Day one of Pitchfork is done, and boy was it a lot of fun. Apologies for that rhyming introduction – I immediately regretted it after I had typed it, but still liked it enough to not delete it. But yes, on the whole it was a delightful day and a great start to another year of the festival. The primary lesson that I learned – well, rather had reinforced on me – was that the best performances always had genuine passion and respect behind them from both the artists and the crowds. There are some examples of the good, the bad, and the middling peppered throughout this recap, so join me on the other side of the jump for a chronicling of all that went down from a musical perspective on the first day of the 2017 Pitchfork Music Festival.
Upon my arrival at Union Park, Priests were already a couple songs into their set. I had hoped to arrive before they took the stage, but circumstances beyond my control caused me to be a little late. C’est la vie. It was immediately clear that the band already had the crowd eating out of the palm of their hand, as large groups of people were either dancing or moshing. That’s kind of where Priests operate best – that zone where you can just move your body around, sometimes in a violent fashion. I’ve said this before, but Priests’ main strength lies in the fact that each member is absolutely essential to their sound. That only gets reiterated further in performances, as the drums pound harder, the bass keeps perfect rhythm, and the guitars capture pure ferocity. At the center of the sonic hurricane is Katie Alice Greer, who’s so intensely dynamic stomping and thrashing her way around stage it can be difficult sometimes to notice all the equally hard work her bandmates are doing around her. This band delivers controlled chaos that’s both exciting and inspiring. More please.
Clearly Dawn Richard (D∆WN) also got the message that music festivals are where you cut loose and swing for the fences, because she made sure both were in ample supply during her set. The energy was high right from the start, as she took command like a queen upon a throne. The crowd immediately surrendered to her vigorous charms, cheering wildly as she strutted back and forth across the stage and whipped her long, white beaded braids around like a dangerous weapon. Of course the real weapon is her voice, which has incredibly dynamic range and responds equally well to R&B, pop, rock, reggae and even a little electronica. She took this tour through genres with her band, which included a guitar player, a percussionist and a pair of backup dancers. While I was forced to walk away after several songs so I could check in with Hiss Golden Messenger, just about everything I was able to see was a genuine delight, and left me with a huge grin on my face.
In my preview guide for Friday, I proclaimed that Hiss Golden Messenger‘s set would be a “great time to seek out a spot in the shade and just hang out for an hour.” Well, judging by the peaceful folk and alt-country the band delivered during their set, it appears that most people took my advice. Despite being on the large Red stage, the crowd was noticeably thin, to the point where you could work your way to the front and center of the crowd without a whole lot of effort. A quick scan of Union Park showed that most people were either at Dawn Richard’s set, or were using the time to lay out on the grass for a bit. It was more the latter, I’d argue. Even though M.C. Taylor’s songs are well-written and can have the appeal of early ’70s Bob Dylan, they’re also not sexy or exciting. Better luck next time, boys.
It’s a little difficult to say whether or not Vince Staples set was good. In a similar fashion to his Lollapalooza set last summer, Staples chose to perform entirely solo. There was no DJ to play his backing tracks, though somebody was clearly pushing buttons off stage. There were no guests or hype men. It was simply one person spitting out rhymes at a furious pace, and a crowd that shouted back every last word. You’ve got to be brave to place all that weight on your shoulders, or pathologically stupid. He did a bunch of songs from his great new record Big Fish Theory, pulled from his Summertime ’06 album as well, and even included the track he collaborated with Gorillaz on. What was missing from his set was unpredictability. As he burned through one track after another, there was a small sense of disappointment knowing he couldn’t take any detours or find a way to spice things up a little should the mood strike. It wound up being fun but just a little same-ish after awhile.
Took a five minute detour during Vince Staples’ set to check in and see how William Tyler was doing. The answer? Just fine. His entirely instrumental alt-country songs sounded a lot like Hiss Golden Messenger, but just a little spicier and more diverse. It was fine and completely serviceable, but also clear by the rather tiny crowd that maybe he wasn’t for everybody. After a few minutes I shrugged and decided to head back over to Vince Staples.
