Upon my departure to Chicago — home of the taste-making indie-boogeymen Pitchfork Media and their annual "stuff white people like" music festival — I threw down a gauntlet to the hotter-than-hot lineup of cutting-edge blog darlings and cred-hoarders slated to take over the city's Union Park: Rock hard and I'll rock out.
Well, apparently many of this year's performers happen to double as Cream readers, as I'm pleased to report that many of them heeded my warnings, rose to the occasion, and rocked out. Of course a few others did not.
(Note: Skip to the end if you just want to read about Pavement.)
Typically a drive to Chi-Town clocks in at around eight hours, but since I've got an Adderall prescription and I'm not afraid to you use it, I managed to make the trek in what felt like 15 minutes, allowing me to catch a healthy chunk of Friday evening's festivities.
If you cross through the gates of Pitchfork Festival and don't immediately feel like you've transported yourself into an interactive and constantly updating version of Look at This Fucking Hipster, then you might want to consider a vision a test. I know marginalizing the P4K audience by beating the dead horse of their disgustingly ironic fashion proclivities and too-cool-for-school hyperbole is more predictable than guessing how hard I'm gonna fellate Pavement later on in this here report ... but if you'd take one look at the dude with the John Waters mustache and cartoon teddy-bear T-shirt who greeted my comrades and me with a noncommittal wave, head-cock and hiccuping drag off his cigarette, you too would wonder if festival organizers were paying hipster-garabe models by the hour to work as a welcoming committee.
Such pleasantries wouldn't seem surprising. Pitchfork is a pretty damn cozy festival. With only three stages, a fairly manageable site to traverse and an audience mostly made up of likely readers and high school graduates, P4K doesn't rival larger festivals like Bonnaroo in terms of taxing you physically, mentally and emotionally, and challenging your will to stay on this mortal coil voluntarily. And it doesn't rival trade-show festivals like SXSW in terms of the overwhelming number of artists and destinations you have to contend with. Basically, the Pitchfork Fest is, literally, a walk in the park.
You'd think an enterprise called Pitchfork Media would coddle the nation's bloggers, music journos and photogs with plush amenities like free booze and side-stage observation decks in the ivory tower of the backstage over-world, but , unlike in 2008, this year we press folk were shut out of all that exclusive fun and shunted off to a sympathetic tent — complete with will-work-for-food-style hand-written signage — among the plethora of vending stations. Oh well. Come to think of it, 20,000 of 17,000 festival patrons were probably music bloggers. So, I guess that might explain it.
As my companions and I quickly acclimated to our surroundings (i.e. started drinking), we caught our first full set of the fest courtesy of Swedish dance-pop sensation Robyn. The spunky bottle-blonde whipped the crowd of dorm-dwellers into a glow-stick slinging frenzy with her whole "Kate Bush does Kylie Minogue doing every nameless Euro-trash, club-turntable hit you've ever heard" routine. It was barely even 6 p.m., and I was just astonished to discover how people could think doing cocaine that early on a summer day would be a good idea. In other words: The set seemed a little out of place so early in the festivities. Plus, this kind of thing really isn't my kind thing to begin with. Robyn's music made me feel like I'd taken my Enigma 33s and played them on 45 to burn through them faster. I have friends who make these kind of beats in their free time and then delete them off their hard drive to make room for South Park episodes. What's the BFD?
Getting treated to a fine set from Montreal flagship collective Broken Social Scene, who played their Roxy Music-informed, anthemic, indie-pop, was more my speed. It was clear by the clamor and immediate exponential growth of the audience that I wasn't alone in my sentiments. Seriously, you would've thought you were watching a hockey game. With Canada as one the last decade's biggest indie-rock breeding grounds came the rise of the big ensemble: Broken Social Scene, of Montreal, New Porographers, Arcade Fire etc. These bands are like precious, indie-rock pops orchestras. As such, BSS don't really have standout members, or much in the way of a discernible frontman or frontwoman for any extended period of time. Perhaps that's why the band inviting up "hometown hero" and Tortoise/Sea and Cake Drummer John McEntire to man the skins for a song had such a huge impact on their set. As always, McEntire kicked out the beats like a digitally programmed cement mixer and, as a drummer, it was quite a pleasant surprise to get to gyrate to a groove familiar to anyone who, in the '90s, never forgot to write down their weed-dealer's number on their Touch & Go catalogue. Ever since hearing the BSS close their tour-de-force set with the instrumental Aughts anthem "Meet Me in the Basement," I've been walking around hopelessly humming "b-ba buh-bum, b-ba buh-bum" in my head and getting mad shit done.
