Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Festival Coverage: Pitchfork Music Festival 2013 Recap


This year's Pitchfork Music Festival, held in Chicago's Union Park, showcased multiple artists that I'd been dying to see for years now. On the surface, it may seem like just another music festival, but based on my first experience with the festival, I can tell you that's not the case.

The fest features a plethora of attendees, mostly in their mid-20s, but I was honestly surprised at the varying demographics who showed up each day. And sure, you'll get your occasional (or more-than-occasional) whiff of pot smoke, but the audience each day seemed more interested in the music than the chemicals they were consuming... the way it should be.

And Union Park plays out to be a great host venue for Pitchfork. The park is spread out just enough that noise from another stage doesn't interfere with the sound of the set you're enjoying, but the grounds aren't vast enough that it takes you 20-30 minutes to get to another stage (instead you could hustle to the next set and get there in about 3-5 minutes, depending on what kind of vantage point you're looking for). Festival coordinators did a great job plotting the sets to interfere with each other as little as possible. Pitchfork Music Festival is truly a music lover's festival.

In addition to music, the festival featured many other amenities and attractions worth checking out. Flatstock, a lineup of about 20-30 artists who set up their own tents and sold their handmade show posters for anywhere to $20-$80, and a good friend of mine picked up a Wu Lyf poster, while I had to be forcefully removed so as to not spend a small fortune. Instead we travelled to the Record Fair, put together by CHIRP (Chicago Independent Radio Project) with many small record stores taking part and selling records and playing host to some cool events, including Cut Copy's release of their new single, which was pressed live at the Record Fair. I scooped up a 7" copy of Prince's "Purple Rain" pressed on purple vinyl, because upon sight I couldn't put the thing down. Food and beer were reasonably priced as well, each costing around $5 on average.

So now, we can discuss the music lineup, which included a wide variety of genres and brought out a uniquely great crowd each day.

(All photos done by Kellen Nordstrom, unless otherwise noted)

Friday

Trash Talk



The first set I caught at the festival was one which I was highly anticipating: California hardcore group Trash Talk. The band gets even more edgy on stage, featuring a few of the people the group had brought with them sprinting to the front of the stage and diving in to the crowd. Frontman Lee Spielman even took his turn jumping into the crowd and eventually made it back to the stage.

I was greatly impressed with Spielman's ability to control the crowd, matched only by Belle & Sebastian and R. Kelly out of all the acts I'd see all weekend. Spielman had the crowd hanging on his every command whether it was "alright now, Circle Pit" before the group of people watching formed a small mosh pit, then eventually he commanded everyone to "sit down; chill the fuck out" and I was shocked as everyone actually followed suit and sat down in the dirt. Then, on his word, the group got back out and began wildin' out even more so than before. Trash Talk was a great way to start the fest, and definitely did not disappoint after all that I'd heard about their live sets.

Mac DeMarco & Mikal Cronin



Another act I'd heard so much about, especially after SXSW, was Canadian surf punk rock artist Mac DeMarco. His set was undeniably fun, and I could almost feel the crowd's energy feeding off of Mac's goofy, gap-toothed smile. His live set varies with sounds from grunge to surf, from metal to pop.

Mikal Cronin
He opened up with the first track from his latest album 2, called "Cookin' Up Somethin' Good" and the twangy guitar riff is so catchy it had me dancing and smiling in the photo pit. Eventually, DeMarco would go on to do a couple of covers, including rip-roaring versions of "Taking Care of Business" by Bachman Turner Overdrive and Metallica's "Enter Sandman". The surprising thing about Mac DeMarco is his overall demeanor and vocal stylings come off as gentle and catchy but deep down he's got a lot of punk within him, his ability to shred on guitar (coupled greatly with his band's talent level) matched by his surprise ability to style his vocals into a deep growl.

Continuing with the theme of surf punk is often Ty Segall-collaborator, Mikal Cronin, who looks like a long-haired John Cusack from High Fidelity but plays music like a surfed out Smashing Pumpkins. Another great set, highlighted by songs off of his new album, MKII such as "Weight" and "See It My Way" his vocals translated great into a live setting, and the instrumentation really blew me away, as they sound gentle on the album but played heavy on stage.


Joanna Newsom

Another California-based gem was the ever-engrossing Joanna Newsom, who held the slot right before Friday's headliner Björk. Her stage setup featured a piano next to a stool where she began her set playing a harpsichord that was as big as her.

I hadn't seen a crowd react that day like the way this crowd reacted to Newsom, eating up her every word. Not only that, but her reaction to the crowd's feedback was priceless. Newsom was beaming with energy and her smile had so many fans in the front row folding their hands as they tilted their heads and gazed at her starry-eyed.

Upon semi-apologetically stating that she would be playing "new material" and that "no one comes to the shows to see the new stuff" the crowd burst out in cheers and applause, bringing out the most amazingly heartfelt and beautiful smile from Newsom. Her songs were effortless and beautiful, just as I expected from one of modern folk's most beloved artists.


