Note: Photos coming Monday!
Yes, as things tend to go in Chicago in July, this entire weekend is looking like it’ll be hot and sticky. That’s what she said. But temperatures in the 90s means sweaty indie kids, and nobody likes sweaty indie kids. Ah well, on the opening day of the Pitchfork Music Festival, there were plenty of liquids everywhere, from the beads of sweat to the bottles that were being passed through the crowd to keep everybody hydrated. That seemed to be the big worry among organizers across the entire day, as multiple announcements were made telling everyone to keep drinking water and stay in shaded areas or go to the first aid station if you’re feeling a bit overheated. As there are apparently few to no water fountains in Union Park, or at least not ones that are easy to find, festivalgoers were forced to either subsist on any sealed bottled water they brought in with them or purchase bottled water. The good (and frankly nice) thing was that due to all the possible heat-related problems, the price of a bottle of water was reduced from $2 to $1 for the rest of the weekend. So if you’re out doing Pitchfork this year or will be in the coming days, make sure you drink as much water as you can, even if you have to pay for it. Or just keep an eye out for the free bottles of water being passed out by security by the fronts of each stage.
The weather out of the way, let’s talk about the music. My day went rather smoothly, and I hope yours did as well despite the oppressive heat. Kicking off this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival was Sharon Van Etten. Her quiet, folk singer-songwriter act was really intended as more pleasant background music for people arriving to the festival when the gates opened. By her 3:30 start time, people had been milling around and exploring the festival grounds for about 30 minutes while plenty more continued to filter in. To her credit, Van Etten did everything right during her set. Almost keenly aware that the majority of the people standing around watching her set were unfamiliar with her music, she took her half hour and played mostly new material. She’s got a new album coming out this fall, and if the songs played during her set were any indication, it should be a pretty good one. But for a lone female and her guitar on stage, she also was charismatic and tried to inject as much life into her quiet songs as possible. It helped, and when a string on her guitar broke, the guys in Modest Mouse were kind enough to let her borrow one of their guitars to close out her set. It turned out that Sharon Van Etten was a lovely way to start the festival, and though she claimed she was under a lot of pressure being the very first act of the weekend, she fared exceptionally well.
Kristian Matsson aka The Tallest Man on Earth may be from Sweden, but the guy oddly didn’t appear to have any accent when he spoke to the crowd. Prior to Pitchfork though he most definitely wasn’t in the country- he kept mentioning how sorry he was for not being in top form because of severe jet lag. Outside of momentarily stopping in the middle of his first song after he apparently made a mistake, there were few indicators that The Tallest Man on Earth wasn’t performing in tip top shape Friday afternoon. Matsson’s music, like Sharon Van Etten’s, is of the folk singer-songwriter variety, but where Van Etten’s songs are sleepier, The Tallest Man on Earth is a little more vibrant both on record and in a live setting. Playing without a backing band of any sort, that Matsson was able to captivate an ever-increasingly large group of people for the 30 minutes he was given felt like something of a miracle. The guy was not only jaw-droppingly great in the renditions of songs from his last two albums, but he moved around the stage, sat down now and then, and just generally appeared to get lost inside the songs he was playing. Those were real emotions on hsi face as he was playing those songs, and it was a set that wound up about as exciting as just a guy and an acoustic guitar can get.
El-P was up next, and thanks to the wonderful sound people over at his stage, there were a number of times when the beats slammed so hard that ears were being blown out. Seriously, that set was loud, and not always in a good way. El-P and the hype man he had with him really tried to win over the crowd right from the start of the set, telling everyone to jump as high as they could to the beat. About 1/3rd of the crowd did that, and then it promptly stopped after a good 10 seconds. Not so successful. A few early “call and response” tracks did pick up more crowd support though, and things generally got better wth putting “hands in the air” or clapping along with the beat. The setlist was relatively diverse too, pulling some classic material along with tracks from his latest album “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”. After awhile though, probably about mid-way through his set, things started to get boring. El-P and his guys had seemingly exhausted their bag of tricks, including showing off their keytar (yes…keytar, the combination keyboard and guitar), and a certain complacency set over just about everyone. The heat might have been a factor in that, or the crowd simply not liking hip hop so much but being forced to watch it because there were no other acts playing at the same time. Whatever the reason, it meant that El-P’s set wasn’t as successful as The Tallest Man on Earth before him. The guy and his crew really did try hard though, and above all else that’s admirable.
