Put it in the books! The 2010 edition of the Pitchfork Music Festival is over and done with, and my what an experience it was. If you had a chance to make it, I hope you had a great time. For those who didn’t, you missed out on quite a bit. One thing nobody will miss was the hot weather that permeated Chicago all weekend long. With temperatures at 90+ degrees every day, it was a potentially dangerous situation that was smartly handled by festival organizers. On the very first day, it was announced that the price of water would be cut in half (from $2 to $1), and that bottles of water would be passed through the crowd to keep people hydrated who really needed it. As somebody who likes to slip through the crowd towards the front of the stage, I can tell you security was extremely liberal with how much water they were giving out, and there was never a time I saw somebody asking for water that didn’t get some. It took me a day, but I also discovered that there was a water fountain on the premises, though the line to fill up was typically 50-100 people deep. Near the end of the day on Sunday I also stopped by the First Aid tent just to see how things were going, and they told me problems over the course of the weekend were limited, with the majority being dehydration-related. It wasn’t just the organizers and security team that played a big role in keeping the hot weather from causing problems. The crowd did their part as well. Everybody I encountered was generally friendly and willing to help out should there be any problems. Call it the communal vibe of Pitchfork.
Amenities-wise, despite the sold out crowds, lines at the food booths tended to move with decent speed. Of course that largely depended on what time of day you wanted something to eat or drink. Friday’s beer lines seemed especially long, but were a little better for Saturday and Sunday. Perhaps that had something to do with the supply of Newcastle Summer Ale, which sold out on Friday and wasn’t available for the rest of the weekend. It turns out that Heineken, who was this year’s beer sponsor, was merely testing the potential of a Newcastle Summer Ale, which is currently not available in stores. So if you like your beer and got a cup of the Summer Ale on Friday, you got a preview of what’s likely to come. But the food vendors were varied as always, with plenty of vegan and ethnic options for those who preferred a little diversity in their meals. The number of various booths for stores and causes seemed to be higher than ever, and depending on what interested you, there may have been a line (see: the Threadless booth). But between those things, the Flatstock poster show and the CHIRP Record Fair, if you weren’t watching music, there were plenty of things to distract. Speaking of music, let’s talk about the weekend’s biggest winners and losers.
For those wondering about the comedy stage, I didn’t have a chance to go over and see some stand-up, but from what I hear things were anywhere from halfway decent (Hannibal Buress) to a little testy (Wyatt Cenac) through extremely terrible (Michael Showalter) and ending on a high note (Eugene Mirman). If you saw some comedy and liked/disliked a set, please let me know in the comments. But on Friday there were no artist conflicts, which meant watching every act from start to finish, or finding distraction elsewhere. A couple of the best not only on Friday but of the entire weekend were Liars and Robyn. They played right in a row and couldn’t have been more different as far as content went. Liars were smart in that they completely tailored their set to an outdoor festival environment. They have more than their fair share of slow or quiet songs, but chose instead to emphasize the louder, wackier aspects of their catalogue. It all played perfectly into frontman Angus Andrew’s hands, who danced up a storm, jumped into the crowd, shoved the microphone down his throat, and a host of other crazy things that thrilled as much as the songs. Robyn is more your traditional pop star, but unlike a Miley Cyrus or Britney Spears she doesn’t use sheer spectacle or distraction to keep you from paying complete attention to her performance. By playing it straight and actually singing her addictive songs in quality fashion, she’s epitomizing how a pop star should act on stage. She’s also got some killer dance moves to go with that voice, and by approaching things in a fun and energetic fashion, it made for one amazing early evening set.
