It might take heat for being hipster-centric, but four years running and the Pitchfork Music Festival remains one of the best when it comes to offering fans the right balance of music for the buck. On top of that, it’s a festival that continues to feed the mainstream music genre, specifically the 800 pound gorilla that is Lollapalooza. Each year a handful of bands that play Pitchfork usually end up on the bill for Lollapalooza the following year, i.e. Lady Sovereign, Girl Talk, and Vampire Weekend. The downside of Pitchfork is that not all the bands are ready to play live, or they’re just hollow hype altogether. They might have put out a great record, built a blog following, and received rave reviews, but it’s a whole different challenge to play live in the middle of the day in front of twenty thousand fans. Some bands surprised me with a great live show, but others weren’t as successful at convincing me that the hipster hype was valid.
The three-stage set up fits perfectly in Union Park. As I did the last two years, I bounced back and forth among the stages, sampling new sonics, munching on bratwursts and guzzling root beer, and standing in line at the port-a-potties with the other fans, like we were all in some sort of Olympic track meet/game-show — waiting to sprint when the next door handle turned from red to green.
This year, opening night on Friday was in the hands of the fans. As part of “Write the Night,” fans who paid for a ticket before a certain date had the chance to request which songs Tortoise, the Jesus Lizard, and Built to Spill would play. It was an empowering twist for fans and a diversion from previous years where bands played classic albums in their entirety. But not all the bands stuck to the request list completely.
Chicago’s local rock history ruled the bill on Friday with indie rockers Tortoise and The Jesus Lizard. Tortoise played along giving fans their set list choices. And I didn’t see anyone complaining when they broke the rules and played a new song from Beacons of Ancestorship (2009). Then Jesus Lizard front man David Yow lit the burners, driving away a bit of the steady drizzle and chill as the sun sank in the sky. Backed by growling guitars (Duane Denison) and a snarling and slithery stomp of bass (David William Sims) and drums (Mac McNeilly), he cranked up the crowd with bullet-like sweat-drenched stage dives. He burned off even more energy via spontaneous push-ups as the newly reunited Jesus Lizard satisfied the masses.
Fans sipped frothy beers on spread-out picnic blankets and settled in for Friday’s final set. Built To Spill’s laid-back approach was the antithesis to the explosions and buzz still lingering in my mind from Public Enemy’s closing Friday set last year. Lead singer/guitarist Doug Martsch crooned soft and gentle as fans around me discussed each song note for note. Some fought off yawns and one fan even spilled his beer on a picnic blanket in front of me. I wondered if it might have been also been built into the “Write the Night” plan, too. In any case, I stood amazed and in awe as Built to Spill performed one of the largest, sweetest and most cuddly melodic lullabies rocking fans to sleep with a persistent pleasure purr.
I didn’t expect to contract eye fungus, but on Saturday afternoon it was the burly frontman Pink Eye, leader screamer of punk rockers Fucked Up, who obliterated the barrier between the crowd and the band. The band rained down walls of guitars and drums and Pink Eye shot vials of amplified adrenalin into Union Park. Like a pro wrestler gunning for a record deal, he howled lyrics and chewed on beach balls as fans in the first rows rubbed his sweaty bald noggin. The show was early on so I felt sorry for other bands that would have to match such an infectious performance — and few did.
Then it was time to explore mysterious rhymes of rapper Daniel Dumile (formerly MF Doom). As he’s done several times in his career going back to his days with 3RD Base, Dumile doesn’t like to stick to one moniker too long, so he recently dropped the MF and now goes by Doom these days. Adding controversy to this Pitchfork show, over the last year Doom has been accused of putting on fake shows and sending an impostor to lip sync his shows. But with Born Like This (2009) released recently, I was looking to put an end to the mystery. And see if the real Doom was going to show up.
Since he was hiding behind his trademark gleaming silver gladiator mask and donning a shredded camouflage suit, it was hard to tell if it was really him, or if he was really rapping live. Some fans around me called out “fake” and “fraud” while others didn’t seem to care as we all bumped and hopped to the beats and rhymes whether they were live, or not. On album, Doom can flat out-rhyme and deliver a punch line with the best of them. He doesn’t seem to be limited and has mastered the art of ending his couplets in rhyme without being predictable. I was hoping for a peek underneath that mythical mask during the show, because I still wasn’t convinced it was him. Nonetheless I left pumped and topped off with enough silly funk-filled mystery to last me to his next show.
