Pitchfork Festival 2009 Recap

I spent the duration of last weekend at all three days of the Pitchfork Festival in Union Park in my glorious city of Chicago. This is always one of my favorite weekends of the year, and this year’s fest has to rank among the best ever. The weather was unseasonably cool for July and we hardly ever saw the sun, which might sound like a bad thing, but actually made for a much more comfortable concert-going experience. The festival seemed more crowded than in past years, meaning longer lines (especially to use the restroom) and more time spent moving between stages, and they raised the prices on the Goose Island beer from $4 to $5 (which is still a bargain), but overall it came together wonderfully. For the first time ever, I attended all three days, as I was interested in Friday’s “Write The Night” concept, in which fans voted on the songs they wanted the artists to play that night. Here is a brief recap of my high and low moments over the course of the weekend.

FRIDAY:

Highlight: THE JESUS LIZARD

Pitchfork Festival , Friday, 07/17/2009,

Playing their first show in their hometown in over a decade, The Lizard came out with force. Lead singer David Yow, famous in his heyday for his unbelievable stage antics, addressed the crowd’s racous applause by sarcastically dismissing it, “Shuuuuuut up. Another day another dollar!” With that, Yow dove into the crowd before the first note rang out, and from there the band tore through a long, intense set of old favorites, highlighted early in the set by “Mouthbreather” and “Boilermaker” and really picking up steam towards the end as the band rocked hard on “Here Comes Dudley”, “Monkey Trick” and “Gladiator.” They looked as if they hadn’t missed a beat from the decade hiatus, and carried their set along with an intensity that would not be matched more than a couple of times for the entire rest of the festival. Yow is truly an amazing stage presence, but managed to keep most of his clothes on and only ended up in the crowd three or four times. I was most captivated by his truly tormented singing style, and his constant tendency to spit while singing.

Lowlight: BUILT TO SPILL

You have to feel bad for this well-established guitar band from Idaho, considering that no band was going to be able to live up to expectations after the performance of The Jesus Lizard. Playing in an unenviable position immediately after, the band sounded fine, but was a drastic switch in tone from the Lizard and almost certainly didn’t stick to the fan requests. And if they did, the fans clearly didn’t know any of the band’s best music. We only heard one song from Keep It Like A Secret and one song from Perfect From Now On, easily the band’s two best works. It also didn’t help that the weather Friday night got quite chilly. In any event, I enjoyed the set to some extent, but to call it anything but a let down after what came before it would be a stretch of monumental proportions.

Other Friday notes:

Tortoise was placed in the right spot here, although I still feel like they have trouble connecting in a live, outdoor setting due to the instrumental nature of their music. They played about seven songs and mostly hit the highlights, although I didn’t get my all time favorite, “In Sarah, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven, There Were Women and Men.” Still, their placement as most of the concertgoers were just getting in from work, getting their beer tickets and grabbing dinner seemed to make more sense than when they headlined this festival three years ago. Yo La Tengo was better, and overcame some early sound issues to play a solid set of some of their best work, including my all-time favorite “Stockholm Syndrome” and some crowd pleasers like “Cherry Chapstick”, “Mr. Tough” and “Sugarcube.” We even got spirited versions of “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House” and “Pass The Hatchet I Think I’m Goodkind.” The band may have been frustrated by being forced to play such a predictable set, but managed to work in some new material that sounded great in my opinion.

SATURDAY:

Highlights: FUCKED UP, THE NATIONAL

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As the band I was looking most forward to seeing live over the entire weekend, Toronto’s harmonic hardcore rockers Fucked Up certainly lived up to their name and reputation. Much to my surprise, the crowd was still small by the time they took the stage on 2:30 Saturday afternoon, and we took advantage of this by getting as close to the stage as possible. What happened next was everything that I had hoped for, as charismatic, overweight, bald and bearded lead man Pink Eyes let out his famous shriek as the band ripped into the epic “Son The Father” and kept the intensity all the way through “Magic Word” while simultaneously biting off the ends of what had to have been at least a dozen beach balls, one of which actually ended up on his head. We pushed closer to the stage and into the mosh pit as the real highlights of the set started, which included “No Epiphany”, “Black Albino Bones” and an amazing rendition of “Twice Born” that sent the mosh pit into a frenzy and resulted in at least a half a beer being poured on my head…by myself. Still, for all of their anarchist lyrics and hardcore sound, I was amazed by how friendly the band, and the mosh pit seemed. To me, it appeared to be all about the intense energy of the music, and less about some misguided political message. This was a very good thing.

