Pitchfork Fest 2010 Recap

It was certainly a scorcher for three straight days, but those of us who are serious about our music made the sacrifice. Pitchfork put on yet another fantastic festival over the weekend, and really showed how much they care about their fan base, placing hydration and heath above all else by handing out free waters, bringing in air-conditioned buses, and slashing prices as the weekend wore on. You have to believe that these actions saved a lot of people from having to make trips to the First Aid tent. So, thumbs up to Pitchfork for this. I have to give a big thumbs down to the replacement of Goose Island beer with Heineken, but it certainly didn’t break the deal for me. Here were some of my thoughts on the bands that I had the opportunity to watch over the course of the festival.

FRIDAY

Highlight: ROBYN

Of all the performances at this year’s festival, no artist understood his or her purpose any better than Robyn did. As she strutted out into the blazing hot late afternoon sun to “Fembot”, she conveyed a positive, fun-loving energy without the slightest hint of diva pretentiousness. The Swedish dance pop queen made an immediate connection with her audience as she danced vigorously while demonstrating her impressive vocal range, all the while wearing a big smile. Early in the set, songs like “Cry When You Get Older” and a groovy version of “Cobrastyle” were quickly engaging, but the set really hit its stride towards its center, as Robyn nailed upbeat renditions of her two best songs, “With Every Heartbeat” and “Dancing On My Own”, the latter of which resulted in a full blown dance party. Robyn left it all on stage as her hour ended too soon, but after leaving us with a powerfully charged version of “Be Mine”, she had absolutely and surprisingly stolen the show, revving up the energy to a level that the festival would have difficulty maintaining for the rest of the evening, or the weekend for that matter.

Lowlight: MODEST MOUSE

I’ve seen Modest Mouse a number of times, and while their catalog is vast and deep, I’ve always come away with the same impression: this band, while admittedly great, has no idea how to use these songs to connect to its audience. Every time they seem to hit their stride, they play a new song or an obscure older one, and often seem take a pass on playing their better material for the sake of their own artistic narcissism. Case in point, after getting the set off to a strong start with “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes”, we had to wait until the encore to get even a single other song from Moon and Antarctica. This is their undisputed masterpiece, so it is indeed curious that the scattered set list didn’t have more focus. I’m not one who believes that a band has to play their most famous song at every concert, which is why I’ve never been upset that Radiohead refuses to play “Creep” or that U2 skipped out on “Pride” at Soldier Field last fall. Sometimes artists no longer identify with songs like these that have given them such success with the mainstream, so I wasn’t the one crying the blues Saturday morning that Modest Mouse didn’t play “Float On.” Still, when headlining a major festival, it wouldn’t hurt to spice up the set list with some minute element of familiarity. Even the Flaming Lips understand that (see last year’s recap).

Other Friday notes:

The afternoon got off to a pleasantly gentle start with the crooning vocals of Sharon Van Ettan and the crisp acoustic guitar style of another Swede, The Tallest Man on Earth, who entered pounding away on “The Wild Hunt” before hitting high points on an energized “King of Spain” and unapologetically gorgeous “Love Is All.” Liars (above) played a scattered but haunting and powerful set combining songs from each of their unique albums, while focusing on their most recent release, Sisterworld. At times, the stylistic differences between different eras of their challenging work seemed to bleed and lack a certain cohesiveness. Most of their songs seem to make more sense conceptually as a unit, but what we got was as close to a greatest hits collection as I suppose you could ask for from a band that has been so musically provocative over the years. Highlights included pitch-perfect opener “I Can Still See The Outside World”, beat-heavy oldie “The Garden Was Crowded and Outside”, and a supercharged finale of “Plastercasts of Everything”, “Clear Island” and “Proud Evolution.” Broken Social Scene delivered as they always do, this time taking stage with recent release Forgiveness Rock Record in their arsenal. The band worked its way through that album without forgetting to play old favorites like “Stars and Sons”, “Cause=Time” and “Superconnected.” The anthemic “Meet Me In The Basement” closed the set on a sustained, energetic note.

