Pitchfork Festival 2008 Recap

I’ve now had three fulls days to reflect upon (and recover from) another amazing weekend of music at Union Park in Chicago at the annual Pitchfork Festival. Once again, I was amazed by the sheer quality of the many acts there, and with the general easy-going, inviting feeling that the festival creates. The festival’s organizers made some positive steps that corrected some of last year’s problems. The most obvious of these was expanding the extra stage into a larger, grassier area and casting larger acts on that stage. I certainly spent a lot more time on this stage than I ever have before. Also, it seemed like the acts kept to the schedule more closely on the main stages. The extra stage still had some delays, but wasn’t nearly as backed up as it was last year (with the exception of the Cut Copy situation, but we’ll get to that later). There were also additional vendors serving some of the best food you’ll ever find at a music festival, and of course, $4 Goose Island beers, including the IPA, which is possibly my all-time summer fave. It’s great to know that despite my rent going up about 25% over the last four years, Pitchfork beer prices stay the same.

Saturday was somewhat water-logged as a result of Friday’s storms, but the workers at the fest did a pretty good job of taking measures to prevent discomfort for its patrons. There was a large puddle of water near the junction to the balance stage and of course, the mud pit, but let’s face it, there wasn’t much that anyone could do about those problems. Probably the biggest obstacle that Pitchfork 2008 encountered was consistent problems with sound control at the stages. Whether it was that the music sounded too quiet, that it cut out, or that it blended with the Balance Stage, our friends in the sound tents certainly seemed to have their hands full. But this didn’t take away from what was yet another fantastic Pitchfork experience for my friends and I. What follows is a brief recap of my highlights, lowlights and general ramblings for Saturday and Sunday. (I spent Friday night at my place with a keg of hoppy pale ale and a squad of music people where we listened to a great playlist of the festival’s bands, and got ourselves prepared (and possibly exhausted a bit too early) for the days ahead.

SATURDAY

Top Five Sets:

#5: Titus Adronicus- The angst-filled rockers from New Jersey delivered a short, powerful set that got the day off to a powerful start. I was dying to see what the lead singer looked like after having listened to his wailing vocals of misery for the past few months, and his scruffy beard and batman T-shirt did not disappoint. (below) Titus received extra credit from me for keeping things interesting, as they opened their set with a short intro from Pulp’s “Common People”, an obvious nod to Jarvis Cocker’s set later in the day, where the aforementioned song was almost certain to be absent from the set. After that, they went straight into an intense version of “Upon Viewing Brueghel’s ‘Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus'” before launching into crowd pleasers “My Time Outside The Womb”, “Joset of Nazareth’s Blues” and their self-titled song, where chants of “Your Life is Over” made for some wholesome fun. All the while, the lead singer climbed the sides of the stage; I was pretty impressed with his ability to perform. They closed the set with “Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ” despite my calls for “Arms Against Atrophy” and “No Future”, but I left the set happy.

#4: Caribou- The early part of the day was really strong Saturday, and Caribou’s tight set of psychedelic electronica was one of the biggest surprises of the festival for me. The Artist Formerly Known as Manitoba went straight into some melodic tracks from his most recent release, Andorra, starting with the mesmerizing “Sundialing” before moving into the aptly named “Melody Day.” The highlight of the set for me though was “Skunks”, my favorite song from Up In Flames, the glory of which forced me into my newly developed Cairbou stance (below). After playing “Irene” and a fantastic rendition of “She’s The One”, Caribou moved into more of a jam set, heading back to the drums and blasting out some serious dance music with the rest of his band. It was a diverse set that built nicely into somewhat of a crescendo.

#3: The Hold Steady- It continues to amaze me how great these guys are live. I mean, sure, their albums are all solid, but something about their live performances takes the songs to another level. Craig Finn’s vocal style and charisma made for a raucous set of good old rock songs, enhanced by the large group of teenagers dancing around in the mud pit like it was their last night on earth. (below) The band opened with the starting track from their new album, “Constructive Summer” before leading into old favorites “Hot Soft Light” and “Chips Ahoy.” Midway through the set, hearing “Massive Nights” and “Party Pit” back to back was a particularly memorable moment for me. I had to leave the set towards the end to get a spot at the Balance Stage and missed the last two songs, but after hearing “Magazines”, “Little Hoodrat Friend” and “Stay Positive”, I had already enjoyed myself greatly.

#2: !!!- This was about the wildest that the crowd at the main stages got all weekend, thanks to the dance rock of !!! and the maniacal dancing by leadman Nic Offer, who wore hilariously short shorts as he hopped around the stage like a monkey on speed. (below) I particularly enjoyed the female backing vocals and the accompanying mohawk. The band opened with the groovy “Yadnus” before really getting the crowd into a frenzy with title track “Myth Takes” and the slightly annoying “All My Heroes Are Weirdoes.” Later, virtual chaos ensued when they played “Must Be The Moon” and closed the set with crowd favorite “Heart of Hearts.” These guys really got the dance party started and the music sounded great. I’m not sure I saw anyone perform with more energy than Offer all weekend. The band moved up on my list a great deal; I think this is another artist whose music really translates well when played live.

