Pitchfork Music Fest Diary and Features

July 15, 2007



    Although things got off to a slow start, with the gates opening almost an hour late bcause of headliner Yoko Ono's soundcheck, the first full day of the third annual Pitchfork Music Festival in the West Side's Union Park started strong on Saturday with the Twilight Sad.

    At least, that's what the group is called in polite company; they have another nickname at home in Glasgow, Scotland, but that can't be printed in the newspaper. The (much) nastier moniker doesn't make sense if you only know the quartet by the dreamy, swirling, atmospheric sounds of its recordings, including the recent "Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters."

    Onstage, though, the band upped the intensity considerably, adding a pummelling rhythmic undertow that made the spacey melodies all the more effective for the hard/soft, sour/sweet contrasts, and recalling the mighty early '90s shoegazers Ride.

    Though bandleader Tim Rutili is now living in L.A. -- and augmenting his indie-rock with soundtrack work -- Califone is still very much a Chicago band, in terms of the other members (notably the wonderfully versatile percussionist Ben Massarella) and the elements of its entrancing sound, which combines gutbucket Windy City blues, free jazz, punk and, especially of late, effervescent power-pop melodies.

    With so many ingredients in their mix and such a wide array of instruments in their arsenal, including a killer four-piece horn section and double drummers, Califone's live shows can be sketchy when any one thing is slightly off. But the group was spot-on at Pitchfork, where they were blessed with exquisite sound, a bright sun and a gentle breeze.

    For a group of young Texans, Voxtrot has the exuberant Britpop sound down cold, as they proved with their bouncy and infectiously energetic mid-afternoon performance. "We're really nervous," one of the musicians confessed, but you'd never have known if he hadn't told you, because they played with the confidence and aplomb of obvious heroes such as Blur, Supergrass and the Smiths.

    The next set, by the genteel Brooklyn art-rock quartet Grizzly Bear, was the first down spot of the day. The group's fragile, prissy arrangements might have been entrancing in an intimate club like Schubas or the Empty Bottle, but they just didn't capitivate the festival crowd of 17,000 at Union Park.

    Things picked up again at 4 p.m. with a mesmerizing, mind-blowing set by the New York progressive-rock, experimental/electronic quartet Battles, which is led by guitarist and former Chicagoan Ian Williams.

    Battles played with the intensity and bottom of a great metal group, the fluid complexity and virtuosic dexterity of "Discipline"-era King Crimson and the otherworldly atmospherics of electronica pioneer the Aphex Twin while ultimately sounding like no one but themselves -- an impressive accomplishment

    The next unfortunate lull of the day came with the affected Southern Gothic folk-rock of Sam Beam and his Florida-based band Iron and Wine. Quiet, bucolic groups like this one need to be extraordinary to hold a sun-baked outdoor crowd in their thrall, and Iron and Wine were merely pretty and sleepy.

    Thankfully, the tempo and the energy picked up again courtesy of the punishing metal assault of Atlanta's Mastodon, the heaviest band Pitchfork has ever booked, and one of the heaviest on the current rock scene, period. The generally meek indie-rock crowd didn't quite seem to know what to make at first of the group that created an album called "Leviathan," with music that actually did justice to that title. But the quartet's unrelentingly powerful sound, which strips away much of mainstream metal's frills and most of the flash, was impossible to resist, and by the end of the hour-long set, the Pitchforkers were head-banging like the grizzled vets at Milwaukee's Metalfest.

    Also one of the most creative standouts in a genre responsible for a lot of dreck, the Clipse bring cutting humor, a novelist's eye and musical invention to their gangsta-rap tales of street hustling. Virginia Beach brothers Terrence and Gene Thornton, a.k.a. Pusha T and Malice, mostly kept things simple and old-school -- just two turntables and two microphones -- but they carried the crowd with them from their very first rhymes, and used the tired hip-hop convention of call-and-response chants to maximum effect, inviting fans to raise their voices and complete some of the duo's best raps.

