“Hipsters/Unite/Come align for the big fight to rock.” Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins wrote that line back in 1991 as a slag to those in the music scene who took a more “indie than thou” attitude toward his music. Well, today it would perfectly apply to those attending the Pitchfork Music Festival.
Unlike Lollapalooza, which offers something for almost everyone, Pitchfork wears its “in the know” vibe as a badge of honor. Now in its seventh year, the festival doesn’t cater to the casual music fan. And save for a few artists who may be known in the mainstream (Feist, Vampire Weekend), the three-day music orgy delivered new sounds from artists poised to break through or perhaps destined to languish in cult status forever. Here’s how it went down:
Rain. Lots of it! As soon as the gates get ready to open, Ma Nature opens up her heavens and pisses down buckets of the stuff on concertgoers. Set times are immediately pushed back in upwards of 30 minutes. Outer Minds finally kick things off on the smaller Blue Stage. Their brand of indie guitar rock plays to a field that is still filling with people as stage hands continue mopping up around the band.
They are followed by Willis Earl Beal, a Chicagoan whose mélange of hip-hop and lyrical flow give off the feel of an open-air poetry slam. As if his intellectual property wasn’t affecting enough, the sheer physicality of his performance will prove to be a weekend highlight.
Originally part of the art collective movement Elephant 6, The Olivia Tremor Control seemed very much in their element among the outward-thinking artists gathered for the weekend. The band seamlessly swerved from guitar rock to psycheldic u-turns and even dropped in the occasional musical burp from a tuba.
Unlike Lollapalooza, hip-hop would play a prominent part in the lineup over the course of three days. Friday featured the much hyped A$AP Rocky as well as Mississippi-born rapper Big K.R.I.T.. The former lived up to a reputation that preceded him as dude with polished flow, personality in droves, and the ability to hold his crowd (although the “Make some noise motherfuckers” war cry is long past its sell-by date at hip-hop shows. Retire it already). The latter brought good-old-boy flavor to his set. His lyrical content leans toward consciousness-raising themes and even some self-depreciating humor. It’s a welcome break from boastful misogyny and glorified thug-life bullshit.
Perhaps one of the weekend’s best-known names also proved to be one of its most pleasant surprises: Feist (with the exception of Sunday’s headliner Vampire Weekend) is one of the few playing the weekend who’s actually flirted with the Billboard charts.
Although the perception of her is whimsical folkie, her set had some wonderfully hard edges. With a trio of backup singers and a band with dexterity to burn at her disposal, she decided to forgo her biggest hit (“1 2 3 4“). Drawing a parallel to Radiohead not playing “Creep,” the omission was never missed.
Cleveland-based Cloud Nothings take to the Red Stage as ominous clouds gather. No sooner does their set begin, the rain comes again. But instead of retreat, the quartet rev up, matching Mother Nature’s jukebox. As the rain increases its volume, the band accelerate tempos. Waves of feedback are unleashed until the situation becomes dangerous. (Water and electricity have never been the best roommates.) The lads begrudgingly acquiesce. The weather may have won this battle, but given the rapturous applause that greet the band’s exit, they won the war.
The sun once again emerges and soaks Atlas Sound on the Green Stage. The Deerhunter frontman (Bradford Cox) dons white facepaint, a straw hat, and a beat up acoustic guitar (where have we seen this before Robert Zimmerman?). He looks and feels strangely out of his element, the enormity of the stage almost swallowing him up.
Metal duo Liturgy are fighting through countless sound problems involving a drum machine that seems to be blasting off at 130+ beats per minute. It’s not the speed (these shredders would have no trouble keeping the pace), but the sound that cuts in and out. When the problem finally gets resolved, the boys bang out simultaneous barre chords dripping with distortion in perfect synchronization with the skies once again opening. No choreographer this side of a Rain King could have planned the shit better.
Wild Flag released what, for many (myself included), was 2011’s greatest record. They showed no signs of slowing down under a blazing sun Saturday afternoon. Extended guitar sojourns were combined with impeccable songwriting and a choice cover (Television’s “See No Evil”) for a lesson to the younguns on how the vets get to stay in the game.
Montreal collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor closed out Day 2 on the Green Stage, which they packed with musicians and a sea of instruments. The songs built themselves up from a mere drone, sometimes provided by nothing more than a screwdriver scraping a guitar string. More often than not, the pace was glacial — making for a decidedly anticlimactic finish.
The rain has moved out and been replaced by oppressive heat and additional turbulence in the form of a Lady Gaga rumor (she would eventually appear on the side of the Blue Stage during Kendrick Lamar’s set). Unknown Mortal Orchestra are off to a slow cantor on the Red Stage. As their set progresses, they ramp up the melodies and their rhythms expand and contract like a ready to snap rubber band.
The Danish quartet Iceage never got the memo that it isn’t 1982. Their brand of guitar heroics lean heavily into hardcore punk territory and their mantra seems to be harder, faster, and louder. A blown bass amp hampers their set, but once it gets replaced it only seems to fuel their hostility.
This was the cruelest overlap of the weekend: Thee Oh Sees were playing a blistering set on the Blue Stage. Their manic execution and unwavering intensity felt like that split second before impact in a car crash. What made it even more desperate was the fact that on the other side of Union Park, Ty Segall was about to join the noise brigade.
Dude has been insanely prolific the last year or so, having released four albums, each equal to, or better than, its predecessor. Once they hit the boards it was take no prisoners time.
Oddly enough, everything seemed to be building toward the evenings main attraction, Vampire Weekend. Chavez delivered retro rock with great bottom end and Beach House felt like a pleasant, valium-induced interlude. But it was still quite shocking how completely bat-shit crazy Hipster Nation went for the Brooklyn quartet.
When the band last played Pitchfork back in 2008, they were riding high on a solid debut and a cresting wave of hype. Considering they’ve been off the road for some time, it felt more like a victory procession. For the remainder of the evening the band and their minions would eat up every polyrhythm, high brow reference and buoyant, elastic dance groove. It also proved that even in Pitchfork Nation, sometimes you can leave the underground and still come back home again.
– Curt Baran
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