Ah, the hallowed grounds of Union Park. How nice it was to return for yet another year, this time in particular to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the Pitchfork Music Festival. Upon my entrance to the park I took a little tour, primarily to get the lay of the land and see what was new compared to years past. In short not much, though the smaller Blue stage has been angled a little differently this year, made a little larger and given a video screen. As a result of the small tweak, what was once a largely shaded area thanks to trees now has a bit more sun but also a bit more space to accommodate larger crowds. That aside, it’s everything in its right place. Here’s a recap of all the music I saw today, which was more a tasting portion of a lot of artists rather than full meals. Details after the jump…
So Natalie Prass was a couple songs into her set by the time I arrived, and after a few minutes walking around the park I settled in to catch the rest of her set. I had seen her perform the night before at Schubas in a pre-Pitchfork party, which was a really special night. The crowd at Schubas was overly enthusiastic, Prass had some very funny interactions and stage banter, and there was a sing-along to “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” that brought her to tears. At Pitchfork, things were a bit different. First was the 95 degree heat, which had just about everybody in a daze. Then there was the crowd largely made up of people who had arrived early but didn’t seem to have much interest in the actual music that was being played. I was standing off to the side but up against a barricade, and three large groups of people were all talking around me as I tried to pay attention to the performance. Prass hit a late set lull with some quieter songs that didn’t help the situation by any means. But she was clearly trying her best and offered up advice on hydration and looking out for one another in the heat. What can I say except not every set features a tearful sing-along.
From there it was on to Jessica Pratt, who I was concerned might not be the right fit for an outdoor festival. Her music is made for quiet afternoons spent reading at home. The key word there is quiet, because honestly at times during her Pitchfork set I could barely hear her, and that was with standing just in front of the sound board for the stage. I have no idea how the engineer was able to mix those lilting whispers and gently strummed acoustic guitar. Yet nobody commented or complained about it, even though a fair number of people left in the first half of her set. I suppose that was them making their complaint heard. For those that stayed, there was something utterly compelling and magnetizing about what Pratt was doing on stage. Even though we were outside and the heavy bass from iLoveMakonnen’s set was booming from the other side of the park, she remained completely zen, as if she wasn’t even on stage but sitting in her home without any other people or distractions. Yes, I wanted to curl up in the shade and just relax for a bit, but if Pratt could ignore her baser instincts then so could I.
A few words on iLoveMakonnen. I happened to catch three of his songs (or technically more if you count what I could hear while also listening to Jessica Pratt), and they were…okay. The guy has plenty of energy and personality, which are a couple requirements for fame and fortune in hip hop, but he’s a bit lacking in other departments. He’s not the greatest rapper, and he’s definitely not the greatest singer. He used a lot of backing tracks supplied by his DJ, leaving the amount of work he had to do to a minimum. At one point he even Facetimed his Mom, to tell and show her what he was doing. Charming? Yes, Staged filler? Probably. The crowd seemed to be pretty into most of it, and as I said he kept the beats quick, so maybe some fun in the sun was just what the doctor ordered.
Steve Gunn earns a huge thumbs up from me. His albums showcase a strong songwriter and guitarist, but his live performances push those talents to even higher levels. The guy’s a wizard, and the way he works up and down a fret board is inspiring to watch. He crams little extra flourishes into otherwise perfect renditions of his tracks, and is all the better for it. As much as I was enjoying it, I only got to stick around for a couple songs before the strong desire to not miss Mac DeMarco and his antics took over.
Heading into Friday, Mac DeMarco‘s set was the one I was most excited about. His songs are relaxed slices of summery pop and his on stage persona is that of a wacky ringleader in the circus that is his life. DeMarco and his band take an “anything goes” approach, which means one minute they’ll be playing an album cut, and the next they’ll be singing Happy Birthday because DeMarco’s girlfriend celebrated hers the day before. They’ll throw out a cover of Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years” just for the hell of it, and then DeMarco will spend a few minutes at the close of the set crowd surfing. Not knowing what to expect is part of the fun, and the mischievous smile DeMarco often wears indicates he can derail things whenever he pleases. Perhaps the greater secret is that all this madcap action is very carefully organized and presented, and though the songs may drift by quickly and easily, the number and precision with which they’re executed is quite impressive.