Just before Liars come out on stage, security comes out to talk about the dangers of dehydration. This apparently did not sit well with Liars’ Angus Andrew, because he pretty much riffed on that through the band’s entire set. He wholeheartedly encouraged people to take off their clothes and throw them on stage. He also “sternly” reminded everyone that if they were to get a bottle of water passed to them, throwing the open bottle into the air was a “bad idea” because it could hurt someone. Well, maybe he wasn’t being sarcastic. The band certainly wasn’t during their blistering set that was so surprisingly entertaining that the weather automatically felt cooler during it. For the moderate number of slower, quieter, moodier songs in Liars’ catalogue, the decision on the set list must have been difficult. But the band was incredibly smart with their choices in the end, playing to their louder sides as much as possible, and taking their slower songs to new and unexplored regions by shifting tempos or guitar parts. They also covered Bauhaus’ “In the Flat Field”, which after all was said and done might have been better than the original. Decked out in a Men At Work (the band) t-shirt and hot pants, Angus Andrew played his role as vocalist for all it was worth, moving around the stage, shoving the microphone down his throat, grabbing at his crotch and a host of other antics that were fun to watch while the songs themselves didn’t suffer one bit because of them. Liars’ set, which those who’ve seen the band live before might have already known, was really, really really good. The band may not make the most commercially viable music, but their oddball sensibilities are what helps to make them so damn fun to watch.
No offense to pop stars and all that, but as it got later in the day and I hadn’t been handed a free bottle of water yet, a drink was in order. By the time I got through the insanely long line, Robyn had already been playing for a little bit. So I missed the start of her set, which as the rest of her performance seemed to indicate, was a master class on how to be a pop star. The girl killed it, figuratively speaking, and the crowd was in shambles trying to figure out what exactly they had just witnessed afterwards. Call her a storm of good music, Robyn came to town and wiped out the village and all the villagers with her insanely catchy tunes and dancing that was just one step short of an aerobics class. The energy was poured out fervently on stage, and the final result left more than a few satisfied. I’m not the biggest fan of her music, but man can Robyn put on a classy show that’s proof the Lady Gagas and Christina Aguileras in this world are just cheap imitations.
Broken Social Scene had Tortoise member and Chicagoan John McEntire playing drums for them at this show, and that was just one of a number of Chicago-based musicians brought on stage during their set to help play through the band’s catalogue. With all those talented musicians though, you’d think they would pack some extra punch during their set. Yet in the now three times I’ve seen Broken Social Scene live, their Pitchfork set was probably the weakest. Of course things have changed within the Broken Social Scene ranks in the last year, what with the ladies in the band each moving on to focus on their other bands, and then there was the “hiatus” which saw other core members of the group taking time off while the more prolific frontmen Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning both released pseudo-solo albums under the BSS moniker. The assurance was that with their new album “Forgiveness Rock Record”, the full, uncompromised Broken Social Scene was back (with a few new ones and old ones joining the band). That may have been the case, but that didn’t stop it from feeling like there were important pieces missing. At the very least, songs like “7/4 Shoreline”, “Stars and Sons” and “Superconnected” were all played with energy and relative precision, but the heart of those last couple performances I saw just wasn’t quite there anymore. Kevin Drew may have told the crowd to give a big cheer for themselves and the city of Chicago, but it wasn’t nearly as rousing as their 2006 call to action, when people were cheering so loud for so long the band played just a little bit beyond their established set time. The magic of those moments was gone, and in its place was a solid performance from a solidly anthemic rock band, and not too much more.
Closing out Day 1 was Modest Mouse, a band that as I learned today, many of my friends seem to strongly dislike. For the record though, their problem is more with the Modest Mouse live show than the band on record. Still, having seen Modest Mouse twice before myself, I have no hatred or even a strong dislike for the band, but instead feel ambivalent toward them. After their Pitchfork set I can now say that the ambivalence remains. No, they’re not mind-blowing live, but when they start their set with an 8-minute rendition of “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes”, that’s pretty damn cool. That they also later took on classics like “Dramamine” (in an extended version as well) and “Gravity Rides Everything” while ignoring the most obvious “Float On” is also remarkably smart of them. “Float On” is what virtually everyone was waiting for, and by not delivering I’m sure more than a few people left the grounds upset they didn’t get to hear their “favorite” Modest Mouse song. You would hope though that at an event like the Pitchfork Music Festival, which doesn’t really specialize in the mainstream, bands would try and avoid playing their big hits. Still, “Dashboard” got the biggest cheer of the night, and with newer stuff like “Satellite Skin” and “Autumn Beds” played with “Black Cadillacs” and “Satin Coffin” , there was still an outright favoritism towards the “Good News for People Who Love Bad News” and beyond era that most fans are intimately familiar with. With the switching between instruments and Isaac Brock’s strange on-stage proclivities (such as pouring glowstick fluid down his throat) and stark-raving mad vocals, Modest Mouse still has its share of the weird these days. Hopefully despite all their success, those strange proclivities will continue to alienate crowds for years to come. As is their typical modus operandi, Modest Mouse probably didn’t become somebody’s new favorite band because of their show at Pitchfork. Instead the band came out and played whatever the hell they wanted to for the most part. That didn’t bother me one bit, and I hope it didn’t bother you either.