Another weekend down at Chicago's Pitchfork Music Festival. After previewing the entire fest last Thursday, we made our way up there for a solid three days of music, headlined by R. Kelly, Björk, and Belle & Sebastian this year. Exhausting stuff, no doubt, but we made our rounds to catch some of the best and brightest in the game.
With the thought of potential rain in the forecast for Friday night, it was nice seeing that there wasn't really any threat starting out the weekend when I arrived. The sun was beating down, people packing the CTA heading over to Union Park from wherever they started. Whether they were visitors (like me) or Chicago folk, people were prepared.
Friday afternoon started with the croon of Daughn Gibson, who put together a pretty brief set himself, featuring a bunch of tracks from his new record and a handful of others. The early day sets are fairly quick and are sometimes over before you realize it. This is kind of how I felt watching Trash Talk over at the Blue Stage, which is tucked into the shaded portion of Union Park. A much smaller stage than the other two, the Blue Stage works to the advantage of many artists who might get swallowed up on a huge stage outside.
Trash Talk was pretty incredible, even though I didn't even think I would be able to catch their set on Friday, nor was it exactly appealing to me to see them. Their brand of punk is an interesting one, and their songs were over before they even began. Seriously, their fierceness is bound by songs less than a minute long, some even being roughly thirty-second cuts. Their enthusiasm was delivered right back to them by the crowd that took over that stage. Members of the band were throwing themselves into the crowd without hesistation. It was kind of wild and awesome to witness, even though I wasn't going to have any part of that.
Post-Trash Talk was Mac DeMarco over at the Green Stage. He pushed through a variety of his material in his young catalog, but highlights of the set like "Ode to Viceroy" made the guitar sound like it was actually melting in the near-100 degree heat. This stage faced the sun all weekend, so any performance that came between 2–5 p.m. was pretty brutally hot. DeMarco had a huge smile on his face for the duration of the set, and he delivered some goodness, so all was well in the July heat. Other highlights of his set were the group of covers he decided to throw into the mix, "Taking Care of Business," "Blackbird," "Enter Sandman," and Limp Bizkit's "Break Stuff." It was something.
Now, onto the lovely Angel Olsen over on the Blue Stage. I was afraid that she would get overpowered, with her style of music being pretty quiet at certain points. I'm glad I was wrong, as her set was mixed well to be heard above the standard festival noise from the audience and the other performers. Well done all around with her full band and an electric guitar option rather than acoustic.
The ever-prolific Woods were up next over on the Red Stage, conflicting a bit with Olsen's set, but nothing too terribly bad. Many of their songs were drawn out much longer than they appear on their records, which is positive and negative. It just depends on the song. They threw down a bunch of tracks from last year's Bend Beyond, and Woods really feels like a band you need to see in the heat.
Wire was by far the most impressive set, in my mind, of Friday's shows. Certainly, Björk was interesting enough, but Wire chugged through their set at a constant build-up of momentum throughout. They've been performing forever and they still have a lot left in the tank as far as their live sets go. A lot of the material came from their stellar Change Becomes Us from this year, but their setlist ranged in material from across their huge catalog. That bright green guitar and the green stage meant it was go-time for these guys. Joanna Newsom was sandwiched between Wire and Björk on the opposite stage, and from the portion of the show that I caught of Newsom's set, I was a bit lost. Perhaps I got over to her stage at the wrong time, but you could barely hear her, and maybe it's just me, but a performer of Newsom's nature is not appealing outdoors.
Björk was a spectacle, no doubt. Although her set got cut short due to the rain (which there wasn't much of around Union Park, but was about to take out certain parts of Chicago, including Pearl Jam's performance at Wrigley Field that night for a few hours, as well as Phish on the outskirts of the city, per the rumor mill). Regardless, Björk sounded incredible; plus, with her wacky stage presence and costumes, all that I expected was to be blown away by her. The set leaned heavily on Biophilia as expected, and was a bit better in the live form over the studio work. Night one ended in a satisfying manner, even though it was cut a short by Mother Nature.
Day 2: here we go. A day where the schedule is longer, and there are more bands to hop around at throughout the day.
Early sets included White Lung over on the Green Stage to start. Honestly, I was under the impression that lead singer Mish Way was trying to be a boring mix between Karen O (vocally) and Sleigh Bells' Alexis Krauss. A bit underwhelming from that standpoint during this set, but I will complement the rest of the band for chugging through and showing up in a loud way. Pissed Jeans and their stage banter were the attractive part of their set following White Lung. They definitely were enjoying themselves the most, making offhand remarks, yelling side-stage for someone to refill his Tito's beverage, and making fun of that brand of booze he was about to drink at the same time. The band's sound was definitely more clunky and heavier than on tape, but well put together in the live set.
A nice contrast to beginning Saturday with two punk bands was Phosphorescent. Muchacho dominated the set, and for good reason — it's an amazing record from top to bottom. Opening up with "Terror of the Canyons," "The Quotidian Beasts," and one of the best songs of the year, "Song for Zula," the set felt so effortless and easygoing. Although Matthew Houck is the man behind the moniker, the full band he performs with feels just as big of a part of what Phosphorescent is rather than just one guy writing and recording all the parts. Dualing keyboards on each side of Houck gave off a symmetrical stage presence. Incredible set so early in the day set it off.
