Monday, July 16, 2007

Pitchfork Music Festival 2007 – Saturday

On a gorgeous Saturday, the Pitchfork Music festival emitted more than just sound from Chicago’s Union Park. There were good vibes, good food, and smells that ranged from the horrible to the sublime. But truly, everyone was there for the bands. The 2006 festival set an extremely high mark, despite the fact that the temperature cleared 100 degrees. Superior weather, more space for the side stage, and a complete sellout filled the weekend with promise.

Doors were supposed to open at noon, but no one was allowed admittance until after 12:45. While this may have caused bigger problems at some festivals, the Ashland Ave. throng was patient and well behaved. The delay was caused by the people who were supposed to wet down the baseball infields to avoid dust flying around. Glasgow’s The Twilight Sad opened the day on a mellow tone, starting with a song that generated little reaction from the crowd. That frontman James Graham rarely acknowledged or even faced the audience didn’t help matters. He spent nearly the entire set facing sideways with his eyes shut. The only one on stage visibly exuding enthusiasm was drummer Mark Devine. But as the set moved along, the energy picked up and the crowd responded. Everything built to their single, "And She Would Darken the Memory of Youth". Certainly able to write a catchy melody, this is a band with a lot of potential. The set showed promise, even if it felt like the entire band was somewhere else. Califone was up next, and I hung in there for two songs, but they weren’t doing anything to compel me to watch. So I took that time to peruse the rest of the festival. The most unique thing about the Pitchfork festival is the poster art fair. We spoke to a few of the artists who were all friendly and looking to discuss their work. There was some amazing stuff for sale and if I had a place worth decorating, I would have been in the market. Check out Vahalla Studios for an example of what was available.

Voxtrot of Austin, TX is probably a little too peppy for me – or rather there’re a little not rawkin’ enough. They kept their energy up throughout their jangly, strummy set and people watching seemed very pleased. I think they would benefit from some heavier riffing and drumming, but that’s not to say they didn’t play well.

Grizzly Bear was one of the bands I was most eager to see, but I was unsure how their delicate music would play at a festival show. Sure enough, at our initial position, two guys behind us were chatting throughout each song. They were talking about Grizzly Bear, each trying to top the other in what he knew, but if they were so into the band, shouldn’t they have been listening? This annoyed the hell out of me, but when a couple in front of us left, we took their vacated spot and all was right in the world. Grizzly Bear live is an experience. They are definitely not suited for a festival show, but all four members sing, creating dreamy harmonies that ebb and flow like a breeze. Instruments are swapped in and out frequently; we saw an autoharp, a recorder, a mini Yamaha keyboard, and a clarinet fed through something that lowered its output by about six octaves. The band is constantly busy, particularly drummer Christopher Bear. There were some technical complications with the clarinet-to-lefthandonapipeorgan thing, but they were quickly remedied and the show continued. Anyone unfamiliar with their music beforehand was probably not drawn to the performance, but I thought they were brilliant. I would love to see them perform at their own show. They said that this is the end of their tour, but I thought they were opening for Feist on all their recent shows. I’m crossing my fingers for a Metro or at least Vic show sometime soon. I’m fairly certain that I completely messed this up, so consider it 100% guessing – feel free to leave a note with any corrections! But here’s my best guess at Grizzly Bear’s setlist:
Fix It
“Final Round” (new song?)
Deep Blue Sea
A song I didn’t recognize (another new one?)
On a Neck, On a Spit

Prog rock supergoroup, Battles fought off their own technical problems (this will be a running theme) and left everyone talking. I set up near the sound booth and spent the entire set lamenting that I hadn't made my way closer. Battles is the kind of band you wish you could watch perform in a small closet – (see their video for an example). The first thing you notice is that John Stanier has the highest crash cymbal in the history of rock and roll (beating out Silversun Pickups’ Chris Guanlao by about a foot and a half). It’s so high that he has to look up to find it for each attack. Stanier is the centerpiece of the band, and he’s also the engine that makes things go. He’s the de facto frontman. Based on the chatter around the festival after their set, most attendees came away very impressed. While I enjoyed their performance, it was less than I was hoping for. Perhaps their album is mixed so well that they can’t recreate the details, but to me they felt a little “jammy”. The songs tended towards a steady rhythm and volume, and I was hoping for a buildup in intensity. Perhaps my expectations were too lofty – or maybe it was all the technical problems that derailed the set halfway through. They stood out as being a superb band, but I wanted to go crazy and they didn’t present that opportunity.
I took a relaxing break during Iron and Wine which meets with what they’re doing on stage. They sounded really good, but I was kicking back and talking with friends for a bit. Samuel Beam, sporting a woolly mane and beard, did come out and do an encore cover of Radiohead’s "No Surprises" which was in itself a surprise.