Closing out Night One were rain-soaked elder statesmen Modest Mouse. If you love bad news, than I've got some that'll make you feel good: Modest Mouse were pretty mediocre this weekend. I can't tell if the ugly Casanova & Co. were incredibly disappointing, or simply just exactly as disappointing as I feared they'd be. Even when this band seemed like a revelation to people, they were never the kind of performers who lit the stage on fire, but they at least had an airtight repertoire to draw from. At Pitchfork a performance that mostly felt phoned-in and obligatory was far too little to save a bewildering and oddly paced set list that, to any fan of the band's oeuvre, left a helluva lot to be desired. I was stunned when I realized the band played only ONE SONG ("Dramamine") from their seminal '90s output. Naturally, it was the set's highlight. Between meandering through cuts off that record from 2007 with the name that's too long to even mention, the band did include a handful of selections from their celebrated The Moon and Antarctica and Good News for People Who Love Bad News. But they weren't the ones the crowd expected or necessarily wanted. "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes" was an odd choice for an opener, and songs absent from the set list included "3rd Planet," "Paper Thin Walls" and — most shockingly — the hit, "Float On." Do they really hate it that much? Instead, they stuck to playing all of that Tom Waits-goes-to-Studio-54 stuff that apparently necessitates a jam-band worthy lineup to pull off.
Seeing as how their first encore, "Gravity Rides Everything," was the first song in a 90-minute set to induce an audience-wide sing-along, it was clear that the band had passed up an easy opportunity to have the crowd in the palm of their hands, had they only given them a set they wanted to hear. After making nearly all in attendance anti-climax with the closing "Black Cadillacs," singer Isaac Brock nonchalantly exited the stage, not seeming to give a fuck that 15,000 people were standing there shaking their heads and wondering "Is that really it?"
Was it as bad as, say, No Doubt? No, of course not. Could it have been a whole lot better with only a little bit more effort? No doubt.
Luckily, the rest of the weekend would see a bounty of great performances that would not only make up for Modest Mouse's slipper-socks-under-the-Christmas-tree letdown, but virtually erase the memory of that lackluster showing. Day two was full of 'em. The first of which was the one we caught courtesy of fresh-faced Philadelphia freak-folk purveyor Kurt Vile, who put his backing band of fellow long-hairs (The Violators) to use in splashing the right amount of drone and delay on the tortured, sun-drenched cuts from his brilliant 2009 release, Childish Prodigy — showing just how well these meditative gems can actually work live.
One thing that often doesn't work well live is hip-hop — as Raekwon proved with a painfully underwhelming set with fellow former Wu-Tang Clansman Ghostface at Pitchfork 2008. Well, this year, the rapper from the slums of Shaolin totally redeemed himself. At first, the set was just a passable but enjoyable run-through of Wu-Tang favorites that saw the rapper handily inspiring a thousands-strong sea of white hands to raise the roof. The shit got real when Raekwon pulled an ace out of his sleeve — four aces, to be exact — when he gave the stage to the "youngest No. 1 break-dancing kids from Chicago," Chi-Town's Finest Breakers. The crowd was suddenly enraptured in a moment of collective shit-loss when the familial troupe utterly served them with an electrifying boogaloo of epic proportions, flawlessly executing a dizzying array of body rocks, suicide freezes and a seemingly neverending head-spins that were obviously a highlight of the entire weekend. Way to tap the local talent, Raekwon.
