Phew, what a weekend! As usual, I’m feeling quite a bit drained from three long days of experiencing the dizzying highs and physical tolls of attending a music festival. It doesn’t get any easier as you get older, I can tell you that. Judging by the average age of the attendees this year, I’m beginning to fall on the older half of the spectrum. In spite of this, I’m never less than excited to attend the Pitchfork Music Festival each year, as I consistently claim it is my favorite weekend of the 52 that take place annually. So I may be tired and writing about the festival in a timely manner has brought its own set of unique challenges, but I’m not anything less than satisfied with how everything turned out. I’ll have my final set of thoughts on how I think the festival went this year, along with a massive photo set from the entire weekend, coming up in the next few days. In the meantime, please enjoy this summary of all the acts I saw perform on Day 3 of the festival, aka Sunday.
From a couple different live videos I’d seen previously, I knew that Foxygen puts on a truly unique and remarkably strange show. Frontman Sam France in particular can go a little nuts if he’s in a certain mood, and that’s pretty much all the time anyways. I missed the first few songs of their set, but from what I heard, France climbed the scaffolding on the side of the stage, stood on an amplifier, and messed around with the drum kit, all in the course of a few minutes. It’s almost like a hyperactive child getting let loose onto a playground – he’s got to: “Try the monkey bars, and ooh look! a slide! But what about those swings over there? Now I’m gonna climb this cargo net! Moooom, look at me!” Anyways, while he checked off a few items on the crazy list right away, he spread the rest throughout the band’s overall set. The selection of songs the band played from their two studio albums made for a good mixture of psychedelia and garage rock, done in a very sloppy fashion for amusement purposes rather than sheer lack of skill. It’s easy to envision getting annoyed at such acting and ploys for attention, but for an early Sunday afternoon that sort of weird, insane energy was a pretty nice shot in the arm to get everyone revved up for the day. In spite of its faults, I still rather enjoyed Foxygen’s set, and though the crowd wasn’t exactly huge at that point in the day, most everyone that stuck around seemed to feel the same way.
Right at the start of Killer Mike’s set, I saw a girl being driven away from the stage on a medical cart while professionals were attending to her. She wasn’t moving, but I’m sure she’s alive considering there haven’t been any reports of deaths at the festival. That moment did make me pause and wonder whether Killer Mike truly was living up to his name. As it turns out, Killer Mike is anything but a killer. As his set and on stage banter proved, he’s a hard working guy with an extreme passion for hip hop. In one of a couple speeches he gave during his set, he talked about stopping the violence in Chicago and loving your neighbor. Another time he talked about growing up being raised by his grandmother, her influence on his life, and how he’s come to embrace the church of hip hop rather than any more defined religion. The passion with which he spoke often made his voice crack and tears form in his eyes. It was powerful stuff, backed up by some intense and intelligent tracks from throughout his catalogue, though focused primarily on last year’s excellent R.A.P. Music. Personally I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from his set, but was completely blown away by his stage presence and passion. Not only would it make for the best hip hop set all weekend, but perhaps the best hip hop show I’ve ever seen. Killer Mike took over the Pitchfork Music Festival, and nobody complained.
At the end of his set, Killer Mike told the crowd that if they wanted to hear some tracks from Run the Jewels, his collaborative hip hop effort with El-P, that they should make sure to watch his set. Everyone promptly obeyed and that promise was fulfilled for much of El-P’s set. Prior to bringing out Killer Mike and doing anything Run the Jewels related, El-P did do a couple tracks on his own, off his last album Cancer 4 Cure. He started with a fiery rendition of “Drones Over BKLYN,” then moved straight into “The Full Retard” before apologizing to the crowd and asking if he could start the whole set over. He exited the stage, only to re-emerge with Killer Mike and a soundtrack of “Bad to the Bone.” They each put large gold chains around their necks and proceeded to tackle most of the Run the Jewels LP for the rest of the set. It was interesting and engaging and some great battle rap without getting too intensely sexual or violent. It’s a different sort of hip hop, a better sort of hip hop, and continued what would hopefully be a day full of similarly styled sets. Due to the collaboration and a couple of guest spots, El-P’s set didn’t quite feel as important or powerful as Killer Mike’s completely solo effort was, but it amped the crowd up even more than they already were.
