Judging by the
uplifting communal spirit that prevailed throughout the weekend, the
Pitchfork Music Festival was an unequivocal success: a well-run,
reasonably priced and extremely fan-friendly musical celebration
that drew 19,000 people a day to Union Park for nine hours of
performances on Saturday and again on Sunday.
measures, the fest was more of a mixed bag. At its best, it
illustrated the enduring strengths of the indie-rock underground,
thanks to spirited and wonderfully idiosyncratic up-and-comers such
as Art Brut and Tapes N' Tapes and long-running underground heroes
such as Mission of Burma and Yo La Tengo.
But the festival
also demonstrated the shortcomings of the often-insular indie-rock
scene, offering a parade of acts championed by the influential
Pitchfork Web zine. Too many of these bands lacked the charisma to
captivate such a large crowd. They celebrated pointless quirkiness
and uninspired amateurism, or they were just dreadfully boring.
With a few
notable exceptions, the Saturday lineup was especially
underwhelming. Things started out strong at 1 p.m. with a fiery set
by Chicago's Hot Machines, a hard-rocking garage band whose familiar
sounds were distinguished by the considerable energy and presence of
fervent frontwoman Miss Alex White. But through the rest of the long
and brutally hot day, the only personality as winning as White was
Eddie Argos, leader of the English quintet Art Brut.
Argos is a
frumpy Everyman and unapologetic schlub -- think of Philip Seymour
Hoffman portraying the late rock critic Lester Bangs in "Almost
Famous" -- who is determined not to let the fact that he can't sing
stop him from taking his band to the proverbial "Top of the Pops."
Characterized by their propulsive rhythms and catchy, chant-along
refrains ("We formed a band, we formed a band! / Look at us, we
formed a band!"), Art Brut delivered one high-energy anthem
after another from "Bang Bang Rock & Roll," as well as several new
songs that proved that first album was less a novelty than the
welcome debut of a group that finally answers the question of what
the Modern Lovers would have become if Jonathan Richman hadn't gone
Part of Argos'
appeal is that he voices the time-honored indie/punk ethic that
"Anybody can do it" in such a way that you feel you're hearing it
for the first time. At one point Saturday, he noted that he usually
tells everyone in the crowd they should go home and start their own
bands, "but I'm not going to say that this time, because there are
just too many of you! Some of you should start fanzines, or make
As several of
Saturday's other acts droned on, I wished they had pursued those
paths instead of music.
Up Chin Up offered generic angular guitar rock with so little to
distinguish it that each song was forgotten the moment it ended. In
contrast, Philadelphia's Man Man (what's with the repetitive names?)
was all shtick and no substance, a group of hairy clowns banging on
pots, pans and a few actual instruments to evoke Frank Zappa playing
cheesy carnival music.
Band of Horses
and the Walkmen delivered good but not great Neil Young fuzz and
jangle; Destroyer (the other band led by Dan Bejar, the other
songwriter for the New Pornographers) churned out fine but not
fabulous power-pop, and the Silver Jews delivered interestingly
skewed but far from superb country-rock that few would have cared
about if bandleader David Berman wasn't known as a friend of
Pavement and someone who hardly ever performs live.
Goats were just too sleepy and tuneless to deserve any description
besides "yawn." At least two of the other acts on the two main
stages showed some passion. Ted Leo bled for his art when he
accidentally cracked his forehand open on the microphone, but his
rollicking set lost momentum when it shifted from driving punk to
clumsy reggae. And English dance-rockers the Futureheads overstayed
their welcome and became repetitious after about eight songs.
Many of these
artists would have been better served by the 30-minute sets
scheduled earlier in the day instead of the full hours they were
allotted, while Hot Machine and Art Brut could have played for as
long as they wanted, as far as I was concerned.
A bit of
magic on Sunday
The weather on
Sunday favored the fest when the rain abated shortly before the
start, and threatened thunderstorms held off for the rest of the
day. Much of the music seemed just as magical.
Day Two started
strong thanks to the fast-rising Minneapolis band Tapes 'N Tapes,
whose leader Josh Grier noted that last year he attended the
festival as a fan and stood in the crowd.
songwriter Jens Lekman and indie-pop band the National both enhanced
relatively simple songs with exuberant playing and tasteful
orchestral touches, such as horns and violin. But southern New
Jersey's odd Christian "family" act, Danielson, only detracted from
its material with a gimmicky presentation. (They all dressed in
matching uniforms that looked distressingly like a fascist youth
At the height of
another brutally hot afternoon, the now Berlin-based Liars delivered
a set of rollicking noise-rock, and Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif offered
good-time hip-hop party grooves. Neither set was exceptional, but it
might have been a result of the weather: Some music just shouldn't
be played under a blazing sun.
Devendra Banhart performed his gently lilting hippie campfire music.
It was pleasant enough as the sun finally began to set, but it
certainly didn't live up to the hype.
At the same
time, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche gave a solo display of his
percussive wizardry on the Biz 3 stage. Accompanying himself on
electronic loops as he hammered away on an astounding array of
rhythmic instruments, he easily matched the layered, trance-inducing
powers of any of the weekend's best techno DJs.
but oh so hip
given media sponsor Pitchfork's role as indie arbiter of all that is
uber-hip and cutting-edge, two of the fest's highest points came
from acts in their third decade.
legendary art-punks Mission of Burma were nothing short of
incendiary as they mixed classic anthems from the '80s ("That's How
I Escaped My Certain Fate," "That's When I Reached for My Revolver")
with material from their recent reunion albums that was every bit as
fresh and vital. And Hoboken, N.J.'s Yo La Tengo balanced quiet and
beautiful pop songs with noisy, full-throttle garage rock as they
geared up for the fall release of yet another surprising new album.
Rarely has a
band done so much with so little (in the sense of instrumental
minimalism) as Yo La Tengo, and it remains a master of the
feedback-drenched guitar rave-up.
penultimate act of the fest, Austin art-punks Spoon were in a tough
spot, after Yo La Tengo and before the much-anticipated reunion of
Brazilian Tropicalistas Os Mutantes. But the group kept the focus on
its jagged rhythms and slightly askew choruses and acquitted itself
As for Os
Mutantes, the two brothers who remain from the original trio, the
bizarre guitar genius Sergio Dias and keyboardist Arnaldo Baptista,
made up for the absence of co-founding vocalist Rita Lee by playing
with a wild and magnificent 10-piece band that emphasized the
group's earlier, crazier material rather than the later, weaker
progressive rock/jazz fusion. The music was gloriously strange and
sweepingly cinematic, justifying the group's legendary reputation,
and evoking the wild invention of the psychedelic era with nary a
hint of nostalgia.
high-energy emcee throughout the fest, Hideout co-owner Tim Tuten
told the packed crowd earlier in the day that the gathering "wasn't
about the music, or being in the park, or drinking beer -- it's
about community." Those are idealistic words, of course, but through
much of the long weekend, they were indeed true, marking Pitchfork
as a model that other Chicago festivals -- including this week's
Lollapalooza -- should strive to duplicate.