Oxford Collapse had the unfortunate position of playing on the Balance stage (where there was never enough volume) at the same time that Mastodon was rattling thoraxes on the Connector. That made it difficult to hear them at all. There was not enough sound coming out of the system they had in place, and on the first song, we couldn’t hear any vocals or guitar. In the middle of the set, the vocals completely dropped away and I saw at least seven people look to the sound booth to see if anyone was even there. Once they saw that there was indeed someone working the booth, their look changed to a glare that said, “what are you doing?” Eventually things ironed themselves out, but it didn’t help the performance at all. The band played fine, and incorporated a sax and some additional percussion. But they need to add another guitar player. They can’t get enough sound to fit their songs out of the three instruments they have on stage.
As soon as Oxford Collapse finished, a huge press of people pushed forward in anticipation of Dan Deacon. It was a very tight squeeze, particularly since my friends were all at Cat Power. As he often does, Deacon set up in the audience for his electronic dance party which for some reason motivated people to press forward that much more. Getting closer was not going to result in seeing anything. Here’s the picture I took from my vantage point about twenty yards away: It was packed. Deacon urged dancing from the entire audience saying, “you don’t dance with your eyes, you dance with your feet.” This did not deter the throng from pushing closer. People tried to dance, but it was nearly impossible with no room to move. On roughly the fourth song, a few dance circles opened up which was great fun. And suddenly the set was over. The police had arrived and promoters were justifiably concerned about safety. I’m not sure if it was the crowd surfing over concrete or possibility of people spilling onto Ogden Avenue that had them worried, but they announced a “twenty or thirty minute break” which meant Deacon was done. The festival handed out water to anyone who wanted it between sets which was smart. I can’t imagine bigger festivals having the wherewithal to do such a thing.

But things were no more comfortable for Girl Talk. My biggest problem was that I could not evade a man who possessed the worst B.O. I’ve encountered in my life. He kept his arms up most of the set as well. But there was nowhere to go. The stage was almost as packed as the audience. People in various states of undress were dancing and throwing confetti to the audience. The highlight of the set was when Grizzly Bear came out and sang “Knife” with Greg Gillis providing his Girl Talk treatment of hip-hop beats and electronic buzzes behind their vocals. Gillis' performance is impressive. As my friend Chris said, "He can DJ my party anytime." But after forty minutes or so, I had to escape. It would have been much better if I had some of my friends with me, but they couldn’t reach where I was. So I was dancing while pressed against strangers, one of whom reeked. Getting out of there was no easy task. The mass of people went back about a hundred yards before it began to thin. I can't imagine the people at the back could even hear anything.
Finally, Yoko Ono took the stage with most people seemingly sticking around out of curiosity. The thing most people don’t realize is that Yoko is 74 years old. Just to be out there and putting on a show at that age deserves some credit. Her set featured a lot of wailing and guttural vocal output. Most of the people passing by were giggling as they departed. After the “mashup” at the Balance stage and nine hours of rawking out in the sun, I was out of gas and headed home.

It was a superb day. For my money, Grizzly Bear was the most impressive act on Saturday, though most of the audience seemed really taken with Battles. As others have said, there needed to be more room and more volume for Dan Deacon and Girl Talk. Perhaps the organizers did too good a job getting talent on the Balance stage. Something to think about for next year. There are clearly way more people here this year. Even though last year’s lineup was phenomenal, I assume it was not sold out. Or if it was, they increased capacity this year. All were well-behaved and relatively cordial to one another. After one day, I feel like I’d already received my 35 bucks worth, and I look forward to Sunday’s festivities.


Anonymous said...

this was a nice review, i like the way you write. i was unable to attend saturday and sunday but i wanted to be there quite badly. it sounds like it was an overall great day.

Unknown said...

thanks for the review - looking forward to reading your thoughts about sunday - the balance stage was definitely frustrating but one great show that happened there was the fujiya and miyagi set - it was a lot more rocking and grooving that I thought it was going to be - my favorite set on saturday

Anonymous said...

hey! thanks for this. I totally am bummed about not being there on saturday. sam beam singing radiohead alone would have been worth the $.

Unknown said...

I was very surprised by how much I liked Oxford Collapse. For my money, on Saturday all of the best performances were on the balance stage-- but you really needed to work your way up close (or to the side of stage right) to get a decent sound mix. Vandermark and Parker were really good and are not getting much mention in the blogs. The interplay in F&M was much more interesting live, but their sound was absolutely lost if you didn't pick up some of the stage mix. After a long hot day, with so many artists in full-on "serious" mode, hearing the expanded Oxford Collapse (three drummers + sax) play a very creepy version of Tusk put a big smile on my face.