SATURDAY

Highlight: LCD SOUNDSYSTEM

James Murphy closed out Saturday’s show on a ferocious high note, blasting through beats, synths and emotionally charged vocals and covering most of the highlights of his exquisite catalog. The swirling rumors that LCD Soundsystem will no longer tour after this year made the performance all the more powerful. With enough quality material to fill three sets of this length, Murphy balanced his work effortlessly, opening with “Us vs. Them” before escalating into longer, drawn out tracks like “Pow Pow”, “Yeah” and “Losing My Edge” that never lost intensity despite their length. Murphy paid homage to his beginnings, playing fantastic versions of “Daft Punk is Playing in My House” and “Tribulations” while still piling on the sentimentality on songs like “All My Friends” and “Someone Great”, the former of which was easily the day’s finest moment. If this was indeed the last LCD Soundsystem performance I will ever see, it certainly didn’t disappoint.

Lowlight: PANDA BEAR

Ugh. I’m actually a huge fan of Animal Collective and of Noah Lennox’s solo work, but if this wasn’t the most exasperating example of pretentious artistic excess than I don’t know what it was. It certainly didn’t help that Lennox, as always, featured for the most part new material that casual fans have never heard before (Person Pitch closer “Ponytail” being the lone exception), but the set list itself was only part of the problem. As Animal Collective often does, Lennox played a trippy kaleidoscope/video montage over the projector rather than letting the audience get any sort of visual impression of his actual performance, and exacerbated this cold, distant persona by failing to address the audience on a single occasion. I understand that for Panda Bear as a performer, this is all part of the mystique, but it didn’t play well at all with a crowd that was all but exhausted after enduring a day’s worth of scorching temperatures and humidity. I for one could barely stay awake through it.

Other Saturday notes:

Saturday began much in the same manner as Friday, with lots of heat and a relaxed tone, as Real Estate played a pleasant but middling set early on. The day’s strength began to manifest as Basque synth-rockers Delorean took the stage at the height of the day’s temperatures and transported the festival to a massive Ibiza beach party, piling it on with amped-up, extremely loud beats and dreamy pop vocals. The chorus of the rollicking “Endless Sunset” (Sun, Sun, Sun!”) rang out with appropriate simplicity, and by the time the set ended with album highlight “Grow”, the mood was extremely upbeat. A major highlight on Saturday was New Jersey angst-rockers Titus Andronicus (above), who featured an American flag both on stage and tied around lead singer Patrick Stickles’ guitar. For a band seemingly so full of cynicism and discontent, they sure did appear to be having a blast out there (constant smiling and laughter from lead guitarist Amy Klein), and the effect of this positive energy was contagious even over such lyrically dark material. Stickles offered a humorous shot at the audience after surfing through the crowd performing the band’s raucous self-titled song, the chorus of which states “Your life is over!” again and again, as he joked, “I’m sorry. But it is.” The band showed its evolution since playing here two years ago on layered epics like “Battle of Hampton Roads”, which at 15 minutes in length found a comfortable spot in the middle of the performance, while closer “Four Score and Seven” really demonstrated the band’s balance between soft, emotional rock and massive, swirling guitars. Wu-Tang alum Raekwon took the stage about 20 minutes late due to some technical difficulties, which I feel like always occur to these east coast rap acts. Once he finally got on stage, the crowd had become restless, but the Chef managed to weave his way through some of the Wu’s classic early material, while saving some time for his solo efforts as well, “Surgical Gloves” being a highlight. It was a rushed, predictable, but overall enjoyable set, as Raekwon seemed legitimately honored to be there in front of this almost entirely white audience, and surely gave his all despite the sound issues. Wolf Parade has the feel of a band that, like many bands in their situation, doesn’t realize that after making one great album (Apologies to the Queen Mary), it has been in a freefall ever since. As expected, the band concentrated largely on their middling new album Expo 86 and failed to take this performance to the next level due to the lack of strength of that material, as well as the decision to close with the laboriously punch-less “Kissing the Beehive.” Still, the set was not without highlights, all from the aforementioned album, but especially the classics “I’ll Believe in Anything” and “This Heart’s on Fire.”