After the fun rediscovery of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, my unnamed cohorts and I cruised the vendors, doctored a few more of those 32 oz. Arnold Palmers and randomly found some MTSU kids to bond over the peace-pipe with before taking on Saturday night's trifecta of time-capsule iPad-indie that would see Saturday night to the finish line. The fun began (predictably) with new wave fetishists Wolf Parade. Sometimes, in fact most of the time, seeing a band with such critically over-ess'd Ds live for the first time makes or breaks them in my mind. Such was the case with Wolf Parade. Before this weekend I didn't have any problems with this band. In fact, I kind of liked them, but then I realized I'd never actually sat and listened to them for more than an hour. Listen Wolf Parade. Just because you have TWO guys who can take turns aping Ian Curtis doesn't mean you're band will be twice as good as Interpol. Miraculously, you guys are at least twice as good as Interpol. Which still isn't that good. Moving on.
Anyhow, I wanna hear this music in headphones, not while I'm staring into the sun, dodging beach balls and holding in a burning Heineken piss. This set would've worked in, say, the Grand Canyon, but Union Park was a different story. Halfway through, my brain started salivating and I momentarily bailed, just in time to cross paths with a "vendor" who was peddling delicious, homemade, electric Kool-Aid instead of Arnold Palmers.
Once quenched, I ran into my friend Lucy, who inspired me to return to the fray congregated at the main stage. Her timing couldn't have been better. The sun was setting. The sky looked like, uh, diamonds, and LSD, I mean LCD Soundsystem were in the midst of their opening number, "US v Them." I wasn't quite sure who "us" or "them" were supposed to be, but I sure as hell knew I was winning at life by peaking when the festival did.
As they launched into the endlessly infectious romp "Drunk Girls," it was clear that Day Two of Pitchfork 2010, and maybe even the festival as whole, belonged to LCD. The band — whose catalog I only know on a cursory level at best — blew me away at Bonnaroo, and while this set was nearly identical to that one, the whole shebang seemed even more powerful as it welcomed the coming of a gorgeous Chicago night. This band is an entirely different animal live than they are on record. First off, they're a real band live — complete with face-punching dynamics, face-melting chops, infectious, elongated arrangements and galvanizing grooves — not the electro-pop composite of a band they are on recording. As such, they come off more like The Talking Heads — or even The B-52s — than Daft Punk. Whether he's stalking the stage, looking like an irate, out of sorts house painter succumbing to inhalation of fumes, belting out witty lyrics about seeing Can's first show and the trials and tribs of life in the Big Apple with a voice like a likable Ian Astbury, or interrupting himself to banter about their songs going on for too long, LCD auteur James Murphy is an utterly and oddly captivating frontman.
While watching him and his ensemble plow through the set with seamless song transitions that made the whole 90-minute affair feel like an eternal party devoid of time and space, I couldn't help but be reminded of the revelatory feeling I had watching Jay-Z at Bonnaroo, as this performance was one that would forever inform how I heard, spoke or thought about this band — an observation all but confirmed when they capped set-closer "New York, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down" with a brief snippet of Jigga's ubiquitous Big Apple anthem, "Empire State of Mind." Assuming all of that wasn't stuff I just imagined, their set was something beyond perfect.
Despite hosts of hallowed headliners, Sundays at music festivals are always more subdued than the days leading up to them. Three days of exposure to the sun will accelerate dementia in just about anyone, and most festival-goers spend the day biding the time they spend waiting for their favorite headliner by trying to slow the secretion of brain-matter as it trickles out of the hole an ecstasy pill left in their head the night before. As my babysitters and I dawned on Union Park for Day Three to the sweeping sonic landscapes of Beach House, this is how we felt. I was surprised to get my first glance of the band and see that they were head banging. They sounded fantastic, but I hadn't situated myself well enough to get a great glance and really take it in. But something tells me this crafty duo isn't going anywhere.
