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Concert Review: Pitchfork Music Festival, Day 3 & Wrap-Up

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Sunday is supposed to be the best day of any weekend festival, and in the case of Pitchfork 2009, the festival delivered on its promise and then some. After inconsistencies, caveats, and various missteps on the first two days, Sunday was so full of great acts that it was almost impossible to keep up. In fact, Sunday's set list was so good that you almost wished that some acts could have been spread out over the two days. Choosing between the Walkmen and Japoandroids, the Vivian Girls and M83, and most of all, the Flaming Lips and the Very Best proved one of the most stressful decisions I had to make all festival (but stressful in a good way). Because of that, there was far too much to cover as one man. Here's as much as I could get a good grasp on.

Bands of Note:

Dianogah

After the tragic death of guitarist Stephanie Morris, it would be easy to expect very little from Dianogah, one of the better under-the-radar Chicago bands of the past 10 years. Yet, their bass-backed set somehow sounded as good as most punk acts of the fest, even after scrambling for a new guitarist just a month after Morris’ death. It’s unclear whether this was the last hurrah for the band that has been a fixture since 1995, but it was certainly worth seeing

Frightened Rabbit

After the success of 2008’s The Midnight Organ Fight, many people saw the long-standing kings of Scottish folk to be a band at their best when they’re playing an acoustic set to a small group of dedicated fans. It was rather impressive, then, to see that the band could manage a festival setting with electric guitars, undeniable stage presence and a punk brashness, all without losing the charms of what made them such a folk favorite. Things were so good early in the festival that it was hard to keep up even with the revered bands on Sunday.  It’s hard to call Frightened Rabbit underrated, but their set was easy to overlook.

Blizten Trapper

Many fans were calling Furr the best album of 2008, a label I resisted giving the Portland folk-rockers until seeing their phenomenal set Saturday afternoon. It would have easily been the best set on Friday, and with Woodstock’s 40th anniversary on the mind, I was thinking of the Band throughout the entire set. Blitzen Trapper may be as good as The Band ever was, and I don’t think that’s hyperbole. They have two revered albums, and they may only get better. They also have at least three songs that sound rather good compared to “The Weight.”

Pharoahe Monch

DOOM ran into problems yesterday trying to win over a crowd that wasn’t yet prepared to go the hip-hop route. Not so for Pharoahe Monch, a rapper that will be his tough self no matter what kind of audience he’s facing. With the musical intelligence of Afrika Bambaataa and the muscular vocal edge of Chuck D., Monch was one of the highlights of the mid-afternoon, and kept the momentum the early acts had built up where the Killer Whales and DJ/Rupture struggled.

Japandroids

The Vancouver guitar and drums duo of Brian King and David Prowse released an album in May that earned praise from just about everyone, not just Pitchfork. After an emergency room visit, the duo couldn’t built the necessary support due to canceled tour dates. They may have made up for all of that Sunday, as they were the talk of the festival for the rest of the day, and will probably keep being talked about long afterwards. Unlike similar duos like the Black Keys, White Stripes or the Kills, Japandroids have the kind of best friend banter that makes it easy to laugh without guilt. That’s crucial for their raucous early songs,  that were danceable, screamable and made you feel like you were at a Manic Street Preachers show circa 1993. That would have been enough, but later on in their set they showed some seriously mature songwriting. It’s almost impossible to imagine that a band this green could already be so fully matured as a rock act, but that didn’t hinder their youthful fun one bit.

The Thermals

A band loaded with uplifting grunge rockers, it’s hard to fully embrace the Seattle punk duo simply because their music, while exceptional, is hopelessly similar to music of the past. Their Pitchfork set proved just why they should be taken so seriously. Most bands would hesitate before covering the Breeders, Green Day, and Nirvana, but not the Thermals. In fact, what made the set work so exceptionally was how perfect those songs sounded in line with the Thermals’ own hits. If this band had emerged in 1992, and not 2006, they’d be bigger than Pearl Jam. If the Decemberists milk the Beatles for Colin Meloy’s rambling literary nature, the Thermals have a similar musical relationship with Nirvana. The difference is that The Thermals respect their influences a lot more, and do so with a total lack of pretension and tenor singing that still sounds punk.