    As the penultimate act on Saturday, wispy soul singer, folk-rocker and indie heroine Cat Power (Chan Marshall to her mom) was a risky choice, since she is notorious for her onstage melt-downs and aborted gigs. But Marshall held it together, evoking the Memphis-flavored Dusty Springfield stylings of her last album, "The Greatest," and gently lulling her fans, if not never really wowing them.

    With so much great music on the two main stages in the center of the park, I rarely made it  over to the smaller third stage (though I did see part of a strong, genre-blending set by the dance band Professor Murder).

    The promoters reported that on that stage, the final set of the night -- by the ultra-high-energy DJ Girl Talk (Gregg Gillis) -- was so crowded that police shut it down after 20 minutes, a sign that Pitchfork should perhaps consider limiting the bookings to the main stages, though without sacrificing any of the welcome ecclecticism.

    Back at center stage, the second day of the fest ended on a high note with a rare live appearance by 74-year-old rock legend Yoko Ono, who has become an icon to underground music fans who couldn't care less about whether she helped break up the Beatles. They love her because she's an unapologetic hell-raiser and musical innovator.

    Backed by an accomplished band of veteran musicians (some of whom play with Laurie Anderson and David Byrne), and joined for a guest cameo by Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, Ono made clear her pre-John Lennon roots in the classical avant-garde (with John Cage and Lamont Young) and free jazz (with Ornette Column) as well as occassionally conjuring the under-rated noise-rock of the Plastic Ono Band in the early '70s, all the while sounding utterly fresh and of the moment, if not still futuristic.

    By no means is Ono's voice easy on the ears, but she's a great singer nonetheless for the way her shrieks, squeals and howls twist around the grooves and melodies in the manner of a brilliant improvisational horn player. She played with as much energy and passion as any musician who took the stage on Saturday and took more chances than most, closing day two with an inspiring and historic experience as 17,000 people joined her in repeatedly screaming "War is over if you want it" while Union Park was illuminated by the pinpoint beams of thousands of flashlights that had been distributed to the crowd before her show.

    Timed to begin just as neighborhood worshippers were filing out of the last Sunday service at the First Baptist Church across Ashland Avenue, the final day of the third annual Pitchfork Music Festival got under way a little after 1 p.m. in the West Side's Union Park with a performance by Deerhunter, a swirling space-rock/ambient punk quintet from Atlanta.

    Led by flamboyantly theatrical front man Bradford Cox, who dressed for the occasion in a sheer, sparkly white dress and whose stage presence was all the more remarkable for the fact that he suffers from Marfan Syndrome (a connective tissue disease that causes elongated limbs), the group used its succinct but sublime half-hour set to transport listeners to the dark side of the moon with a great, swirling vortex of psychedelic noise.

    Signed to Matador Records for their third album, "Turn Out the Lights," Chicago's Ponys followed by delivering a typically spirited and snotty set. But as in the past, there was little to distinguish their music from dozens if not hundreds of more memorable punk/garage bands, and they were further hampered by equipment problems that resulted in the bass cutting out for much of their show.

    Named for everyone's favorite song from "The Muppet Show," the Portland trio Menomena played a set partly composed of jagged, angular dance-rock punctuated by blasts from a baritone sax and boasting a goofy, good-time vibe worthy of Animal, Floyd and the other beloved members of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. But the flesh-and-blood group was also capable of more understated and beautiful material driven by Brent Knopf's electric piano.

    Filling the 3 p.m. slot, the Hamilton, Ontario, duo Junior Boys rode a similar but much smoother electronic dance-rock groove, offering the perfect mid-afternoon respite, and the musical equivalent of the refreshing breeze which offset the day's unrelentingly bright sun.

    After catching some of an energizing second-stage set by Nomo, a hard-grooving 10-piece hippie funk band from Detroit, I returned to the main field for Chicago's Sea and Cake, expecting the twee, twinkling sounds that have left me cold after listening to their recordings and club gigs. But on the festival stage, the group emphasized the bottom end, bringing a welcome heft to the wispy, summertime pop songs on their latest album, "Everybody," released earlier this year on the local Thrill Jockey label.

