Over this past weekend, I ventured out to the city of Chicago, Illinois for the fifth annual Pitchfork Music Festival put on by Pitchfork Media. Barring the mildly insane idea to travel from Dallas to Chicago in two days by car, the festival was full of fun people, great food, and of course, incredible, once in a lifetime musical experiences. The festival went down over three days, Friday July 15, Saturday July 16, and Sunday July 17, and I was there along with three friends to take in one of what was in my opinion, one of the best festivals of the year.
Day 1: Friday July 15
EMA – 3:30 PM, Red Stage
The first act I saw on Friday was EMA, the new project of former Gowns frontwoman Erika M. Anderson. EMA’s set started off shaky, but the band soon locked into a general pocket and finished out a set comprising of songs from their debut album Past Life Martyred Saints (2011). The band worked out song structures that were generally similar to one another, with quiet guitar or violin the would gradually build in intensity and slowly include the full band into Anderson’s signature style of dark, emotionally damaged songwriting. The set turned out to be enjoyable but I left with the feeling the EMA would more than likely be more effective late at night in an intimate club setting rather than the middle of the afternoon outside on a hot summer day.
Battles – 4:35 PM Green Stage
The first outstanding set of the weekend came when experimental post-rock group Battles took the stage. Battles will be playing live at the Granada on October 22 (BUY TICKETS HERE) and I can easily say that a live Battles show is most certainly the most fun I have ever had at a post-rock show and could likely be considered one of the most fun shows I have seen period. The band’s intense and expressive playing style routinely leaves audiences breathless but never takes itself too seriously as what multi-instrumentalist Ian Williams, guitarist/bassist Dave Konopka, and Drummer John Stanier are playing may sound downright impossible to imagine, but looks like an incredible party. As the band’s central focus onstage, Stanier brings forth an energy that is unrivaled by most drummers you will see playing today, carrying the band’s sound and acting as a central focus for Williams and Konopka. The charmingly loose synthesizers of Williams and lock tight guitar and bass of Konopka play fantastically against one another, creating a sound that is cleanly calculated, but easy going and free form. The big surprise of the set came when the band dusted off “Atlas” from their debut album Mirrored (2007), as they carried on the song without former singer/multi-instrumentalist Tyondai Braxton. Huge cheers were elicited from the crowd and the band ripped through the song without a hitch. The crowd was teased with a short bit of “Tonto” from Mirrored, which segued seamlessly into “Ice Cream” from the band’s newest album Gloss Drop (2011). The set was tragically cut short due to the length of Battles individual songs, but you can catch Battles in a full set when they play the Granada on October 22. You can pick up tickets right here.
Guided by Voices – 6:25 Pm, Green Stage
Instead of going directly over to see Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore play a set of solo material, I decided to stake out a good spot for college rock legends Guided by Voices at the Green Stage and watch Moore from the large screen in the middle of the festival grounds. Surprisingly, the band was punctually on time despite their reputation and kicked the set off with “Echoes Myron” from their seminal lo-fi album Bee Thousand (1994) featuring Neko Case on backing vocals, despite the fact that Case could barely be heard. What followed was a blast of good old fashioned sweaty, drunken, rock and roll slop and debauchery, as despite their advanced age, the band has clearly not slowed down on their infamous lifestyle with Frontman Robert Pollard mixing beer and tequila along with cigarettes throughout the set. The so-called “classic line-up” ripped into tracks from some of their best known albums including Alien Lanes (1995) and the aforementioned Bee Thousand complete with characteristic leg kicks and mic twirling from Pollard and Pete Townsend-esque windmills from guitarist Mitch Mitchell. The band left the stage to adoring chants of “GBV! GBV!” leaving the crowd satisfied and energized.
James Blake – 7:35 PM, Blue Stage
I took in British singer/songwriter/producer James Blake next. Blake, known for his contributions to the foundations of dubstep, has moved on to minimalist compositions based around, piano, keyboards, guitar, sparse drum machine, massive, chest rattling bass, and his own strangled, soul-tinged tenor. Blake and his small band were surprisingly conducive to the outdoor venue, utilizing the open space to make the arrangements of his electronic soul songs cavernous and spooky. Blake even sampled the audience’s cheering and used the sample during “I Never Learnt to Share” from his eponymous debut record. The set was jammy as Blake and his band stretched song lengths and broke into danceable asides as during set highlight “CMYK” from the EP of the same name. Blake extended the song into a hypnotic groove that seemed to loop endlessly within itself. James Blake proved himself in his set, living up to the large amount of hype his album and EPs have garnered.
Animal Collective – 8:30 PM, Green Stage
Closing the day was America’s most popular experimental, psychedelic, electronic, tribal, weirdos, Animal Collective. As I spoke with other patrons throughout the day, they expressed the hope that the band would play heavily from their critically and commercially successful album Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009), those prayers were not answered. Playing on a stage that was decorated to be either an enchanted cave or an enchanted forest (debatable), AnCo played exactly three songs from their most recent full length LP, “Brothersport”, “Summertime Clothes”, and “Taste” along with two other songs that could be found on previous albums: “We Tigers” and “Did You See the Words”. The rest of the band’s set was comprised of amorphous new songs and compositions that were more than likely completely unfamiliar to the enormous crowd. The songs were predictable, with Panda Bear singing in his druggy Brian Wilson-like style, Avey Tare squeezing out animalistic screams, and Geologist and Deakin putting forth a constant flow of spaced out samples and tribal beats. Though the band largely chose to forgo their hits, there was very little expressed disappointment from the audience, as one could easily assume that most of the crowd was in some kind of altered state at the end of the day and for an infamously psychedelic set. One could see how Animal Collective’s new material could be conducive to an album and the set was interesting, from hearing unreleased work from the band and from absorbing Animal Collective’s increasingly grandiose live performances and set designs.