There’s not much I can say about Waxahatchee’s live show, except that it’s pretty decent. I was only able to catch a few songs from her set, but the ones I did catch were raw and intense, much as they are on her latest album Cerulean Salt. Katie Crutchfield seems to have dealt with a lot of pain and heartbreak in her life thus far, and as such her songs are smartly written and endlessly relatable if you’ve ever experienced something similar yourself. The crowd seemed to be into the heart and soul she put into her performance, and part of me wishes I could have stayed for the whole thing just to see how it all played out. Oh well, maybe next time.
Yo La Tengo
I didn’t want to go see Yo La Tengo’s set, primarily because the last time I saw them perform at Pitchfork in 2011 it was a pretty slow and ultimately boring experience. While the band’s latest album Fade largely continues their recent streak of quieter fare, there were some serious layers to the songs that at least left the potential for interesting live versions. Sadly, things appear to have not improved since the last time, which is why it made perfect sense when I found a group of my friends all sitting on the ground resting for a bit. After a half hour of a set that might otherwise be considered a sleeping pill, I needed to step away so I could catch Sky Ferreira. A later report would tell me that the second half of Yo La Tengo’s set got quite a bit noisier and more energetic. Too bad I wasn’t present to hear that. They’re the sort of band I’m rooting to always succeed on stage.
Sky Ferreira is a teen pop sensation, who earned quite a bit of attention for her songs on Myspace back in the day. It’s been a few years since then, and though she’s signed to a major label, she has yet to release her debut album. It’s been delayed several times, and most recently was pushed back yet again to 2014. In the meantime, there are two EPs that came out the last two years, and a third EP will be released this fall. For her Pitchfork set, Ferreira performed some of the hit songs off her EPs, along with plenty of new material from her forthcoming releases. For the first few songs, she did what might best be referred to as a serviceable job performing, moving around the stage and hitting all the right notes. But one of the things I also noticed from the photos I took was that she wasn’t smiling. She seemed a little upset or angry, which might explain why she broke down in tears about halfway through the set. To hear her tell it, she was just overcome with the emotion of the song she was singing. The extremely large crowd was nothing but supportive, and eventually she cracked a smile which stuck around through the end of her set. All things considered she did a fine job, but that rollercoaster of emotions across the set is something you don’t want to have to experience at most live shows.
This isn’t even worth much of a mention, since I only saw about 10 minutes of his performance and spent most of the time laughing at it. That’s not to say it was laughably bad, there were just some running patterns going on that made things seem very single note with no variation. I know that Lil B has a huge fan base, and there was quite the crowd watching him perform (they clearly loved him judging by their energy and enthusiasm to do whatever he said). The thing is, he creates tracks at such a rapid pace in such a short period of time that it’s become much more about the quantity than the actual quality. So many of his tracks don’t feature a lot of clever lines or even rhyming lines, and his favorite subject matter seems to be talking about different ways someone can suck his dick. That, and he yells “SWAG”. A lot. If that’s your thing, more power to you. It certainly isn’t mine.
Chairlift’s performance started with something of a surprise. Instead of performing one of their many synth pop songs, they chose instead to do something that was a little more “out there” and challenging. It was an ethereal opera song done in a foreign language. I can’t tell you exactly WHAT it was, only that it proved Caroline Polachek is a woman of many talents, and her range on that song made my hair stand on end. After that, the band plowed through a couple of their more recognizable songs, including “Sidewalk Safari” and “I Belong in Your Arms.” One of the nicer surprises in the set were three new songs, all of which follow in the same stylistic pattern of their last album Something and are exactly the right degrees of catchy. Everybody should be looking forward to their next album if the new stuff they played is any reasonable indicator. When she wasn’t stuck behind keyboards, Polachek danced and twirled around the stage, waving her arms around so the ribbons attached to her wrists would fly around in distracting patterns. It was all very ’80s in nature, but when you do it as well as Chairlift does it helps more than it hurts.