After a somewhat wispy start to Saturday, Delorean came in and delivered a sun-baked set that got the crowd moving despite the heat. Getting indie kids to dance is challenge number one, but doing so under those conditions takes something special. Plenty of water was handed out before, during and after that set, and it was the first time all festival that people were legitimately crowd surfing. Again in the category of “something completely different”, Titus Andronicus followed Delorean and played a high energy old fashioned rock and roll show. There were guitars and piano and horns and special guests brought out on stage, all while frontman Patrick Stickles got the crowd all riled up. Fists were raised and pumped, bodies were hoisted and passed around, and lyrics were shouted with enthusiasm. What more could you ask for? Wolf Parade also did an admirable job playing in the same time slot and stage that Robyn had appeared on the day before. Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner make for a mighty fine duo on stage, as they traded songs and sometimes verses in a fashion that almost seemed like an attempt at one-upsmanship. They were also smart enough to play an energetic mix of older and newer stuff. “What Did My Lover Say? (It Always Had to Go This Way)” and “Palm Road” sounded particularly vibrant, while classic tracks like “I’ll Believe in Anything” and “This Heart’s on Fire” hit with the immediacy they’re supposed to. And when it came to headliners, the possibility that LCD Soundsystem might be playing their last ever show in Chicago made their set extra special. James Murphy and Co. also crafted a smart set list that pretty equally covered all three albums and their requisite hits. Suspiciously absent was “North American Scum”, and it also would have been nice to hear “Dance Yrself Clean”, but considering every song actually played was pretty golden, there was little to complain about. The sun had pretty much set and the temperature was the coolest it’d been all day, so everyone let loose as much as possible, dancing up a storm and singing along where appropriate. Particularly bittersweet was the mid-set rendition of “All My Friends”, which resonated in terms of the show’s implications and with those of us legitimately getting older who are worried about losing touch with the people we care about.
Musically, Sunday brought forth its own set of challenges. The conflicted decisions of what artists to see and skip was the harshest and when you hear about some great sets you missed there’s a little part of you that always feels bad about your choice. Such was the case for me on Sunday when reactions from the Major Lazer and Big Boi sets came around. I’m not really a fan of either artist, but they were apparently both show-stopping productions of the highest order. Good for them, and you if you paid witness to those spectacles. Highlights for me included a rather inspired set from Local Natives, who hit all their harmonies exactly how they needed to, and delivered an intensely rousing version of “Sun Hands” that drove the crowd nuts. What drove me nuts though was when I lazily stumbled over to Lightning Bolt wondering what their reportedly “crazy” live show might be like. As a non-fan I just wanted to see what was going on, and instead was treated to some of the best drumming I have ever had the privilege of seeing in my entire life. Brian Chippendale is so good behind the kit it defies words, and above all else I couldn’t take my eyes off him. It has been a long time since something has blown me away like that. And though they had some sound problems, most notably that the speaker system on the small stage simply couldn’t handle the loud intensity they were bringing, Sleigh Bells rocked it pretty hard. It was a hot and sticky pre-Pavement set that was so packed towards the front you could barely breathe, but given that the band’s music stirs up the blood, nobody seemed to mind the lack of space much. A speaker got blown out, a microphone broke, but none of that really mattered because most everyone seemed to be having a great time, hands in the air and heads banging one and all. Sleigh Bells have t-shirts that say “Slay Bells” on them, and given what went down during their set, “slay” is the appropriate word to use.
As much as we’d love for every single set at the Pitchfork Music Festival to be exactly what we want it to be, the reality is that some bands just don’t live up to expectations when performing. This year, I felt fortunate enough where there were very few artists I actually disliked on stage. For the record, I saw a lot more bands than I’m mentioning here, and you can read more about them in my daily recaps. This part is just to single out those moments of the festival that I felt were of poorer quality or generally disappointing. We’ve done the highlights, now it’s time for the lowlights. Everything in between stays exactly where it is.