Beach House's auditory bliss was short-lived as the band left the stage and immediately gave way to Providence post-rawk purveyors Lightning Bolt. I don't know if seeing this band and having it make me cup my ears in pain and wince — displaying a facial expression I used to see my dad make when I'd play him Nine Inch Nails — made me feel like I was getting old, or if seeing this band appear on a stage made them look old. Maybe their music has always been this sonically unpalatable to me and I just never noticed before, because every time I saw them I was preoccupied with defending my life. Either that, or I'm getting soft. Or it's just because it was the middle of the afternoon, I was sober, far away, and a set of abrasive dissonance from two dudes blowing out bass cabinets, attacking piccolo snare drums with rapid-fire delivery and screaming into gas-masks seemed about as appropriate as a racist joke. I exited the area to start double-fisting spiked Arnold Ps and carbonated Dutch piss, later returning to take in the more soothing sounds of indie-pop chanteuse St. Vincent and her command of Bjork-signed intervals.
As an alumnae of the "prestigious" Berklee College of Music, I seldom get to hear the music of one my fellow collegians without experiencing abject feelings of cringe-worthy embarrassment and guilt for bringing shame to my family's name by not going to a real college. I'm optimistic St. Vincent could play a part in changing that. Her set of smart, catchy neo-wave, gave me hope for my alma mater.
After realizing my face had just been melted off by more than the just the afternoon heat, I took refuge under some trees in the B stage area and waited for chillwave flagship composer Neon Indian, to take the stage. Neon Indian is one of those things that culls aesthetics from so many of my favorite artists — Eno, Depeche Mode, New Order — making me want to like it so badly. I keep trying, I really do. But still, I just can't commit. It's like this: I have the bladder of a 98-year-old on diuretics and, because I'm not a fecalphiliac, I hate using Porta Potties. Yet I like to drink beer at music festivals. Therefore, it's imperative that I stick to watching bands that can successfully divert my attention from my fledgling prostate and keep me from having to step into a man-sized litter-box to avoid voiding my waste-zeppelin. It's a tall order that often explains why I can be a tough critic. Neon Indian was not that band fill that order. Neon Indian made me smell shit, and his music, good as it may be, does not sound better than shit smells bad. So, I'd say the jury is still out on Neon Indian. At least until his next record is.
While I was considering waiting out the rest of Neon Indian and sticking around the B stage to see what all the fuss is about with Sleigh Bells, I heard the familiar sound of Outkast's "Ms. Jackson" wafting through the air and realized that Big Boi had just come onstage. This was the cue letting me know it was time to go and stake out a prime spot for Pavement.
From a distance, I caught the vast majority of Big Boi's set, and since I'm always skeptical of a live hip-hop show, I was hesitant to expect much, which is a good way to not be disappointed. I ended up being mildly disappointed anyway. Basically Daddy Fat Sax rushed through a middle-whelming medley of truncated Outkast favorites. Each song was seemingly over before it started, causing the effect of the would-be hit-parade to get lost in the haste. It was fast-paced and far from horrible, but a serious letdown if you were expecting it to rank as a highlight — which many, many people were.
One thing Big Boi did do well was remind me how much I like crumblin' 'erb, which I proceed to do, and do, and do as I waited for the greatest indie-rock band of all-time to hit the stage. By the time they did, I was wholly rattled by the rush of my anticipatory activities, and already emotionally gripped by teary-eyed, dope-laden nostalgia before the band even came on. Which couldn't be a more perfect terror to feel in preparation of seeing such a crookedly, uh, enchanting band, enter their twilight. There's nothing like the feeling of starting a weekend a blasé bloggin' braggart and ending it like a giddy teenager.
However, before my corners could be brightened, the band, in classic form, were welcomed to the stage by Drag City Records' luminary and apparent Q101 disc jockey, Rockin' Rian Murphy, whose introduction was a gloriously hilarious, perfectly nostalgic 10-minute eternity that riled the crowd and inspired irate heckles that would've made Neil Hamburger weep with comedic envy.
