Pitchfork Music Festival 2013

Posted July 25, 2013 in
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PITCHFORK MUSIC FESTIVAL 2013. Photo: Christian Schultz

Another Pitchfork Music Festival has come and gone, leaving in its summer wake a fantastic tangle of performances, pictures, #hashtags, tweets, Instagrams and glistening memories. The annual summer festival, curated by the immaculate Pitchfork.com, functions as a showcase for important artists of the current alt music zeitgeist, and its curation every year is flawless. It’s a festivalgoer’s festival, designed for people whose ears are tuned for innovation and artistry, that caters to musicians and their fans, of Avant-pop and experimental music alike. This year marked the 9th anniversary of the weekend event, featured headlining performances by Björk, Belle & Sebastian and R. Kelly, plus over 40 other performers, a tent of independent book publishers, record, craft and poster fairs, and local Chicago food and beer. Here’s who I saw, what I heard, things I purchased, the times I stood in crowds waiting to see that one special band—all the experiences that I’ve since crystallized into memory.

FRIDAY 07.19: BJÖRK

The festival opens at 3 p.m. on Friday afternoon. I got there earlier than that though, for press check-in. I’ve never covered an entire festival before, or anything out of state, so this process was somewhat nerve-wracking, going in cold. I figured it would be easy––I’d wait patiently and observe the guy in front of me. Act cool. When he told the volunteers that he was a writer for Brooklyn Vegan, though, my heart skipped. It fully dawned on me then, that this is Pitchfork’s own festival, a sort of reunion for the freelance Pitchfork family, who are some of the best writers, photographers and music journalists in the alternative music community, not to mention all those from publications elsewhere around the world. Here I am, a doe-eyed kid with SLUG Magazine out of Salt Lake (<3 U Guys & Gals), bunking with Internet writers whose articles are read widely (within a certain niche, granted) around the world. I gulped down the frog in my throat and guessed that I’d earned the honor somehow.

When I crossed over into the park, I was struck by its size. Though I attended last year, I hadn’t seen the place empty. Dressed in stages and tents, Union Park seemed isolated from its city surroundings. After coming through western entrances on Ashland, I found myself facing a large stage across the end of a massive field decorated in green pendants of various sizes and shapes. Perpendicular to that, facing south is a similarly large stage with red pendants. Those are the Green and Red Stages, big enough for the more popular headliners to perform in. 

I stepped out into the field and observed the festival in its quiet moments before crowds of today’s youth––pastel haired tumblr darlings, cyberpunk acid ravers, straight bros and the women that love them, sports goths, American Apparel’d color-blocking hipsters, metal doodz, post-punk art/gays, future primitives, etc.––would fill it. Though empty of these masses until 3 p.m., the whole place was buzzing with dozens of volunteers hurriedly attending to last-minute details––nailing down tents, assembling the stages, moving merchandise in. Past the shady grove of trees at the field’s south end is a string of food and alcohol vendors. Follow that east and back north for the Flatstock poster tents, the Book Fort, the CHIRP (Chicago Independent Radio Project) Record Fair and Cotiere, a bazaar of local craft artists and jewelers. South of there, pleasantly shaded by trees, you’d find the Blue Stage.

I watched the entrance from afar as the opening neared. When the time came, I saw hardline Björk fans gushing from there towards the Green Stage where she would perform that evening. She doesn’t tour that often, and day passes for the fest are so affordable that her performance was perhaps the most anticipated set of the festival. Might as well call this year’s PitchBjörk. I saw multiple people in Björk “costumes” on Friday, from simple Icelandic flags to a spot-on recreation of her infamous Swan Dress. Without a doubt, it was my most anticipated. Last year, I’d survived the intensely hyped Grimes set from the very front row, dead center, where I lost the balance of my right leg for 40 minutes, which helped strengthen my resolve for any of the number of hyped acts this year, Björk especially. 

Brooklyn artist Frankie Rose had the challenging task of opening the festival. Freshly blond and wearing a Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me T-shirt, Rose and her current band stuck mostly to her newer songs. Nostalgia for late ’80s Cure is certainly apparent on her newest album, Interstellar, inspired by the ’80s dream pop sound, which she relied heavily on during her set. Nods to her indie pop past were absent, though, as was any material from her period with her band The Outs. The current lineup––synths, guitar, bass and drums––sounded great, as the Interstellar tracks truly are stellar. What a great way to start the festival.

