With this being my third tour of duty at the annual buffet of indie relevance and indie-rock reverence in Chicago’s Union Park, I knew what to expect — the aural consumption of a few dozen bands, as aided by the oral consumption of a few hundred beers.
Because I’m such a stuck-in-my-ways curmudgeon who’s only breaking through to new and exciting levels curmudgeonality after turning 30, I fell on the side of reverence this weekend — reinforcing my undying love for the underground legacy acts, and feeding my appreciation for a select handful of indie rock up-and-comers (like OFF!) while not really learning anything new or noteworthy about hotly tipped blog darlings beyond their hot tips.
With that in mind, Day 1 (Friday) was, for this aging rock fan, really all about one band and one band only: Guided by Voices, who were slated to perform at 6:15 p.m. Such being the case, my 4:30-ish arrival — with a trusty photo-biographer in tow — gave me little time to cram in the marathon pre-gaming sesh that’s a prerequisite for any GBV show ... especially one that singer and steward Robert Pollard proclaimed was of the final four of the band’s reunion tour.
So after stocking up on beer tickets, I let a folkie set courtesy of sonic old guy Thurston Moore function as background music while I double-fisted brews and cased the park, which with its three stages triangulating a little league field was set just as it had been in years past.
Since my sense of fashion is even duller than my sense of tact, I’m suitably unqualified to adequately capture the abounding cornucopia of hipster chic I was effectively tainting with my socks-and-cargo-shorts combo, except to say that I did see a lot of dudes who looked like a young John Waters sporting long tank tops and the Rachel Maddow haircut, and a lot of dames lookin’ like Tucker Carlson in a sundress.
Of course, no festival-goer’s fashion sense could ever come close to rivaling that of Guided by Voices bassist Greg Demos, who — with his tight, striped trousers, vest and flowing pirate shirt — was just about the coolest thing I’ve seen since watching Terminator 2: Judgment Day as a 10-year-old.
The last time I saw GBV — when they graced our own Cannery Ballroom in January — I woke up the next morning with empty pockets, a bathroom floor shellacked in the disgorged remnants of my last meal, and little to no recollection of the preceding 12 hours. Considering the band’s pre-twilight, hour-length set time, not to mention my tight pre-gaming schedule, it was doubtful that I’d be able to have as much fun seeing the band this time around.
Friedrich Neitzsche (philosopher) once said, "Without music, life would be a mistake." To which I replied, " … and without booze, it would sound like shit." As the gray-haired Roger Daltrey (but better) of underground American rock strolled to the stage with a half-drunken bottle of Cuervo in hand, it was clear that he knows exactly what I’m talking about.
I am guided by Guided by Voices.
Luckily, GBV is a band that can careen through a dynamic, well-rounded, classic-rife 19-song set in under an hour’s time. And luckily they decided to open that set with the indelible anthem “Echos Myron” — which featured a guest appearance from Neko Case on tambourine and BGVs — as immediately followed by the equally rousing “Exit Flagger” and perhaps my personal fave “Gold Star for Robot Boy,” and all in under 10 minutes.
Other golden-era GBV standbys repped at The Fork were “Watch Me Jumpstart,” “Shocker in Gloomtown,” “Tractor Rape Chain,” “Cut-Out Witch,” “I Am a Scientist,” “Unleashed! The Large Hearted Boy,” and classic indie rock’s most rousing love-on-the-rocks classic, “Game of Pricks.” Deeper cuts included “Jane of the Waking Universe,” “Expecting Brainchild,” “Kicker of Elves” and a version of the Alien Lanes nugget “Always Crush Me” that only half the band seemed to know how to actually play.
But whatever, it’s Guided by fucking Voices. That said, I did take issue with the front-of-house mix, which had the guitars sounding like they were being amplified out of an antique pocket radio sealed inside a coffee tin. Seriously, just because this is the classic Bee Thousand-era GBV we’re hearing and seeing, that doesn’t mean the sound engineer has to strive to replicate the Bee Thousand production — he or she just needs to crank the mids loud enough to mask the fuck-ups. Simple shit.
Naturally, nature enhanced the show as, by the time the band staggered into “Hot Freaks,” my prostate gland felt like it was doing the work of the Hoover Dam. But hey, isn’t the burning anti-sensation of holding back an epic piss part of the interactive GBV experience?
