Über indie music review website Pitchfork held its annual festival in Chicago’s Grant Park, Friday to Sunday, July 18th to 20th.
3:20: Hundred Waters kicked off the festival with the indie drawl of Pitchfork Fridays past (remember Julianna Barwick’s looped vocals in the early afternoon in Union Park just a few years back?). I was looking forward to catching the Tallahassee band’s earlier material after a friend talked up their older releases, but the recent single and latest album material was too precious to convince anyone of the body language overdone on the swells of those tiny digitals. A nervous joke about covering the recently broken up Death Grips upstaged the centerpiece vocals and flute to the small group of early birds there to see smaller early acts. There was potential in the self-reported conceptual angle of the band, but only if they can figure out how to propel their stage presence and track-to-track variation to something more compelling than the dimensional flatness of Au Revoir Simone seven-inch singles.
4:35: If you didn’t pay attention to the yeaps and yowls of Neneh Cherry’s set, you’d think it was traceless of her hit “Buffalo Stance”. Her personality decades later is the same as it was as the brightly poppy video girl of 1988, dancing in sneakers and multicolored denim with band Rocketnumbernine. Her music is strangely formless on Blank Project, leaving a lot open onstage, save rounding out the set with her classic single and pleasing old fans on her second-ever North American performance.
6:25: Pitchfork’s more independent main stage acts are generally confronted with the problem of adjusting their live setup for the size and acoustics of the outdoors – last year SWANS performed on a claustrophobic stage space and the typical assault of frequencies and bass changed the performances of “Oxygen” and other precisely arranged songs entirely. Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon opted for a full live band with harmonies and fitting reverb to flesh out older tracks and the newer material off Benji, though the set wasn’t without its problems. Clear lyrics were muffled and lost in the arrangements and at one point the band began in the wrong key, ruffling Kozelek, who already threw some strange comments to his audience about its racial diversity. Opting to sing his closing track about disturbing childhood sexual experiences standing with the microphone like it was attached to a karaoke machine, the casualness overcompensated appropriately, self-consciously. Even if you couldn’t make out the winding lyrics of “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes”, the driving guitar carried every track back into itself and its original tone. Just like I felt leaving the crowd at Slowdive on Sunday, I’d be very happy to see Sun Kil Moon in any venue or incarnation.
7:15: “You’re something special! You’ve got to shout it out!” So many people dancing in the crowd seemed to think so. Holding cigarettes and joints in the air away from the hair and heads swaying to the kindergarten cries of Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks, maybe this side project could have moved to the Green Stage, if they’d earned the same praise and repeat releases as project-mate Panda Bear. But for anyone expecting to see the video and inflatables of Animal Collective’s shows (QRO live review), the lighting rigs and occasional smoke machines seemed to be the only real visuals on the three stages. Flashing lights and sporadic colors might have worked fine for Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks, but the Blue Stage crowd itself was the lively stage presence for a soundtrack closer to the multicolored keyboard-pop of Neon Indian than the visual weirdness promised in the videos for “Little Fang” or anything by the Collective. Speeding up the tracks for a live daytime crowd worked better than expected, massively turning the set’s tone from the dysmorphic Muppet of Orbit’s “Wonky” video or Grizzly Bear’s “Ready, Able” Claymation into a taping of Pancake Mountain suited for kids in protective headphones.
7:20: Giorgio Moroder was virtually unknown as a performer until this weekend, a tremendous shame for everyone who caught even a minute of the live webcast. Moroder mashed everything from his early work with Donna Summer to Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”, throwing video montages on the screen with his trademark aviator and mustache avatar, saluting the crowd with two-finger guns and countdowns to the beat. By the second encore – Moroder’s own unfussed production of Blondie hit “Call Me” – no one could honestly say they were disappointed Daft Punk didn’t show up. A pop dance party in the best way imaginable.
8:30: After the sun set, Beck’s lighting stocked the main stage and picked up right where Moroder left off on a very high note, capping off a long, energetic set with “Devil’s Haircut”, “Gamma Ray” and “Loser” and easing into his newer, slower and somber material mid-set. Beck echoed Moroder with Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and ended with “Girl” and “E-Pro”, running police tape across the length of the stage before defying the end of the set with “Sexx Laws” and dancing the whole band into a frenzied medley of “Where It’s At”. At one point, Beck grabbed a pedal manipulated to resemble a robot when it malfunctioned, conversing with the broken prop in his red Hawaiian shirt and hat before whipping out four separate harmonicas to solo – his material may have grown more world-weary, but he’ll always be the Beck we all fell in love with for his nerdy, boyishly square charm.