    As evening came on, England's one-man band Jamie Lidell took the stage with his mix of vintage '70s soul and cutting-edge electronic loops.

    In the hands of a less inspired performer, his presentation could have been that of just another canned "track act" of the sort that dominate B96's big concerts, essentially crooning (if not miming) to pre-recorded tapes. But Lidell had such explosive energy and so much charisma that the absence of a backing band was never felt.

    Later, the young hip-hop duo the Cool Kids, endorsed by Kanye West's DJ A-Trak and much buzzed as Chicago's next big national breakout act, churned out spirited and upbeat rhymes over old-school beats, making up with enthusiasm what they lacked in polish and experience. Too bad I made the choice of leaving their set midway through to see Stephen Malkmus back in the center of the park.

    An indie icon since his days leading Pavement in the early'90s, Malkmus has never had much charisma onstage, and he was particularly underwhelming as he delivered most of his set in solo acoustic singer-songwriter mode -- a James Taylor for the hipster rock underground. It didn't matter; his fans screamed for everything he did, howling loudest for the Pavement tunes, and the few songs where he was joined by one of that group's former drummers, Bob Nastanovich.

    Coming off as even more of a spectacle after Malkmus' bare-bones set was the Athens, Ga. group Of Montreal, the most popular of the second generation of the Elephant 6 collective of psychedelic pop bands.

    The musicians took the stage wearing outlandishly freaky costumes (devil capes, angel's wings, gold spandex bodysuits, etc.) and delivered wiggy sounds that attempted to be as colorful as their get-ups. But Of Montreal has never been in the same league as revered predecessors Neutral Milk Hotel, the Olivia Tremor Control and the Apples in Stereo. Too often, the band relies on shtick and contrived eccentricity at the expense of emotion and organic pop innovations. (The primary promoter of the Pitchfork fest, Mike Reed, says he has made a standing offer to Neutral Milk Hotel to reform for his event, "and that would be my all-time dream booking -- then I could die!")

    Finally, the festival came to a close on Sunday night with exuberant performances by Vancouver's power-pop collective the New Pornographers and New York's pioneering and endlessly creative "Daisy Age" rappers De La Soul.

    Overall, the New Pornographers' irresistible, anthemic rock could only have been better if they'd been joined by sometimes members Dan Bejar (who performed at last year's fest with his other band, Destroyer) and Neko Case (the erstwhile Chicagoan, who was sadly missing in action). But the group did commit the unpardonable rock-festival sin of attempting to lead the crowd in Queen's "We Will Rock You" chant. (Ugh.)

    For their part, De La Soul was memorably joined by Prince Paul (the legendary DJ and producer Paul Huston, who was at the helm for the group's classic 1989 album "3 Feet High and Rising"), who helped his old friends Posdnuos (Kelvin Mercer) Trugoy the Dove (David Jolicoeur) and Mase (Vincent Mason) deliver a celebratory and life-affirming performance that was as good as live hip-hop gets.

    In the end, with the third Pitchfork fest standing as an unqualified artistic success as well as a profitable business venture (according to the promoters, who declined to say exactly how much money the fest made), the question that lingered was not how they could offered so much for so little ($50 for a three-day pass), but how larger, much better-funded and more heavily hyped fests -- chief among them the reinvented Lollapalooza -- can justify charging so much more while delivering far inferior sound and sightlines, milking concertgoers with overpriced amenities and assaulting them with every manner of corporate promotional hucksterism at the expense of what mattered most in Union Park: the music.

    Fest revives album concept

    Conventional wisdom holds that the twentysomething rock fans of the download generation cherry-pick their favorite songs and set the soundtracks of their lives by random shuffle.

    But the opening of the third Pitchfork Music Festival, which drew 13,000 fans to the West Side's Union Park on Friday night, was devoted to that most old-fashioned of rock 'n' roll relics: the album.