After catching Frankie, I crossed over to Red Stage where I met up with ex-Salt Lake resident, the magnificent songwriter Brent Colbert of The Awful Truth. He’d come down from Minneapolis with a gang of friends to catch some of Friday’s acts. We watched part of Mac Demarco’s great set from afar of the Green Stage, before heading back to Blue to catch Chicago native Angel Olsen. Demarco is sort of a wild card for Captured Tracks. He’s irreverent, sarcastic, and hilarious as a performer, and musically diverse. He played a number of tragically unhip covers, including “Enter Sandman” and “Takin’ Care of Business,” dad-rock tunes to me, alongside his own tracks. His own tune, “Ode To Viceroy” was a highlight, in which he heavily drew from Stephen Malkmus’ slacker vocal posture. As we made our way from Green to Blue, he was mumbling the chorus to Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine,” half-jokingly and maybe half-seriously too. What a goofball! 

When Angel Olsen performed in Salt Lake earlier this year, her twangy folk songs benefited from the dimly lit backyard atmosphere of Kilby Court. I had confidence in her playing a hometown show, but I wasn’t sure what she and her band were going to sound like on a sweltering summer day in Chicago humidity. I should have never doubted anything about Olsen, those songs were as dynamic and penetrating on a bright sunny day as they were back home at Kilby. She played a bunch of songs of her second album, Half Way Home: “Acrobat” and “The Sky Just Opened Up” were two highlights that lulled the crowd into a gentle lonesome mood. Her powerful voice, with its near-country yodel, really shined through the songs to captivate all onlookers.

Friday continued breezily enough. The sets at Pitchfork are rigidly scheduled, making transitions always seamless. It works out pretty well for most performers, even though earlier in the day, bands may be stuck with fairly short timeslots. While I was grabbing some beer, I heard Woods from afar, which was pleasant enough. Then I got closer to the Green stage to see the legendary British outfit Wire, the oldest band that was performing at the festival. They’d probably get worked up at the mention of their age though, because they were intent on confounding the notion that they would need to rely on their earliest and most popular material. Their debut album, 1979’s Pink Flag, is a seminal punk influence. They played new songs only, mostly from their most recent album Change Becomes Us, but also one that they’d barely written. It must be refreshing for them to escape the lust for a nostalgia band, but I got the sense that there wasn’t much connection between the audience and the new material. Singer Colin Newman wore a long sleeve black shirt and black pants. It was nearly 100 degrees. Check out my interview with them here

As Wire finished, I grabbed a beer and zigzagged into Björk’s audience. Twenty after seven pm, as Björk’s crew assembled her electronic-laden stage, harpist/songwriter Joanna Newsom clocked in across the yard. Though I was committed to Björk, I wanted to see Newsom across the field as well. Such conflicts are an inherent part of any festival––to spread so much talent throughout three days there must be overlap. Red and Green stages are so close together that for the final acts of the evening, the park congeals into one big collective mass. Fortunately, Newsom’s beautifully odd voice and elegant instrumentation––just herself on harp and then piano––floated over the mass towards us. Those of us interested in hearing Björk and Newsom––(there’s a certain heritage from one to the other)––could hear Newsom play material both old and brand new, from her repertoire of essentially eccentric, affecting folk songs.

At Björk’s request, photography is not allowed during her concerts. I had to forgo capturing the more cerebral moments so that I could (A) respect the wishes of an artist I admire and (B) not get thrown out (she’s been known to call people out for it). Pitchfork photographer Tonje Theilsen took some beautiful pictures that match Björk’s atmospheric intentions. This is what a photo of Björk looks like from the vantage point of a respectful fan––tesla coil used as an instrument over her glistening Maiko Takeda'd head, stage bejeweled with a gorgeous choir of Icelandic angels, about a dozen of them, half in blue gowns, half in brown, video screens with various animations and electronics tuned for a Biophilia heavy set––a beautiful spectacle. Björk’s voice somersaulted over crystalline beats for an hour, through older tracks like “One Day,” Pagan Poetry,” “Hidden Place,” “Heirloom” and Biophilia’s “Cosmogony,” “Thunderbolt,” “Crystalline” and “Moon.” “Army of Me,” which had the dancers bouncing all over the stage, was the most bombastic song of her set by far. Other songs from her mid-’90s pop period––“Hunter” and “Joga”––were crowd highlights. After a “Mutual Core” Björk was directed to end her set early due to an incoming thunderstorm. "That would be nothing in Iceland," she proclaimed. The ending was abrupt and unexpected, quite shocking actually. "Hyper-ballad," "Pluto," "Declare Independence," a trip to trip-hop heaven was promised; still, a shimmering and stunning performance from an absolute icon of pop culture. I took the Ashland bus home violently happy. 

