What’s a summer music festival in Chicago without a little rain? Or a lot of rain? This year marked the first time in its 10 year history that Pitchfork was forced to evacuate the grounds due to severe weather. A similar incident happened at Lollapalooza a couple years back. Unlike that event however, organizers waited until seemingly the last minute before pulling the plug. That’s not intended to say that they did anything wrong, but rather tried as hard as they could to keep things going until they simply couldn’t anymore due to safety concerns. They made the announcement to please exit the park, and then less than two minutes later a massive, bone-soaking rain poured down complete with a lightning show for the ages. People gasped at the sky lit up while also running with panic due to the extremely intense downpour. Of course minutes after evacuating the rain stopped and about 30 minutes later Union Park reopened and the day continued. The grounds were a bit muddy in spots for the rest of the day, as one might expect, but overall the schedule wasn’t disrupted much and the situation was handled with relative professionalism. But what about the music? Read on past the jump, and I’ll share those details with you, dear reader!
Saturday was the first day of this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival to sell out. When you take a close look at the daily lineups, it makes perfect sense as to why. While the entire thing is pretty stacked, Saturday in particular looks extra heavy on quality. This is both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, you get to see all this great music in one day, meaning if you don’t have a ticket for the entire weekend it seems like the best deal for your time and money. On the other hand, you can’t see everything, leading to a nasty pile-up of conflicts that can be problematic. If you’re concerned about that, and you should be, allow me to offer some help and guidance to make the most of your Saturday at Pitchfork. Join me after the jump for the hour-by-hour breakdown of who’s playing when, complete with recommendations on what you can’t/shouldn’t miss.
If you missed my previous Pitchfork Music Festival 2015 posts, go here to hear/see/download songs from every artist on this year’s lineup. If you’ll be at Union Park on Friday, you may want to look over my preview guide for that day by going here.
My policy towards music tends to fly by the motto of “listen first, ask questions later”. Before all the pitches and “sounds like” comparisons reach my eyes, my ears almost always get the first taste and judge for themselves. It has certainly made for some interesting musical moments, but one of the more twisted pleasures I get out of blind listening is when an artist or band finds a way to genuinely surprise me. I’ve heard The War on Drugs before, but not since giving a cursory listen to their 2008 label debut “Wagonwheel Blues”. They’ve been pulling in a fair amount of hype for their sophmore effort “Slave Ambient” though, so having completely forgotten why I didn’t pay them more attention the first time around, I jumped into the record without a second thought or a second of research.
Track 2 on “Slave Ambient” is “Brothers”. My memory wiped of what this band is all about and who their members are, my immediate thought was that the track sounded exactly like Kurt Vile. From the acoustic guitars through the vocals, the song very much seemed like a missing track off Vile’s latest record “Smoke Ring For My Halo”. It was after that first time through the record that I scanned the text surrounding the band, only to discover that Vile was in fact a founding member of The War on Drugs, leaving to pursue his solo career back in 2008. In essence then, he was one of the people that helped shape the band’s sound in the early days, and his presence is still felt even today. It doesn’t help that frontman Adam Granduciel sounds a bit like Vile too. Considering the praise Vile has been getting these last couple years for his music, the similarities might not be a bad thing.
Despite resembling Kurt Vile on a couple tracks, that’s not nearly the full scope of The War on Drugs’ sound. Unlike Vile’s often hushed and intimate melodies, The War on Drugs will occasionally break out a propulsive, stadium-sized song that bears closer cousins to Arcade Fire than anything else. Grandiosity comes in the form of “Your Love Is Calling My Name”, centerpiece “Come to the City” and “Baby Missiles”. Not only are these tracks massive in scope, but they’re quite catchy too. Where much of the record merely drifts in slow-moving ambience (as the title suggests), those more expansive bits help to break free of what might otherwise be complacent monotony. Yet just because a song has a brisk pace and a widescreen melody doesn’t automatically make it great or better than some of the quieter stuff. The band shows so much restraint across the entirety of “Slave Ambient” that they aren’t quite able to break free of that even when they do go big. That is to say they could have and probably should have tried to go even bigger. As a result most of the more thrilling moments on the album are offset with this air of disappointment at the thought of what might have been.
