Festival Review: Pitchfork Music Festival (Chicago, IL)

Vampire Weekend (New York, NY), Feist (Toronto, Calgary), Cloud Nothings (Cleveland, OH), Dirty Projectors (Brooklyn, NY), Japandroids (Vancouver, British Columbia), Beach House (Baltimore, MD), Real Estate (Ridgewood, NJ), Youth Lagoon (Boise, ID), Sleigh Bells (Brooklyn, NY), Godspeed You! Black Emperor (Montreal, Quebec), Grimes (Vancouver, British Columbia), Lower Dens (Baltimore, MD), AraabMuzik (Providence, RI)
July 13-15th, 2012
Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, IL

Forty-seven bands played at the seventh annual Pitchfork Music Festival at Chicago’s Union Park. Prior to the festival I had only seen one before, headlining act Vampire Weekend. That was back in March of 2010, when they were touring behind their then newly released, sophomore album, Contra. I thought Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut was a great album, but when I heard Contra, it really took the band to a different level for me. It was fantastic, a top five favorite of that year. My favorite track on Contra is album closer “I think UR a Contra.” And when I first saw them live, they played just about every song they’ve ever released besides “I think UR a Contra.” I was a little disappointed but really not all that surprised. It’s a softer, beautifully layered track, and to reproduce it live without losing some of that studio magic would be difficult.

However, Sunday night at Pitchfork, all was made right with the world. About midday through Vampire Weekend’s festival closing set, frontman Ezra Koening picked up an acoustic guitar and lead into a song he described as one they don’t often play in a festival setting. Needless to say, the opening notes of “I Think UR a Contra” began and I couldn’t have been more surprised or elated. Even though most of the “A-punk” enthusiast crowd checked out for the few minutes of the slower ballad, it really made the festival for me. And it was a nice anchor to an amazing set, one that again included just about every song they’ve ever released. “Oxford Comma” and “Walcott” really popped in the cooling Chicago night. They only played one new song, and it was sort of slipped in to where I couldn’t really get much of a first impression down. However, before closing the encore, Koening said he couldn’t wait to be back with the new album, genuinely expressing his excitement to finally share the material they’ve been working hard on in the studio.

Vampire Weekend was just one of the many amazing band playing Pitchfork that weekend. Friday afternoon downpours did give the festival a wet and slightly delayed opening but it did not dampen the music. It did, however, help keep the daytime relatively less hot, just as things were getting started.

Lower Dens were the first band I saw at Pitchfork. They were playing the Red stage, and with a name like Lower Dens you can tell they don’t normally embrace sets in the middle of the afternoon. It’s always tough being billed early in the day of a festival, especially that first Friday when a lot of people are just finishing work and won’t make it down to the park until the evening. But even with the early set time and intermediate storms, Lower Dens still played to a healthy gathering. Their atmospheric rock didn’t make you want to jump out of your wet clothes, but it did draw you in. A nice performance in a tough time slot.

The next band on my must-see list was Japandroids but they didn’t go on until 6:15p.m., so there was some time to peruse the festival grounds. A longtime Lollapalooza veteran, this was actually my first time attending the smaller, slightly more underground Pitchfork festival. It only had three stages: Red, Green, and Blue. Red and Green were nearly adjacent to each other. They directed towards the same open field and shared the same jumbo screen. Acts never played at the same time on the Red and Green stages. The Blue stage was on the other side of the park and was a little bit smaller in structure. Sometimes when there was a bass heavy act on the Blue stage it could be heard at the Green, but for the most part sound bleeding wasn’t much of a problem.

Umbrellas At The Blue Stage

Even though Pitchfork makes a point of leaving sponsors off the stage names, the festival isn’t entirely grassroots. Heineken had the exclusive beer rights and their tents and products covered the festival (which I didn’t mind, I like Heineken, and at $5 for a 12-ounce pour, wasn’t bad). Concertgoers did have to exchange money for drink tickets before buying a beverage; it was a little annoying at first, but once people got the hang of it, it actually seemed to make things run smoother. Vitamin Water was also heavily present at the festival but largely because it was free. Twenty-ounce Vitamin Waters along with frozen Kefir samples were handed out from their sponsor tents at no cost, throughout the entire weekend. It was a pleasant surprise, and did help offset the curiously lone, water bottle filling station at the festival.

I attended this year’s festival with my three younger brothers and met up with a few friends as well throughout the fest. My brother Michael recommended seeing Japandroids, so walking to their set I asked him what they sounded like. He answered with, “just good rock music, think Best Coast, but without all the sunny stuff.” Hmm, I haven’t heard a lot of Best Coast, so I’m not sure how accurate that statement is but Japandroids definitely did rock. It had rained again in the meantime at Union Park and everyone was freshly wet including Japandroids singer/guitarist Brian King. They ripped through song after song, trying to make up for their late start time because of the rain. The crowd was receptive with many jamming and even singing along, especially to tunes off of the recent Celebration Rock. At times it was hard to believe only King and drummer Dave Prowse were the cause of all the noise on stage. King ended the set thanking the crowd again and adding that they were staying at the festival until Sunday, so if you saw them around, to say hi. Awesome.

Next, we caught the Dirty Projectors playing the Red stage. By this time the continuous threat of rain had passed, and it looked like we were going to be in for a nice Chicago night. The Projectors for a while have been on my shortlist of bands I have to listen to, right now. And yet still, I haven’t got enough around to them. I thoroughly enjoyed their live renditions of “No Intention” and the lead single off of Swing Lo Magellan, “Gun Has No Trigger.” Guitarist and vocalist Amber Coffman sounded amazing on the songs she led on. Simply a fun, chill set.