Pitchfork Festival, 07/18/2009

I’ve seen The National three times now, but this was their longest set and easily their finest. Something about the band’s sound works perfectly with the dark sky, and Pitchfork couldn’t have picked a better headline act in my opinion. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this was the best headline show I’ve ever seen at this particular festival. After starting a bit early and surprisingly opening with a new song, the band went into their typical progression of “Start A War”, “Mistaken For Strangers” and “Brainy”, all of Boxer fame. But what was great about this set was the length and the amount of non-Boxer tracks they played, as we got three or four older songs that I’d never heard before, along with Alligator material “Secret Meeting”, “Baby We’ll Be Fine” and even “All The Wine” before the typical but brilliant closer “Mr. November.” The hits kept on coming, but the real standouts to me in this set were a more upbeat version of “Fake Empire”, a heartbreaking rendition of “Green Gloves” and the awe-inspiring “Ada.” I didn’t get to hear “Guest Room”, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Lowlight: THE BALANCE STAGE (PONYTAIL, LINDSTROM)

Maybe I just wasn’t feeling the change of scenery, but as much as I wanted to get into Ponytail after hearing all the hype, I just couldn’t get past the actual sound of the music. Sure, lead singer Molly Siegal has an amazing stage presence with her speaking-in-tongues, shrieking vocal style reminiscent of a teenage girl with a severe bout of Tourette’s, but are we really to the point that we are calling this art? Maybe I need to give it another try in a different setting, because it looked like the crazies in the front row were just loving it, but these guys just didn’t do it for me. Lindstrom got a bad deal as his set was pushed back 20 minutes or so due to the Wavves delay. Once he got onstage he sounded decent enough, but I’m becoming less and less enthralled by hearing this DJ-type electronic music live. We had to leave earlier than we wanted to in order to get our spots for Beirut, and that was probably a bigger negative than his performance, which I am sure ended up just fine.

Other Saturday notes: I was very impressed with Cymbals Eat Guitars as they opened the day, as their interesting switches between harmonies and outright screeches definitely turned some heads and started the day on a great note, all behind some pretty diverse music. Closing with my summer 2009 anthem “Wind Phoenix” they were an early highlight for me. They were certainly more impressive than the much hyped The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, who played a solid set but seemed to be about a half note flat through their whole performance. Doom failed to fully captivate the crowd behind his patented superhero mask, and the reason for that could be because he may not have uttered a single word while onstage. Don’t expect to see him performing here, or anywhere, for a good while. Yeasayer benefited from a perfect time slot and some aptly timed rain and sun emergence; it seemed as though the weather patterns were almost following their setlist, as the rain came during “Wait For The Summertime” and “2080”, while the sun finally reared its head as the band moved into the opening notes of “Sunrise.” Aside this moderate “Pitchfork Miracle”, the band seemed to be really on. Beirut kept the somewhat relaxed mood going with a set that was pretty much what I had hoped for, including “Nantes”, “A Sunday Song” and “Postcards from Italy”, but for whatever reason didn’t seem to stand out to me on this day. Maybe he didn’t play enough from Flying Cup Club for me. It sounded nice enough, but it’s possible that these wonderful songs are better suited for listening to on record while sailing through the ocean, which is where they really shine.

SUNDAY:

Highlights: The Evening Stretch that was THE WALKMEN, M83 and GRIZZLY BEAR

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This was easily the most solid 3.5 hour stretch of the entire weekend. Bluesy rockers The Walkmen benefited from using a solid chunk of songs from their fantastic most recent effort You and Me, including a rollicking version of “In The New Year” after opening with a new song. They hit the old favorites like “The Rat” and “Louisiana”, but provided what might have been the best moment of my entire festival when they played “I Lost You.” I’m always amazed when I see them play that the lead singer really is screaming with as much force into the microphone as it sounds like he is. I was worried at one point that his head might just flat out explode.