The slower, more drifting songs typically work well, particularly in establishing an overall mood. A couple instrumentals in the form of the brief “Come For It” and “Original Slave” only add to the drifting elements, though it is questionable as to whether they’re needed at all. Ultimately when “Slave Ambient” finishes, you’re left with this general ambivalence towards it. This isn’t a record that’s difficult to like, but it’s also somewhat easy to forget. You can let yourself get lost in the ether and remain blissfully unaware of when one song ends and another begins. Outside of the more expansive and brass ring-reaching moments, there’s not a ton to grab and hold your attention. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it serves the experience. Unless you’ve got your highlights clearly marked though, don’t start this record unless you plan to finish it. Tentpole songs aside, keeping everything bunched together as one 45 minute piece will help you to get the most out of it and provide you with a much greater appreciation for the band as a whole. Kurt Vile or no Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs are on the up-and-up. They may not strike the emotional highs that Vile has achieved on his last record, but they’re more ambitious when it comes to their sound so it kind of balances out. Still, this band has some improving left to do. Unlike their last album though, I think I’ll remember “Slave Ambient”, so at least next time I won’t have to re-educate myself on these guys for a third time.
It seems we have come to the end of the road for this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival. It was a supremely fun 3 days filled with dozens of interesting artists that ranged from incredible to incredibly disappointing. My overall ruminations on the weekend will be handled in a different post. In the meantime I want to continue in the same tradition of the last two days, in which I keep up with the day-by-day recaps. Here’s what I bore witness to on Sunday (Day 3):
The goal was to make it to Union Park by 1:45pm to see Yuck‘s set. That was at the latest. I got stuck writing my recap of Saturday night on Sunday morning, so that caused a bit of a delay. Then traffic on the highways continued to pile additional delays on top of that. I was a mere couple blocks away from the festival and the time read 1:40pm. A band I thought may have been The Fresh & Onlys was playing off in the distance. Turns out Yuck started their set just a tiny bit earlier than scheduled. So I missed about a song. They put on a very good and energetic set, or at least crafted accurate representations of studio tracks. Smiling isn’t exactly Yuck’s thing, but they also appeared to be having a good time despite the blistering heat. The crowd pretty much did the same.
Seeing Kurt Vile & the Violators was by no means my genuine intention. It was more a matter of convenience and the safety of knowing that How to Dress Well was likely not doing so…well on the smaller Blue stage. Really it turned into a way to pass the time while waiting on Twin Sister about 20 minutes later. Quieter acoustic folk music hasn’t done so well this weekend, particularly with the sun feverishly beating down on everyone, which is why I felt like Vile was going to nosedive. To my pleasant surprise, he did not nosedive, but rather pretty much the exact opposite. Whether it was the fans blowing his amazing mane of hair around or just a very well put together backing band, there was energy and plenty of other compelling reasons to watch that set. Even a slower, more difficult song like “On Tour” was smartly played with the larger crowd in mind. I was so entranced, I forgot about Twin Sister and finally jogged my memory about it 10 minutes into their set.
In terms of Twin Sister, it was at that point, around 90 minutes into my day, that I felt like the heat was just starting to get to me. Loading up on water and shade became essential, and Twin Sister on the Blue stage was a good location to do both. I found a spot in the back corner of that area and downed a couple bottles of water with friends while trying to cool off. Twin Sister absolutely helped with that, providing a fun and energetic set of songs that made you want to get up and keep going with your day. Calling their set prolific or revolutionary is definitely too excessive, but remarkably pleasant bordering on excellent might be how I best describe it. Part of me wishes I was motivated enough to get up off the ground and actually watch what was happening on stage, but there was a certain sense of contentment just turning off that mode for a small period of time.
The set clearly most people wanted to see on Sunday was Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All aka OFWGKTA. Women’s rights groups and anti-abuse organizations were up in arms about the hip hop collective’s booking, and were threatening to do an all-out protest of it as a result. The festival organizers instead cut a deal with them, providing them with their own tent to raise awareness. They also were handing out plenty of paper fans that mentioned domestic violence and provided contact information for those in need of help. This was all to provide counter-programming to the inane ramblings of OFWGKTA, given that so many of their tracks appear to advocate rape and abuse and other unseemly things. Just prior to their set, the Odd Future boys went out to the abuse awareness tent and brought the women there cupcakes. This was all in an effort to show there were “no hard feelings”. Then they did their thing, often complete with catchy choruses that included lyrics like “smack that bitch” and “suck my dick”. The crowd appeared to be eating it up, throwing hands (or middle fingers) in the air as instructed, while the boys on stage took turns interacting with the crowd/crowd surfing. One of the more amusing things about their set was how they’d finish a horribly abusive or angry song against women, and would follow it up by telling everyone to go by and visit with the women’s advocacy group. “We hope they’re listening to our set right now,” one of them said seconds before launching into an extremely vulgar track about rape. In other words, the whole thing was counter-intuitive and just a bit confusing. But it was still fun, and those guys are talented even if they’re not the cleanest or friendliest hip hop group around. Mostly I’m just glad there wasn’t a riot.
