It always bothers me when things don’t work out according to plan, and the start/end to my Saturday at the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival was one of those times. In what was supposed to be an early arrival to catch sets from White Lung, Pissed Jeans and Julia Holter, bad traffic turned a short drive into an extraordinarily long one. Thank goodness I finally made it in time for Phosphorescent. Then of course there was the weather. On checking the weekend forecast on Friday afternoon shortly before heading out on Day 1, it said a chance of severe storms on Friday night, then partly cloudy for the rest of the weekend. All was going according to plan until about 9 p.m. on Saturday when it started to pour. Of course it would. Let’s hope the park stays dry enough for Sunday that there’s not mud/sand pits everywhere like last year. As for the music itself, most everything on Saturday was an improvement over the somewhat shaky or mediocre sets on Friday. Let me break things down for you, band by band.
The alt-country vibes of Phosphorescent turned out to be a perfect way for me to ease into the day, with Matthew Houck and his band setting just the right mood and tempo for the sunny, mid-80s weather. In particular the piano and organ players got some great solos in early on via tracks like “Terror in the Canyons (The Wounded Master)” and “A Charm / A Blade,” both of which were warm, charming and altogether buoyant. The crowd appeared to be having a great time, with the loudest cheers reserved for current single and probably the most popular Phosphorescent cut to date, “Song for Zula.” The live rendition of it, much like the entire set, either met or exceeded the versions found on the actual album. Yet it wasn’t a perfect set by any means. These songs are festival material in small doses, but after awhile the energy starts to fall flat and the heat gets to you and the urge arises to find some shade or maybe even go see a different band. Which leads us to…
I’m not the biggest fan of Parquet Courts’ latest album Light Up Gold, but definitely like it enough to check out what they’re like live, especially since I kept hearing they’re very, very good. Turns out word of mouth was right on in this case, and the band played with the sort of upbeat energy reserved for a punk or speed metal act. That extra infusion of energy, which doesn’t fully come across on their record, actually enhanced the songs and allowed the crowd to digest them in perhaps a more revelatory way. They charged ahead, song after song, like they were on a mission to win everybody over, and judging by the reaction they likely succeeded. There was dancing, crowd surfing and smiles from everyone all around. One of the most pleasant surprises of this festival so far.
…And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead
After opening their set with the minute-long introductory instrumental that is “Ode to Isis” off their 2005 album Worlds Apart, …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead launched right into “It Was There That I Saw You,” the opening track from their 2002 LP Source Tags and Codes. They followed that up immediately with “How Near, How Far,” off that same album, almost teasing the idea that they’d play all of what pretty much everyone considers to be their one true masterpiece. If only we were so lucky. Alas, it wasn’t quite meant to be, and the set list started to diversify from there, covering most of the scope of their records from the last 10 years, which includes a couple of very so-so efforts and a couple of sharp near-returns to form. Overall, the band put on a very fast-paced and punk-like set, and there were a couple of decent-sized mosh pits going on for much of it. The band even threw in a couple of new songs off of a forthcoming album, which happened to sound quite a bit like their loud, brash and quick foray into punk rock in the pre-Source Tags era. So it’ll be interesting to hear where the next step in this band’s evolution really takes them. As to the set itself, it wasn’t quite the wide-eyed insanity I witnessed 10 years ago where the band nearly killed me during an insane instrument smashing session which ended with the crowd getting on stage for one last song, but in this more modern, less smashy era of the band’s evolution they’re still quite the compelling live act.
Honestly, Savages was the one set I was most looking forward to all weekend. The band’s album Silence Yourself is one of my favorites so far this year, and their reputation as an incredible live band has become increasingly well-known over the last 6 months. This weekend marked the first time the band ever performed in Chicago, with 2 shows at Lincoln Hall the two nights prior to their Pitchfork set. I was unfortunately unable to catch those indoor, under cover of darkness performances, but I suspect they made for the ultimate way to see the band. Still, the outdoor festival setting also worked well for them, though the hot weather and all the band members clad in black probably didn’t make their lives much easier. Despite a high stage and a barrier gap between them and the crowd, Savages still made this big performance seem intimate and personal. Singer Jehenny Beth stared out into the crowd with a ferocity that made you think everyone had done something unforgivable to her and she wanted revenge. Her vocals were spot on, particularly on tracks like “I Am Here” and “Husbands,” which required her to stretch out a bit more. The rest of the band played with a similar fiery intensity, as the drums and cymbals were pounded with an almost scary level of violence, guitars were distorted to an almost buzzsaw level of noise, and the bass lines radiated outwards so you could feel them in your gut. It was pure pleasure to watch them work, and if anybody in the sizable crowd was on the fence about this band prior to watching their set, it’s almost guaranteed they were won over.
