There’s nothing wrong with ultra-serious rock acts. But at a festival like Chicago's Pitchfork Music Festival — at any huge festival, really — there’s something endearing about a Mac DeMarco type, a musician there to party as much as the audience, and whose onstage antics manifest at the ideal convergence of having fun and just not giving a fuck.
DeMarco hammed it up as per usual on July 17, at times whirling around the stage like Jabba the Hutt being strangled and on a turn smiling in sincere appreciation for the crowd lapping up his antics. And while he, on occasion, approached the edge of rock star conventions, DeMarco found ways to subvert the image of himself as anything other than one of the dudes: cracking wise about his tobacco use (cigarette tucked in his capo), telling the audience he has a new album coming out, and adding that he doesn’t care if they download a leak, and dedicating his take on Steely Dan’s “Reeling in the Years” to all the dads out there.
Fan or not of DeMarco’s tunes, it’s impossible not to appreciate his live show. Pitchfork featured a slew of awesome musical talents, but DeMarco stands out as the festival’s funnest act.
Delight of basement stoner’s everywhere, Panda Bear’s sonic smorgasbord can, under the right physical conditions and the influence of certain substances, stir an appreciation for the uber-intricacy that underpins all of Noah Lennox’s music. Unfortunately, his Pitchfork set only stirred up boredom.
Chalk this up to a couple factors: a 6:25 p.m. set time, playing the Green (main) Stage at said time, and the plain-and-simple fact that Lennox basically stood by himself the entire time, in the same spot, in front of a mass of wires which obscured much of his face. That set-up didn't quite rouse an audience the way Mac DeMarco’s crowd-surfing did in the preceding set.
It’s not that Lennox was doing nothing. There’s clearly some skill to all that knob-turning; and the red face and straining neck muscles proved he was giving his all. But the format of a festival as big as Pitchfork, in a space as physically big as Union Park, demands a certain kind of visual appeal. And with the sun still very much up, any kind of psychedelic background aura to be expected from this type of show was negated.
Maybe the show would have been better had it been in the 9 p.m. slot — but what does it say about a musician’s performances when a light show and drugs become necessities for truly enjoying the experience?
Wilco played the Basilica Block Party only last weekend, so there was a solid chance their set wouldn’t be worth remarking on for this readership. And to a degree, it’s not worth belaboring the longstanding and well-known aesthetic Tweedy and Co. have cultivated over the past two decades: Tweedy purred like a broken-down mountain lion, the guitars sounded beautiful, so on and so forth. However, Wilco differentiated this set quite unexpectedly, when they played the entirety of their new album, Star Wars, which they released for download the night before.
It’s a bold strategy for a festival headliner. Chances are most people are coming to see a band like Wilco for the hits and the hits alone, scampering to the now-decimated bathrooms when a song pops up that nobody knows. And in a sense, even Tweedy seemed unsure (or uncaring) of whether this was an artistic decision or some perfunctory promotional act, preambling their new tunes with a note that the album cover had a cat on it.
A mixed reaction followed in the crowd, though it was nearly indiscernible from what were only minute speed changes in the typical back-and-forth swaying Wilco’s music prompts. They did eventually play the aforementioned hits, and it was an enjoyable albeit somber end to day one festivities.
Other notable acts: ILOVEMAKONNEN fired the crowd up, FaceTimed with his mom on stage. Iceage brought the snarling punk schtick, though it was hard to get into in light of certain fascist accusations.
Critic's bias: I think Jeff Tweedy would make a cool dad.
Random notebook dump: Wearing basketball jerseys to festivals seems like a great way to ruin your $100 basketball jerseys.
The crowd: Very weird mix of Sperry bros, floral hips, and 50-year-old couples who seem to be enjoying every show the most.
Overheard in the crowd: “The music is really good here,” said as though pleasantly surprised. Funny considering the price of admission.
Perhaps the most notable event of the day was the apocalyptic thunderstorm that began engulfing the town moments before the Ex Hex set, which Pitchfork cut short due to the severity of the storm and the subsequent evacuation of Union Park.
You have to feel bad for the band: It’s a huge stage for the garage rock trio out of D.C. and one well-suited to their style. To their credit, they absolutely killed the handful of songs they managed to squeeze in, and such was the vitality inherent in their set that even as the sheets of rain began to fall, the crowd stuck it out with the band, even reveling in the appropriately timed “Waterfall” until it became clear real danger loomed above.
Everybody wanted more Ex Hex. Next time?
Kurt Vile and the Violators
Kurt Vile’s set was also slightly affected by the weather, which started a bit after the park’s reopening at the no-joke-necessary time of 4:20 p.m. Hard to tell if the snarling curvature of Vile’s lip was accentuated by being pissed off by the inconvenience or if he just always looks that way.