The Walkmen

The Walkmen seem like they’ve been around forever; a friend from college told me he’s been listening to them since middle school. They may have reached their peak with 2008’s You & Me, and its first single, “In the New Year,” is up their on my list on the top songs of the decade. It’s features the kind of songwriting that most bands at this fest would kill to be able to accomplish, and live, the song’s use of an organ proves to be even more exceptional, as vital to the song as the Velvet Underground’s Vox was to “Sister Ray.” The problem is that the rest of their music doesn’t have the rhythmic ingenuity of “In the New Year,” and the rest of the Walkmen’s catalog relies largely on excellent songwriting and a sensibility that would be better suited for late 60s pop-rock than Pitchfork circa 2009. They also had to compete with the excitement Japandroids was producing at the same time.

M83

More than any other electronica band working today, M83’s Anthony Gonzalez understands that no matter how much electronica and synth-based your music is, it still has to sound organic. That’s why M83’s set easily trumped all the disappointments of the post-rock sets of the previous two days, from Tortoise to Yeasayer. Anthony Gonzalez was quick to note the support Pitchfork has given him throughout his career, and his fans were all won over. M83 came from a rock/shoegaze background, which helped inspired it’s cutting edge approach to synth rock. Whatever the influences, M83 may be the best of its kind since Gary Numan.

The Vivian Girls

The Internet squawk box made it difficult to see the Vivian Girls for what they really are: a good garage band that only needs a small space, an audience willing to listen, and to be surrounded by friends and not douchebags. It’s easy to see why critics in particular would latch on to this band: they’re name is edgy, their lyrics have a vague intellectual catchiness, they sound better live, and most of all, they’re one of the few all-girl rock bands to emerge since the departure of Sleater-Kinney and Le Tigre. The crowd was smaller than anticipated, and the cheers were mild, mostly from the girls there with their boyfriends. It was almost impossible to understand just how controversial the band has become on the Internet over the past years.

Grizzly Bear

I’ve always thought this band was wildly overrated, but my attitude toward the band had always leaned more to indifference. After their set at Pitchfork, it turned more to disgust. The band’s main source of praise is emerging from the lo-fi scene with a deep sense of 20th century American music rolled into one package. As their set on Sunday proved, that package. In terms of backwards-looking bands, Grizzly Bear may be the best, and for critics sick of bands failing to move forward, that can seem like a revelation. But 20th century music featured racism, bigotry, bad camp, and an old boys club music culture. Grizzly Bear combines that with 21st century navel-gazing. In other words: meet the Grand Funk Railroad of the 2000s, except with more critical praise.

Mew

Mew’s brand of Radiohead/My Bloody Valentine space rock isn’t as sexy a say, Icelandic post-rock, or Swedish dance-rock. Denmark’s the least sexy Scandinavian country, but it’s the one most grounded in a Protestant Work Ethic, which is hard to ignore in the literate grandiosity of Mew. The band had no business being relegated to the Balance Stage: they’re an arena band trapped in an indie world within the United States. Nonetheless, the band was still smart enough to make the best of their set, being loud, taking a slightly more garage-inspired approach, and respecting their audience, who was almost universally more supportive than Grizzly Bear’s.

The Very Best

Ostensibly set up for those who had already seen The Flaming Lips and were looking for something different, the Very Best, a project of Malawi's Esau Mwamwaya, turned out to be one of the festival highlights. The set had more of a come as you are feel than anything else in the evening, and combined more musical styles, from just about every continent, race, and era, into one fun, danceable reggae set. Intense without being threatening, multicultural without any need for white liberal guilt, The Very Best featured the most diverse age groups, fan types, and, as much as Pitchfork gets, ethnicities. It was actually a better set than the one the Flaming Lips put on.

The Flaming Lips

No matter how Pitchfork ends up spinning the Lips’ set, there was more than a little bit of flipping the bird going on here, but it made things all the better. With a quarter century of experience, most current fans know them for two albums and a handful of other tracks, save for the groupies that the Lips are still able to draw (plus those who just think the human hamster ball is cool). Unlike Friday’s acts, Wayne Coyne explicitly made fun of the Write the Night campaign, playing whatever he wanted that happened to get some votes, and playing somewhat overrated fan favorites like “Fight Test,” and ”Yoshimi” as intentionally annoying acoustic sets. He baited the crowd to cheer as often as he thanked them for their support. He still gave the songs that matter—the early noise rockers, “She Don’t Use Jelly,” and #1 fan favorite “Do You Realize?” with the proper respect. But this kind of snottiness was more inevitable than self-defeating. There’s not much else the Flaming Lips can do after headlining Pitchfork; they’re too weird for Coachella, and there’s no way in hell they’re going to play the Super Bowl. Nonetheless, the Flaming Lips maintained their core principles even in their attitude: that freaks and geeks should control their own destiny in rock and roll, no matter how big they get.

