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Concert Review: Pitchfork Music Festival, Day 2

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In its first year, Pitchfork Music Festival began on a Saturday. While the festival itself is just four years old, the original intention did provide an interesting barometer for what to expect Saturday’s set. With younger fans in mind, Saturday is Pitchfork’s breakout day, with a smorgasboard of the latest, most interesting offerings indie rock and music fans have at their disposal. Of course, it’s never perfect. At the Saturday set of Pitchfork 2009, there was a freakishly large number of bands with just one album under their belt, which produced plenty of misses to go with the hits. It also featured a bunch of bands that seem like they’ve been around forever, but have yet to expand beyond cult appeal, even within Pitchfork's relatively limited audience. 

Nonetheless, Saturday is supposed to be the wildest days of the fest: Friday is for the older, more venerable bands, and by the end of Sunday people (theoretically) have to go to work the next day. At the Saturday show, fans will just go out drinking, maybe see another show, or better yet, hit up an after party.

It was impossible to give each band the attention that I gave yesterday’s four featured players. Allow me to do my best, and apologies to those I missed.

Bands of Note:

Plants and Animals

An unexpected gem in the early portion of Saturday’s set, Plants and Animals are one of the better off-the-radar Canadian bands working today. As soon as I say “Montreal,” the band’s hometown, Arcade Fire, and Wolf Parade will immediately immediately spring to mind (it won’t make you think of Celine Dion unless you’re as obsessive over Carl Wilson’s book as I am). Yes, Plants and Animals have loose ties to Arcade Fire, but the music sounds at lot closer to Neil Young via Sloan. If you don’t want to stay Canadian, it’s like a less dejected Bon Iver or a more relaxed Fleet Foxes. Either way, they made the best of a mainstage show they were very lucky to get after one full-length album that got the attention of few outside Pitchfork. It was exactly the kind of band needed for an indie rock brunch.

Fucked Up

There wasn’t blood or vomit, or any major fluids other than sweat as far as I could tell. But Damian Abraham did do his best to keep things insane, even with a voice that is clearly showing strain after months of globe-spanning performances. No matter what your thoughts are on the hateful strains of hardcore punk, I think we can all agree that beach balls have no place at a Fucked Up show. Appropriately, Abraham bit off as many balls as he could chew, and made a hat out of one.

Fucked Up is a band that cheats death every performance, but they’re at an interesting point now: they’ve got an unprecedentedly large fan base that they’ve entirely earned after 2008's The Chemistry of Common Life, and they’re the only band working today that can create a safe space for hardcore kids to mosh as well as for those who only know the band because of Matador. Regardless of the fans, hardcore antics are what they are antics, and it's difficult to maintain such a regular dose of self-destruction. It’s hard to imagine Fucked Up without Damian Abraham front and center, but the band is good enough that it doesn’t need Abraham to destroy himself physically anymore to draw a crowd. Will the band famous for bringing danger back to indie have to grow up? If so, it’ll be damn hard to find a suitable replacement.

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart

No matter how good this band is, because the band is named The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, and because they are on Slumberland Records, D.C.’s premiere twee imprint, people are going to judge the Pains before even hearing them. I liked the band's self-titled debut, but I still couldn’t tell after several listens if I liked it for any reason other than that I also like the Vaselines and Beat Happening. Live, however, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart were a surprise success, as uplifting and intense as only a handful of bands that I’ve witnessed live. As a live band, the Pains sound less like wannabe Calvin Johnsons, and they didn't sound at all weak. Instead, the Pains sounded like what their biggest supporters have said they are: an indie pop band that, through the rabble and contradictions that genre has experienced this decade, have found a way to rediscover rock and roll without losing the charms that they started with.

Ponytail

Pity Final Fantasy, who can barely get their music heard over Ponytail’s Molly Siegel wailing from the other end of the park. After trying to ignore Ponytail briefly to watch Final Fantasy, I ended up inevitably finding my way to the Balance Stage, to see a band that has been lavished with praised for its inventiveness. What I found instead was one of those bands that could be better described as “interesting” than “good,” or even “a band I’d want to see again.” Ponytail’s appeal is limited to those who think Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki's singing is too “normal,” or those who confuse yelling with every instrument at the expense of composition, both musically and lyrically, is somehow intellectually fascinating. There’s a difference between being loud and being noisy, however, and Ponytail is one of the more blatant False Positives I’ve seen in some time.

Wavves

This was the set I anticipated the most heavily, but I didn’t expect the rest of the crowd feel the same way. By far, Wavves’ crowd was the youngest, most desperate, and difficult to please of any band in the first two days. It would be easy to point to Nathan Williams’ heavily-publicized Barcelona incident as the hype factor, but dudes, that was like, so last month. Wavves’s popularity makes complete sense to me: it’s the only current act by someone under the age of 25 intended for music fans under the age of 25. We’ve seen Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, The Arctic Monkeys, and Lily Allen emerge from nowhere due to the wonders of modern technology’s ability to distrubite rock music. Nathan Williams’ GarageBand ramblings is arguably the first use of the same technology to produce rock music, and Williams makes it look easy. Rather than cause a scene, yell at his fickle hypemongers, or “meltdown” in any way shape or form, Wavves proved to be what the act’s main appeal has always been: a good rock band that takes what’s given to them and goes beyond what anyone could have hoped, something every young person dreams of doing. This may have been the breakthrough moment of the entire festival.

