[FESTIVAL REVIEW] Pitchfork Music Festival ’11

The Pitchfork Music Festival is sold on Pitchfork’s reputation almost as much as it is on the lineup. Each year, the top six acts tend to be decent draws, but the rest of the lineup is filled out with bands that are still touring the small to mid-size rock clubs. Some of the bands at this year’s festival would be lucky to draw more than 50 people outside of New York and L.A. That makes for a strange festival crowd, mostly made up of people who don’t look like they make it to a lot of other music festivals. This year was a weird mix of pot-smoking teens (Odd Future fans), graduate students (Destroyer fans), tattooed parents (Superchunk fans), and overdressed hipsters there just because it’s Pitchfork (dubstep fans, but that will change by the time I hit “publish”).

That group of people gathered together for a good (not quite great) weekend of music. All that was missing were a few more exciting acts near the top. Few of the top billed performers were able to match the energy of Big Boi, Major Lazer, Wolf Parade, and LCD Soundsystem last year, and I think it had a noticeable effect on the festival’s overall energy. Hopefully Pitchfork noticed, too. I like this festival and would love to make my third trip next year, but it’s going to depend on the lineup.

Check out pictures and a long-winded account of every band I saw after the jump.

Friday

EMA

EMA is Erika M. Anderson, a South Dakota native who was formerly one half of noise-folk duo Gowns. Anderson is responsible for one of my favorite albums of 2011, and Gowns put out one of my favorites of the past decade, so I will admit to having high hopes for EMA’s festival-opening performance. I wasn’t completely disappointed, but I do feel like Anderson and company have yet to hit their stride as a live band. The songs from Past Life Martyred Saints as performed live are not nearly as intense as the claustrophobic album versions. The weirdness of that album’s production was muted in favor of a more straightforward indie rock sound. That’s a good thing for rockers like “Red Star,” but it drains some of the power from songs like “Marked.” It was a good performance on its own terms, but I was hoping it would draw blood. Maybe it would have been better in a club.

Battles

Battles, on the other hand, had no problems meeting my unfairly high expectations on the Green Stage. I’m incredibly happy that they stuck together after Tyondai Braxton’s departure, because the remaining three members still share a special kind of chemistry you find in few other bands. They were the first main stage band of the weekend, and the first to draw a huge crowd. It was a receptive crowd, too – you can almost dance to many of their songs, and much of the crowd was almost dancing. Or at least head-bobbing.

The biggest change between this configuration and the previous one is how little Ian Williams actually plays guitar. I didn’t use a stopwatch or anything, but it seemed to me he spent more time playing the two keyboards angled at his sides than he did playing the instrument that earned him his reputation. Also, he did lots of goofy kicks. The other major difference is that the vocals are pre-recorded now, with video projections of the Gloss Drop singers accompanying the relevant songs. Other than that, it’s business as usual – Dave Konopka still patiently cranks out guitar and bass loops, and John Stanier still sweats profusely and lunges for that six foot high crash cymbal. They even played “Atlas,” which was a surprise as I was under the impression they had permanently retired all Braxton-era material.

On the Red Stage, Thurston Moore stuck almost entirely to songs from the recently released Demolished Thoughts, backed by a band that included a harpist, violinist, drummer, and second acoustic guitarist. The set was possibly the quietest one of the weekend, which is funny considering Moore’s day job. It was a mellow way to spend nearly an hour in the sunny but pleasant afternoon weather. Not the most captivating set of the festival, but a nice breather.

Neko Case

I mostly wandered around during Das Racist and Guided By Voices, so the next full set I caught was Neko Case on the Red Stage. This was the second time I’ve seen her live, and the second time I’ve been dumbstruck by how amazing she sounds in person. Next time maybe I’ll be prepared. Her voice just sounds bigger and more nuanced than it does on her already impressive recordings, and she has surrounded herself with a band that nails down her country-noir sound perfectly. “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” was epic and just the right amount of creepy, and “That Teenage Feeling” put that mildly discomforting guitar line right out in front of the mix. It was the perfect accompaniment for Case’s powerful vocals. Plus, I’m not sure anyone’s better at stage banter.

We stuck around for maybe 45 minutes of Animal Collective, who did nothing for me. Even the Animal Collective fans in my group wanted to leave early. Oh well, at least I successfully avoided James Blake.