Björk


Photo by: Tonje Thilesen

I felt bad for a lot of Friday's Single Day Pass holders, as they were more than likely primarily there to catch Björk. But when you couple her stage set up and an impending thunderstorm, there's not much you can do. Björk's set was cut short by a lightning storm rolling through Chicago, which eventually turned in to monsoon-like rainfall, and festival goers were forced to leave early.

Her getup on stage was a spectacle in it of itself, which made her look like one of those dried up dandelions you blow on as a kid. Her stage setup boasted some amazing visual technology, reportedly developed by the Icelandic songstress and some geniuses over at MIT. The danger held within the electricity required to power the devices on stage and the potential to be struck by lightning made it understandable why the festival decided to cut her set short after about a half an hour.

Saturday

Phosphorescent




My fourth time seeing this band in 2013, and every show has been different. There have always been constants: incredible chemistry within the band, frontman Matt Houck wearing his staple: a black t-shirt and denim, an emphatic and talented keyboardist who head bangs as if he were playing bass for Sabbath and "Los Angeles" wrapping up the set.

Playing tracks from 2013's standout album Muchacho including "Ride On/Right On" "Terror in the Canyons" and the single "Song for Zula" all sounded amazing in the sweltering heat at 2:30pm in Chicago. Another fantastic set from Phosphorescent, and I'll continue seeing them as many times as I have the opportunity to.

Savages




I've heard great things about this all-female post-punk revival group, and they did not let me down. Led by frontwoman Jehnny Beth who not only has the stage presence of Ian Curtis (Joy Division), but has the all black wardrobe and short-cut hair to match. Her presence was incredible, showing emotion with each word she sang and shouted and with each step she took as she paced the stage.

Their set featured songs from their debut album Silence Yourself, such as "Shut Up" "Waiting for a Sign" and "Hit Me" their sound resonated throughout one of the biggest crowds of the day, as the sea of people stretched as far back from the stage as I had seen it up to that point.

The post-punk revival genre has made a huge resurgence in the last year, and it appears that Savages are reigning at the top of the scene, and the England-based quartet proved why with their live set.

Solange




The "odd act out" on Saturday was Solange, but I promise you, she was one of the best shows I saw all weekend.

No longer should she be referred to as "Beyonce's sister" (although the resemblance is undeniable and kinda heart-warming) Solange has set herself apart from her sister not only with her personal style but with her musical ability and showcasing as well. Her album was produced by (one of my fave musicians, Dev Hynes) Blood Orange and featured a backing group of artists that were also backing Blood Orange the following day. The group of background musicians and singers absolutely nailed it,
and the pure energy given off by Solange et al that evening was invigorating. The group would randomly break out into choreographed dance numbers, nothing fancy, just a few shoulder shakes and side steps from time to time.

One of my favorite moments came when Solange started playing her single, "Losing You". Not only is this song one of my favorite pop jams from the past year, but watching the crowd during the performance of this track was heartwarming. Everyone around me seemed to be having the best time of their summer, turning to one another, singing and dancing as Solange led the crowd in the most inspired way.


Belle & Sebastian



I've always been of the mindset that if you don't like B&S, you haven't listened to the right song yet. Everyone I know has a favorite Belle & Sebastian song (not only a favorite song, but probably a favorite verse as well), and if you were at their show on Pitchfork's Saturday night, they probably played it for you.

I had yet to see a Belle & Sebastian show, so I was ultimately elated when I received word I'd finally have the opportunity to see them. Mother Nature tried to put a damper on our good time, as at around 9pm it started to rain on us... steadily. We all saw a lightning strike in the distance, and there were a few mumblings about it, but that was it; as if we all saw it but no one wanted to speak of it, no word could get out because no one wanted a repeat of the previous night.

The Scottish seven-member band (equipped with a backing horn section) delivered one of the best shows I've seen all year, if not in my entire life. Despite the rain, I couldn't stop smiling as the group played "I'm A Cuckoo" "Stars of Track & Field" "Seeing Other People" "Piazza, New York Catcher" etc., etc. After recapping the setlist with a friend I realized they played every track I could've wanted them to play (with the noted exception of "If She Wants Me").

I was alarmed at the amount of energy a band that creates such laid back pop music could exude, with singer Stuart Murdoch would dance around stage and even include a lot of audience participation. And I mean A LOT. First, he brought a young lady up on stage to do the spoken word interlude of "Dirty Dream Number Two", as he held up cue cards for her to read off of, just in case she experienced any amount of stage fright (she did). He then tossed mascara to a lad in the front row, simply for the lyric in "Lord Anthony" which he discusses "blue mascara running over your eye". Murdoch braced himself over the barricade and had the young man sloppily apply makeup to his eyes.

Then, as the set was winding down the group played the intro to "The Boy With The Arab Strap" as Murdoch hand selected about two dozen people to join them on stage. Just to dance. Everyone up there looked spritely, as they skanked and danced around, for the entirety of the song.

