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Concert Review: Was Pitchfork Music Festival 2011 A Success?

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As Pitchfork President Chris Kaskie told me recently (on behalf of Blogcritics Magazine), he was excited about this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival because it showcased the most diverse lineup to date. Unfortunately, when it was all said and done, the lineup’s diversity didn’t keep it from being an overall lackluster musical experience.

So why was the festival such a downer this year? Well, as I looked back on the weekend I realized the letdown stemmed from a few major things.

For starters, I tell you that one of the reasons I go to Pitchfork Music Festival is to experience emerging music, and to see if the buzz-bands that Pitchfork champions on their website are as good live as they are on record, which is always the true test of a great band.

That said, in the previous five years that I’ve gone to Pitchfork, the ratio of blah buzz bands to worthy buzz bands has always been less blah and more worthy. But this year, that ratio was other way around and there was a lot of mediocre sets to sit through.

And as the weekend rolled on, one thing became very obvious: playing live and doing it well is one of the hardest things a band (new or veteran) will ever attempt to do. And the fact is that some bands either have what it takes and they are instantly awesome live, while other bands take months or even years to develop their live show into an experience that demands our attention. And historically, most Pitchfork bands are emerging bands that haven’t had a whole lot of live show experience yet, or they’re a band that are just better experienced on record or in a darkened club at night. Which is why trying to rock a crowd with just a laptop and mic in the middle of the day doesn’t usually translate into a memorable show.

So here’s my very short list of three bands that defined my Pitchfork Festival experience and thankfully made me forget about the energy-sucking 98-degree heat: Tune-Yards, DJ Shadow and TV on the Radio. And then I’ll tell you why Odd Future relied way too much on cupcakes and controversy.

I still have visions of Tune-Yards’ set running through my heart and soul. The music that Merrill Garbus conjures on stage with her backing band is so sweet, seductive and immersing that you can’t help but be instantly pulled into her sonic portraits of love, joy, pleasure and pain. Under the canopy of trees at the Blue Stage, Garbus came out for a quick sound check to tweak her snare drum, then came back with her band to dazzle us with deft live looping, masterful percussion work, and crooning that somehow simultaneously channels Prince, Sam Cooke and Captain Beefheart.

Start to finish, she sent surges and throbs through the communal heart and mind of the crowd. Fan faces flashed grins of pleasure, bodies swayed, shoulders and heads kicked back in oblivion. It was all proof that Garbus’ emotive incantations and beautiful afro-pop-meets-indie-rock-meets-soul ballads “Powa” and “Bizness” had us all in the palm of her hand tugging full force on our heart strings.

Next on my “Best of” list was Josh Davis (aka DJ Shadow). He started his Saturday night set with a gracious hello to fans and then set up shop inside in a giant rotating ball that was illuminated by two projectors on either side. Before he started, Davis admitted that it was a bit too light out still to really see the stunning visual spectacle he’s created for us. I instantly agreed with him and started wishing that I could pull down the setting sun faster so I could enjoy the cinematic visuals along with Shadow’s masterful set mix of songs from his classic albums and new tracks from the forthcoming The Less You Know, The Better.

Knowing that he couldn’t overcome the sunlight, he eventually spun the ball around and continued playing so we could all watch him work his magic. As the creator of Endtroducing and other instrumental hip-hop masterpieces, Davis is a true pioneer and legendary live performer and he deserved a better showing than this.

In hindsight, I’m not sure of the logistical decisions that might have caused Pitchfork to close with Fleet Foxes when DJ Shadow would’ve been a much better closer on Saturday night. Heck, DJ Shadow would’ve also been better than Friday night headliners Animal Collective, who unfortunately got invited back for a second time at Pitchfork to perform another scattered and snooze-inducing 60 minutes of live semi-melodic electro-muzak. Animal Collective is definitely the poster child for bands that are releasing solid albums, but not delivering the same goods live. I’m still not sure why Pitchfork thinks that Animal Collective is worthy of being a headliner.

On record and even more so live, TV on the Radio is a palpable force of post-punk, rock and jazz to be reckoned with. And as they took us to the Pitchfork finale on Sunday night, I thought about how it’s been an emotional year for them too. Earlier this year they announced that bassist Gerard Smith was battling lung cancer, and shortly after the band released their new album, Nine Types of Light, Smith lost his fight. TVOTR then took a short break from touring and then returned to the road.

And as they burned their way deeper into our hearts and minds I got the feeling that they were profoundly channeling their loss, grief, and mourning into the music. It was a non-stop emotional crescendo as the NY-based quintet brought Pitchfork to a glorious end with a revitalizing and fist-pumping cover of Fugazi’s “Waiting Room,” the always epic ballad “Young Liars,” and new gems “Repetition” and “No Future Shock.”