After getting about 45 minutes into Odd Future’s set, I thought I’d go for a change of pace and see how Shabazz Palaces were doing. It was definitely a quieter vibe on that side of the park, and the lighter crowd made it nicer as well. They had some sound issues that delayed their start time, but once things got going it was definitely strong hip hop that was very much the anti-OFWGKTA. More minimalistic and subdued in nature, the duo made the most of what they had brought with them, including a number of live instruments (as opposed to the DJ sample-fest that was Odd Future). There was something about that set that had all the class and dignity you could ever want. The 20 or so minutes I heard were a good palate cleanser before I allowed my curiosity to pull me in the direction of another stage.
That other stage was the Green stage, where Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti were playing. The past show reviews I’ve read from people who’ve seen Ariel Pink before appeared to describe him as moderately pensive, often with an attitude that suggested he’d much rather be someplace else doing something else. That was NOT the Ariel Pink we met at the Pitchfork Music Festival. This version was completely nuts. Like, serious screw loose in the head sort of nuts. Depending on how that dynamic works on stage, it can lead to rousing success or total meltdown. It actually turned out to be a mixture of both. The great parts came in the early going, with Pink singing/manipulating his vocals through a headset connected to a small soundboard. The headset was needed because of all the jumping around, head banging, and wacky gestures he tended to make. The guy had more energy than he knew what to do with, and channeled as much of it as he could into his performance. The crowd ate it up. But as time went on, he kept leaving the band and retreating back stage for one reason or another, always to re-emerge and crank out another song. Yet simultaneously you could watch his mood go from crazy happy to crazy pissed, and it eventually erupted into a meltdown that had him walking off the stage for good, once again leaving the rest of the band there to politely end the set about 20 minutes early. Sound issues were to blame, apparently, as Ariel was reportedly not happy with what was going on with his vocals. For the 40 or so minutes that the set lasted, almost all of it was of an exceptionally high quality, vocal problems be damned.
Compare Ariel Pink to Baths, the 1 man DJ band. The words “DJ band” are probably used incorrectly here, but Will Wiesenfield uses a laptop and a sampler on stage. No actual instruments there, but he does do a fair amount of singing via the tracks he composes. That was one of those legitimately fun dance sets where despite the temperatures you can just let your hair down and have a blast. What makes Baths so engaging outside of the music is how Wiesenfield runs his show. He legitimately seems excited about playing these songs, and rather than just carefully mix together that might appear to be a lot more beat than melody, he dances, head bangs (sorta), makes wild flailing motions with his arms, sticks his tongue out Michael Jordan style, and overall turns boring and normal on its head. It was a lot more entertaining than I thought it would be.
Then there’s Superchunk. Here’s a veteran band that’s been around for ages, but there have been significant breaks due to a number of different factors. Somehow though, Mac McCaughan and the rest of the band don’t seem to have aged much. I think I spotted a grey hair or two, but otherwise they’re still on the right side of youth. They played like it too, seamlessly blending a lot of their classic catalogue with a bunch of material off their latest record “Majesty Shredding”. The crowd totally ate it up, and there was much singing and jumping around. Superchunk has always been one of those bands that delivers each and every show they play, and this one was no different. They put themselves out there and got enduring love and respect in return, as they should.
Deerhunter is an interesting sort of fish. The sun was beginning to set when Bradford Cox, Lockett Pundt and Co. took the stage, and immediately something felt a little weird. That is to say, the guys in the band appeared to be a little stand-offish and difficult. It didn’t help that the first thing they did was dive into a huge squall of white noise. They looked like they were sweltering in the still overly hot temperatures, but the great news is that once they’d finally gotten some legs underneath them, they were solid as ever. Deerhunter hit all the hallmarks they’re pretty much required to at this point in their careers, making an epic spectacle out of “Nothing Ever Happened” or settling into the grooves of a “Revival”. And hey, they even threw in a little bit of amusing banter to continue to charm us. For a band that, in my opinion, got off to a rocky start, they really kicked into high gear and things turned out as good, if not better than hoped.
