Sunday, July 19, 2015

My First Pitchfork Festival in Review

My first time ever at the Pitchfork Music Festival threatened to go off the rails early. I'd come with a couple friends, and we'd just seen Bully tear through a fantastic set (more on them in a bit) to open the day. Following that, Ex Hex was next on the agenda, despite the first feelings of raindrops as we headed over to see Mary Timony and company. After a delay, they managed to get through four songs before the storm finally hit in earnest, and the dreaded closing announcement was heard. Thunder and lightning soon followed, way too close for comfort. We congregated with everyone heading for the exits, forming a bottleneck that must have taken a good five minutes (precious time in this situation) to get through. Finally we made it out, and went . . . well, nowhere. We were surrounded by residential areas whose locked doors offered no shelter from lightning, rain, or possible tornadoes. In retrospect, I doubt this particular storm ever got close enough to pose a serious threat to us, but it was a scary sequence of events. (Not that the people who hadn't heeded the evacuation were any safer, as festival tents are certainly not adequate protection for severe weather.)

I'll get to the music in a moment, but this was such a mismanaged situation, and it could have had serious consequences had weather conditions been just a tad different. So let's take a second to run through the screw-ups. 

1) Zero information about what to do in case of severe weather on the website, and no directions to nearby shelter.

You could perhaps argue that it's the responsibility of the individual to know where to go in these instances. Lord knows I regretted not checking out the nearby streets beforehand for possible weather refuges. But given how confusing Chicago can be to navigate under even ideal conditions (meaning times when you're not panicking about possibly being stuck outside in the middle of a nasty storm), as well as how many people are coming from outside the city to attend, it would seem to be a sensible step to include a map to the nearest place that can serve as a shelter. By which I mean a building (or buildings) able to house several thousand people temporarily. We don't need to be comfortable, just safe. So pack us in if you have to. But make sure the shelter is out there, and that everyone knows how to get to it.

In short, putting nothing under your "weather" section except the words "The Pitchfork Music Festival will take place rain or shine is inexcusable.

Now, I don't know the neighborhood, so it could be that safe shelters are a fair distance away. But that brings me to my second point . . .

2) Not enough warning.

Music festivals are loud. Fact. There is no way people are going to be able to fully register the first faint rumblings of thunder while listening to a band like Ex Hex, even if they're standing pretty far back. And even if they were able to hear it, many people are not going to take it seriously until it becomes louder, at which point finding shelter in time becomes virtually impossible.

Here's the good news: weather systems are pretty darn advanced nowadays. They can tell you when a severe storm is going to be in the area well before it happens. With that information, the decision can and should be made to close the festival temporarily even before those first faint rumblings and tell people to take shelter (which, if the solution to problem #1 has been implemented, they will know how to get to). A lot of folks will probably not be happy about this. So be it. Because what I saw on Saturday was a bunch of people frantically being ushered out of Union Park as the storm was already bearing down, then having no idea what to do next. And that's a recipe for disaster.

Terrifying storm experience aside, this was a tremendous day of music. Bully opened the day at the Blue Stage with a bruising set of rock tunes, all drawn from their stellar debut Feels Like. The combination of Alicia Bognanno's searing vocals, skilled guitar playing, and the solid band around her is nearly impossible to resist, especially on tracks like "Milkman" (which closed the set) that meld their heaviness with jangly, momentum-filled melodies. But even "Trash", the one song on the album that feels kind of sludgy and static, becomes thrilling when heard live, as Bognanno's repetitions of "Feels like trash" cut through the air and pummel your eardrums. (Side note: I was definitely too close for this band, a mistake I would not make again. Sacrificing a little bit of immediacy for the sake of my hearing struck me as a wise move.) Nothing is guaranteed in this world, but I strongly suspect that next time Bully plays this festival, you'll be seeing them in a prime slot on one of the main stages. Or maybe even headlining. They're just that good.

As already mentioned, Ex Hex was cut short due to weather, so there's not a lot to say here. They did manage to get through my two favorite songs ("How You Got That Girl" and "Waterfall") before, well . . . the water began to fall. It was a bummer, because they should have been a perfect fit for a nice summer day. Oh well.

Following the brief storm "adventure" recounted above, it was time for the evening performances. One thing I did appreciate about the bad weather was that it came at just about the perfect time. Kurt Vile's set ended up being a short one, but that was okay with me; while I can respect the craft he puts into it, his pretty but overly languid music has never exactly gripped me. We watched him from a distance while waiting around for Parquet Courts to start, and I was content with that.