Brooklyn quintet Yeasayer’s debut album All Hours Cymbals (2007) has been a favorite over the last two years, but like other Pitchfork bands they weren’t immune to the daylight festival virus strand that claimed several sets. They were energetic and full of emotion. But I felt only the tips and slight touches of their otherwise intoxicating and exotic mix of gypsy melodies and rhythms and synth-flavored rock. The songs floated around aimlessly and failed to penetrate my heart and ears like they’ve done before.
I knew what I was in store for with the Black Lips because for the last few years I’ve followed their crazy and ridiculously destructive, albeit entertaining, trail of live shows on album and in reviews. But I was expecting more from them for my first live show. Shock, definitely, but the awe never came. And smashing a guitar after the first song didn’t surprise me. If they would’ve played the guitar, that would have awed me. Sadly, though, their set came across more as if they’re the victims of their own recklessness. They’re bordering on self-caricature while working themselves into a stylistic prison, if they haven’t already. They got the murky and jangly garage-rock down pat. But it’s clear that live it’s more about over-compensating for skills they haven’t yet acquired. I left hoping The National could wrap Saturday up on a higher note.
As they took the stage, I heard some fans around me question if The National qualified as a worthy headliner. I would say they did. Like Built to Spill the night before, the Brooklyn quintet blanketed Union Park with rhythmic somber swells of rock filling me with just enough ethereal fumes from Alligator (2005) and Boxer (2007) to float me happily home.
Emcee Troy Jamerson (aka Pharoahe Monch) and his crew baptized the Pitchfork crowd with flames of hip hop, fire and soul. “Let’s get some aggression out!” Monch declared as he charged into “Stress” and “Fuck You,” spitting complex rhymes over classic rocksteady break beats and turntablistic scratching. Monch jokingly tested the crowd’s knowledge, asking them if they knew about a group called Organized Konfusion (his former crew) and told them to expect a reunion album soon. The crowd roared louder as hypeman Showtime and an accompanying soul singer all continued to turn Union Park into a banging Sunday afternoon hip hop church revival tent.
On the same stage, a few hours later, the Walkmen showed why they were in Pitchfork 2009’s elite group of bands who knew how to take their performance to higher ground regardless of sunshine or location. Hamilton Leithauser (vocals, guitar) crooned through a string of tracks from swinging lovers travelogue You and Me (2009) and climaxed with the intensely seething “Rat.” Fans flung themselves into a frenzy dancing on their blankets that quilted Union Park’s grassy floor.
The Flaming Lips are a magnificent spectacle. That’s all I could think of as I watched each band member crawl out of a digital vagina that flashed on the massive video screen back drop during the show’s dramatic introduction. Wayne Coyne floated, like he always does, over the crowd in a gigantic bubble as blasts of confetti erupted from stage-side cannon. Fans cheered when Coyne dedicated the first song “Bad Day” to local Chicago Sun-Times rock reporter Jim Derogatis (who wrote the Flaming Lips biography Staring at Sound). Like a quirky, yet masterful, psychedelic circus showman, Coyne pulled out a list of songs on tatter paper.
Prior to this show, and though the Lips weren’t part of the official “Write the Night,” Coyne had requested fans choose the songs they wanted so they too could hear the songs they wanted. “This list is twenty five songs long,” Coyne joked. “…looking at this list I can say we were already going to play most of these anyway. So, you see, [every] Flaming Lips show is a ‘Write the Night’ show.”
A warm summer breeze blew tiny shreds of confetti into the Chicago nighttime sky as the psychedelic trip rolled on in with “She Don’t Use Jelly.” And like those cannon blasts of confetti that exploded above the heads fans in the crowd, Pitchfork 2009 ended in one climatic thrust as the Lips asked the most poignant question of the weekend via the revelatory psych-pop ballad “Do You Realize?”