The last time Thurston Moore performed at Pitchfork in 2011, I was bored out of my skull by it. That seems odd to me in hindsight, but a check of the archives reveals that was in fact the case. He played songs on an acoustic guitar almost exclusively, and featured harp and violin players on stage with him. Six years later all of that is gone, and a bit of the old Sonic Youth shine has come back his way. The new album Rock n Roll Consciousness explores prog-rock and psychedelia in fascinating ways, and that definitely translates to the stage. Unlike, oh let’s say Vince Staples, there was a lot of improvisation in what he was doing, and I was always riveted to hear what was coming next. Moore and his band made pretty much every song work, and that probably has at least something to do with a lifetime of experience crafting great rock songs. So welcome back to the world of rock legends, Thurston Moore.
Listening to a Frankie Cosmos album is always a fun journey into the world of abstract poetry through the filter of indie pop. Knotty lyrics paired with buoyant bordering on whimsical instrumentals. The Shins or Girlpool, but slightly weirder. It has potential to translate into an amusing and delightful live show, but the problem is that right now it’s not there yet. Something about their Pitchfork set just didn’t quite do it for me, and judging by how many people around me left after each song, I think others were struggling with it too. More than anything else, the songs simply felt plain and devoid of any real character. That leads me to believe inexperience may be the root cause of their deficiency. Or maybe frontperson Greta Kline has stage fright or is going through a difficult time right now. Whatever the problem may be, it certainly seems fixable, and I hope they’re able to nail it down and truly let their freak flags fly.
Danny Brown is the most Danny Brown thing to ever Danny Brown. To put that another way, Danny Brown’s got unique personality pouring out of every orifice. He’s performed at Pitchfork so many times they should probably give him a loyalty punch card. He’s a big draw, and it’s not hard to understand why. His energy is infectious as he struts around the stage, sticks his tongue out a bunch of times, and commands the crowd to shout his own raucous lyrics back at him. It’s a great strategy that’s earned him so much success and respect, but he’s done it so many times now it might be starting to wear a little thin. Then again, when you’re at a festival looking to have some fun, it’s sometimes nice to have a reliable artist who you know will deliver that each and every time. I still like Brown a whole lot, but it’d be really nice if he found some new ways to surprise and excite the crowd next time.
The start of Kamaiyah‘s set had me a little bit worried, because there were technical delays followed by her DJ saying he wanted to “spin a few songs” for us before she came out. Warming up a crowd by blasting popular hits by other artists is a very old school tactic, but then again Kamaiyah is a very old school artist. Clad in white overalls with a big Champion brand logo on the front, she strolled on stage after a few minutes with a “hype man” in tow. For those unaware, hype men are there to pump up the crowd and lend vocal assistance by doubling up a rapper’s vocals or even taking his or her own verse now and then. It’s another old school thing to do, and while I might normally complain about the lack of imagination, for whatever reason Kamaiyah made it feel fresh. The same goes for her songs, which feel ripped straight from the ’90s school of hip hop and R&B that boosted the popularity of acts like TLC and Salt N Pepa. Everything old is suddenly new again, and it’s tough to criticize something done so well. Good for you, Kamaiyah, there are bigger and better things ahead for you in the very near future.
