September 19, 2007

Pitchfork gives music festival a 7.4; hipsters rejoice

Indie’s eccentric tastemaker Pitchfork Media threw its third annual music festival from July 13–15 in Chicago’s Union Park. Unlike some other summer fests, Pitchfork is affordable—from the tickets to the vegan ice cream—and tends to be a very chill experience. Attendees lounge in the grass, read in the shade, and peruse attractions such as the Flatstock Poster Convention about as much as they fight to the front of sweaty crowds to catch acts like Yoko Ono, the New Pornographers, and Girl Talk. Though this could be an indication of the forced blasé-ness of the fan base, it can make for a pressure-free environment. This year’s festival was larger than previous incarnations, with an added Friday night show and a third large stage for performers on Saturday and Sunday.

Though the festival organizers took full advantage of the expanded venues, the fest was not flawless. One of the two larger stages had serious sound issues, which made otherwise fantastic songs sound muddy and messy. The third stage was also a bit of a problem. At last year’s festival it had been smaller, inside a tent, and unbearably hot, so getting in to see the acts took some serious devotion, and hanging out meant smelliness and lots of other people’s sweat—on you. This year’s expanded third stage was awkwardly placed so the crowd was pushed in between a corridor of fences. The tight space and bigger acts made for some awkward concert viewing, especially for buzz-gaining acts like Beach House and Fujiya + Miyagi.

The festival kicked off on Friday night with the indie-rock version of retro hero worship—seminal albums that are now 15–20 years old, played in their entirety by bands that are probably past their prime. Slint’s Spiderland crawled creepily along, and when GZA played Liquid Swords, the crowd responded with incredible gratitude—though a few people failed to recognize the difference between the Wu-Tang “w” hand sign and the one favored by Weezer fans. Headliners Sonic Youth played somewhat altered versions of the tracks on Daydream Nation. Moreover, the range of Friday’s lineup was a portent of what was to come over the ensuing weekend.

On Saturday, the ironic T-shirts and charming wrist tattoos of Pitchfork crowds descended again, as well as a bevy of crafters and record sellers, who set up in a large tent toward the edge of the park. The return of the poster convention was also welcomed, as a weekend in the park is a long time to just sit around and listen to music. Consumerism, as always, remains a welcome distraction.

Saturday’s lineup was eccentric and had some scheduling conflicts, but almost every performer put on a good set. Yoko Ono, the headliner, was joined by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth for her artful caterwauling. She also appeared really, really tiny on the massive stage, but with a great amount of poise. The Balance Stage headliner was Girl Talk, who mixed an enthusiastic set featuring an inflatable black spider, onstage dancing, and members of Grizzly Bear and Deerhunter singing the vocal part of Grizzly Bear’s “Knife” in Girl Talk’s remix of the song. The crowd was very rowdy, and security cut the set short. Before Girl Talk took the stage, Dan Deacon’s set was also shortened by equipment that was actually smoking. Other highlights of Saturday include Voxtrot’s nervous-yet-elated awkwardness and the super intensity of Battles’ set.

Sunday was headlined by De la Soul (the fact that all three headliners are acts who are arguably past their prime says something about just how hard it is to get an appropriate amount of cred nowadays). Of Montreal played the most muddied set of the festival, but it was almost redeemed by their superb showmanship. The show seemed like something that lead singer and songwriter Kevin Barnes’ therapist had asked him to create. Barnes took the stage in a cowboy suit and then a corset. Other members of the band were costumed as Darth Vader, a rave-worthy angel, and something involving a gold bodysuit and gold-painted face. These dark and whimsical get-ups were appropriate considering the psychedelic break-up epic of the most recent album, and the theatrics of the set toned down the arch seriousness of the general Pitchfork enthusiast. Another highlight of Sunday was Chicago’s Cool Kids, who performed to a giant crowd at the Balance stage. The hip-hop duo was almost overwhelmed at the sight of so many fans including, cutely enough, their families, who beamed from the front of the crowd.

This kind of tiny detail is what makes Pitchfork worth it—for every glaring aspect of cookie-cutter sub-culture, it’s humanizing how enthusiastic people are about the music and its performance. The intensity of cult performers is supplemented by the intensity of the cult audience. For every person wearing large sunglasses and standing in the beer line or sleeping on the grass, there’s another mashed up against the metal barriers in front of the stage, eyes wide open and singing along.