Saturday

Woods

My Saturday started with Woods on the Red Stage, who took turns alternating between folk-pop songs and extended psych jams, much like they do on this year’s Sun and Shade. They’re surprisingly disciplined in both modes, but still hazy enough to suit the early afternoon heat. Woods have been quietly going about their business for a few years now, and if the size of their crowd at Pitchfork is any indication, that bullshit-free work ethic has earned them a respectable fan base. Good for them.

G-Side

After I left Woods, I caught pieces of Sun Airway (good, but the mix was way off) and Cold Cave (trying too hard). Then came G-Side on the Blue Stage, the least buzzed about hip hop act at the festival. That’s a shame, because they were easily the best. The duo hit all the highlights from The One…Cohesive, along with a few older cuts. Their “Slow Motion Sound” gets amped up on-stage, and the presence of two backup singers helps a lot. Hip hop tends to be hit or miss with Pitchfork crowds, but they seemed to go over very well with the audience, many of whom had probably never heard them before. They obviously love performing, and that attitude is infectious, even at 2:50 on a Saturday afternoon. One of the three best performances I saw all weekend.

this kid loved G-Side

I passed on No Age to hydrate and get some food. As much as I like them, they aren’t necessarily what I want to see at a festival. I heard a few songs as I crossed the back of the field, including a perfunctory cover of The Misfits’ “Hybrid Moments,” and I don’t regret my decision.

As I was watching Gang Gang Dance on the Green Stage, I realized that I am no longer a Gang Gang Dance fan. What they’re currently doing isn’t necessarily bad, but it just doesn’t interest me. I was very much into what they were doing circa God’s Money, but they’ve softened their edges and basically become a jam band. Singer Lizzi Bougatsos has an interesting presence, though, and the last 10 minutes produced some grooves that started to grab my attention. Still, I can’t say I’ll be going out of my way to see them again.

We decided to lock down a spot close to the main stage for The Dismemberment Plan, which meant I didn’t get to fully enjoy Destroyer‘s Red Stage set. It sounded nice enough, but from our distance it just sort of melted into elevator music. It was a necessary sacrifice, though. Dismemberment Plan was fantastic, the highlight of the festival, and a dream come true for a fan like myself who had given up on ever seeing them live. It was the quickest hour-long set I’ve ever seen, but everything they played was killer. My personal highlights were probably “The Ice of Boston,” “The Face of the Earth,” and “You Are Invited,” but it all sounded perfect. Travis Morrison can still sing and speed-speak through all the trickiest parts without losing clarity, and the rhythm section was seamless. The good-natured banter and level of precision on-stage made it hard to believe this is a band that was inactive for years. Please, please, please let them be a full-time band again.

DJ Shadow

Poor DJ Shadow. Not only did he have to follow D-Plan, he had to do it without the aid of his visuals. Shadow has recently been performing inside an orb called the Shadowsphere. The interactions between the visuals on the sphere and the visuals projected onto his backdrop apparently make for some pretty cool accompaniment, but it was still way too bright at 7:25 to see hardly anything. He was basically just performing from inside an opaque white ball. It was a little better when he gave in and just opened the ball up so that he was visible while he performed, but it was hard to shake the feeling that we were only getting half the performance. At least the music sounded good, especially toward the beginning, but he lost me a bit when he started leaning on the heavy bass wobble.

Fleet Foxes headlined Saturday night, and they captured my attention slightly more than Animal Collective. We still left early, though. They make pleasant, accomplished music, but I just can’t connect with it.

Sunday

Sunday was miserably hot, so it was convenient that most of the acts I wanted to see were performing on the small, shaded Blue Stage. I’m not sure my pallid skin could have withstood that sun all day. The equally pallid Yuck was the first band I saw, performing on the Red Stage during the hottest part of the day. They are a very promising band, and I really like their self-titled debut, but the combined force of their slower songs and the overhead sun sapped the energy straight out of my festival-weary legs. I saw the first four songs then listened to the rest from the shade. They closed with a nice chunk of Dinosaur Jr noise.

After that, it was off to the shaded Blue Stage for Twin Sister. I had almost written them off as just another generic indie-pop band, but they were much more interesting than I remembered. There’s an offbeat pulse underneath all those dream pop trappings. I’ll definitely give them another shot.

Tyler, the Creator

I left Twin Sister early to get a good vantage point for OFWGKTA back at the Red Stage. Their set was neither a train wreck nor a triumph, and you should ignore anyone who tells you otherwise. It was just 45 minutes of energetic kids with hit or miss mic skills rapping over minimal beats. If the shock tactics turn you off, that’s totally fair, but it’s impossible to deny that they can work a crowd.