SATURDAY 07.21: BELLE & SEBASTIAN

The first act that I caught Saturday afternoon was Tampa’s Merchandise. I saw the band at Kilby Court earlier this year and reviewed the show too. I’m fortunate to have gotten to see them again because this time around they played two songs off of their Children of Desire EP that they hadn’t played in Salt Lake––“Time” and “Become What You Are”––which are my two favorites of theirs. “Time” was incredible. Late in the set, on a beast of a hot Chicago summer day, my aesthetic self evaporated into the ephemeral sky. They saved “Become What You Are” for last due to the sonic madness it ends up as after about six minutes, which I ditched to find Savages starting up at Green Stage.

Any important post-goth-punk-art/punk or whatever kind of singer coming out of Britain is going to get an Ian Curtis comparison, and because Jehnny Beth is a female, why not Siouxsie as well. She definitely looked like an androgynous Curtis, in boyish hair, black dress pants and sturdy brown heels, and confronted her audience like he would have, (the song title “Fuckers” should enlighten the comparison), though she isn’t much like Siouxsie, beyond being a pale British singer. Once she started singing, a better comparison came to mind––Patti Smith, if she were more earnestly trying to sing. Often the most apt comparison I can draw to Gemma Thompson’s sonic swirling guitar playing is Joshua Hayward’s of The Horrors. The band’s debut Silence Yourself is the post-punk revival buzz album of the now, and their performance delivered much hyped promise. 

The punk ethos continued with Swans, Michael Gira’s current formation of his band that’s been around since the early ‘80s. Like Wire, these guys are pretty intent on playing newer material only. They ended up playing four songs in their hour-long timeslot, which acted as an affront on the conventions of songwriting. The only way to experience Swans is to get as close as you can to the machines emitting noise stay, listen until it’s over, though perhaps you may never shake the experience. Those songs––those noises, rather––aren’t geared to stop and start. They are felt, experienced through the physicality of the body, its placement in a physical space. Which is why I left 30 minutes into the whole damn thing to reapply sunscreen, fill my water bottle and grab a good spot in front of Green Stage before The Breeders began.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of The Breeders’ popular and critically influential album Last Splash, and the original lineup of Kim Deal’s (of Pixies fame) side project turned absolute ’90s alt. rock standards has been touring to celebrate. At 6:15 exactly, as Swans’ sonic blitz was slowly fading away and the guys were still mulling about their stage, the four ladies of The Breeders marched to their posts resiliently. Rrrrrriot girls indeed. They were going to play Last Splash from start to finish, which was a refreshing bit of pop clarity after enduring Swans’ noise. After a brief warm-up, they tore through the album opener “New Year” to get to “Cannonball,” their massive MTV hit (via its Spike Jonze and Kim Gordon directed video). Kim and her sister Kelly were bubbly and fun. Their amusing banter between songs awarded them a friendly presence and put the focus on the album. Great moments were Kelly’s singing on “I Just Wanna Get Along,” the grunge-pop rocking “Roi,” Josephine Wiggs solid bass playing on “S.O.S.” and the sugary sweet “Divine Hammer.” They even finished the whole thing with enough time for an extra song, “Oh!” from their first album Pod. 

Though my heart was standing up with my tired body after The Breeders in anticipation of Stuart Murdoch’s indie pop melodrama, my pompis would liked to have been twerking itself with Solange and her fans at Red. Peering above the crowd I could see the blast everyone was having over there. Yes, she’s Beyonce’s little sister, but her music is her own––funky, groovy and soulful. She certainly delivered a crowd-pleasing performance, from what I could see.