Musical Highlight:

The Thermals cover of Nirvana’s “Verse Chorus Verse,” a classic B-side that is still vastly unknown, even among Nirvana fans. I’m pretty sure some people thought it was actually a Thermals song.

Musical Lowlight:

Mew being on the Balance Stage while Grizzly Bear was on the Connector stage. It was roughly the equivalent of having Pink Floyd open for Brian Eno.

Non-musical highlight:

Running back and forth between sets because of having too many choices, as opposed to not enough.

Non-musical lowlight:

The rise of drunken fights and bad behavior. Don’t know why it happened to pick up on the day without the Jesus Lizard, Fucked Up, or Black Lips, but there were more than a few drunken fights in between serious and sarcastic that did nothing but interrupt the fans who actually cared.

Fashion tend of the day:

Clearly the ironic wear was saved for Sunday along with the best bands. Webcomic t-shirts, Cowboys and Indians costumes, and giant Bunny heads were all too present.

WTF Moment of the night:

After the show, fans were rubbernecking to the street while piling on the Ashland-Lake CTA line. If there had been some sort of accident or weird occurrence, I’d understand. This just seemed like people watching and the most inappropriate time and place imaginable.

Best in Show:

The Thermals win here, mainly because they made grunge feel vital again without catering to nostalgia. Blitzen Trapper, The Very Best and Japandroids were close runners-up, and each trumped anything on Saturday.

Worst in Show:

Grizzly Bear. In a weekend that featured many yawners, this was the most egregious. Some were understandable. This one, the penultimate set in the main space, was inexcusable.


Conclusion:

In its fourth year as the Pitchfork Music Festival (fifth if you include the ___), the fest became has become more of an establishment than Pitchfork’s top operators would feel comfortable admitting. There were certainly many problems: some bands were emphasized a lot more, some more established bands were disrespected, and some bands with just months under their belt were given far more attention than they deserved. Nonetheless, I can’t say the festival wasn’t enjoyable. Nor can I say I didn’t feel at home in the fest; it felt like the generational class of music I most belonged to, even if it jerked my tastes and emotions around frequently and violently.

With all the Woodstock nostalgia emerging on the 40th anniversary of the festival, it wouldn’t be all that preposterous to compare Woodstock in 1969 to Pitchfork in 2009. There was no brown acid at Pitchfork, and the crowd was better behaved and less based on revolutionary goals. That made the experience more enjoyable, but it also meant that the bands weren’t as good as they were at Woodstock, even using the standards within both time frames. What did stand out about Pitchfork was the influence punk has had on the last 30 years of music. Whether it was electronica, post-rock, soulful hip hop, crazy dance rock, folk, or simply pure rock ‘n’ roll, just about every band had a sense of independence, humbleness, and freewheeling nature that almost no band in 1969 had. The bands of this decade could work off their own terms and ambitions better than any previous decade of rock n roll, which made it a difficult time to built consensus, but a time that one day we’ll see as a rather astounding period of creativity, artistic freedom, and inclusiveness.

I’ll conclude by comparing my feelings towards the final two sets on Sunday: The Flaming Lips and the Very Best. The Flaming Lips’ set represented the headline of the past 15 years of punk/alternative/grunge/indie rock, where the previously unsellable freaks were allowed to run wild on the music industry with various degrees of success. The Flaming Lips’ career sort of epitomizes that epoch. Meanwhile, the Very Best, with its global, word is flat idea of music that eschewed conceits and scenesterism in favor of having a small, great pop music experience for anyone interested enough, epitomized what pop music has the potential to become in the next 15 years.

Top 10 Sets of Pitchfork 2009:

  1. The Jesus Lizard
  2. The Thermals
  3. The Very Best
  4. Blitzen Trapper
  5. Japandroids
  6. The National
  7. Frightened Rabbit
  8. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
  9. M83
  10. Matt and Kim
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About Ethan Stanislawski

  • J

    wow, you really hate grizzly bear, don’t you?
    “racism, bigotry, bad camp, and an old boys club music culture” them’s fightin words

  • Matt

    Tend to agree that Grizzly Bear’s set was kind of boring, but this is a terrible piece of writing. Stylistically clumsy & riddled with obvious statements — “the influence of punk music was obvious!”

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