...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead were solid as well, opening up with the raucous "It Was There That I Saw You" from Source Tags & Codes, which set it off right away. This band has been around for quite some time and has finally gotten a nod at this festival. It's surprising that it's taken so long for Pitchfork to book them. They were in sync in every way, and their drummer absolutely killed it at this performance. Mixing in a handful of new tracks from the album they "just finished" recording, it's all good in the Trail of Dead camp.
...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead
Savages came next, pushing through their Silence Yourself material with a fury. The mix on this stage was a bit weak, starting off with poorly mixed vocals and a general soft sound coming from the stage. As the performance went on, it got better, but it still felt a bit off. Jehnny Beth is a hell of a lead singer, and overall, the band was on. "Shut Up" and "She Will" are pulverizing tracks. There was one headscratcher during the set, which was a song called "Fuckers," which was pretty much the most uncreative track lyrically that I could have expected from Savages.
The time had arrived in the day where the beast known as Swans were ready to go. Their delivery is like being bludgeoned over the head repeatedly with constantly punishing guitars and drums. Honestly, most of their tracks are indecipherable at certain points because they blend together. Regardless, they brought it, and showed what makes the band legendary. Breeders coasted through their set, performing Last Splash from cover to cover, which is still an interesting concept. However, it wasn't all material from LS that made appearances. Opening with a Guided by Voices cover, "Shocker In Gloomtown," it wasn't all predictable in the sense that you knew exactly what the band was planning on playing. Really anticipating their performance down here in C-U for Pygmalion 2013.
Although I was highly anticipating Low's set at the festival this year, they were a victim of scheduling and an outdoor show that did not suit their strengths at all. It was pretty quiet, unfortunately, and they were even on the smallest stage, hidden away from the two huge stages. Even "Monkey," a loud, chugging track on record, was stripped down. Perhaps it was because The Invisible Way is a bit more stripped down in general, so that could be a factor. Despite the Rihanna cover at the end, there wasn't a lot of juice that could have been pumped into Low's set to make them stand out more in this environment.
Shifting to the real party: Solange. She took the stage with what was the most enthusiastic crowd of the day, and maybe even the entire festival (outside of M.I.A. on Sunday; it's a toss-up). "Losing You" was a clear standout, even though the entire set was a party to the crowd of people grooving the entire time. Throw in a cover of Dirty Projectors' "Stillness is the Move" that throws down harder than the actual version and you're a winner. Belle & Sebastian closed out the night with a solid career-spanning show, even bringing one fan on stage at one point. They were a lot more engaging with the crowd than I had anticipated, which was refreshing. Mission accomplished for Saturday.
Belle & Sebastian
Starting out day three, people start to wear down a bit. Admittedly, I was a bit worn down, but Foxygen wasn't having any of that. Their early set was a hot one, but the band was as rambunctious as any act the entire weekend. At one point, lead singer Sam France was climbing up the side of the stage, and dancing like a crazy person basically the entire set. It was great and engaging as hell, and made me wake up a bit underneath the 2 p.m. Sunday humidity that could easily put you to sleep. Well done from another band coming down to C-U for Pygmalion in a few months.
Killer Mike was another pleasant surprise that really set the crowd ablaze with his bangers from last year's R.A.P. Music. El-P's set came just about an hour later, where the duo performed a bunch of tracks from their Run the Jewels collaboration. Not an entirely unpredictable thing to happen for the festival, but cool nonetheless mixed in with El-P's Cancer 4 Cure material. Those two guys have been bringing it, no doubt.
Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo was up next. It's too bad some sets at the festival are criminally short, so there's only a small portion of YLT's catalog that I was able to witness. The badass "Stockholm Syndrome" and the numbing "Autumn Sweater" (stripped down and intimate, while still captivating all together). The crunchy Fade opener "Ohm" was terrific as well. As I said, YLT is a band that no matter how long they play, it doesn't seem like it is long enough. After their set, I ventured over to catch Sky Ferreria for a handful of tracks, and I was a bit underwhelmed overall. She kept apologizing for things for no reason, and I was hoping for more of a pop-star type show from her, which wasn't really the case. I didn't anticipate being blown away by her performance anyway, but I went away fairly bored.
Luckily enough, one of the best sets of the weekend came next from Chairlift. As I discussed in the preview, the release of Something last year was one of the best albums I heard all year, and during their set "I Belong in Your Arms" sounded like a straight-up hit if I've ever heard one. What a song. They opened the set with an opera-esque introduction, then ripped into their set in the early evening sunlight. Really hit it out of the park with this performance.
Rock star of the weekend award goes to, of course, M.I.A. Pretty incredible to finally see her in a live setting, after everything her career has been through. Even though the sound was a bit off for her, the performance was stellar. She was pulling out all the stops with the stage set up, plus the stage dancers, and even had Lady Gaga as a side stage spectator. No joke. The stars were out, and the star of the night hadn't even gone on yet.
R. Kelly. The headliner of the entire festival, R. Kelly went on to close out the weekend, and even though the rain started to come down a bit in a spitting manner, the set was worthwhile. The festival booked a huge star to headline, and that's what they got. Closing with "I Believe I Can Fly" and releasing a ton of paper doves into the air is a hell of a way to close out the set, and the weekend, for that matter.
My legs and feet are shot. Time to sit for awhile.
All photos courtesy of Sean O'Connor.