Beiruit

Vaudeville punk is great, but it doesn’t play arenas well. I’d totally want these guys to perform at a house party I’m hosting, but as a featured player at a rock festival, Beirut proved remarkably disappointing. The problem with theatrical rock is that it demands audience engagement. When an audience is meeting up with friends, shopping for vinyl, and looking for food and beer because it’s 7:30 and you’ve been out all afternoon, nuanced theatrics are impossible. Unlike many Saturday bands, Beirut’s appeal is not tied to Pitchfork’s praise, and Zach Condon is too good a ringleader to let this kind of thing get to him. But like Yo La Tengo on Friday, this set was a dud more created by poor circumstances than the band itself.

Matt and Kim

Brooklyn bands have a tough enough time avoiding Midwestern scorn; when a straight-from-Williamsburg keyboard and drums set like Matt and Kim takes the stage late when more than a few fans are waiting for the Black Lips, they may have faced the biggest challenges of the night. But Matt & Kim killed because of what separates them from many of their Brooklyn peers: they’re first priority is on creating fun, rather than on promoting themselves and their so-called importance. Matt & Kim’s set was impossibly fun; if they still reaked New York to Midwesterners, it was more They Might Be Giants than Lydia Lunch, which is perhaps the only way this kind of band could have avoided massive heckling. There were the inevitable blanket statements of idiocy like jokes about Oprah crowd surfing and being inspired by Beyonce at Madison Square Garden. But before fans went crazy moshing to the Black Lips, Matt and Kim let them go crazy dancing drunkenly first.

The National/Black Lips

Although The National were slated to be the closing act, delays at the Balance Stage meant the Black Lips went on afterwards. Incidentally, this proved to privde the best dynamic between the main stage and the more Black Box Balance Stage of the night. After 8 hours of a seriously confused arrangement of bands, Saturday night closed with two bands of relatively equal age, target audiences, and career lengths, but drastically different aesthetics.

The Black Lips are a band that you go to when you’re piss drunk and want to raise hell. That’s obviously in demand as much today as ever, and Black Lips fans have now replaced the antics that the band had to generate themselves. I have now seen the Black Lips three times, and that they stayed on stage and as relatively well-behaved as they did was rather astonishing. Meanwhile, the fans were on their worst behavior, and that was sort of the point. Half of them had just woken up a few hours ago, hung over the night before, and were about to repeat the cycle. That’s a lot more dangerous than songs about Drugs, Mohammad, Katrina and death.

The National, meanwhile, took the feel of last night’s Built to Spill set even further. More relaxed than the Black Lips, the National still rocked hard enough to drown out the Lips to the periphery. The folk-rock band sounded more rock and felt more folk, and with two fantastic recent albums in Alligator and Boxer, the band is only getting better. Four years ago, The National was being ignored when Pitchfork heaped praise on their opening act, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. There are few bands left from 2005 that still ring as true today, and Clap Your Hands, who may have produced the better album four years ago, ended up with the worse luck. In any event,  where the Black Lips were a band for pre-gaming, the National were a band to go home with, or hell, a band to propose to your girlfriend with. I can’t think of a better band from this decade to play at a wedding.

Musical highlight:

Surprise! Nathan Williams is a rock star. The new Wavves tracks sounded no less fantastic, and showed that Williams’ creative juices have just begun to flow, hype be damned.

Musical Lowlight:

What the hell was with the stage arrangements on this date? The Balance Stage shows, supposed to be more experimental, were either hopelessly boring, distracting to the mainstage shows, or packed with more audience members than the mainstage shows. In its quest to put artistic quality above economics, the brass at Pitchfork neglected to understand the best way to manage the quirks of all the bands they invited, the timing of sets, and most of all, what ticket buyers demanded. Forget economics: it’s much worse to relegate the bands your audience came to see to smaller spaces just because you like other bands more. Whether or not this was a symptom of Pitchfork writer’s oft-criticized jaded bias, it certainly appeared that way. I think a serious reevaluation of how the festival manages which band goes where, and when, is in order for next year.

Non-musical highlight:

Damian Abraham: “Doesn’t the new Animal Collective album sound like Phish? I hate Animal Collective.” I’ll be damned; he has a point.

Non-musical lowlight:

The Wonder Bread Crowd at MF Doom’s set, the first hip-hop act at Pitchfork exposed the ugly truth about the racial dynamic of Pitchfork’s audience. It became impossible to ignore afterwards.

Most notable fashion trend:

I spotted no fewer than three handlebar mustaches, 5 sets of mutton chops, and 2 of these shirts. Is anachronistic facial hair becoming the new male earring?

Most encouraging crowd trend:

In a crowd that was overwhelmingly younger than Friday’s, the cigarette smoking dropped remarkably. No one was stopping people from smoking at the fest: they just weren’t. It’s hard to complain about healthier lungs, with the exception for those smoking grass.

Best in Show:

The National. The only set that felt like it could be performed at the Hollywood Bowl, and the only act that I wanted to see at the Hollywood Bowl 20 years from now.

Worst in Show:

Bowerbirds. A band only really significant for a mildly positive review on Pitchfork and opening for the Mountain Goats, Bowerbirds owes most of its fame to John Darnielle’s Billy Graham-like effect on his fans at his live shows. Bowerbirds were such a snoozer that made fellow Saturday snoozers Yeasayer seem like the Throbbing Gristle in comparison. Bowerbirds’ set was only worth it if you were still recovering from Fucked Up and there was no Vallium on hand.


Sunday features the biggest bounty of notable bands, capped off by the Flaming Lips, who will draw fans no matter how old they get. Once again, I will be reporting from the trenches on Twitter @tynansager.

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About Ethan Stanislawski