The group came back out for their encore, and played a beautiful version of "Get Me Away From Here I'm Dying" despite Murdoch flubbing up a lyric or two. To say the set was endearing would be a vast understatement.

Sunday

Blood Orange



One of my biggest sleepers of Pitchfork 2013 was Dev Hynes' project, Blood Orange. The producer/singer/all around renaissance man has been one of my favorite people to follow over the last year, and his set at Pitchfork on Sunday afternoon was no let down.

Playing songs from his latest LP, Coastal Grooves including standout jams like "Forget It", with it's incredible guitar solo interlude, the sensual backing beat and vocals of "Sutphin Boulevard" as well as "Champagne Coast" all stood out as Dev completely owned the performance.

Hynes also brought out Caroline Polachek of Chairlift to perform what he called the first track off of the new Blood Orange album (to be released this year), which just shows how well respected Hynes is in the music community. Dev also provided a little foreshadowing as he sang an a cappella verse of Sky Ferreira's "Everything is Embarrassing" who was slated to perform next at the Blue Stage.

I urge you to remember this man and his Blood Orange name. Devonté Hynes is the second coming of Prince, with just as much (if not more) charisma, style, and talent.

Sky Ferreira



Ever since seeing her at SXSW this year, and the infamous shaky-voiced meltdown, I couldn't help but feel for Sky Ferreira. I attended her concert in a tiny club in Madison on Easter, and was actually blown away at how great she sounded, but she was still somewhat an emotional mess. After telling her how great her vocals sounded, she admitted to having very intense stage fright. Kind of always seemed odd to me, being the 21-year-old has been modeling since she was 17 (at least).

Emotions still ran high for Ferreira during her set on Sunday. After performing her hit "Lost in My Bedroom" she admitted to "never talking between songs" and then told the story of how the song was written. She claimed that she would be in her bedroom, telling herself that no one would ever come to her shows and that she'd be a failing musician. She began to cry as she said "but to see so many heads out there is really amazing" and the crowd ate it up. There wasn't a silent moment in the set as fanboys and fangirls alike were yelling her name and "I LOVE YOU" any chance they could.

For her final song, Ferreira brought out familiar face Dev Hynes to perform a full version of "Everything is Embarrassing" which was a little underwhelming as Sky's voice was hard to hear at some parts of the song, but overall her set was great. Sky stuck around to hang out with some of her diehard fans in the front row afterwards, taking a few selfies with some lucky shriekers.

R. Kelly


Photo by Jason Bergman

Chicago's own voice of R&B was the bookend to a great weekend at Pitchfork Music Festival. And his show was an experience by itself, here's a quick rundown of things that happened.

Before coming out on to the stage, R. has a countdown system that states "The Show Will Begin in R-Minus 20 [or 15, or 10, or 5] Minutes" leading up until an actual countdown from 10-seconds to the time he took the stage. He rushed the stage wearing more reflective clothing than a night time highway construction worker, and his microphone bedazzled with so many jewels it was practically blinding. Kelly opened with the immediate crowd pleaser "Ignition (Remix)" and played a medley of hits thereafter including "Fiesta" and "Flashing Lights".

To be honest, there's absolutely no way I can explain to you how much fun this set was. The crowd was electric, including some middle-aged African American women screaming for R to take his sweatshirt off; hipsters making out; and yes I will admit that I was dancing like it was a High School dance to 90% of the songs.

Photo by Erez Avissar
"Bump N Grind" "Feelin' On Yo' Booty" and "Step in the Name of Love" (both original and remix version) were played and were delivered fantastically, and aside from "The World's Greatest" there wasn't a hit he didn't play.

After around 60-70 minutes on stage, Kelly had the crowd singing along a makeshift song in which R told the crowd he was tired and out of shape because he'd "been on stage for two hours" (it had literally been 70 minutes, tops) and had taken "no breaks." The crowd played along as he improvised a song, and singing "NO BREAKS" back to him and "NO SHAPE" was eventually sang as well. Kelly got a kick out this laughing with his band members "Man! We didn't even rehearse this shit!"

The kicker was the finale. R. Kelly dedicated "I Believe I Can Fly" to his home city of Chicago, and knocked the normally overly cheesy song out of Union Park. The crowd was going wild and the experience itself was surprisingly nostalgic and euphoric, especially when I realized I was at an R. Kelly concert. The man knows how to work a crowd though, there's absolutely no denying that. And as the song was heading into it's final verse and chorus, various balloons were set into the night sky, including ones with small LED lights nested inside of them and others in the shape of doves. It was a visual spectacle to say the least.

Photo by Erez Avissar

***

I cannot rave enough about how amazing the weekend at Pitchfork Music Festival was, and I want to thank each and every person who made it possible. 2013 has proven to be the year where music fests take off, and are actually becoming nauseatingly overpacked and overpriced. Pitchfork delivers the best bang for your buck and the setup and structure of the festival truly highlight that it is a festival by music lovers, for music lovers.

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