There I was, thinking that Tobias Jesso Jr. was going to step out on the Blue stage by himself and play a bunch of songs on solo piano. Boy was I wrong. He was joined by six people, including a drummer, bassist, guitarist, violinist, saxophonist and trumpeter. They’re all brand new, and not only would this mark Jesso’s first-ever Chicago show, but his second time playing with these guys, who he discovered in a Hollywood bar a few weeks back. As the story goes, a friend recommended that Jesso go see this band, so he took a date there and was blown away. They exchanged contact information, and Jesso eventually offered to have them open up for him on tour. They politely declined, saying they’d rather play with him than before him. They learned all of the songs on Jesso’s album Goon, and got together in Los Angeles for a test show to see how it would all work out. Everybody was happy and loved it, so they’re a thing now. In my mind, the new arrangements with all of the extra players changed these somber piano songs into something much more expansive and interesting. The energy level rose and having a few extra people on stage to banter with during the set increased the entertainment value too. Being able to throw a “sexy sax” solo into “How Could You Babe” might not make the song any better than the recorded version, but it’ll put extra smiles on people’s faces. In short, Jesso’s set was a lot looser and more fest-friendly than I anticipated, which was certainly welcome.
The last time I saw Panda Bear perform a solo set, it was boring to watch and shapeless in content. This time I popped by his stage for a few minutes to see if anything had changed. He actually performed “Boys Latin,” which is one of my favorite songs off his new (and very good) album. The surprise was how he managed to stay focused to make it all the way through before segueing back into the ether of formless beats. Outside of that, it was still way too bright for any sort of light show, and the stage set up was just him turning knobs on a large console. So yeah, you could say it was worth the five minutes I spent watching, but no more than that. I’m willing to bet he’s a transcendent, incredible performer indoors where his lights and video screens create an ultrasensory experience when combined with the music.
Somebody has given Chvrches‘ Lauren Mayberry lessons in stage presence, or she’s just finally caught on after a couple years of touring. Either way, the band is much stronger live because she’s moving around behind the microphone. Her two bandmates are stuck behind consoles and keyboards the whole time, so she’s stuck doing audience engagement part along with handling lead vocals. She prances around stage, pumps her fist in the air, whips the microphone cord around like a windmill, and employs plenty of other moves designed to enhance the overall show experience. As for the music, the band ran through the requisite hits and deep cuts from their debut album The Bones of What You Believe, but also premiered a few new songs from their forthcoming album set for release this fall. Pitchfork marked their first U.S. show in a few months, and second show following a break spent finishing their record. They apologized that they sounded a little rusty, but in all honesty I didn’t notice any issues. They’re stronger than ever, and poised to take over the world in an even grander fashion before 2016. You know how popular The Killers became after a couple albums? We’re talking that level of success sooner rather than later.
Wilco spent the first 35 minutes of their Pitchfork set playing their brand new album Star Wars in its entirety. They released it to the world only 24 hours before, as a surprise free download on their website. Avid Wilco fans who jumped right on that download and began listening immediately still wouldn’t have had the proper time to digest it and learn the lyrics in time for this show. Still, there was something special about hearing those 11 tracks performed in concert for the very first time anywhere. Some shrugged it off because of the unfamiliarity factor, but I was listening for how well it translated from recording to stage. My conclusion? Given the rather roughshod production on the record, the new songs sounded better to me with the clarity offered by the live show. Some may disagree, and I might even change my mind after I listen to the album a bunch more times. With the final hour left in their Friday night closing set, Wilco quickly dove into fan favorites that primarily put guitarist Nels Cline to work. Songs like “Handshake Drugs,” “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” “Art of Almost,” “Via Chicago” and “Impossible Germany” are very heavy-handed on the solos, but they also rank among the band’s finest in their catalog. Having seen Wilco at least a dozen times over the last decade and not a single one of those shows being anything less than excellent, they did nothing at Union Park to disturb that streak.
So that wraps up Day 1 of the 2015 Pitchfork Music Festival. Two more left to go. Photos from the entire weekend will be posted on Monday. I’m excited to share them with you!