Okay, now let’s wrap up this review and talk about cupcakes and controversy. In my Pitchfork Festival preview, I listed the controversial hip-hop crew Odd Future as a top pick because they’ve been causing a raucous on the touring circuit, garnering praise in the minds of the young folks, and receiving a host of mixed reviews from haters, doubters and championing critics. But for me, the jury was still out on whether or not these guys were worthy of all the attention they’ve been getting in the New York Times and in Pitchfork themselves.

Before their set, Odd Future brought cupcakes to the booth of the anti-violence group who was protesting their Pitchfork appearance. But that was the end of the Southern Cali hip-hop collective’s niceness.

Led by frontman and rapper Tyler, The Creator, who was in crutches nursing a broken leg, Odd Future swaggered on stage, flashing mischievous grins as Bob Marley’s “One Love” blasted from the speakers (another playful poke at the negative press they’ve been getting).

But the love ended quickly and a current of nasty and ridiculous rhymes seething with stories of misogyny, rape, violence and juvenile deviance poured forth. Fans moshed and crowd-surfed, while others mouthed every lyric and bobbed their heads to every beat. And then there was another section of fans that just looked at the whole scene in complete confusion and utter disgust.

After experiencing Odd Future live for myself and talking with both supporting and skeptical fans, two things became very clear: 1) Odd Future is really nothing new, and 2) It really has nothing new to say. Eminem, D12 and other shock-rap and horror-rock groups have done this thing before, and they did it a whole lot better and more creatively for many years.

And when I look back at it, Odd Future’s live show amounted to nothing more than a mix of aimless punk rock stage-diving, pointless mic-stand-crushing antics and cliche call-and-response gimmicks.

In the end, the set left me empty and a bit sad too because judging by the electric and emotive response from several crowd-surfing and engaged fans during the show, Odd Future has clearly struck an emotional chord on some level with fans who identify with their music and goofy-meets-nihilistic message.

But Tyler and company don’t appear to have any plans to truly deliver a real message to their fans besides the lame anthem “Kill People, Burn Sh#t and F#ck School.” And worst of all, there’s little, if any, originality or relevancy to what they’re doing.

Believe me, I don’t like writing bad reviews about any band, especially hip-hop groups, because I love hip-hop. And I believe, as a genre and an revolutionary art form, hip-hop has so much power and possibility to change lives and the world. And when I listen to Tyler, The Creator’s debut album Goblin, I hear a lot of promise and possibility trying to come out. I hear a voice that could say something. I hear a voice that could tell a very important story to an emerging generation that wants their story told. But right now all I hear for the most part is just a mish-mosh of repetitive, trite, predictable and misogynistic lyrics.

In tracks like “Goblin” and “Radical,” Tyler makes it very clear that he doesn’t want to be a role model or an inspiration to his fans. And I think that’s a big cop out. By doing so he’s selling his fans short when he takes that easy Charles Barkley route. Again, it’s not the offensive content that urks me about Odd Future, it’s the lack of creativity and uniqueness in the storytelling. Tyler’s tales start out interesting and bold but they quickly unravel because he doesn’t deliver or serve up any fresh creative spins or convince me that his take on a tired topic is truly unique.

Okay, that’s all I have to say about Odd Future for now. And I hope that next year, my and my fellow music writers will have more to write about than the fact that Odd Future handed out cupcakes and didn’t live up to all the hype.

In the end, I have no doubts that Pitchfork has got the logistical and pricing parts of the Festival down to a successful science. And they definitely know how to take care of fans’ physical needs as they gave out over 13,000 free bottles of water each day. And they also released one of the best music festival iPhone mobile apps I’ve ever used. I just hope that Pitchfork takes a longer look at the lineup for next year so they can give us a more inspiring and memorable musical experience. 

For more Pitchfork coverage check out my review of Day One and Day Two.

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About Chris Catania

  • “HIP HOP CAN CHANGE THE WORLD GEE SHUCKS GOLLY!”

    Oh man, OF didn’t have enough of a feel good message for Chris. I guess he was looking for Black Star or something to show up this year so he could listen to inoffensive passive ass backpacker rap. BAWWWWWW. Guess what? Music holds little responsibility to anything or anyone other than the maker of it. Anything connective is a bonus.

  • Animal_Churchill

    lol, I don’t think the author wanted a feel-good message. Any message beyond baselevel misogyny would have been nice.

    Did u just gloss over the fact that Odd Future is a warmed-over D12, with more dayglo in their wardrobe (and infinitely less street cred)?