#1: Fleet Foxes- I’ve been looking forward to this set ever since I listened to both Fleet Foxes albums during a beautiful drive through the vineyards of Sonoma Valley earlier this month. Dressed in what looked to be lumberjack gear (below), the lead singer launched into the acapella “Sun Giant” before blending it into “Sun It Rises” just as the sun was finally peeking through the clouds. It was almost surreal from a timing standpoint, and sounded great with the exception of a minor sound glitch. The entire set was mesmerizing as the band moved through tracks like “Drops In The River” and “English House” from the EP and into newer showstoppers “White Winter Hymnal” and “He Doesn’t Know Why.” What blew my mind about this set was how spot-on and complex the harmonies where throughout in the live setting. I was virtually speachless by the end of it, especially after they played personal favorites “Mykonos” and “Your Protector” with decisive command. Throw in closers “Oliver James” and “Blue Ridge Mountains”, and this was one satisfying set. It wasn’t an upbeat set, and if you didn’t know what to expect you might have become sleepy, but no one could deny the beauty of the performance. (Except for maybe Dizzee Rascal, who played after and managed to blurt out, “Fuck that folk shit!”)

Biggest Disappoinment: I hate to go here, but I have to say Vampire Weekend. Something about the charisma, or lack there of, displayed by these Ivy Leaguers really rubbed me the wrong way, to the point that I wanted to pummel the lead singer senseless by the end of the set. The songs weren’t bad at all, as “A-Punk”, “Oxford Comma”, “The Kid’s Don’t Stand A Chance” and “Campus” stood out as clear highlights, but the bizarre, almost childish silliness in between songs made these guys appear out of their league, espeically in between the two best sets of the day. This is not to mention that the one new song they played bordered on unlistenable and that the lead singer nearly broke into a Tourette’s fit during the absurd “Blake’s Got A New Face.” The set had its moments, but I was hoping for a bit more maturity. Perhaps these guys are better off not playing live, because I liked the album a lot more before I saw their facial expressions. (below) Oh, and did I mention the drummer wore a Phish shirt?

Other notable moments: I left the Hold Steady early to check out the Atlas Sound/No Age combo on the balance stage, which I thought played pretty well. Bradford Cox handled himself up there, using some great delay techniques to add effect to his haunting voice over his sampled music. It became a little tough to separate the material, but “Recent Bedroom”, “Quarantined” and “River Card” where huge highlights, and I’m still convinced he’s one of the most innovative musicians out there right now. No Age took their time setting up and took to the stage 20 minutes late despite Atlas Sound finishing on time. This was somewhat annoying, as they were clearly trying to push the set to headliner status, which is great for them but bad for those of us who wanted to see all of the Animal Collective set. I only got to hear five songs, but the band sounded incredibly solid moving through the short, compact “My Life’s Alright Without You” before bringing the house down with “Cappo”, “Here Should Be My Home” and “Teen Creeps.” I would have loved to have seen the whole set because I’m sure it rocked. Instead, I headed over to see Animal Collective, who I think really benefited from the nighttime set. The crowd seemed really into the set, but I had some trouble with it because I didn’t recognize many of the songs despite owning their entire catalog. The laser/light show was pretty awesome and helped create a great mood for the music, even if no one there recognized most of it. Highlights included an extended rendition of “Fireworks”, some great shrieking by Avey Tar on “Peacebone”, Panda Bear playing “Comfy In Nautica”, and the guy dressed as a fox that walked past me. (below)

SUNDAY

Top Five Sets:

#5: Spoon- If I hadn’t already seen these guys three times in the last year, this probably would have gone a lot further with me, although it did save my night after the Cut Copy fiasco. These guys never put on a bad show, and I was glad that I got to see some of my favorites live once again. Opener “Small Stakes” is a live staple, and songs like “Ghost of You Lingers” really dominate their sets in the dark. They played a good amount of bluesy Gimme Fiction material, including “My Mathematical Mind”, “I Summon You” and “The Beast The Dragon Adored”, as well as dancier numbers “Stay Don’t Go” and “I Turn My Camera On.” With so many great songs, it’s hard to ever see a bad show from Spoon. Looks like Bradford Cox even came over to help play a song after he saved the Cut Copy set! (below)

#4: Ghostface Killah and Raekwon- This might have been the #1 set of the day if they didn’t chop the songs up so much. Last year, Clipse gave one of the most astonishing live rap performances I’ve ever seen, and these Wu-Alums had the same energy from the mostly white crowd on songs like “C.R.E.A.M.” and “4th Chamber”, but sang only one verse of each. I suppose that’s the problem with being part of an eight-piece rap albatross. They pretty much ran the whole docket, starting with a full version of “Criminology” and touching on most of the Only Built for Cuban Linx tracks, other highlights of which were portions of “Glaciers of Ice”, “Ice Cream”, “Rainy Dayz” and “Incarcerated Scarfaces.” Ghostface even cracked humorously when the crowd requested “Kilo” and his DJ informed him that he didn’t have the sample–somewhat shocking given that one’s popularity. But Ghost and Rae carried the set along without a hitch, substituting “Apollo Kids” and “Hit Me With A Strap” instead. This was as crowded and lively as the Balance Stage got all weekend.

