One day down, two left to go. The start of the 2016 Pitchfork Music Festival was plagued with a light rain shower, followed by gray clouds that seemed somewhat ominous for the rest of the day. Thankfully it was a largely dry day, and the music was sunny enough that the skies didn’t matter so much. I’ll have all kinds of photos and other goodies once the weekend wraps up, but in the meantime please join me after the jump for a brief recap of everything I saw and did on Friday.
Typically the first act on Friday at Pitchfork is forced to deal with a tiny crowd. A majority of people prefer not to arrive until later, and some even work a full day only to show up for the last couple of bands. This was decidedly not the case for Car Seat Headrest, who wound up drawing one of the largest crowds I’ve ever seen at the start of any day of Pitchfork ever. It’s a testament to the quality of his music, which offers a fresh perspective on traditional rock and roll sounds. The epic nature of many of his songs, combined with disaffected lyrics felt perfectly paired with the rain that accompanied his performance. Will Toledo’s bandmates seemed to not only enjoy the shower, but were fueled by it, giving the songs a little extra ferocity compared to how they sound on record. It was a quality set and a quality start to the festival.
Over on the Blue stage, Chicago’s own Whitney brought their breezy summer-infused songs to scare the rain away. Their setup is an interesting one, seeing as how drummer Julien Ehrlich sings lead vocals. That placed him and his kit at the center of the stage, while the other band members formed a horseshoe behind him. It’s somewhat surprising to me that a band with such light and bouncy tunes needs seven members, but everybody has an important role. Those horns aren’t going to play themselves. Overall their set was nice, though maybe not a highlight of the day. They do a wonderful cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” though, which might be worth tracking down if that’s of interest.
When she began her set with the sleepy “Why Sad Song,” I was a bit worried that Julia Holter wasn’t going to fare well in the outdoor festival atmosphere. But once “Silhouette” kicked in minutes later, there was suddenly a little pep in her band’s step. That continued on for much of the set, especially when the sun broke through the clouds during “Feel You”. Sure it was sheer coincidence but part of me wanted to believe Mother Nature was eager to help Holter out. There’s little doubt in my mind that her music would have sounded better and made more of an impression at an indoor venue with quality acoustics, but those who paid close enough attention in Union Park were certainly rewarded with a delightful set of arty chamber pop.
Due to soundcheck issues, Moses Sumney‘s set began about 10 minutes late. That wouldn’t have been a problem, except I had to rush over to another stage to photograph Twin Peaks shortly thereafter. This unfortunate reality only allowed me to see two songs of Sumney’s set versus what otherwise would have been probably double that amount. Still, two songs is better than none, and it presented a perfect opportunity to watch him compose some brilliant sound collages using looping techniques. I’ll admit I’m kind of a sucker for an artist who can use loops effectively, so Sumney’s ability to incorporate hand claps, snaps, whistles and brief vocal snippets into an actual melody left me feeling impressed. Then when he began to sing in earnest, that soulful voice only made me like him more. Similar to Julia Holter, the outdoor festival setting probably wasn’t the ideal location for his performance, but I’d like to think he made the best of a bad situation.
If you’re looking for a band that simply screams “outdoor festival,” you can’t do much better than Chicago’s own Twin Peaks. Their particular brand of messy garage rock is packed with high energy, shout-along choruses. For their part, the guys seem to attack their instruments like they’re trying to put out fires with their bare hands. They headbang, jump around, lay down on stage and just generally commit to having a great time no matter how sloppy things might get. The surprising part is that it’s all very clean, and even slightly more subdued than their last time performing at Pitchfork. Guess they’re slowing down a little with age. Still, Twin Peaks was the kick in the teeth that Friday afternoon so desperately needed.
The crowd swells to beyond massive for Carly Rae Jepsen‘s set. It stretches all the way back to the sound booth for the adjacent Red stage, which is a rare occurrence at Pitchfork. Considering she’s one of the most mainstream artists the festival has ever had, this isn’t entirely surprising. She’s also out supporting a critically acclaimed album that has been thoroughly embraced by the indie community. Her set began with recent single “Run Away With Me,” and then spread the hits out generously and evenly to keep fans engaged. Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange) made a special guest appearance to perform their collaboration on the song “All That”. It was easily a highlight of the set, along with “Call Me Maybe”. While Jepsen’s performance wasn’t all that different when compared to similar pop stars, her crystal clear and perfectly pitched vocals were either extremely impressive or potentially synced. I’m choosing to believe it’s the former.