To close out Friday, I was looking forward to Feist, while the rest of my party wanted to check out the much hyped electronic duo, Purity Ring. I had been looking forward to seeing Leslie Feist play live for a number of years now, so I didn’t mind passing on Purity Ring till next time.

I was unsure of how Feist would go over in a festival setting. So many of her songs are quiet, sad and vulnerable; and I love them for it. Ideally I wish I could see her play in a 48-person capacity coffee shop with the espresso machines turned off, so quiet you can hear a pin drop. But tens of thousands of people at an outdoor festival will do, and Feist appropriately adjusted her performance to maximize the setting. She played “Mushaboom” in a sexy, beat driven melody, and “I Feel It All” filtered through a harder, almost punk rock lens. She started off “The Circle Married The Line” with freestyle lyrics directed towards photographers in the trench, urging them not to take unflattering pictures of her.

But you can’t have a Feist set without some of the heartbreak. My favorite in this category for the night was an inspired version of “Let It Die” off her debut album of the same name. It was deeper in the set and at which point some of the crowd was shrugging at anything that wasn’t “1234,” which she didn’t play by the way. And I really didn’t mind; all of her songs are damn good, and in whatever rendition she decides to play them in that day.

Saturday was my most wild card day. I didn’t love love any of the acts going that day, but definitely curious about a number of them. It started with Cloud Nothings playing early in the day at the Red stage. It looked like it was about to storm any second when they took the stage, and sure enough midday through the set, it did. Not before, the band kicked off my favorite tune, “Stay Useless.” And actually the harder the rain fell, the more I liked the band. They were completely unfazed by the downpour or the resulting fans running away for cover under the trees. Honestly, I think Cloud Nothings could pull off playing in a busy intersection because nothing distracted them. The concentration stayed on the music, even when their speakers, instruments and microphones were turned for safety.

Cloud Nothings Battling the Storm

Next up, was Youth Lagoon playing the now sunny again Blue stage. Over the past year, I’ve heard a lot of great things about the debut album, The Year of Hibernation. However, it wasn’t until the last few weeks that I sat down and listened to it. It really is full of synth pop goodness, and the live show was that goodness, as you would expect it. Youth Lagoon mastermind Trevor Powers unfolded the beautiful melodies of album favorites “Cannons” and “Montana.” An enjoyable set, no one left disappointed.

Saturday was the most crowded day of the Pitchfork Music Festival, and you felt it. The food and beer lines were dense and the The Porta-Potty lines were each four persons deep by early evening. I initially thought the buzzier evening bands, Sleigh Bells and Grimes, were a major reason for the increased attendance. However, after overhearing a man in his early thirties describe his apartment to a friend as being across the street, I started to think maybe it’s just because it’s Saturday. And some people decided to attend the festival simply because it’s “something fun to do this weekend.” It’s a little hard to believe, with the daily tickets for Pitchfork going for $45, but after hearing a pocket of thirty year olds standing close enough to the stage, talk over the opening twenty minutes of the Godspeed You! Black Emperor set, it seemed all too plausible.

Touching on the buzzier bands, the Sleigh Bells set was intense. I don’t think lead singer Alexis Krauss stood still for two seconds, jumping around everywhere including in the crowd. I was on the outskirts for this one, but I can only imagine the mosh pit. This is one band that is built for festivals, arenas, and beyond.

Sleigh Bells

Saturday night I split my time between Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Grimes. My brother Michael highly regards GBYE, so I stuck it out the first half of their set. The music came off as deep and important, slowly climaxing to great heights. It was an interesting experience, but my other brother, Brian, and I were curious about the Grimes commotion so we headed over to the Blue stage.

What I first saw on stage was two dancers and a man in a warlock cape. As we moved closer I saw Grimes herself, Claire Boucher at center behind a keyboard. There was a ton of people there to hear “Oblivion” and “Genesis” but also a ton to see what Grimes was all about. I spent most of the set admiring how someone three years younger than me was closing out Pitchfork festival’s Saturday night, and there I was in the crowd, keeping an eye on the ground for dropped drink tickets.

In addition to Vampire Weekend on Sunday, I also caught full sets of Real Estate, AraabMuzik, and Beach House. Real Estate performed in the middle of the afternoon, with sun and heat in full effect, but they somehow found a way to keep things cool. I’ve been playing their most recent album Days a lot recently, and it was nice to relax to live cuts of “Easy” and “Kinder Blumen.”

AraabMuzik was the last act to play the Green stage before Vampire Weekend. So part of me just wanted to check out what the camped-out, Vampire Weekend kids had to put up with. And it wasn’t all that bad. AraabMuzik is Abraham Orellana and his masterings of the MPC drum machine. The beats were lively and it was a fun set to move to.

Finally we came to Beach House playing the Red stage. Everyone I was at the festival with that day wanted to get a close spot to Vampire Weekend. Then listen to Beach House play while watching the jumbo screen. I begrudging agreed, but it wasn’t quite the same experience listening to Beach House from remotely far away. I tried my best to enjoy as people continuously moved in toward the vacant Green stage throughout Beach House set. I did hear “10 Mile Stereo,” which was my favorite track off of Teen Dream. Beach House favorite “Used to Be” was strangely absent from their Pitchfork set. Mere minutes after they exited the Red stage, Vampire Weekend walked out on the Green stage and jumped into “Cousins.”

And that wraps up my first Pitchfork Music Festival experience. It was fun, a little rainy, but I heard tons of amazing music. I’m still unsure of how I feel about two-tone, high-waist cut off shorts but maybe they need room to grow on me. I know one thing; I’ve been secretly craving Vitamin Water since I left Pitchfork. So maybe the free Vitamin Water/indie music marketing ploy was an overwhelming success.

Thoughts?

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