#3: Dodos: This was easily the biggest surprise for me of the whole festival, as I thought these guys absolutely rocked during a scalding hot afternoon. Sitting down through the intense set, lead singer Meric Long (below) pounded his acoustic guitar through a brilliant live rendition of “Paint The Rust” to open before hitting the rest of the highlights early: “Jodi”, “Fools” and “Red and Purple”, the latter of which featured Long on the ground playing guitar on his back. Softer tracks like album opener “Walking” added balance, as did the drawn out jam on the less accesible “Joe’s Waltz.” But what really makes these guys such a great live show is the percussion, which drove each song through the set without relent. The crowd seemed really into the music, which was surprising considering the relative obscurity of the band. I just bought the album a week ago and recognized every song, and enjoyed all of Long’s vocal improvisations that differed a bit from the album and gave the impression of desperation.

#2: Cut Copy- To preface, I must state the obvious: They arrived more than an hour late and only got to play four songs before the 10:00 pm curfew forced them to stop. But for those four songs, they had the moderate crowd that had waited so long to see them completely losing their minds. Opening with “Out There On The Ice” and “Lights and Music”, the crowd that remained was dancing like the world was ending; I haven’t seen anything like it since Daft Punk brought the house down at last year’s Lollapalooza. The songs sounded perfect and were laced with pure energy, not what one would expect from a band could easily have packed it in or hit the stage half-assed. I had never heard the shorter song “Future” which played well with the audience as well before they broke the sad news that they only had one more song. We made the most of it, as the band rocked through “Hearts on Fire.” A whole set would have been great to see, but I can’t emphasize enough how much getting to hear these four songs saved the festival for me. I was beside myself when I thought they weren’t going to show. (below)

#1: Spiritualized- Something about the environment for this set really made it what it was. The sun was still blazing, and leadman Jason Pierce, fresh off a near-death experience, walked out in a white t-shirt and black sunuglasses, followed by two gospel singers who wore all white. Seeing him walk out there and jam on these highly emotional songs after what he has been through was quite a moment, and I kept thinking to myself that this guy has basically been dead twice and now he’s standing up there just knocking the ball out of the park with this crowd. His voice sounded great throughout as the band opened with “You Lie You Cheat” before moving into a devastating rendition of “Shine A Light” which really allowed the gospel singers to shine, no pun intended. “Sweet Talk”, the opening track from the new album, was a huge highlight here as the gospel elements and full band arrangement gave it a fullness that was just pure beauty. “Sitting on Fire” was equally stunning before the band moved into rockier choices like “She Kissed Me and It Felt Like a Hit” and “Come Together”, a Spiritualized classic in its own right and the only track they played from their best album. The closing choice of “Take Me To The Other Side”, an old Spaceman 3 song, added even more balance and diversity to a set that already had plenty of both, so much that yet another sound glitch couldn’t even stop the momentum.

Biggest Disappointment: One of my only complaints about the whole Cut Copy situation was that the promoters were not on top of communicating the situation to audience earlier than they did. I was looking more forward to seeing this band live than anyone else at the whole festival, and was really, really pissed off when I stood around for an hour waiting for them to arrive, sacrificing more than half of the Dinosaur, Jr. set unnecessarily in the process. Had the information been made available before 9 pm, I could have seen that entire set. As it was, the boys from Dinosaur Jr. rocked, especially on old classics like “LIttle Fury Things.” I would have loved to have seen “Freak Scene” live as well, but like I said, I thought Cut Copy was coming.

Other notable moments: On paper, I was a bit concerned about what I would do on Sunday before the Dodo’s came on, as I wasn’t too familiar with any of the early acts. However, Times New Viking kicked the day off with some highly energetic and original song structures, and I thought the chick on keyboards and sharing vocals (Beth Murphy, below) was amazing. After that, Dirty Projectors sounded really solid on “Rise Above” to calm the crowd before the metal onslaught of Boris ensued. I’m not a heavy metal fan at all, but these guys put on a great show and really rocked on “Pink”, complete with a gong, a female lead guitar player and stage diving (below), only to be cut short by more sound problems. And what else can be said about Les Savy Fav? The music is catchy but not spectacular, and I think the band knows this, as they once again made for it with some of the craziest, borderline abhorrent stage antics you’ll see anywhere. I even thought Apples In Stereo played a decent set of sweet, almost cheesy pop through the day’s hottest hour. I felt like I was in that movie “That Thing You Do” there for a minute.

So there you have it, another wild weekend of spectacularly diverse music is behind us. I’m heading to Lollapalooza in a week, but aside from the fact that the Greatest Band of All Time will take the stage Friday night, that festival is going to have a lot to live up to.

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