    Presented in conjunction with All Tomorrow's Parties, a London-based traveling rock festival, Pitchfork's first evening was devoted to ATP's "Don't Look Back" concept, which is actually a misnomer since it involves bands looking into their back catalogs to play one of their cult-favorite albums in order in its entirety.

    "In the age of the iPod shuffle, the true art form of a whole album tends to get left behind, so this is why 'Don't Look Back' celebrates the seminal/influential records that should never be forgotten," ATP's Barry Hogan wrote in the program notes. But he also confessed that "this music probably wasn't intended to be played at festivals."

    Indeed, while it's a promising idea -- and I'd love to hear Mudhoney play "Superfuzz Bigmuff" and the Melvins do "Houdini" at the Los Angeles ATP in September -- two out of the three acts on Friday were disappointing duds.

    Kicking things off was the often-imitated and seriously overrated Louisville quartet Slint, one of the pioneering bands of emo, a sound defined by its loud/quiet dynamic shifts and oh-so-sensitive introspective lyrics. The group played its second and last album, "Spiderland," released in 1991 by Chicago's Touch and Go Records, and the fans greeted it as manna from heaven.

    Cliched chants
    For a nonbeliever, however, the musicians' fragile, intertwining guitar lines, mumbled attempts at poetry and uninspiring shoe-gazer personas were poor matches for the setting and the occasion, especially during the static, percussion-deprived "Don, Aman" and the bloated anthem "Good Morning Captain."

    The second act was just as lame, for different reasons. "Liquid Swords," the 1995 release by New York rapper GZA or Genius, is the best of any of the solo offerings from the uniquely atmospheric gangsta rappers the Wu-Tang Clan. Every member of that crew appeared on the original, yet while they've reunited for several shows this summer, they are currently touring Europe, which left GZA recruiting a group of nameless friends to help re-create his masterwork.

    That wasn't the biggest reason the performance fell flat, though. Some of the album tracks were truncated; others were padded out with cliched chants of "Hey Chicago" and shout-outs to the missing Wu-Tang members, and most of the moody sound clips from kung-fu films interspersed throughout the album were missing. In the end, GZA turned a recording best known for its creepy, ominous vibe into just another attempt at a good-time house-party soundtrack.

    Closing out the first of Pitchfork's three nights was another legendary New York act, avant-garde guitar-rockers Sonic Youth.

    Although it isn't my favorite entry in their lengthy discography, "Daydream Nation" (1988) turned out to be an inspired choice, representing the bridge between the often free-form noise of their earliest efforts ("Confusion is Sex," "Bad Moon Rising") and the more song-oriented material of the alternative-rock era (including "Goo").

    Tracks such as "Teenage Riot," "Silver Rocket" and "Kissability" retained all of their tuneful but potent intensity onstage, and the set built to a frenzied climax, just as the album does, with the disorienting swirl of the three-part suite "Trilogy: The Wonder/Hyperstation/Eliminator Jr."

    In the end, despite the uneven lineup, Pitchfork's sound, sight lines and reasonably priced amenities were once again second to none Friday.

    And with two full days of music yet to come, the community-oriented underground fest was on track to being the best deal and the most rewarding experience of Chicago's summer concert season.


    Hoboken heroes

    A gorgeous, chiming guitar signals the start of the song, playing a progression of descending chords that lead into a rich, rhythmic strum paired with a driving drum beat and punctuated by a melodic bass line. The voice is young and innocent, quavering with a subtle, nervous vibrato, but the initial impression of naivete is offset by deceptively simple lyrics that actually hint at deep, dark mysteries and unfathomed mystical enigmas.

    "A cable reaches up to heaven / Unleavened bread comes down from heaven," guitarist, vocalist and primary songwriter Richard Barone sings in the entirety of the first verse. He hardly reveals any more in subsequent lines -- "Oh, Sally, let's look for baby Moses ... Oh, Sally, can you please come out now, Sally / Oh, Mother, can you guess what we are?" -- but part of the genius of "The Bulrushes," the centerpiece of the Bongos' 1982 power-pop masterpiece "Drums Along the Hudson," is that listeners are invited to fill in the blanks with their own imaginations.