Vile provided the perfect follow-up to the storm, his music being most palatable on a rainy day anyway. Were it not for Sleater-Kinney’s performance later on, Vile’s set may have been the standout rock performance of the fest; and the only complaint, if there was one among a crowd grateful for any music and perhaps even their lives following the lightning barrage, was that his shortened set was in a sense further eaten-up by the insistence of the 10-minute-long “Goldtone.”
For many the must-see up-and-comer of this or any American music festival, 20-year-old Shamir Bailey destroyed the oft-overlooked Blue Stage with his brand of I-don’t-even-know-what-to-call-it amalgamation. It’s dance music, to be sure, but to try and wrangle it into some clear-cut category seems to be missing the point for a performer who defies classification on so many levels.
It’s human nature to desire classification, and that’s heightened in the presence of something so novel; but Shamir’s popularity is not just due to intrigue. This kid can wrap a crowd around his finger, and rattle the ribcages of anybody within earshot. After the lull of a 45-minute delay, Shamir brought the energy in Union Park back up to 100 percent with his first song. And while a one-album-deep catalog further limited his stage time, it’s safe to say that if Shamir plays every show the way he played this one, he’ll be a mainstay in whatever the hell this genre he’s pioneering is for years to come.
Unexpected in a way Wilco was not, Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss powered through the headline slot with a rawness rarely seen in performers at this stage in their careers. This is not a band that phones it in, and such was their dominion that it converted even those who had flocked to Vic Mensa’s inexplicably later set in hopes of a presumed Kanye sighting.
Before a blinding light show and a backdrop of flurrying sheets, the band shouted, rolled around on the floor in dresses, jumped maniacally in high heels, and bantered with the crowd using what could have been cheesy rhetoric were it not for the conviction behind it. All of this amounted to a passionate appeal to a young crowd perhaps more familiar with Brownstein’s television work in the lull of the band’s decade-long hiatus than Sleater-Kinney’s awesomeness.
Vocal chords audibly shredded, Sleater-Kinney wrapped up day two with enough energy to push the muddy-shoed, still-damp masses out to the bar/show/afterparty of their choice to keep the spirit of the night alive.
Other notable acts: Bully’s lead drew Cobain comparisons. Parquet Courts rock very hard. Future Islands taught me about the existence of the “schlub-rock” genre.
Critic's bias: Future Islands’ lead singer’s shirt made me want to hate their music. I realize that’s shallow ... but look at the shirt.
Random notebook dump: Storms were on the radar days before the event yet there seemed to be no evacuation plan whatsoever, which left thousands of people running for their lives in search of scarce shelter. Good news for anybody trying to sneak in, though: you could stroll into Union Park without a ticket following the storm, no problem, as security was presumably still in hiding.
The crowd: Soaked and muddy. Goodbye, shoes.
Seen in the crowd: Dude at the A$AP Ferg show was waving a plant in the air. Not weed, just like, a house plant.
It’s likely Dan Snaith has never played a bad show in his life, and Sunday’s Caribou set was no different. It was everything you’d want out of electronica, and a stark contrast to Friday’s Panda Bear show. Granted, Snaith has a full backing band — but really that’s what help set him apart. While Snaith possesses a certain rippling magnetism, the energy conveyed by his band, in totality, really sets their concerts apart. The whole band knows how to work the crowd — they’re technically breathtaking. And when they ride the extended wave of their closing number, “Sun,” everybody is left wanting more. Every electronic show should take a page from Caribou.
Run the Jewels
The tag team of Killer Mike and El-P showed Pitchfork the heights a rap performance can reach after what many considered to be a disappointing set by A$AP Ferg the night before. Both Mike and El-P are insanely likable, even when they imperate their fans to carry out illegal activities, albeit with tongues in cheeks, or curse at the crowd when they’re not satisfied with the crowd’s partying. Their set was great up close, but word on the street is sound was awful toward the back.
Chance the Rapper
Hometown hero Chance the Rapper gave major love to the city of Chicago, donning a custom Bulls jersey and White Sox hat, among other outfits, and pausing often between songs to reflect on what the city and its support has meant to him. Chance is growing up, by his own estimation, and wanted what he considers to be the end of this stage in his career (mind you, he’s 22) to end with a blowout — not for himself, but for everyone who’s support him along the way. For Chance, this was about showing up for the people, and not the other way around. This was a 110 percent performance, Chance inexplicably crooning sweetly milliseconds after jumping across every square inch of what was by no means a small stage. His energy astounded, and as Pitchfork’s tired and huddled masses stumbled into the streets to hail their Ubers, everyone was talking about their native son.
Critic's bias: I’m a huge Chance the Rapper fan, so while I would have liked to see Todd Terje, and what was allegedly an amazing set, I had to miss it. Come to Minneapolis, Todd.
Random notebook dump: Killer Mike has a wonderful smile.
The crowd: Much happier since they weren’t soaking wet and covered in mud.