Right. So after prevailing on some much needed urinary catharsis, my accompanying film crew and I took refuge in the shaded nether region of the second stage. There we cooled off to the subdued, vibrato-laden, Aaron-Neville-impression-meets-Auto-Tune-meets-X-Files-score sounds of baby-faced dubstep heart-throb James Blake. I figured this would be a capital destination to shoulder-tap for grass. Unfortunately it wasn’t. Consequently, I find it almost impossible to give an accurate account of Blake’s set. I mean, going from GBV-level drunk to this without the aid of a mental performance enhancer? That’s just impossible.
Speaking of grass, before we knew it, the sun was setting on Day 1 and it was time to take in the night’s headlining set by is-to-Pitchfork-what-The Rolling Stones-are-to-Rolling Stone lightning rod Animal Collective. This was the second time AC has appeared at the festival as a headliner, as well as the second time I was there to see it.
Still, like AC co-captain Panda Bear’s underwhelming anti-performance at last year’s Pitchfork Festival, unless you were packed up against the stage with the glow stick-lobbers, there was just no discernible element of performance, no attempt to connect with the face paint-and-feather-donning crowd on a human level. With Animal Collective — a cerebral ensemble of anti-performing, sonic text-painters as opposed to showmen — that’s not the ambition, but it really doesn’t make the experience of their festival shows very far removed from that of going to see something like Paul Oakenfold or Bassnectar. As one of my companions — an avid Animal Collective fan — put it, watching their show felt, from a distance, like watching a stage play music.
The that’s-so-ravin’ vibe reached its fever pitch when the band busted into a penultimate “We Tigers.”
Of course, if I’d prevailed on the brown acid before the band had taken the stage, I’d probably have been gyrating shirtless on top of a porta-potty while gesturing like I was doing the breast-stroke through the warping video imagery on the festival screen, but luck was not on my side.
I’ve gotta say, pound for pound, performance-wise, Day 2 was the best of the festival. I got to Union Park around 3 p.m. to find the kids having their hybrid moment — or no-ment, if you will — with Los Angeles noise-punk-by-pant-seat duo No Age who, yes, banged out a fairly faithful cover of The Misfits’ “Hybrid Moments.” So that’s one way for the kids to hear the punk classics.
With more anger, energy and vitality, OFF! prove that hardcore punk is a timeless idiom, and at 55, Morris proves that just because you’re going bald, you don’t have to jettison your dreads, and just because you get older, you don’t have to get soft — a point best exemplified by “Fuck People,” which the singer introduces with a fierce but crotchety rant against people who drive while texting and bring more than 15 items to the express line at the grocery. And, you know, if I’m gonna listen to a boomer go N.I.M.B.Y. with his grocery store gripes, he better fuckin’ scream it like he’s singing “Six Pack.”
Earlier in the afternoon I also managed to bask in the Cure-and-Chameleons-obsessed daytime dream pop of Virginia’s Wild Nothing — whose cribs from the Peter Hook playbook and textbook twee party-stroll jams made up for in melody what they lacked in world-igniting originality, thanks especially to singer Jack Tatum’s bell-clear croon.
Their set — not to mention my headspace — was made infinitely better via the stoney spirit of charity and brotherly love extended to me by some of my very generous fellow festival-goers. Thanks, random bros! Whoever you may be.
Perhaps the worst thing to come into my life on Saturday were the auditorily unavoidable snippets of arty NYC electro-whatever purveyors Gang Gang Dance’s set. Their "music" kept wafting through the air and into my ear drums like an unwanted wet Willie. This begged the question: Should I blame the band themselves for making "music" that sounds like it belongs in the background of USA Network series’ like Le Femme Nikita or Walker, Texas Ranger, or should I blame the kids of today for elevating them to a level of success that allows them to play on the main stage at full volume? I’m going with the kids. Anyone tortured and twisted enough to subject themselves to that shit over rocking out to OFF! deserves to be blamed for the world’s problems.
See, when my friends and I were in our early 20s — downloading tracks off Napster, trying blow for the first time, and other fun stuff — we were listening to shit like The Dismemberment Plan, who (Saturday) had the holy-fucking-shit set of the festival, stealing the show with a main-stage performance for the ages. Honestly, I hadn’t listened to this band in a while, and swiftly realized I’d taken them for granted — as soon as they came charging out of the gate with an opening “Do the Standing Still” they had me at "oh whoa-oh."