The Blue stage was apparently having all kinds of issues on Friday. Following Moses Sumney’s delays, Mick Jenkins wound up starting 25 minutes late. This once again left me in a situation where I couldn’t see as much of his set as I wanted to. When things finally did get underway, Jenkins came out with a good amount of energy and riled up the crowd with chants to “Drink More Water”. In a sense the three songs I saw him perform held steadfast to hip hop conventions, right down to asking people to throw their hands in the air. Still, Jenkins is a dynamite rapper and holds court like he belongs on that stage, front and center. Word on the street is that he created plenty of good will for the first few songs, then turned things over to his friend the Mind for a short bit, thereby derailing the set. Part of me is glad I wasn’t around to see things take a turn for the worse.
On Thursday night, Broken Social Scene played their first U.S. show in more than five years. I was lucky enough to attend, and can say with relative certainty that it helped to revive my love of the Canadian collective. Their Pitchfork set on Friday evening retained that same momentum, though with less heightened effect given the shorter set time and outdoor location. Still, the five guitar attack that BSS launches very much befits their noisy and epic tracks. To hear modern-day classics like “Cause=Time” and “7/4 Shoreline” remains a thrill as they swell and surge in the best sort of ways. Yet not everything retains its power, in particular any of their songs that feature female vocals. The days have long since passed when the trio of Feist, Emily Haines (Metric) and Amy Millan (Stars) were part of the group and could turn a song like “Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl” into something heartbreaking and beautiful. Millan still contributes when she can, and was on hand despite being very pregnant. They’ve also added a new female singer Ariel Engle, who may have gotten the job because her husband Andrew Whiteman is a long-time BSS member. She sounded fine most of the time, but the one new song the band performed featured Engle on lead vocals and it felt a little flat to me. Maybe the recorded version will be better. Anyways, it’s great to have Broken Social Scene back in action. They continue to deliver entertaining and powerful performances worth your time.
I checked in on Shamir‘s performance a little bit late, as I needed to see Beach House’s first couple of songs (more on that in a minute). In the year since his last appearance at the Pitchfork Music Festival, both nothing and everything has changed. He hasn’t released any new music or anything, but the time spent touring has fundamentally changed his approach to live performances. The Shamir of 2015 seemed to be very shy and often sang like he was telling you a secret. The Shamir of 2016 exudes confidence and drive, and it makes things that much wilder and more fun as a result. You get the impression that he’s throwing a dance party and we’re all invited. A new song called “Philly” is an early indicator that he hasn’t lost sight of what got him to this point, but also is seeking continued growth and a greater consistency of sound. If one thing was abundantly clear this year, it’s that Shamir should have been performing on one of the two larger stages in Union Park, where more people might be introduced to his music. Instead, he’s still on the small Blue stage, though this time technically headlining it against Beach House. Of the two, Shamir’s set was just a little bit better suited to the environment.
Having seen Beach House perform live twice already this year, their Friday night headlining set felt more than familiar. Many of the same songs were played, and the various lightning effects hadn’t changed at all. The primary difference was location, and in the outdoors of Union Park the band’s rather intimate bedroom pop felt…a lot less intimate. The moments I found so emotionally stirring back in March barely registered in July. But Beach House aren’t really a festival band, despite this being their fourth time at the Pitchfork Music Festival. The previous three times were more often than not marred by extreme heat and sun. The last time they were at the festival, I wanted to find a cool spot to lay down somewhere and take a nap. At the very least, having them perform at night was helpful to their overall visual aesthetic. Lighting effects are essential, and the starry night background continues to be deployed in an effective manner. Yet Beach House also can’t be called an “active” band given that they remain firmly planted behind their instruments pretty much the entire time. Not exactly what you want out of a headliner. So I’m placing blame on the talent bookers, rather than the band themselves, who were just doing their jobs as best they could.