Friday for me didn’t have any bad performances. From Sharon Van Etten through Modest Mouse, everyone was either great or simply alright. The problems started on Saturday, probably with Raekwon. Now at the time Raekwon’s set was supposed to start, I was hanging out a small distance from the stage not paying any attention. When I did pay attention was when it was 10 minutes past the start time and there was no sound coming from Raekwon’s stage. My conclusion was that Raekwon was late arriving or lazy and didn’t want to go on. The truth is that the guy running the laptop with all the song samples on it was having trouble getting it to work properly. So it was a technical issue, but it didn’t help matters in the least. Once Raekwon finally did go on, I was unimpressed enough to walk away after a couple songs. I wandered over to see the Smith Westerns instead, and that turned out to be something of a bust too. Everything went off without a hitch at their stage, but the heat may have gotten to them. They weren’t their normal, spunky selves and their set felt more like amateur hour than an actual professional band. I’ve seen them before and know they can deliver a good show, but sadly this was not one of them. But if you want to talk real disappointment, to the point where I’d call it the worst moments of the entire festival, look no further than Panda Bear’s evening set. I’ve got much love for Noah Lennox on his records, but when he’s by himself live it’s just one slowed down mess of drug-induced ambiance. According to many, there were actual songs played during his set. I couldn’t find any, though my patience wore out long before I started to listen for them. The crowd looked completely disinterested, and I don’t blame them. That’s not the sort of set you want to see outdoors on a hot day at sunset.
Like Friday, Sunday was pretty good in terms of not featuring many disappointing acts. The two I’m going to mention here weren’t horrible, but let’s just say they were having off days. Honestly, I expected Girls to at the very least try and have fun on stage. It was early afternoon and really hot, but none of the band members really looked like they wanted to be there. Much of their set was filled with slower material that they never felt the need or inclination to speed up for the sake of the venue and weather. I don’t think frontman Christopher Owens cracked a smile once, and though one of the guys in the band said “this is fun”, I was inclined to not believe him. It was only near the end, just before they did “Lust for Life” that things really started to pick up and reach a level that would have made their entire set great had they maintained it from the start. Unfortunately by the time they finally got around to it, too much had already been lost to get back to even. As much as it pains me to say this, because I LOVE Annie Clark, the St. Vincent set was a little odd and lacking in many respects. First of all, though she didn’t mention it, Annie and the band had flown in from Europe less than 24 hours before their Pitchfork set. There may have been some jet lag tiredness there. Also an issue were new arrangements for many of the songs, most likely designed to keep both the crowd and the band interested in what was being played rather than just doing the same stuff over and over again. The revamped songs could have been a gambit that paid off, but that’d require them to be good first. The mix generally felt muddy the entire time as well, with the horns and woodwind instruments turned up much higher than Annie’s vocals and guitar. Like Girls, St. Vincent’s set did get progressively better, and the culminating moment with a loud and brash version of “Your Lips Are Red” was positively inspired. It was the first half that really killed the mood though. That festival set needed more guitar shredding and less attempts at delicate melodies.
Well, that about sums up the entire weekend known as the Pitchfork Music Festival 2010. For those inquiring about Pavement, as I’ve not really mentioned them at all in this long piece, well, they were great. Not over the top amazing or life changing, but still very much a positive experience that I hope to repeat again before they probably retire the band in 2011. Anyways, what follows is a selection of photos from the entire weekend, with the band names tagged appropriately. As I was not in any sort of media photo pit, these are just snapshots I took at my various locations in the crowd, at any number of distances from the stage. As you’ll see in the headliner photos, things don’t always turn out crystal clear when you’re really far away and it’s dark outside. But have a look if you like, and please leave me some comments about the things you liked/disliked about the Pitchfork Music Festival this year. I wouldn’t say it was the best year for the festival, but what it lacked in brilliant moments it made up for by being extremely well run and filled with crowds that looked out for one another. If you helped or were just plain nice to a stranger during the festival, thanks for making a positive impact. The weather might not have been the best, but at least it wasn’t raining. Let’s do it all again next year, yeah? I’ll see you there.
Sharon Van Etten
The Tallest Man on Earth
Broken Social Scene
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Here We Go Magic