NOTE: This is the first of a three-part series chronicling my Pitchfork Music Festival experience. Check back for more info on Saturday and Sunday’s performances later today and Wednesday.
Two days before flying to Chicago last week I watched “Horrible Bosses”, a comedy about a trio of friends who conspired to kill their asshole bosses. I went into the movie theater with ground level expectations. To my chagrin, the movie sucked more than I expected.
The same could be said for my feelings toward the first day of Pitchfork Music Festival. I started with low expectations. Yet I still came away underwhelmed.
Aside from tUnE-yArDs (and EMA to a lesser extent), most of the bands I witnessed Friday possessed little redeeming value. My time would have been better spent exploring downtown Chicago than attending Pitchfork’s opening day. Thankfully the festival’s final two days made up for Friday’s lackluster opening, but I will get into this more later.
Technically, the first band I saw at this year’s Pitchfork was Gatekeeper, an electronic duo who I had never before heard. I stayed for one and a half songs and then decided to check out EMA, a four-piece alt-rock band who earlier this year received a coveted Best New Music tag from Pitchfork for their album, Past Life Martyred Saints.
Contrary to Google’s belief, EMA is not shorthand for European Medicines Association or Environmental Media Association. It stands for Erika M. Anderson.
EMA put on a solid show, if not a great one. Anderson’s awkward stage banter was enjoyable, particularly her quip about Boyz II Men playing her hometown mall in South Dakota.
Still, I couldn’t help feeling EMA would have been better suited for the smaller blue stage. Anderson looked like the band’s only member willing to soak in the moment. A massive dyed-blond bang swallowed the right side of her face as she shimmied while strumming her guitar.
EMA’s other three members, including Anderson’s younger sister on drums, didn’t do anything to capture my attention. They were along for the proverbial ride.
If that last paragraph came across negative … well, it’s just a solid show on Friday would have been a so-so or subpar show on Saturday and Sunday.
tUnE-yArDs took the blue stage after EMA wrapped its set on the larger stage. The two should have flipped stages. I’m not complaining though. I’m glad I saw Merrill Garbus and Co. perform on the more intimate stage.
I’ve largely avoided listening to tUnE-yArDs in the past because I found their first album, BiRd-BrAiNs, a bit too scatter-brained and disorienting. The music had a catch-all feeling, throwing in genres like R&B, funk, and Afro-pop in ways that were difficult to digest.
The Oakland, Calif., duo’s absorbing live set Friday afternoon made me view them in a totally different light.
Hearing Garbus sing and bark and chant live was like watching a gymnast contort their body in a display of simultaneous grace and power and skill. Garbus, who was clad in leopard print outfit, exhibited a striking display of vocal athleticism.
And … that was just the soundcheck.
Once the show began, Garbus’ live singing coupled with her pre-recorded vocal loops were a revelation. The coupling of her authoritative percussion and Nate Brenner’s sprightly bass playing won over many in the crowd, including myself.
The biggest ovations came for “Bizness” and “Gangsta”, two songs that should be required listening for indie music fans everywhere this year. They were among my first day highlights. Precious few followed.
If tUnE-yArDs cast a considerable shadow on the blue stage, NOLA rapper Curren$y aimed to encourage his devotees to chase it away with weed smoke. He issued this lower-eyed ultimatum after damn near every song. His marijuana evangelism struck me as more impressive than his music, though I’d bet Wiz Khalifa would blow smoke rings around him. When I finally departed the blue stage for a food stand, alas it wasn’t because I had the munchies.
On the green stage, Guided By Voices frontman Robert Pollard promised to inject the festival with some “professional rock’n'roll” at the outset of his band’s set on the green stage. By all accounts, Pollard’s crew were much rowdier than Thurston Moore, who played an acoustic set, but a corpse could have done that trick Friday evening.
I’m not a Guided By Voices fan. I don’t get the hoopla about their music. Their set didn’t resonate with me in any way.
Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to walk to the blue stage to see joke-rappers Das Racist. I saw DR a few months back and felt indifferent toward them. They’re neither comedians nor rappers. This time I would just wait around for Neko Case near the red stage.
What a voice Case possesses! I feel like her soaring voice convinces birds flying overhead to temporarily touch down so they can get a better look at who is making this sound.
It’s a pity then that I was bored by Case’s songs. The whole set of country and western-tinged tunes made me feel like I was at the Grand Ole Opry. Except I did not want to be at the Grand Ole Opry or anywhere in Tennessee, for that matter.
Would it have been too much for Case to sing “A Letter From An Occupant”? Scratch that question. This wasn’t a New Pornographers show. I wish it would have been though.
That left Animal Collective as the day’s final act.
I exited Union Park early during Animal Collective’s headlining slot in 2008. I expected to leave early again. Why you ask? Because Animal Collective is one of the few bands that uses its live shows as a glorified scrimmage, if you will. They work out kinks in unrecorded material to prepare it for future release.
And while, the tropicalia acid bath the Baltimore quartet rolled out in their set’s first two or three songs offered promise, pretty soon all their songs bled into one another. I wasn’t the only one who lost interest.
Hundreds, if not thousands, departed during the first half of Animal Collective’s set. Indeed, as soon as I reached the “el” line, the band launched into Merriweather Post Pavilion standout, “Brothersport.” Damn the luck!
By the time they closed with “Summertime Clothes”, I was long gone. I had a karaoke bar to conquer. Unlike Animal Collective, I gave my “fans” what they wanted to hear — “Milkshake” by Kelis.