1:00: Twin Peaks woke up Pitchfork’s Saturday crowd, destroying the neck of a guitar, declaring their lack of insurance funds for injuries after throwing it to the crowd. Maybe the Chicago boys of Twin Peaks should be more careful, after breaking a leg before the festival and being the only wheelchair-bearing artist of the weekend? They definitely played like they’re certainly willing to break an arm or two in the process.
1:45: Ka is a virtual unknown to concertgoers there for the rap headliners like Schoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar, though his Bronzeville-based lyrics work out the legitimate struggle of violent summers like the ones rapped about in Chicago. His work is a little darker and more slowed down than club-ready singles like “ADHD”, but I paid more attention during Ka’s midday set than I could in Lamar’s massive closing crowd by a landslide. Here’s hoping he gets pushed up to a bigger slot next time, because his worn voice and anti-anthem subject matter is more relevant and urgent than ever.
3:20: Cleveland-natives Cloud Nothings played a sun-drenched afternoon set, at times in harmony and in conflict with the darker moods of their Albini-produced work. Grungy, angsty and fast-paced, Dylan Baldi hoarsely and clearly got the desperate points across that no one else with a beard at the fest could have articulated.
4:15: Pusha T was half an hour late and no one faulted him (even when he tore through his own tracks to interrupt with Kanye and Chief Keef covers). Pusha T forever.
5:15: I didn’t expect to like tUnE-yArDs again, not after seeing Merrill Garbus stage-level without her costumes opening for tours with Xiu Xiu and Talk Normal. However, after a few shows, it appears the kinks have been worked out and the set seemed more adult than its packaging. If Garbus keeps pushing her pipes over the rhythmic structures and major key exoticism now tired out for this generational wave by bands like Vampire Weekend, more tracks like “Powa” will stop 18,000 people cold on a distracted summer day.
6:15: Danny Brown emerged from the foil of his DJ in head-to-toe black leather, his normally askew hair trimmed up a dyed green. He was just as foul-mouthed as usual, but the man he talked up fit the clothes. By Sunday, it started to seem like half of the rap acts shut down the hype, the other half wanting to be responsible for creating it. Brown was relaxed, confident, and talked the big game, he and Earl Sweatshirt moving just under a pace that would have suggested strain.
6:45: Like Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks, The Field could have handled a larger stage if it wasn’t for the schedule. The looping, morphing and bleeding beats were interesting in their height and range, even keeping their resonance on an outdoor stage thanks to the sound engineering. Props to the Pitchfork crew for keeping the high- and low-ends intact, and to The Field for working to craft sets that never fail, no matter where and when they’re booked.
7:25: St. Vincent’s only disappointment on Saturday would be the shortness of her set and the recycling of her black and gold dress (worn just days before on Letterman – QRO Music On Late Night TV). Her shows have become more and more visual, with cubic set pieces and choreography involving her entire band, and the rehearsed aspect was puzzlingly interrupted with addresses to the interstellar ‘freaks’ of the audience. Annie Clark’s pseudo-Bowie phase wore nicely on the park crowd, a sort of plate glass distance broken in old guitar solos on tracks like “Marrow” and “Your Lips Are Red”, though the stars were singles performed identically on TV appearances throughout the year. Clark (QRO interview) is striking a pose between Lady Gaga and a Barbie Doll, with enough self-awareness and practice on tour with David Byrne (QRO album review together) to know when to let up.
7:45: FKA Twigs contorted and twisted through her set, decked in an un-ironic ‘90s pajama-style set and dark glasses that made her namesake frame appear Whoopi Goldberg-ish until she (thankfully) shed it. The set felt choreographed, maybe lip-synched, but ultimately unsatisfying if you’ve already played her new material as much as I have in the weeks leading up to her Pitchfork set. I think what may have been stage fright or vocal compromise for the sake of Thalia Barnett’s dance background made her appear a lot less experienced than her production and vocalizations demonstrate on record or in a smaller venue. Hopefully the complicated arrangements can be reworked next time to show off her high range and whispers in the more improvised style of her vocal layering on LP1.