As if picking up right where they left off, the recently reunited D.C. rockers — who amicably called it quits in 2003 — sounded every bit as mirthfully and musically off-kilter and rhythmically disjointed as they did in the heyday of Emergency & I and Change. Like, they played as tightly as they did on those records had they been even better players at the time — or at least more excited and emotionally invested players.
I’d also underestimated just how big a band the D-Plan were, as fan-faves the likes of “A Life of Possibilities,” “Gyroscope,” the sleek “You Are Invited,” “The Ice of Boston,” “Time Bomb,” and the proggy-as-it-is-dancey “Girl O’Clock” were each met with widespread sing-alongs and heroes’ welcomes that mounted with intensity as the band plowed head-first through their 12-song set. Shit was like rolling thunder. And singer and frontman (and humorist) Travis Morrison was all smiles and side-splitting bon mots as he counted off songs, cursed the blinding sun, and up-sold mixtapes he was auctioning off at the festival’s accompanying CHIRP Record Fair — where I regrettably passed on dropping $75 on an original Flying Nun pressing of Tall Dwarfs’ 3 EPs. (Bad call?)
Another thing I passed on was seeing DJ Shadow. Not because I don’t like the shady radio personality, but because it was 7:30 p.m., the sun was still out, and I wasn’t rolling on ecstasy something fierce — so what’s the point? Actually, I kinda did see some of it — enough to note that the Deej was spinning whilst cocooned inside a white globe that looked like a salvaged Star Wars prop, and I guess that’s pretty awesome. Not to mention it made for a quite a jarring segue into neo-folkies Fleet Foxes festival-centerpiece headlining set.
The inharmonicity of the juxtaposition wasn’t lost on Fleet Foxes pack leader Robin Pecknold, who made a loving joke at DJ Shadow’s expensive as a reference to Dizzee Rascal shit-talking their "folk shit" when the band preceded him on the same stage in 2008. I saw them that year, and the difference between that showing and this one was night and day. Not just literally (they played at night), but in that they’ve gone from uncharismatic, seated newcomers who then openly admitted their lack of stage presence, to full-fledged theater-ready showman, turning in a masterful performance that brought thousands at a time near-tears with an emotionally delivered, flawless host of favorites from their pair of critically fawned-over LPs — 2008’s Fleet Foxes and this year’s Helplessness Blues. The set truly was a quite moving thing of beauty.
Commanding the band as they deftly executed the dynamics of their studiously composed folk-rock, Pecknold carried an aura of divinity while singing his heart out under lighting like the white glow of a halo. Near set's end he praised Pitchfork, claiming it as the nation’s best music festival, and acknowledged his nervousness at headlining it — which by this point seemed assuaged.
If there’s one flaw this band has, it’s that they’re all release and not a lot of tension, but they’ve got a whole career left to figure out how to balance those things. If Arcade Fire is indie rock’s U2, then Fleet Foxes are indie rock’s Eagles. As such, they steal from all the best places — Simon and Garfunkel, Dylan, CSNY, Nick Drake, etc. — and they do it with enough purpose, poise and identity that says longevity is theirs if they want it. How proud their parents must be.
Later that evening, way later — as in, like, around midnight — I joined acquaintances in heading to Mortville (a three-story artists’ warehouse and pseudo-squat near Douglas Park) where residents were hosting Bitchfork Festival.
Yeah, it’s an even hipper, more underground, more pretentious, cheaper, more artsy, more whatever anti-fest. Of course, Pitchfork is actually pretty corporate — what with their Heineken Domes and all — and not really artsy either, so I guess these kids do have a point. But, Jesus, their parents should really see the conditions they’re paying for them to live in — not to make assumptions or anything, but how else can a bunch of 19-year-olds afford coke to rail in the bathroom?
Really, though, by the looks of the place, the reportedly 25 or so residents of Mortville were steadfastly committed to make this haunt into an epically trashed shithole of Styrofoam containers, overflowing garbage cans, drawn-all-over walls, bike parts, half-pipes and just general wear, tear and dilapidation — it was like a cross between the Foot Clan’s lair in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Fight Club house, or like Warhol’s Factory if Warhol’s Factory was, like, whatever. Either way, I felt old.