Hopefully, you Salt Lakers had fun with Belle & Sebastian when they played Twilight last week. I sure did, across the treacherous middle of America over here in Chicago. Did Stuart Murdoch make you all feel welcome? Perhaps he invited a number of people on stage to dance along to “The Boy With The Arab Strap,” or put mascara on a boy from the audience during “Lord Anthony,” or brought someone on stage to read the spoken word portions of “Dirty Dream Number 2”? Did you sway gently into the evening to the wrench in your quiet heart tunes from If You’re Feeling Sinister? I hope you all were gracious hosts to those first-time visitors to SLC. Here in Chicago, the crowd was gorgeous, happy, respectful and playful––no doubt because of the band’s contagious charm. The core of the band was all there as well as a small string section and trumpet player. The tunes they played from Sinister were lovely sing-alongs; “I’m A Cuckoo” and “Another Sunny Day” were fantastic indie pop dance numbers and then Stevie Jackson’s turn singing on “To Be Myself Completely” was a nice break from Murdoch’s breathy vocals. Despite the rain that fell down on us and gave all a scare (remember how they stopped Björk?) throughout the set, Murdoch and company kept us warm and made us feel perfectly at home. 

SUNDAY 07.21: R. KELLY

At the park’s eastern edge lays a multi-tented bazaar that houses the CHIRP Record Fair, Book Fort, Coterie Craft Fair and Flatstock Poster Show. Sunday afternoon I went over to check it out. For a Utah comparison, imagine Randy’s Records Dollar Sale, Craft Lake City, Gallery Stroll and a dozen Twilight concerts all happening throughout the course of a day. Though at CHIRP, short for the Chicago Independent Radio Project, instead of the 400 copies of The Way We Were and thousands of classical recordings, like you’d find at a Randy’s Dollar Sale, there are actually records worth emptying your pockets for. Labels set up shop as well, selling their merchandise directly, sometimes even pulling out rare items from their stockpiles. I browsed but had some tough decisions to make. After finding Blake Butler’s book Scorch Atlas at the Book Fort, my mind was set.

Sunday is hip hop day at Pitchfork: El-P, Killer Mike, Lil B, TNGHT, DJ Rashad and Tree represented the genre nicely. Sunday also held a number of hyped buzz acts––Sky Ferreira, Blood Orange, Evian Christ and Autre Ne Veux. I caught enough of Autre Ne Veux’s raspy R&B pop songs to make him an act that I’d remember later. Blood Orange (Dev Hynes, or the artist formerly known as Lightspeed Champion), put on a great set as well, joined by Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek for a song that they’re working on. He also did a quick version of “Everything is Embarrassing,” a song that he co-wrote for Ferreira. 

I saw Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield play a solo acoustic show earlier this year in the living room of fellow SLUG kid Robin Banks. There were about 25 other people there, mostly local musicians of the young punk scene in Salt Lake. We all knew how devastatingly personal Crutchfield is as a songwriter, but the tears collected in everyone’s eyes, downright sobbing from some, were a great indication of just how keenly Crutchfield can make her personal heartbreaks and youthful existentialism universal. So this time around, I was excited to see Crutchfield with her band, playing more songs from her neater, tighter-sounding album of this year, Cerulean Salt. Her newer songs sounded brilliant, but the translation of “Noccalula,” “American Weekend” and “Grass Stain” to rock n’ roll dropped some of those songs’ sorrow. I mean, people were dancing to “Grass Stain.” Weird. All I could do was silently sob. But Somewhere in the distance, Yo La Tengo was playing “Autumn Sweater” for the millionth time.

Sky Ferreira is this year’s hype darling, a 20-year-old, almost-commercial pop singer trying a turn as an indie artist. While her band was sound checking, Ferreira came down to the crowd and started taking selfies with her fans. She’s pretty cool, I thought to myself. Stepping up to the microphone, Ferreira belted out the first line of Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” and then said, “Yeah, sounds good.” She’s definitely cool. She was an odd act to watch though. As her pretty boy band churned out her songs one after the other, she got super emotional about playing to such a large audience. She really was crying, but would then tear into these fiercely confrontational poses and bratty songs. I couldn’t figure it out until Blood Orange’s Hynes joined her for another take on “Everything Is Embarrassing.”

In between Ferreira and Chairlift, both at Blue, on the other side of the park, was Lil B. This was by far the cruelest time crunch of the festival for me. I admire his positivity and his post-Internet sensibilities, but I never spent much time listening to his tracks. I checked out his performance for a bit, which was pretty exciting actually, before ducking back over to Blue for Chairlift. 