1:00: Speedy Ortiz and Sadie Dupuis both embody music that draws from an age, though as a whole is of undeterminable age. Dupuis carried on the 2014 festival tradition of leading women making music that isn’t sitting in its own femininity and apologizing for it. Live, Speedy Ortiz sounds more like a shredding, classic garage band than the lo-fi cover artwork suggests, all the more reason to wear a skirt and remind the fashion blogger attendees that every easily-named style is in reality a shapeshift.
1:55: Perfect Pussy tore through the early afternoon with a setup that no one would have recognized as hardcore until 2014. Meredith Graves fought screaming and kicking through half an hour of her own true pain in a sundress, streaming mascara tears as people started to truly lose their minds with her. I was looking forward to her set the most along with FKA Twigs, and even after catching them on their rigorous touring schedule several times in the last year, seeing Graves onstage photographing the crowd with her camera at the close of the set felt like a milestone and a victory.
2:30: So that’s the band responsible for those “Sunbather” shirts? I’d thought it was an overlooked Washed Out (QRO spotlight on) EP at first. Deafheaven seem to get off on the genre-bending, with the screams pitched up a little high for black metal, in my opinion, the gestures a little too Christian rock. Four long, memorable songs in, I understand why and where the references are there, and it’s kind of my thing, not just my teenage metal-leanings resurfacing. Singer George Clarke’s shirt is ripped open twice while crowdsurfing, the camera zooming in on an indiscernible tattoo as he buttons himself back into place. No sunbathing tan for this guy. By set’s end, I believe whatever he’s screaming. I even want a shirt.
3:20: “Chicago you know your city’s history? That’s fucked up!” “Tell me what your name is and if I don’t like it you’re Bart forever.” “Our song stopped… maybe God doesn’t want us to play that song. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be.” Earl Sweatshirt did half-comedy routine, half old school gross-out rhymes Pitchfork teen parents would be horrified of.
4:45: Jon Hopkins played a classic laptop set that dug itself out of a dub-ish beat early on and into balanced bass and glassy top percussion on the Blue Stage.
5:15: Real Estate gave a characteristically sunny performance, throwing the beachiest beach party ever held in a grassy park. Bright jazz chords and pastels, shades and flowers all over this crowd.
6:15: One of the most-awaited sets of the evening came from the recently reunited Slowdive. Thankfully the sunnier nature of their shoegaze has become more to appreciate in their absence from touring, and the sound setup let the balance and volume come out enough to flood the whole park at its perimeters. Judging by the wide smile, people were very happy to see them, and they seemed very happy to play a long, incredible set.
6:45: DJ Spinn was there to represent not only himself and his Teklife label, but DJ Rashad, who passed just months before his Pitchfork set was scheduled. Spinn opened with Rashad’s “Let It Go” before Grimes began lining up a crowd.
7:25: Grimes displayed newly added mic stands, markedly more makeup and professional dancers in her live set, coming down from a platform to vogue to the audience. Playing her Rihanna-rejected track “Go” and an old collaboration with festival mates Majical Cloudz, her yet-unnamed tracks boasted more formal pop arrangements of the radio-play sort. Visions (QRO review) songs like “Circumambient” and “Genesis” were amped up with new live arrangements, as promised, but the new tracks lacked the complexity of her last album. They sounded like a work in progress. But gone is the Grimes who wraps the microphone around her neck to stroke keyboards; her bouncy, improvised dancing and stage fan gave the set even more visual presence than her last year at Pitchfork, even if it lacked the direction her last full-length exuded as the bulk of her live repertoire.
8:30 By Kendrick Lamar’s headlining set, Sunday ticket holders there for Slowdive sneaked out early, making room for everyone else to fill Grant Park’s lawn and kill off remaining energy. The crowd kept with the Chicago native’s singles and mellow ebbs, letting the caffeine high of “A.D.H.D.” and “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” taper off into short monologues about hometown pride. Mid-paced “Swimming Pools” held the best for choruses everyone could pick up and get behind, but with Lamar closing out, Pitchfork balanced their weekend-long preaching of sampling ‘Best New Music’ picks with the mass enthusiasm of the already-converted. Hopefully Moroder will be helped on his promise to come back next year and share a headlining slot with another crowd-pleasing, local big name (cheers, Kanye…).
-Michelle Sinksy & Eric Unger