My most anticipated set of Sunday was Cut Copy, and that’s almost entirely because of how much I love their music yet have never seen them perform it live. Apparently a lot of people were also looking forward to Cut Copy, as it wound up being one of the most heavily attended non-headliner sets I saw all weekend. They had an interesting lighting set up behind them which is likely more effective in a pitch black venue but worked well enough as the sun was beginning to drift below the horizon, casting a large shade over much of the park. With the cooler temperatures too, things became ideal for a dance party. A dance party is exactly what Cut Copy gave us, cranking out one hot cut after another. Leading early on with “Where I’m Going”, the highlights were spread smartly across the duration of the set. There was a point about halfway through the set in which they “announced” that the show was over and that they were saying goodnight, something that would have been a lot more effective had they legitimately left the stage instead of immediately confessing it was a joke. But from “Hearts on Fire” to “Lights and Music” through “Need You Now” and “Take Me Over”, there wasn’t a single key moment they missed, and I had a blast. It was a cathartic release, a celebration of everything the festival had been and done up until that point, and a very nice warm-up for TV on the Radio.
Let’s do a brief recap of the headliners at this year’s festival. Animal Collective on Friday night was good, if not great, but their extremely experimental psychedelic bent makes them a bit difficult to truly get into and enjoy (from a very mainstream perspective). Fleet Foxes are far more pleasant and easy to love, but they’re also much quieter and still new enough to where they might not yet be ready to headline a festival. But when you talk about TV on the Radio, that is a band with enough time in existence and an impeccable/energetic/appealing catalogue of music. In other words, they’re the real deal. They also wound up being the purveyors of the best headlining set of the festival. Naturally, there was a bit of an emphasis on their newer material, so “Nine Types of Light” got a fair amount of play across their 75 minute set, but there was plenty of time for highlights galore. Starting with “Dear Science”‘s opening energy burst “Halfway Home”, things jumped off right from the start. There was the 1-2 punch of “Young Liars” moving into “Staring at the Sun” that was simply excellent if you love the band’s older stuff. The way that songs like “Will Do” and “Caffeinated Consciousness” fit in amongst “Wolf Like Me” and “A Method” was pretty seamless too. The one song I personally missed hearing was “Golden Age”, but I’d like to think in place of that they chose to cover Fugazi’s “Waiting Room”. When they hit the first notes of the song, I thought it would just be a tease before launching into something else. They were not kidding around, and it turned out to be a remarkably great cover. I love that song, and while it may not have the same ferocity from which Fugazi would have performed it, the sheer force and technical accuracy was all it needed and was given. That provided the perfect cap on a weekend-long journey that was more fun than I’ve had in quite awhile. Thanks, TV on the Radio.
This wraps up my day-by-day recap of the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival. My coverage is not yet complete though. I’ve got several hundred photos to weed through and edit for your consumption, along with a look back at the full weekend that was, complete with a bunch of “superlatives” directed at many bands that I bore witness to. So keep your eyes peeled, I’m hoping to have everything taken care of within the next day or two.
My oh my has Kurt Vile come a long way in a short time. Upon leaving The War on Drugs, he embarked on a solo career that began officially in 2008 when his album “Constant Hitmaker” was released via the very tiny Gulcher Records. The following year, Woodsist gave that record a higher profile re-release, Mexican Summer put out his sophmore album “God Is Saying This to You” and Matador placed his third album “Childish Prodigy” on shelves. In other words, it was a flood of Kurt Vile music in 2009 when it’s often tough enough to keep track of just one record by an artist. The first two albums were extremely lo-fi bedroom folk recordings, like a Bob Dylan or a Tom Petty but with serious audio fidelity issues. That didn’t make them any less compelling though, and in fact the lack of quality was part of its charm. “Childish Prodigy” held that same aesthetic for about half the record, but the other half featured Vile’s touring band The Violators and therefore could be called a legitimate step forwards. The production got cleaner and the melodies more dense, but along with that some of the more unique qualities vanished. Still, there was inherent potential shining through the shakier moments, as if to say that if Vile focused just a little harder he might just rise to the level of indie superstar. Taking a little time off and also touring for the last year seems to have pushed him in the direction needed to get his act fully together, because his new record “Smoke Ring for My Halo” is filled with the dynamic and prolific moments that unveil an entirely new side that had only been hinted at up til now.