SUNDAY

Highlights: BEACH HOUSE, SLEIGH BELLS


The festival’s strongest day was dominated by two female-driven bands with vastly different sounds. Early in the day, Beach House was a revelation, as Victoria Legrand’s musky, echoey vocals radiated through the sweat-soaked crowd behind the intense reverb of the band’s electric organ and guitar notes. It took a lot for me to get goosebumps at 3 pm on a humid, 92 degree there, but Beach House was able to do it as they pushed steadily and seamlessly through brilliant new tracks like “Walk In The Park”, “Silver Soul” and “Zebra”. The band mixed in the best of their earlier work as well, soaring on “Master of None” and “Gila”, but saved the best for last, closing with a powerful, emotionally invested version of “10 Mile Stereo.” Every track glistened in the afternoon sunshine, and I couldn’t have been more pleased. Later in the day, I found myself about 10 feet away from the Balance Stage awaiting the highly anticipated Sleigh Bells performance, and they surpassed my already high expectations. Enigmatic lead singer Alexis Krauss was absolutely dominating despite some considerable sound issues, connecting with the audience in a manner that I didn’t see all weekend and basically challenging the crowd to get rowdier as she teetered and gyrated on the edges of the stage and ended up diving in on more than one occasion. “Do you want it louder?” she asked mischievously before slamming into a combo of “Tell ‘Em” and “Infinity Drums”, by the end of which I had voluntarily shuffled myself back from my initial spot for the sake of my own welfare. It was a crazy scene of pure power, and people we going insane for it as the raw energy kept coming with force on tracks like “Riot Rhythm”, “Rill Rill” and closer “Crown on the Ground.” The crowd never wanted it to end as the stage was simply bursting with energy, and cried out with disdain as the band left the stage. Krauss walked back on to add, “How many of you have our record? It’s thirty two minutes long. We don’t have any other songs. Go watch Pavement!” I’d enjoy having some drinks with this chick.

Lowlight: NONE

Aside from the third straight day of debilitating heat and the barbaric reality of yet another day in which the consumption of Heineken was the only option to achieve any sort of buzz, the music itself on Sunday didn’t have a single letdown from where I stood. But again, Pitchfork, what do I have to do to get Goose Island back here next year? It was greatly missed, and I couldn’t have hand-picked a worse beer to replace it. Come on guys, get to know your audience.

Other Sunday notes:

I was able to watch the Girls set from my front-row camp out spot for Beach House, and was generally impressed. The band had its sparse moments of disconnect from the audience, but I thought it went over well for the most part. Opening with standout “Laura” was great, and the feedback heavy transition from “Hellhole Ratrace” into “Morning Light” was nothing short of spectacular. The Balance Stage picked up steam on Sunday, as Local Natives sounded pretty sharp on closing numbers “Who Knows, Who Cares” and “Sun Hands”, while the fresh-faced rockers from Surfer Blood put on an enjoyable, if rookie-ish performance featuring solid renditions of “Floating Vibes”, “Harmonix” and “Swim.” Perhaps the biggest surprise over the course of Sunday came for those who skipped Big Boi entirely in order to get a good spot for Sleigh Bells, and were instead treated to an extremely lively and focused set from Neon Indian (above). Backed by a drummer, a guitarist and a keyboardist, lead singer Alan Palamo was able to concentrate on his uniquely styled sampling techniques while putting on quite a show, running the gamut through 2009’s Psychic Chasms and setting up perfectly for the chaos that followed. Speaking of chaos, the DJ Switch/ Diplo team of Major Lazer brought the ruckus in the early evening, combining hard-hitting dance beats with an on stage-spectacle of Chinese lion costumes and other such things. Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, continued the trend of female domination by delivering a strong set full of lush tracks from her most recent album Actor, and connected to the audience a bit more later in the set after removing her sunglasses and offering an apology, “Hello. I didn’t mean to be standoffish before.” Dressed in a red sun dress and looking like a porcelain doll, Clark certainly had a confident stage presence, as she beat the hell out of her guitar on more than one occasion to achieve the desired effect. The stars of the show, Pavement, closed the festival out on a mellow note, but longtime fans had to be pleased with their set. It wasn’t a mind-blowing performance, but the band hit highlights like “Cut Your Hair”, “Two States”, “Shady Lane”, “Range Life” and “Gold Sounds”, demonstrating an awareness of its fan base and their long wait for this show. Other bands that played here could benefit from taking note of this strategy.

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