Pitchfork Festival, 07/19/2009

M83 changed the mood a bit but were connected to their audience and really understood the setting. They also must have bribed the sound team because this was easily the loudest that this stage sounded all weekend. As expected, songs from their (in my opinion) inferior most recent album Saturdays and Youth dominated the set, but after playing one of my all time favorites in “Teen Angst”, at least they played the best three tracks from that album- “Kim and Jessie”, “We Own The Sky” and “Coleurs”.  The latter, along with the older track “Sitting” really turned this into a dance party midway through the set, and they kept up the intensity with a thrilling version of “A Guitar and A Heart.”  I’m shocked that they didn’t play a single song from their best album, Dead Cities, but that’s pretty much my only complaint, and they are probably correct that this particular setlist worked better in this environment.

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And what can be said that hasn’t already been said about Grizzly Bear? This was the best show of the day, bar none, and I’m always amazed by how impressively these guys can replicate such beautiful harmonies live. They now have the amazing album Veckatimist in their arsenal, and used a lot of it to their benefit, especially on the upbeat “Two Weeks” and “While You Wait For The Others”, although the crescendo through that album’s penultimate track, “I Live With You”, may have been the most affecting moment. Still, the older material wasn’t thrown by the wayside, as the set gained strength from a slowed down version of “Little Brother”, the always amazing “Knife”, and my all-time favorite, “On A Neck, On A Spit” to close the show. Brilliant, brilliant stuff at dusk.

Lowlight: THE FLAMING LIPS

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After all the hype and all of the silly back-and-forth publicity over whether or not The Flaming Lips would take fan requests or not, along with what has become almost a circus of antics by the band, I couldn’t help but feel that all of this detracted from the music in a big way. Lead singer Wayne Coyne started nicely enough after exiting his famous plastic balloon and tearing into an uplifting version of “Race For The Prize”, complete with confetti and dancing chipmunk girls. But after that song finished, Coyne made it clear that he wanted to spend more time discussing the Write The Night concept than he did actually playing music. I didn’t so much mind the fact that the band basically ended up playing a set full of either unreleased or vastly unfamiliar material as I hated the way that the half-assed their way through their standout tracks. “Fight Test” was a joke, slowed almost to a crawl–we’re talking about one of the very best single songs of the decade here, and they did all in their power to butcher it, which is something I previously believed to be impossible. “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots” suffered from a similar slowed down arrangement that almost felt like an insult at that point. The few fan requests that they did honor were songs I could have easily done without, such as the ridiculously uninspired “Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah” from the last album and the mainstream “She Don’t Use Jelly.” I left in disgust before they played “Do You Realize”, but by that time all momentum had been lost. It’s a shame that this once great band has chosen to rely on a bunch of gimmicks and egotistical wisecracks instead of the power of their music. Maybe someday they will learn, but it is really a shame, because they had a chance to send off the Pitchfork Festival in the strongest manner in its history, and completely botched it.

Other Sunday notes:

I managed to get there early enough to see The Mae Shi perform for the last time, but while it looked like fun I had a tough time appreciating it from a musical aspect. I don’t know, maybe four guys bouncing around barking like dogs is just way over my head. Frightened Rabbit was more my speed, as they battled through a pretty awesome set while trying to overcome the incredibly hoarse voice of their lead singer as well as more sound difficulties. Blitzen Trapper really hit the spot in the 2:30 time slot, providing a soft but upbeat and engaging set of rustic, melodic guitar tunes, highlighted by opening song “Wild Mountain Nation” on through several songs from the band’s most recent album Furr. On the Balance stage, I was more intrigued by the dark, distant set from Women than others were. After that, DJ/ Rupture created what was the most impressive dance party of the weekend with his well-crafted, sharp world beats. I snuck back to this stage briefly in the evening and caught the last two tracks from the Vivian Girls, who sounded dischordant (but then they always do), but on their game.

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