This music isn’t even meant for all the beard-strokers that are writing about it anyway – it’s for the children. There was a steady stream of teenage gatecrashers all day leading up to Odd Future’s performance, and I doubt they were jumping over Port-a-Johns and hoofing it away from event staff so they could see Superchunk. They’re immature and amateurish, but their commitment to both qualities makes them kind of endearing. I thought the set was only so-so as a musical performance, but I probably would have loved it when I was in my teens. And fuck everything, I still like most of MellowHype, Earl, Bastard, and a bunch of stuff from the mixtapes.

After that it was back to the Blue Stage for a bit of Shabazz Palaces. I didn’t catch much, but what I did hear was spacey and unique. I need to listen to Black Up more often.

Baths was up next, dropping his Aphex Twin-meets-hip hop beats in front of a huge crowd that must have been at least partially inflated by Ariel Pink‘s main stage hissy fit. Pink left the stage for good after 25 minutes, meaning Baths played unopposed for most of his set. Baths capitalized and played to one of the most enthusiastic audiences I saw on the small stage all weekend.

Kylesa

Kykesa unfortunately didn’t retain most of Baths’ crowd, but I guess that was to be expected. They were the lone metal band in a lineup that skewed much lighter. The faithful that did assemble gladly ate up the heavy psych-sludge extended by the Savannah metal heroes, even managing to form a small but respectable mosh pit. It was heavy and wonderful and a welcome shot in the arm to counter late afternoon fatigue.

The Blue Stage crowd changed once again for Toro y Moi, this time becoming much younger and less beardy. I think Toro is my favorite artist to have ever been lumped in with the whole chillwave thing, but it still all kind of blurs together after awhile. Underneath the Pine is definitely a step in the right direction, though, and I enjoyed his/their set enough that I wouldn’t mind catching him/them again sometime under the right circumstances. Chaz Bundick said this was probably the biggest crowd they had ever performed for…in the States. I thought that was amusing.

Cut Copy

We left Toro a little early to find a place near the Red Stage for Cut Copy. As it turned out, there were no available spaces near the Red Stage for Cut Copy. The crowd was massive, possibly the biggest I saw all weekend. Luckily, the band is well-suited to this kind of massive festival show. Favorites like “Lights and Music” and especially “Heart’s On Fire” have hooks that can’t be denied, no matter how far away you are from the stage. They are legitimately ready to start headlining festivals this size.

TV on the Radio

And then came TV on the Radio, the final performance of the weekend and the only headliner I really cared about seeing. They played a well-balanced set that pulled from all four albums and the Young Liars EP, ensuring that there was something for both the casual and the hardcore fans. I always assumed they would be a cool and reserved live band, but loose and passionate was closer to the truth. Tunde Adepimbe is a full-on rock front man, and the rest of the band plays the up-tempo songs more furiously than might be expected given the expert studio calculation of their albums. The best moment of the set was “Wolf Like Me,” because of course it was. That song is bottled adrenaline, and they wisely put it near the end of the set. “A Method” followed, presumably so everyone could catch their breath before the band launched into a cover of motherfucking “Waiting Room.” We left before they closed with “Satellite,” hoping to beat the mad rush for the train.

Random thoughts/gripes

  •  The camera crane on the Red Stage was horribly intrusive if you were on the left side of the stage.  I’m sure the streaming video was great, but it was obnoxious for the 18,000 people actually at the festival.
  • The Blue Stage was scheduled more appropriately this year than last year.
  • It blows that Heineken is the only beer sponsor (and therefore vendor).  I feel abused while drinking a $5 Heineken.
  • I saw G-Side wandering around more than any other artist all weekend.  They seemed to be having a good time.
  • All of my friends went to see James Blake instead of Neko Case.  None of them enjoyed Blake.
  • Props to the kids that got busted for blatantly smoking pot 50 feet from the entrance roughly 15 minutes after gates opened on Friday when hardly anybody was even inside yet.  Top notch decision making right there.
  • I mentioned G-Side was one of my three favorite performances.  The Dismemberment Plan and Battles were the other two, in case you were wondering.  Neko Case and TV on the Radio round out the top 5.
  • Performances I wish I had seen:  Tune-Yards, Deerhunter, Superchunk
  • My dream headliners for next year:  Aphex Twin, Elvis Costello, and a Fugazi reunion
  • I just put “next year” and “Fugazi reunion” in the same line.  Check my SEO game.
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