Kurt Vile has ditched the bedroom for a recording studio fully on “Smoke Ring for My Halo”, and as a result there’s a very crisp sheen over the entire album that really adds an unexpected beauty to it. While Vile has always been a superstar when it comes to finding wonderful little melodies that are compelling and adventurous, lush and gorgeous are words that don’t typically apply to them. The Violators are still backing him up, but their contributions are minimal compared to the guitar and vocals which takes precedence over everything else. The biggest adjustment though is with Vile’s vocals, because not much of his older material had the clarity with which to fully discern what he was singing about. It wasn’t so bad that every song was a mangled vocal mess, but when you’re pulling a D.I.Y job corners need to be cut somewhere. So what this new record reveals is that Vile is one hell of a lyricist. A standard love song like “Baby’s Arms”, which starts off the album, gets extra creative thanks to lines like, “shrink myself just like a Tom Thumb/and I hide in my baby’s hand/cause except for her there just ain’t nothing to latch onto”. For “Puppet to the Man”, expectations are defied as Vile says, “I get by now you probably think I’m a puppet to the man”, and it seems safe to assume that most everyone would deny that sort of accusation. Instead, he embraces it, concluding, “I’m shouting out loud because I know that I am” while also requesting help to get him unstuck from said puppetry. One of the most vivid and amazing songs on the entire record is “On Tour”, where the miseries and problems of touring are hinted at between gigs. “Watch out for this one, he’ll stab you in the back for fun”, Vile says, most likely talking about untrustworthy people in the music industry. But his passion for music also comes through in lines like, “I wanna sing at the top of my lungs/scream annoyingly/cause that’s just me being me/being free”. The stage is always the one place you can let your frustrations out without a care in the world, and if you like you can “beat on a drum so hard ’til it bleeds blood”. Darkness hovers all over “Runner Ups”, but Vile isn’t afraid to throw a little bit of black humor in for good measure. “If it ain’t workin’/take a whiz on the world/an entire nation drinking from a dirty cup”, he sings just before explaining that he may have lost his best friend but there are runner ups in waiting. And there’s something inherently brilliant about the way the words are arranged on closer “Ghost Town” that totally grabs you despite what appears to be pure simplicity. “When I’m out/I’m away in my mind/Christ Was born/I was there/You know me/I’m around/I’ve got friends/Hey wait, where was I?/Well, I am trying” doesn’t even make that much sense reading it, but hearing the words coming out of Vile’s mouth they become more like windows into his own personal daydream. The series of thoughts that we all have from time to time, where we drift between subjects effortlessly and without acknowledgement of the oddity of it all can be a powerful thing when harnessed properly. In this case, Kurt Vile makes it exactly that.
“Smoke Ring for My Halo” may thrive in new and unexpected ways thanks in large part to some great lyrics, but the tuneful and intimate melodies serve to enhance what’s already there. With the distortion and other effects almost entirely absent from this record, it leaves much more room for these arrangements to breathe comfortably and with increased virility. One guitar, whether it’s acoustic or electric, carefully picked or briskly strummed, matched with Vile’s voice is all that’s really needed, but the little extras give them an unexpected oomph in the right direction. The shakers and tambourines on “Baby’s Arms” aren’t designed to stand out, but it’s tough to think that the song would be better off without them. The way the guitar strings vibrate on “On Tour”, like they’re frayed or too loose and need a good tightening adds to the weariness of the words, while the soft plinks of the keyboard helps to break up the monotony of the same chords strummed over and over again. In the case of songs like “In My Time” and “Peeping Tomboy” though, the aggressive nature of the guitar work is more than enough to sustain interest in the song without having to really break out any extra elements for supplementary purposes. If the record does have a flaw though, it’s the lack of hooks and marketable singles. Vile’s not exactly known for his commercial prowess and earworms that stick in your head, but on occasion he has managed to pull a supremely memorable melody that you’ll find yourself humming as you go about your day. From “Freeway” to “Freak Train”, the rattle and hum of those tracks was a draw in the past, enough to make them highlights on records that fell anywhere from pretty good to just a little mediocre. Funny then that with the decrease in memorability comes an increase in respectability, the result of which is Kurt Vile’s strongest record to date. Weaker moments like “Jesus Fever” and “Society Is My Friend” are fewer and farther between than ever before, and are supported on all sides by bastions of strong songwriting and melodies that occasionally allow for streams of sunlight to filter through the darkness. It may not be perfect, but it’s definitely another huge step forwards for Vile in a very brief career already filled with them.