Friday was veteran’s day at the Pitchfork Music Festival, which always creates difficulties for festival programmers. It takes a certain kind of band to be well into their 40s and still be able to draw a large crowd of those in their 20s and 30s. In the past two years, Pitchfork has turned to full album performances, a trend that has seen acts like Sonic Youth, Liz Phair, and Public Enemy replay their classic albums. It’s an easy way to draw a crowd, but it creates problems. Not only have many bands not performed their classic album in a number of years, but many fantastic bands without any real “classic” album get left out.
This year, Pitchfork tried a different approach with their “Write the Night” campaign, where the Friday bands plus Sunday headliners the Flaming Lips (partially) have fans select their favorite songs. While less gimmicky than Sonic Youth performing Daydream Nation start to finish, there were some unforeseen weaknesses to go with the benefits.
Pitchfork wouldn’t be Pitchfork if it didn’t find room for Tortoise, but the Chicago post-rock pioneers are almost the prototypical headphones band: creating immense problems for featuring the band in a festival setting. Tortoise has a bevy of excellent songs to choose from in its 19-year history, but the best are almost by definition anti-anthemic. Nonetheless, Pitchfork still had to find a place for the band, so a 5 pm Friday slot may have been the best the fest could do. The quiet, sparse crowd and general soporific effect of Tortoise’s set was something of an inevitability, and there’s not much selecting fan favorites could have done to change that.
Yo La Tengo
The real victim of Write the Night was Yo La Tengo, a band with a seemingly endless array of songs of all shapes, sizes, and levels of intensity. No doubt Pitchfork, noting that Yo La Tengo has a history of fan selections, saw that the idea worked perfectly on paper. Nonetheless, they didn’t see some very visible warning signs. Last year at the McCarren Park Pool Party, I noted an almost perfect correlation between Yo La Tengo’s noisier songs and the moments when, even as headliners, fans headed to the beer line. For a band so defined as a critic’s favorite, they have acquired a fan base that wants them to be a pop band.
Likewise, it took four songs before Ira Kaplan touched his guitar. One song was a new one, but by the time Yo La Tengo had gotten through “Autumn Sweater,” “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House,” and “Cherry Chapstick,” all hope for momentum was lost, and just about everyone knew it—none more than Yo La Tengo themselves.
It was already a stretch to see Yo La Tengo try to return the energy with “Pass the Hatchet,” and a particularly uninspired version of “Sugarcube.” Somehow, the fans who voted missed the fact that “Blue Line Swinger” is both Yo La Tengo’s most significant track and, arguably, the band’s best live track. To restrict a band that has earned every right to be able to play whatever they want was exceedingly demeaning, however unintentional. As a result, Ira, Georgia Hubley and James McNew never smiled, almost never said a word, and stormed off the stage as soon as it could be done tactfully. Both Yo La Tengo and the band’s fans deserved better.
The Jesus Lizard
Where to begin? How about the fact that the most highly-anticipated reunion of the past year has completely fulfilled all expectations? David Yow’s vitriolic vocal attack incorporated the festival, the audience, general squeamishness, and yes, the aging process. The old fans were thrilled to see their heroes still as good as ever, the new fans were struck dumb with glee to finally see the band live, and new fans were one as well. There were even some fans with their toddlers in attendance, and they enjoyed it just as much.
Perhaps the best part of the Jesus Lizard’s set is that as good as their festival appearance was, their upcoming tour dates in smaller clubs across the country will be even better. The Write the Night feature didn’t really matter: all of the songs are great, and all needed to be heard. The Jesus Lizard will never be a band to take over the world, but for a certain breed of fans, they may as well be Led Zeppelin. This is the band tons of people have been waiting for in the past decade, and in some cases, all their lives.
Built to Spill
From a critic’s standpoint, the Jesus Lizard’s return to Chicago was by far the most significant Friday set. So the decision to close with the venerable, but less vital Built To Spill seemed a bit curious. It turned out to be a wise programming decision: Built to Spill is a much better band to close the night with, assuming the Jesus Lizard didn’t make you pass out.
The only indie band to keep the flannel from the 90s, Built To Spill is the kind of band Write the Night was made for: a catalog full of rock songs that can tackle a festival, no less exceptional than the other. While Built to Spill has been less active this decade, they’ve been active enough to stay vital in young minds in the last 10 years. Where the Jesus Lizard provided the danger that a festival like Pitchfork sorely needs, Built To Spill is the type to bring it home with just about every major song in their canon, and it’s hard to think of a better song to wind down the opening night of Pitchfork 2009 with “You Were Right.”
Dave Yow’s stage dive (the second of many) while singing “I can swim/ I can’t swim,” the opening line of “Seasick.”
The notable lack of good humor from Yo La Tengo.
The Omar Little-style scar across the face of the first person I saw at the Jesus Lizard set. Clearly something was about to go down.
The weather was particularly cruel on Friday. After optimistic forecasts, clouds overwhelmed the sunlight Friday, promising rain that almost never came except in a handful of bursts. It was unseasonably cold and windy, even by Chicago standards. It made everything a little less exciting.
WTF Clothing of the Night:
A McCain–Palin 08 shirt at Yo La Tengo’s set. Was it ironic, sincere, trying to be edgy, or just generally obnoxious, or meant to point out the flaws in Pitchfork’s audience? I don’t know, nor do I want to.
Most notable clothing trend.
A significant drop in ironic t-shirts, and a significant rise in band t-shrirts.
Best in Show
The Jesus Lizard. They may hold this title for the entire weekend.
Worst in Show
Tortoise. Not their fault, but the atmosphere was so dry, I was half expecting to become a PBS member by the end of the set.
Saturday brings the bulk of the new exciting acts, and I will be doing my best to keep up. Again, follow me on Twitter @tynansager. This time, the cell phone will be charged.