As the reunited ragtag ensemble took to the stage under loosely strewn Christmas lights that made them look like they were the house band at a backyard BBQ, lead-singer Stephen Malkmus might as well have been Doc fucking Brown when he nonchalantly counted the band into an opening "Cut Your Hair" at 88 miles-per-hour, making me feel like I'd been warped via-DeLorean to when I first saw them in 1997. At least, judging by their slacker sights and the sounds of their "ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh oohs," nothing has changed — Pavement looked and sounded exactly as they did in their heyday. Their music has aged as well as, if not better than, just about any band's of their era. They were never the tidiest looking bunch to begin with, and let's face it, they were always loose as fuck. Malkmus didn't exactly look thrilled to be paving the way for a Post-Mascis/Barlowe crop set to milk the indie-rock oldies circuit, but he was never a guy who really looked terribly excited about much anyway, and — just like hearing that version of "Cut Your Hair" immediately followed by even more spirited renditions of "In the Mouth a Desert" and "Silence Kit" — if you're a Pavement fan, you wouldn't have it any other way.
The guitars were out of tune ever so slightly, the solos were sloppy, the banter was dry, the pacing was awkward, lyrics were forgotten and there were more than a few false starts. If you were seeing and hearing this band for the first time and trying to reconcile their shambolic display with the reaction of a crowd 15,000 strong, feverishly enraptured in a collective pinch-self moment, all singing along and fawning over them with the kind of joyful and impassioned devotion of Eastern European Michael Jackson fans, you'd probably think you were the butt of an elaborate prank or, at the very least, that the singer should be shot. But hey, if you popped your Pavement cherry at the Pitchfork Music Festival, you've got bigger problems to worry about than not getting it.
While a bass-heavy, muddy mix that often saw Malkmus's vocals buried six feet under left a little to be desired on the sonic front, the band's pan-optic set list sure as hell did not. Featuring literally half of the material found on their seminal one-two discographical punch of Slanted & Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, littered with a well-picked batch of songs from the sprawling Wowie Zowie, refined Brighten the Corners and underrated swan-song Terror Twilight, you couldn't have asked for a better overview. When you consider that Pavement are a band that — assuming you like their slacker style — never made bad records, how could the set list be anything but brilliant? Sure, any band who's put out four releases deserving of double-disk expansions won't even come close to covering everything in a mere 90 minutes, but when you're dealing with a crowd who haven't heard "Shady Lane," "Trigger Cut," "Stereo," "Gold Soundz" or "Range Life" live in 10 years (if ever), something's gotta give. Still, they managed to work in "Frontwards," "Fin" and their flawless Fall cover "Two States."
While Malkmus appeared endearingly sardonic as ever — although he did manage to leave the handcuffs off the mic stand this time — the rest of the band were all smiles. Spiral Stairs reveled in his spot center stage and appeared to almost blush as he took the spotlight to belt out "Kennel District." Steve West continues to shine like the bright-red Timothy Busfield of indie rock, Mark Ibold still looks like he's protecting his P Bass from a flood, and Bob Nastanovich looks as happy as the day he got married — and still dominates the stage with lunacy when the chorus for "Conduit for Sale" hits. Basically, Pavement still just come off like the swellest bunch of camp counselors kids like us could ever have.
When it comes to reunions, Pavement did it right: They returned to their audience as the same band that left them, cherry-picked their best gems to compose their live repertoire, and made it feel as natural as it did in its day. Add in the joy and excitement of a crowd yearning for their unique chemistry, and you have the makings of great rock 'n' roll moment. Say what you will about reunions, Modest Mouse's Friday night performance would've been a helluva lot more enjoyable had it been one.
(See the Pavement setlist below.)
So, did you make it? Good for you. I hope it was worth it. I go to these things so that you don't have to, and I'm happy to provide the service. If anyone reading would like to hook me up with passes and airfare to Glastonbury or Reading, then I'd strongly consider taking you up on it. Music festivals aren't your thing? How 'bout the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall of China? You've always wanted to see them, but never had the time. Send me there and I'll give you a detailed, unabridged, vivid report. If this interests you, feel free to email me at agold [at] nashvillescene [dot] com.
Pavement set list
1. Cut Your Hair
2. In the Mouth a Desert
3. Silence Kit
4. Kennel District
5. Shady Lane
9. Debris Slide
10. Spit on a Stranger
11. Range Life
13. Trigger Cut
15. Two States
16. Gold Soundz
17. Conduit for Sale!
18. Stop Breathin
20. The Hexx