    Directly across the Hudson River from Midtown Manhattan, the Hoboken, N.J., of the early '80s was a tough, dirty, corrupt and crowded blue-collar burg best known for giving birth to Frank Sinatra, "On the Waterfront" and the game of baseball. (The Knickerbocker Club of New York City would row across the river to play on Hoboken's Elysian Fields.) The population was a vibrant mix of second-generation Italian immigrants and Latinos who welcomed the newly arriving urban pioneers, many of them artists and musicians priced out by the skyrocketing rents in the Village and Soho.

    Inspired by the punk explosion at C.B.G.B., Barone, bassist Rob Norris and drummer Frank Giannini came together in Hoboken and forged a new sound that took elements of punk (via the elegant minimalism of Talking Heads and Television), glam-rock (David Bowie and Marc Bolan were particular heroes, and the Bongos covered T. Rex's "Mambo Sun") and old-school Beatles-style pop to forge a fresh sound that briefly marked Hoboken as the Seattle of its day -- the heart of a new and much-heralded scene based at a small club called Maxwell's, and which also included former Southerners the dB's and suburban New Jersey's Feelies (whose frenetic rhythms would be another major influence on the Bongos).

    Newly remastered and reissued in a deluxe edition rich with bonus live tracks as well as a new version of "The Bulrushes" produced by major Bongos fan Moby, "Drums Along the Hudson" is in part a time capsule from an optimistic era that has long since faded. By the early '90s, with gentrification running rampant, most of the Mile Square City's artists, musicians and middle-class families were in turn priced out, and the few that still remain often sport T-shirts that read, "I Remember Hoboken When Hoboken Was Hoboken." But the album is also a timeless classic that should be an absolute must-own for any fan of exuberant, inventive guitar-driven power-pop.

    No disrespect to Matthew Sweet, the Shins, the Smithereens, Teenage Fanclub, Jellyfish, Fountains of Wayne or the Posies, to name a few, but I'd take the Bongos' debut to the desert island long before I'd reach for an album by any other power-pop hero, with the possible exception of Big Star.

    One of the album's secrets is that the irresistible sweetness of Barone's vocals and indelible hooks are always offset by the sometimes polyrhythmic and almost always ferocious rhythms of Giannini and Norris, as well as by sudden, discordant bursts of noise, some of it contributed by moonlighting members of avant-garde noisemakers Throbbing Gristle, but more often courtesy of Barone's overdriven, Velvet Underground-inspired guitar solos. Though Norris never bragged about it, he'd been a member of the short-lived, post-Lou Reed touring version of the Velvets, and the Bongos echoed the immortal "I Heard Her Call My Name" during "Video Eyes," with Barone shouting "Then my guitar split open!" before launching into an explosion of chaotic feedback.

    Through it all, Barone's haiku-like lyrics perfectly express the joy of discovery marking the coming of age of a teenage rock fan: voyeuristically watching the excitement from the sidelines ("Telephoto Lens)," making that first tentative visit to a rock or dance club ("Zebra Club"), pondering their sexual identity ("Question Ball"), prowling for likeminded souls and/or sexual partners ("Hunting") and finally experiencing the furtive pleasures of the flesh (the sublimely discreet but sexual innuendo-laden "Glow in the Dark").

    A cult favorite since the time of its release, "Drums Along the Hudson" prompted RCA Records to sign the Bongos in 1982 -- this was at the same time major labels snatched up a number of promising underground pop bands, including the B-52s and R.E.M. -- but the group was soon suffering under the pressures of polishing its sound for mainstream consumption. While 1983's "Numbers with Wings" EP and 1985's "Beat Hotel" album both have moments, the Bongos never scored that elusive breakthrough, and they broke up in 1987. Thankfully, after years of being impossible to find, the group's debut is once again readily accessible, and the band has been playing some reunion shows (none on the road as yet, but we can hope). Barone is working on a solo album and a book, both due later this year, but in the meantime, we can celebrate and remember the Bongos when the Bongos were the Bongos.