Dirty Projectors haven’t played many shows in the last couple of years, or even since they released a self-titled album a few months back. I’m not exactly sure why that is, but my suspicion is that Dave Longstreth has been trying to figure out the best way to present the songs throughout the band’s catalog. Just about everyone in the band left or was fired following his breakup with Amber Coffman, leaving a great big hole to fill in terms of the intense female harmonies that populated the last few Dirty Projectors albums. It makes sense then that his new band largely stuck to the newest material, which is a unique and experimental take on a sort of solo R&B sound. The problem is that for all the people he had on stage with him, including a full horn section, piano/keyboards and guitarists, he didn’t make full use of them. A majority of the songs saw the horn section in particular just standing around doing nothing. When they did take on some old Dirty Projectors material that featured some of those incredible harmonies, those parts were either ignored, sung solo by Longstreth, or (as was often the case) recreated through sampling or adding effects to the lone female band member on stage. For the most part, everything sounded decent, if not outright good, but it was also just a touch disappointing. Dawn Richard has a guest spot on the latest Dirty Projectors album, so she dropped in towards the end of the set to reprise that role, which livened things up a bit. Perhaps things will get better with time, and coming up with new workarounds to better revive some of the earlier DP material.
Credit to Arca for putting on one of the most unique dance parties I’ve ever had the privilege of attending. To start, he walked out on stage dressed in see-thru shorts, a white backless leotard top, and heels. That was a visual and a half, but Jesse Kanda, who was supposed to provide the actual visual accompaniment to Arca’s (aka Alejandro Ghersi’s) music, was experiencing some technical difficulties with the background screen. So Ghersi said he’d just get started without Kanda, then took his place behind a table topped with multiple rigs. Buttons were pressed. Knobs were turned. It started out like any other set from a DJ or producer. But then after activating some beats and a few samples, Arca stepped out from behind the table and sashayed his way across the stage with a bottle of champagne in his hand. He passed it off to a security guard and asked him to uncork it. After that, it was game on. Though Arca frequently returned to the rigs to queue up new sounds or songs, he spent nearly as much time singing, dancing and generally provoking the crowd to do the same. “You’re dancing with your shoulders when you need to be dancing from your hips,” he scolded everyone at one point. The whole thing was very avant-garde, flamboyant and more than a little dirty. Arca took the audience on a tour of different sounds and styles of music, from the strangely textured to the traditional nightclub to the calypso and back again. Every minute was remarkably compelling, in no small part because it was so odd and unpredictable. There was a small tinge of regret when I stepped away to check in with the night’s headliner.
Label me an LCD Soundsystem reunion skeptic. Disappointed and sad as I was when James Murphy pulled the plug on the band back in 2011, after a couple of years I grew to accept this fact of life, and even admired Murphy a little bit for stopping at a peak moment. Then the revival came at the start of 2016. It upset me a little at first, then a lot, because for as much as Murphy claimed he was doing it for the fans, I couldn’t help but think it was a cash grab. After all, dozens of other bands have done the exact same thing in recent years. Still, I was excited to see them last summer when they headlined Lollapalooza. That show was…okay. In many ways it was like they never left, but they also seemed like they might have been on autopilot. Maybe it was the result of doing about a million festival gigs throughout 2016 that simply wore them down. Whatever the reason, it felt right to be a little apprehensive about how things would go at Pitchfork. Despite the fact that James Murphy joked that the band was “beat up” with “two bad backs and a fucked up knee,” there was something about their set that clicked into place and revived my love of LCD Soundsystem. The ironic thing is that the Lollapalooza and Pitchfork set lists were largely the same, save for a few minor differences (i.e. new material), and even that didn’t factor in much. Instead, it was the four hit combo of “Get Innocuous!”, “You Wanted a Hit”, “Tribulations” and “Movement” that suddenly converted me into a ravenous dancing machine. Of the new material, “Call the Police” does quite well in concert, while “American Dream” definitely does not. So they weren’t all winners. And though it’s a staple of just about every one of their live shows, “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” still deflates the momentum for me. I realize the value of slowing things down for a few minutes, but “Someone Great” already does a fine job with that (and is a much better song). So yes, a very good show from LCD Soundsystem, even if there were a couple of minor dead spots along the way. Looking forward to seeing how they incorporate more new material into their shows once their record is out this fall. You know, in hindsight, that Lollapalooza set was the last thing I saw after four loooong days at a music festival. Maybe I was less disappointed with it, and more tired and wanting to go home.