Pitchfork Music Festival - Indie Utopian Society
Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus best summed up the 2010 Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, “Just remember that inside these walls is the perfect Utopian society,” he said. “But out there is the real world.”
Yes, the Pitchfork world, where everyone wears skinny jeans, owns a state of the art mobile device, and has enough disposable income to buy vinyl versions of all those free mp3 downloads. The Pitchfork world; where the pilgrimage to the Promised Land begins, as we join 54,000 sweaty music fans for three days to drink the indie kool-aid at Union Park.
Broken Social Scene
We arrived early at the park, part of the throngs ready to take in some good music. There are three stages spread out over a vast area. The Aluminum and Connector stages are the largest ones located out in the open field with no protection from the sun. The smaller Balance stage is tucked away from the main stages in a back corner with numerous trees offering shade to the sweaty masses. Needless to say the Connector stage was popular as a reprieve from the blistering sun and humidity all weekend.
We head over to catch Sharon Van Etten who kicks off the festival with a brief 30 minute set of haunting, lyrically rich songs. Her set at SXSW won us over and it was nice to see her get the much deserved exposure at Pitchfork. Sharon seemed to be infatuated with the large festival setting commenting about her image on one of the projection screens. It must be surreal to see your face on one of those giant screens for the first time. Before you knew it, her set was over.
Kristen Matteson, aka The Tallest Man on Earth had a large crowd gathered for his set. Opening with the title track to his new album “The Wild Hunt,” Matteson converted the non believers through seven songs from his first two releases stopping momentarily to tell the crowd that “he hadn’t slept in two days” and “You’re catching me at my weakest.” With all insecurities set aside, The Tallest Man on Earth puts in a respectable performance, but 30 minutes does not do him justice.
It’s time for a dinner break as we wash down a couple of veggie buffers with fresh lemonade. We’re pacing ourselves to start drinking beer for the Liars show which starts shortly. Oh well, might as well pick up two Heinekens to go. It’s always nice to see a group with an aggressive, in your face attitude tear through a set that makes you feel like you’re in a club. Liars did that complete with a Bauhaus cover of “In the Flat Field” that brought the house down.
Sweden’s Robyn offered up some dance pop anthems that seemed a little out of place for an indie music festival. She reminded me of a blonde Sheana Easton who treaded the same territory back in the 80s. Broken Social Scene overcame technical difficulties to raise the energy level of the evening ending with a rousing version of “Meet Me in the Basement” from their latest album “Forgiveness Rock Record.” You could see the gelling of the band with the new material since we last saw them in March at SXSW in Austin. Modest Mouse finished off the first night of Pitchfork with a focused diligence, bypassing older material like “Float On” in favor of more obscure songs from their body of work. Somehow they hype surrounding the Modest Mouse show didn’t seem to live up to its billing and you got that vibe from the crowd.
We start off another hot day with Free Energy on the Aluminum stage. Their seventies-infused rock, melding the best of indie and classic rock sensibilities, plays to a noticeably large crowd, a bit unusual for the first act of the day starting at 1pm. This is the third time we’ve seen Free Energy this year and their enthusiasm never wanes as the buzz surrounding the band continues to grow by leaps and bounds.
The New Jersey indie contingent of Real Estate and Titus Andronicus are a great combination on the Connector stage . Real Estate’s sparse, compact rhythms soothe the steamy atmosphere of the park as temperatures and humidity levels rise. We’re starting on the beer earlier today as the heat begins to take its toll. Titus Andronicus puts on one of the best performance of the festival with Patrick Stickles and company stoking the crowd’s energy level in the mid day sun. At one point Stickles talks about a show they played at the Project Lodge in Madison, WI this past March and dedicates a song to “Ellen from Madison.” Evidently, Ellen couldn’t make it to the Madison show because of a medical emergency and managed to bump into Titus Andronicus at Pitchfork while the band was doing an interview resulting in the song dedication. Titus Andronicus's latest, a Civil War tribute called "The Monitor," is one of the best albums of the year.
LCD Soundsystem had a much grittier, stripped down sound live which surprisingly made me much more of a fan. I was expecting a somewhat clinical synth-laden experience and ended up rockin’ out to another excellent festival performance. In between the trips to the beer and food tents, we managed to squeeze in the John Spencer Blues Explosion, Panda Bear, Sonny and the Sunsets and Bear in Heaven.
By the final day of Pitchfork, the burn-out demons start to rear their ugly heads. Two days of beer, sun and veggie burgers begin to take their toll. We took in L.A’s Best Coast and Cass Mcombs before meeting up with some friends for our faves Local Natives who played an explosive show to a full Balance stage audience. Girls attempt to drum up some energy during the hottest part of the day but ultimately fall flat.
Sometime it’s just better to experience indie bands in a club setting to get their best performance. Playing big stages in front of large crowds can be very intimidating for most bands not accustomed to it. Plus the pressure of the Pitchfork spotlight that can either make or break an artist must be intense.
Beach House came through with an intriguing set whose ambiance was destroyed by the presence of large diamond stage props that looked like they came right out of a high school play. Maybe Gayngs can reuse them on their “Last Prom” tour. St. Vincent shone brightly with her usual tight set looking amazing in a short orange dress.
Major Lazer was entertaining with their Chinese serpent mascot stage show, complete with a cavalcade of dancers including Ballerinas, teasing the audience into a funk haze. After a while though the pre-recorded backing tracks began to wear thin for me.
The big show of the evening was the over-hyped reunion of Pavement who ran through an uneven set that touched on all five of their albums, opening the night with "Cut Your Hair.” Stephen Malkmus and company excelled at the ragged slacker-inspired anthems delivered in a loose manner, sometimes with painfully awkward false starts. Hey, it’s only Pitchfork. Who cares if we’re not tight? The audience response was tepid at best, especially compared to the previous night’s boisterous crowd for LCD Soundsystem. Ladies and Gentleman, Pavement has left the building, or in this case Union Park, with no encore.
Pitchfork: The Final Word
Chicago skyline from the "L" platform
From the headliners Broken Social Scene, LCD Soundsystem, Pavement and Modest Mouse to newer acts like Sleigh Bells and Local Natives Pitchfork’s music line-up was diverse enough for most people’s taste. With a strategic spattering of hip hop and dance oriented artists to keep everyone happy. The group consensus was that the line-up may have been a tad subdued. Major Lazer and Robyn may not have been our cup of tea, but they offset the large contingent of low-fi buzz bands.
The corporate sponsors were hidden away in a corner of the park. You know, it’s hard to maintain that DIY feel with Fortune 500 companies horning in on everything. American Express, AMP and Toyota were certainly trying to gain some indie cred that Pitchfork generates, but in a low key way. The only high profile sponsors that we saw continually over the three day festival were the eMusic contingent in brightly colored t-shirts handing out free digital download cards.
Pitchfork is a smaller festival than Coachella or Bonnaroo with less hype and what we found to be more of a laid back vibe. Also, people in downtown Chicago don’t camp either. We became familiar with the Chicago Transit Authority “L” train route taking it round-trip everyday from our Michigan Avenue hotel. Despite the heat, the three days were manageable and the food and drink fare were better than expected. Of course, being from Wisconsin, the limited choice of beer was not to our liking but at least we weren’t forced to drink Miller lite. Although, I can’t remember the last time I had to drink Heineken (the official beer sponsor) for an entire weekend. We’ll be back next year to offer our consulting services on a beer sponsor.