Moving up and down the barbed wire-protected three-story maze of mannequins hanging from nooses, graffiti painted walls and mélange of janky pop art were throngs of sweaty, shirtless punks with suspenders and spacers, and art-school peeps rockin’ asymmetric, ironic haircuts, mutton chops, mountain man beards and enough horrible body odor to stink up a fish cannery. In other words, it was a hundreds-strong handful of able-bodied identity crises.
I was there for close to four hours and in that time one band played: Mahjongg — a trashy, Daft Punk-on-budget, post-post-rock ensemble that took as long to set up their laptops and swap-meet-acquired backline of drums, timbales, Rototoms, processors and effects pedals as they spent playing music … and they played for an hour and 20 minutes, approximately.
Of course, a band making an eager audience wait that long to rock out is egregious enough, but doing so in a makeshift venue of an attic-turned-Petri-dish-of-humanity packed wall-to-wall with 22-year-old bohemians generating a hundred degrees of body heat was just cruel and unusual. I couldn’t tell if I was waiting to hear a band to play or for the collective death scream that would come when the floor eventually gave way. Luckily that didn’t happen and the band did eventually play … at about 3 a.m. And luckily they were pretty fuckin’ fun, inspiring a sweaty, well, not mosh pit, but contracting, rhythmic group huddle that wading in the midst of felt akin to a hot dog getting squeezed through a jelly fish's asshole. By the time my friends and I made our 4:30 a.m. exit, there were dudes passing out on landings or falling down flights of stairs before disappearing out the doors and into the urban jungle. Luckily we made it out on our own two feet … albeit barely.
Aching, hungover and feeling lucky not to be lying dead of heat exhaustion on the unfinished floors of Mortville, my crew and I made it back to Union Park Sunday in time to catch everyone’s favorite contemporary Philadelphia freak-folkie Kurt Vile and his trusty Violators, who’d stepped up from last year’s sidestage confines to a midday main-stage slot. While Vile’s drawling baritone was a sound for sore ears, a part of me died when I realized I’d missed San Francisco’s fine Fresh & Onlys’ 1 p.m. set.
Vile and the Violators' dreamy tones and woozy presentation probably would’ve sounded more appropriate echoing up from the bottom of a well — as it sounds on record — than on a festival stage in front of 15,000 people suffering in sweltering hundred-degree heat, but the singer did look pretty awesome with the wind blowing his scraggly brown tresses back, and The Violators' murky stomp sounded even more ominous booming out of an enormous PA.
Unfortunately, Sunday’s heat and humidity — which rivaled that of Bonnaroo — were too oppressive to make watching Vile’s set bearable. In fact, there was little refuge from the greenhouse effect to be found anywhere on the festival grounds, and within an hour, one of my companions began pouring out so much sweat from all pores — looking like a sponge in the vice grip of Mother Nature — that crippling dehydration started to set in, necessitating a trip to the hydration station otherwise known as the festival’s First Aid tent.
With festival-goers falling out left and right, the First Aid crews did a helluva job tending swiftly and effectively to the needs of many, offering ice bags, cold towels, Tums and Gatorade to all. They even set us up in an air-conditioned trailer. Seriously, thanks for all the help, crew — it was needed and appreciated.
Now, whose idea was it to schedule Odd Future to play in the middle of the day in these draining conditions? Judging from the overheated, scrawny drunk kid we saw puking all over himself after being rescued from the pit, and the guy with the concussion from the elbow he took to the face — as Odd Future set happened to coincide with the odd present we were experiencing at First Aid — it seemed like the controversial alt. hip-hop troupe’s slot was poorly timed, but that's just me.
Still, OFWGKTA’s set was nowhere near as chaotic and, frankly, dangerous as the clusterfuck of stage dives, scaffold climbs and shock-value salutes to Hitler I saw them display at SXSW. From my vantage point, it just looked more like Tyler the Creator — whose broken foot confined him to a stool — & Co. throwing water and whipping wet bandannas or whatever at the crowd. Sonically — while the performance itself was tighter and more focused — it still sounded like a bunch of dudes shouting musings on murder and rape atop a DJ at a Wolfgang Puck cookbook signing. Whatever.