Chairlift was the first act I ever saw at Urban Lounge, back in early 2012 when they were touring for Something. Out of everyone I saw over the weekend, Chairlift seemed to be slighted the most by the short timeslots. I felt as if their set of three super experimental new songs, four from Something and “Bruises,” (infused with a “Melt With You” refrain), was over way too fast. As always, they are an incredible live act and they dealt with the little time they had gracefully.

I heard half of an M.I.A. song from way far away, and it sounded alright despite the fuss I read about later surrounding her performance. Apparently she was having major technical difficulties, which didn’t seem to sway the crowd from a massive “Paper Planes” sing-along. I heard Lady Gaga was watching the set from backstage.

Though R. Kelly and TNGHT had yet to play, Glass Candy made a bold closing statement with their evening set. Johnny Jewel started out the music of the set by himself. Then Ida No, dressed in white, with long blond braids, hopped onstage and grabbed the mic. I saw them in Salt Lake once, at Club Sound, opening for another band, around the time B/E/A/T/B/O/X came out. I don’t think I’d seen anything like them before––I believe it was my first introduction to avant-garde electronic music, if you can believe it. Johnny Jewel fixated on that electronic box of his, Ida No hopping and sashaying all about the stage and into the crowd, not necessarily even singing half the time, but about-singing, not quite following through, falling flat in a campy way. What were they all about? As Ida No bounced on from back stage, the same naiveté struck me, that now I am a part of their secret. They ended with “Warm In The Winter” and as those warm synths pranced off of the stage, so did No, leaping into the crowd as Jewel held the refrain. Laying on her back she was handed off all the way to the edge of the crowd and back in the arms of a trustworthy crowd. 

The final major headliner was Chicago born and bred R&B titan R. Kelly. Conflictions and objections ran through my head leading up to his performance. The man is an incredible songwriter and singer, might even be the Sinatra of his generation, but seriously flawed. He wrote and produced Aaliyah’s debut album Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, and shortly after, married her, when he was 28 and she was 15. Since then, he’s solidified his appetite for teenage girls in numerous allegations, some proven with video, but most dismissed or settled. It’s curious then, that he’s overcome such a rep despite continuing to play the type of songs he’s famous for. No description is necessary beyond the titles themselves––“Bump N’ Grind”, “Down Low (Nobody Has To Know),” Your Body’s Callin’,” “Sex Me,” “Stroke You Up,” “Feelin’ On Your Booty,” etc. There was mention of a boycott, even. I love his music, so I’ll just say that it’s interesting how much our culture is willing to forgive a pop artist, and then tell you about his performance. “The show will commence in R minus 60 seconds,” was the announcement I heard while getting in closer to the stage. Sure enough, Kelly’s entrance was skyrocketing for the crowd, which roared louder than I had heard that entire weekend. Hit after massive hit, Kelly pleased the crowd’s appetite for classic, sexy R&B tunes. We were bumpin’ n’ grindin’, like it’s the freakin’ weekend baby. His last song, “I Believe I Can Fly,” he dedicated to the city of Chicago, which, despite what you think of the guy, is a sweet gesture.

The whole thing’s over now. Wait ’til next year or just check Pitchfork.com 10 times a day if you get bored.

Photos:
PITCHFORK MUSIC FESTIVAL 2013. Photo: Christian Schultz Union Park. Photo: Christian Schultz A P4k flag atop the Red Stage. Photo: Christian Schultz Pitchfork’s interstellar opener Frankie Rose. Photo: Christian Schultz Catching a mid-day act at Green Stage. Photo: Christian Schultz It’s Oh So Quiet for Björk’s highly anticipated performance. Photo: Christian Schultz Youthful post-punk buzz band Savages. Photo: Christian Schultz Not hearing but feeling Swans. Photo: Christian Schultz Nobody writes them like they used to"Belle & Sebastian. Photo: Christian Schultz Thank you Based God… Lil B performing at the Red Stage. Photo: Christian Schultz Everything is embarrassing for Sky Ferreira. Photo: Christian Schultz Crazy like a monkey"Ida No’s journey into the crowd. Photo: Christian Schultz SPACE JAM REALNESS. Photo: Christian Schultz