night. It was also peppered with a really cool lightning show, which added to the turbulent atmosphere. At some point the multiple large screens behind Bjork, which had been showing some of the digital landscapes of her Biophilia apps for smartphones and tablets, shut off and never came back on save for one. Whether this was a technical malfunction or it was done for safety purposes with the weather, it brought the very visually stimulating distractions down to a minimum to place greater emphasis on the music itself. And that was fine – everything sounded great, and Bjork’s voice was inspiring to hear live, even if many of the song choices weren’t her strongest. Perhaps next time when she comes through town it’ll be in support of a new, much better record that will bring back some of the highly danceable energy of her early material. One can only hope.