Continuing the day’s odd theme of volatility, ever finicky tortured artist and L.A. neo-psych purveyor Ariel Pink apparently and, sadly, unsurprisingly had some kind of meltdown prompting him to pull an Axl Rose — pulling himself and his backing band, Haunted Graffiti, from the stage midway through their set. The portion of the truncated performance I did hear, much like at SXSW, sounded like a cruise ship cover band paying homage to Wesley Willis. Such a shame that this guy is so pathologically disappointing. Whatever.
Fortunately the clouds of my crew’s hydration-weary woes had parted, and the scorch of the sun had diminished by the time indie-rock legends Superchunk took to the stage with a morale-mending “Throwing Things." Along with Guided by Voices’, Superchunk’s appearance was my true impetus for trekking up to Chi-Town last weekend. And, just as I saw them do at SXSW 2010, the ragtag indie-rock Godfathers and Godmother kicked out revved up, canon-spanning jams like “Detroit Has a Skyline,” “Driveway to Driveway,” “Hyper Enough,” “Like a Fool” and “The First Part” (that’s three Foolish gems, for those of you keeping score) with all the heroic energy of the Japanese women’s soccer team they raved about watching win the World Cup final earlier in their hotel room. They also threw in the Indoor Living nugget “The Popular Music.” Nice one.
As always, jester drummer Jon Wurster was perma-grinning like the festivalization of indie rock was some kind of made-up ruse between him and Tom Sharpling, and singer, guitarist and industry mogul Mac McCaughan was handily winning the festival’s Springsteen award, exhausting himself with short sprints across the stage, Townshend-worthy windmills and mid-air splits off the drum riser.
Interestingly enough, with a set list that, uh, merged live staples like those mentioned above with a quartet of cuts from their latest, Majestry Shredding, it was — with the exception of a show-closing “Slack Motherfucker” — newer songs like “Digging for Something” and the infectious “Crossed Wires” that inspired the en masse sing-alongs and quarter-note clap-alongs, much to the delight of the near-quarter-century-old band.
Spirits raised and faith in rock ’n’ roll rejuvenated, I spent the remainder of the afternoon kicking around, digging through records, eating soft-serve and, duh, drinking beer. Somewhere in there I managed to catch the tail end of Deerhunter’s set, which — while pleasant enough, especially when they busted out the looping sonic hypnosis of “Helicopter” — was a little underwhelming compared to their show-stopping late-night Bonnaroo performance back in June. Sometimes the most compelling thing about watching this band is trying to figure out what bassist Josh Fauver is daydreaming about as he cocks his head and gazes his glazed eyes upward like he’s making a mental shopping list.
As the sun started to go down on Pitchfork Festival 2011, I found myself facing an agonizing jump-from-burning-building-or-face-the-fire choice between watching Aussie electro-bros Cut Copy — whose disco-riffic conflation of blips, bleeps, moan-y warbling and coke-nose beats was more annoying to hear than the pained wailings of an infant with an ear infection on a flight to Australia — or subjecting myself to the torturously obnoxious hipster jock jams of HEALTH. I opted for the latter, figuring their enthused sonic fatwa against musicality was at least more likely to entertain. Seriously, since when did basketball jerseys become fashionable in the pantheon of hipster garabe? Fuck Crystal Castles for elevating this band to venues beyond their practice space.
I kind of wish I had more to say about festival-closing headliners TV on the Radio, but I don’t. Since my exposure to and appreciation of the band has long been cursory, I was curious to see if they could win me over with a live hard sell. They didn’t. After watching their fairly energized — enough so to still capture the cheers of a by-now exhausted crowd, anyway — set, I still felt mostly indifferent toward the band, though I appreciated hearing known standouts like “Staring at the Sun” and “Repetition,” which were functioning as my exit music as I made my way out of Union Park and over to a club called Reggie’s, where OFF! was appearing. Once again, they killed it.
Unintentionally rectifying my crew’s earlier foible of missing The Fresh and Onlys' set, a text message promising cool bands lured us to Chicago’s Empty Bottle, where we were beyond pleasantly surprised to find The F&Os taking the stage for a 1 a.m. encore performance. And at that point, nothing was more satisfying than drunkenly pounding my fist against the stage wedges while fro-banging and shouting along to the band’s savagely delivered psych-pop ditties.
Side note: While I was alive and kicking, unfortunately our camera wasn’t. It mechanically perished near the end of day two, so no Sunday photos. Sorry, kids.