Ah, Parquet Courts. So good on record, and if their tremendously sharp, witty lyrics are slightly sacrificed in the clamor of a live setting (anyone who didn't already know the words to "Black & White" or "Sunbathing Animal" was in trouble), their ability to whip their guitars into a frenzy more than makes up for that loss. "Ducking & Dodging" was the high point of the set, with Andrew Savage delivering an even more elaborate solo than the version on Sunbathing Animal. But there were plenty of other standout moments, including a top-tier rendition of "Pretty Machines" (the best track from Content Nausea).  The only slight demerit was the decision to include a largely spoken-word song in the middle of the set; such tracks may work well in a studio setting sometimes (though not often), but I've yet to find one that translates well to a live environment, particularly when the words are being shouted in such a way that it's impossible to understand them. "Borrowed Time" or another additional Light Up Gold track would have fit into the set's vibe much more. That quibble aside, this is a top-notch group of musicians, and I can't wait to see what they do next.

It's always a treat when you find the perfect spot to watch a band you love. There are tons of good places, of course, but when The New Pornographers launched into "Sing Me Spanish Techno" and those blissful harmonies ("Traveling at godspeed / Over the hills and trails") reached my ears from exactly the right distance and direction, it was transcendent. One hour isn't really enough time for a band with this deep a catalog of great songs, but their selection was just about perfect, including at least one song from each of their six albums, as well as nearly all the finest cuts from last year's Brill Bruisers (with "Fantasy Fools" being the only somewhat surprising omission). No Dan Bejar? No problem, as they ripped through a fantastic "Testament to Youth in Verse". And this might well be heresy, but I did not register Neko Case's absence at all, what with how brilliantly keyboardist Kathryn Calder's voice carried "Mass Romantic". They're just a great freaking band: tight and consistent, no matter what lineup they may have.

I've always been a pretty big Future Islands fan, but their set was definitely the most disappointing of the evening. Part of the problem likely had to do with positioning. Wanting to be close enough to see Sleater-Kinney properly, I wound up with a spot towards the back, surrounded by people whose main interest seemed to be either cheering on Samuel T. Herring's dance moves or loudly mocking him. I can understand the former impulse (not so much the latter), but in both cases it tended to overshadow the music, making it difficult to register anything besides the general mood of the vocals. I doubt that was the goal; these are incredibly well-crafted pop songs, and the career-spanning nature of the set (which included great older tunes like "Give Me the Wind" and "Vireo's Eye") indicated these guys are devoted as much to their songcraft as they are to their stage antics. I heard some people saying things to the effect of "Future Islands is all style, no substance", and that's just not true. They're terrific at both. Unfortunately, the style was the main thing on display for most of the night. I suspect seeing them at a somewhat smaller indoor venue might be a better way to go.

Or maybe the crowd was just antsy waiting for Sleater-Kinney. Certainly that's understandable. A Sleater-Kinney performance is something to be treasured, particularly by those of us who weren't even teenagers when they went on hiatus, and are just now getting the chance to see them play live. I've now been lucky enough to see them twice this year, and if I slightly preferred their show in Dallas to their performance at Pitchfork it's for two simple reasons: 1) They played "Let's Call it Love" in Dallas. 2) It was indoors, my feet weren't muddy, and I had a much better angle—thanks to the wonders of a tiered floor—to see all of Carrie Brownstein's fantastic fretwork.

Beyond that, though, I have no complaints. They remain a tour de force live band; easily the greatest I've ever seen. As good a dancer as Herring is, the Future Islands frontman could learn a thing or three from watching Brownstein, whose stage presence is no less bombastic but immeasurably more controlled; her high kicks and guitar theatrics are less about simply getting really into the music (though that's part of it for sure) and more about punctuating it. And if the vantage point was slightly less optimal this time around, it didn't matter that much; the intricacy of her playing on a track such as "No Cities to Love" was still readily apparent. (If anything, that song feels more tightly coiled than ever before.)

Meanwhile, the setlist here seemed designed to show off the full greatness of Corin Tucker as a vocalist, with "The Fox" and "Sympathy" both showing up on the setlist. The latter was probably the highlight of the evening: a longtime fave of mine (I ranked it #2 on my list of the band's best tracks), it was the song I was most hoping for, and it slayed. The bridge remains the greatest thing Sleater-Kinney has ever created, with Brownstein's guitar and Janet Weiss's drums providing the rhythmic propulsion while Tucker's rising voice heads towards that last note. And holds it. And holds it. And still keeps holding it. Dear god, how can she not be out of breath yet?

Of course, they would follow that up with Brownstein playing part of "Words & Guitar" while lying on her freaking back. Then a scorching rendition of "Entertain". Slightly later on (as part of a two-song encore) they would play "You're No Rock n' Roll Fun", a song they cheerfully admitted had not been rehearsed. After an aborted first attempt, they nailed it on the second try, right down to the wonderfully catchy (but deceptively complex) harmonies at the end.  That's this band in a nutshell; they have so many different ways to awe you, even on those very rare occasions when something goes wrong onstage.

In fact, there's only one thing I took issue with in the whole performance, and it's the moment in which Brownstein thanked the fans, saying: "This isn't pretty, and we don't want it to be." That's something I'm gonna have to disagree with you about, Sleater-Kinney. It's the most beautiful damn music in the world.

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