Toro Y Moi
In scoping out a fun spot to watch M.I.A.’s madness, I took a close listen to Toro Y Moi’s set from across the field. There were a lot of people around me, so I couldn’t really see what was happening on stage or exactly how much the crowd was/wasn’t enjoying it, but based solely on my ears things sounded great. Ideally it was a fun little early evening dance party. I heard hits like “Say That” and “New Beat,” which sounded great and were mixed in with a host of other upbeat songs to keep things light and everyone happy. Chaz Bundick’s records have varied in quality over the last few years, and there appeared to be a couple of duds over the course of the full set, but that’s to be expected and thankfully none of them wound up next to one another so their impacts were minimized. I’m sure Bundick still has some room to grow performance-wise, but for the time being he’s doing a reasonably good job.
Credit goes to M.I.A. for having the most elaborate stage set-up of the entire festival. Basically the back half of the Red stage had a big black curtain in front of it for the entire day, limiting the space every other Sunday act could take advantage of. What was hidden behind said curtain was an array of large white wheels that somewhat resembled snowflakes, with the word “Matangi” hanging at center stage. All of these things lit up in multi-color neon, and were but one part of a plan to keep the crowd entertained at all times. Beyond the lights, there were also the dancers, who were all very talented on their own, plus quite a few beach balls that were all over the crowd for most of the set. Call them distractions if you’d like, because a number of my friends said they were disappointed with how the actual show turned out. Their main gripes were with the audio, which was apparently mixed poorly so you couldn’t hear the vocals so well. Then there were the times when the DJ would cut a track off and in the silence M.I.A. would keep going on her own. I’m not sure what the deal was with all that, but I’ll say this much: the show I witnessed was a lot of fun and highly entertaining. Maya was climbing on subwoofers and to the barricades in an attempt to get closer to the crowd. She was constantly dancing and singing, and from my vantage point the mix sounded just fine (though it was extremely bass heavy). She hit all the necessary benchmarks during her set as well, doing material from all of her records, including “Sunshowers,” “Bird Flu,” “Galang,” “Paper Planes” and “Bad Girls.” Basically, it was everything I’d want from an M.I.A. set, though I’m not as excited about it as I would have been a few years ago before the release of her clunker of a last album “MAYA.”
What can I say about this set? I know people whose opinions I deeply respect had two minds upon hearing R. Kelly was booked as a headliner for the Pitchfork Music Festival. On the one hand, the man is an R&B legend, has sold millions upon millions of records, and he puts on one hell of an entertaining show. On the other hand, Kelly isn’t really within Pitchfork’s demographic audience, and though he was acquitted of the charges brought against him for reportedly messing around with underage girls, many continue to suspect he could be guilty. Do you really want somebody with that kind of baggage performing at your festival, and if everyone loves him does that imply tacit approval for the things he’s done and will do in the future? These were lingering questions going into the show, but if we can look past the man and his possible transgressions to focus solely on the music, that might be the best course of action. Yet there Kelly was, being extremely sexual on stage, and playing songs people get pregnant to. It made it that much harder to not think about all the crimes he’s been accused of. Yet everyone that stayed for his show appeared to have an enjoyable, if not completely amusing time. People freak out with excitement when they start hearing classics like “Ignition (Remix),” “Fiesta,” “Bump n’ Grind” and “I Believe I can Fly,” and I don’t blame them for that. The main issue that I had with Kelly’s set was how short every song was. While I’m sure he wanted to pack in as much as possible for the 90 minutes he was on stage, almost every track was given a cursory verse and chorus before becoming abandoned as he moved on to the next song. You’re just getting into the groove when suddenly the rug is pulled out from underneath you. Beyond that one problem, Kelly’s voice was right on target, he even sang most of his between song banter, which only added to the overall comedic factor. There were not one but two balloon releases. The first happened towards the middle of the set and was a whole lot of white balloons. The second happened at the end of the set, with “I Believe I Can Fly” summoning a few hundred white bird balloons into the air. I’m sure many people thought that was amazing, but personally I had a good laugh about it. Do you think Kelly fully understands that to some he’s not so much a superstar as he is a character that people are laughing at and not with? Perhaps he’s better off being oblivious to the idea, so he doesn’t get self-conscious about how his public image and changes his show in an attempt to establish greater sincerity. Yet despite the man’s many faults and the easy target for laughs painted on his back, there’s no denying that many of his hits are worthy of being labeled as such. So in between the mockery and sarcastic commentary, you’re also singing along. Call it the double edged sword of attending an R. Kelly show. Say what you will about the man, but you’ll never be bored at one of his shows. As a great rock legend once proclaimed, “Here we are now, entertain us.”