If you wind up with the opportunity to see Metz perform live, seize it immediately. Well, if you like noisy and brash punk rock, that is. They’re genuine heavy hitters, and in their performances they attempt to leave everything on stage, and then go beyond that to give you even more. It’s immensely compelling to watch, which really adds another dimension to what you get from this band on record. The crowd at Pitchfork seemed to be pretty well into them, at least in the area closest to the stage where there was some genuine action going on. Others hung back, either because of the crowd size or the fact that they wanted to save their ears or torsos from being potentially injured. But the number of people watching only expanded as Metz’s set went on. It could be because they’re so compelling, or maybe it was just Savages fans leaving the end of that set and not wanting to see Swans at the other nearby stage. Whatever it was, chalk it up as a win for the band, who likely secured themselves an even bigger fan base on a Saturday afternoon in Union Park. They may give you everything they’ve got on stage, walking away a sweaty mess, but what they get back in return is arguably greater.
I only caught a portion of Swans’ set, between Metz ending and waiting on Ryan Hemsworth to set up on that same stage, but I still very much wanted to see and hear what they were going to offer. What I stumbled into was a rich tapestry of sounds and influences that is the 30+ minute epic track “The Seer.” It was arguably quite weird and artistic, as one might expect having listened to the band’s interesting and odd catalogue over the years, but somehow they’re able to make metal and industrial music with spatial Middle Eastern flavor and tribal percussive structures work in a highly effective manner. They’ve also been around long enough to know exactly what works on stage, and that includes band leader Michael Gira moving his body and arms around in a wavy, snake-like motion much of the time. Not a whole lot of people probably understood what exactly was taking place in the hot sun of mid-afternoon, but if you can’t put on a music festival performance like that at Pitchfork, where can you? I may have gotten a little bored had I watched their full set, but the 15 minutes I did catch only made me want more. Still, I pulled myself away to pay a visit to…
Going to see Ryan Hemsworth perform was both a good and a bad idea. Okay, so it was mostly a good idea. Basically, I like and respect the guy quite a bit, and both his original electronic compositions as well as his remixes in recent years have been almost entirely excellent. The problem with Hemsworth, as wth quite a few similar acts to him, is that when it comes to a live performance things can get a little boring on stage. There he was, hanging out with a laptop and turning knobs on a mixer as he cut and paste a bunch of fun, danceable songs together. As many have argued in the past, what’s to prevent him from just setting up and pressing the “Play” button and checking out? The hope is to have something a little more compelling going on to keep the crowd more engaged with you. There was no elaborate light show like Skrillex might have or a gigantic mouse head like Deadmau5 has going for him. Nope, just a man presumably trying to make some seriously fun dance music. If you only had the audio, it’d be easy to say the show sounded fantastic, because it did. There was even a great remix of Dirty Projectors’ “About to Die” that made part of my day. Yet I also found myself sitting down for much of the set before getting up and leaving to see The Breeders. I looked close to the stage, and there were people jumping around and even a crowd surfer or two. So I guess people were able to get past that small on stage handicap and have a great time anyways.
Now that she’s officially exited the Pixies, Kim Deal will be devoting her full attention to the other band in her life, The Breeders. Celebrating the 20th anniversary of their album Last Splash, the band was on hand to perform the entire thing from start to finish. Before starting that though, they officially kicked off their set with a cover of Guided By Voices’ “Shocker in Gloomtown.” It would turn out to be one of the better moments all set, as the actual run-through of the record largely sounded like they were on autopilot. “Cannonball” sounded pretty good though, and I think a fair amount of effort was put into performing it with the knowledge so many people were looking forward to it. While Last Splash is a legitimately classic record, 20 years on it hasn’t entirely aged well, and as a result some of the songs sounded dated even when they were performed solidly. Mostly, people began to lose interest the longer the set went on, and there was little evidence the band was playing the album other than to cash in on an easy paycheck.
She may be quite a bit less popular than her sister, but Solange Knowles still makes great and worthwhile pop music with some great soul and R&B elements to them. Pretty much everyone that showed up to watch her set was looking to have a fun time and dance a bit, and on those things she delivered in spades. Backed by a six-piece band, she ran through a number of songs off her latest album True and was smiling and dancing herself the whole way through. There was plenty of clapping and throw your hands up in the air moments, including her cover of Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness is the Move,” which worked out to be the second Dirty Projectors song played that day. Overall the set was a solid early evening bit of fun, almost like a nice warm-up for Belle & Sebastian who would follow.
Belle & Sebastian
Shortly after the start of Belle & Sebastian’s set, a few different friends told me they were headed for the exits. The reason why was because they saw the radar and noticed a band of storms would be hitting the park about 15 minutes later. And so, at just after 9 p.m. with under an hour left in the headlining set, it began to pour. Actually it wasn’t too bad for a bit, then it picked up as time went on. After Bjork’s set was cut 30 minutes short due to weather on Friday night, people were understandably concerned about whether Belle & Sebastian would make it through this time. They did, and it was a rather magical set. They hit some important cuts in their catalogue, including “Another Sunny Day” (ironic given the weather), “Your Cover’s Blown” and “The Boy With the Arab Strap,” all of which had the crowd dancing and singing along like they didn’t have a care in the world. Stuart Murdoch is a supremely charming frontman, and the focus on the band’s more upbeat numbers really helped in the outdoor festival atmosphere. Altogether it was a positively joyous way to end the day, and anyone who didn’t stick around through the rain missed something really special.