At this point, there’s no point trying to argue that Pitchfork, either its website, brand, or internationally renowned music festival, represents a quirky little elitist subculture anymore. Pitchfork has replaced Vice magazine as the definitive rock tome of this decade, and if you have cared about any music that has emerged in the last 10 years—which probably means you were either a college student or employed in the music industry—Pitchfork was a site that you simply could not ignore.
As an authoritative source of contemporary tastes, Pitchfork.com became institutionalized around the same time the Pitchfork Music Festival made its debut in 2006. One summer after Lollapalooza became a fixture in Chicago, the Pitchfork Music Festival emerged as its rival in the same city, with lower prices, a less corporate vibe, and, in general, better bands. The two festivals are inevitably seen in perpetual contrast, and Lollapalooza is still somewhat higher on the food chain. Animal Collective, a headliner at Pitchfork 2008, is now just another act at Lollapalooza, even after releasing their best album to date.
This kind of self-defeating crossover is nothing new to alternative rock. What is different is that the payoff for making that jump is rapidly becoming less substantial. Perhaps that’s why, in 2009, it’s hard to argue that Lollapalooza’s lineup in any way justifies more attention than Pitchfork Music Festival. Pitchfork ‘09 features still-vital Gen X holdovers like the Flaming Lips, Built to Spill, and Yo La Tengo. Perhaps most excitingly, Pitchfork also features the first major concert by noise rock legends the Jesus Lizard in a decade.
Friday’s lineup features bands that could headline any other day, and perhaps because of their fame among passionate music fans, they’ve let their fans pick the playlist (a good way to avoid “Freebird” chants). The Festival’s closing Sunday headliners, the Flaming Lips, caused a bit of controversy after backtracking on the fan selected playlist, including a scathing assessment by the band’s biographer, the Chicago Sun-Times’ Jim DeRogatis.
Unlike Lolla, which features Lou Reed, Tool, Depeche Mode, and other major label vets, you’re not likely to find many band members at Pitchfork Festival much older than 40. Many of these bands are the so called “Pitchfork bands,” ones who experienced a rush of hype after a particularly positive Pitchfork review. In the case of Wavves, the project of a 22-year-old named Nathan Williams, the boom and bust cycle of Pitchfork hype has evolved particularly rapidly; less than six months after putting Wavves' debut in Pitchfork’s highly coveted Best New Music category, Pitchfork's Ryan Schreiber was already writing lengthy screeds against Williams' drug-fueled meltdown at Barcelona’s Primavera Fest. This awkward dynamic makes Wavves one of the more intriguing and potentially volatile sets in the festival.
Of course, that volatility is in contrast to the blood and vomit usually associated with hardcore-based Toronto punks Fucked Up, the piss and vomit that frequently makes an appearance at the consistently wild shows of Atlanta’s Black Lips, and the ridiculous punk overdrive of The Mae Shi.
Lest punk danger not be your style, there’s also plenty of softer bands mixed in with the reckless. There’s the National, a band with two fantastic albums that have drawn multiple comparisons to Leonard Cohen. There’s the lo-fi twee pop rock of Slumberland Records’s The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. The Walkmen, a relatively humble New York band, relies on good rock songwriting, rock sensibility, and can only be considered “indie” by default. Blitzen Trapper, a freak folk band that often verges into popular folk, is already being talked about as the indie darling successors to Animal Collective.
To call Pitchfork’s lineup “elitist” would confuse the musical selection’s intellectual and socioeconomic appeal. Yes, post-grunge indie rock is too often reserved for the upper-middle to upper classes, but in terms of indie taste, it’s hard to argue that Lollapalooza bands like Deerhunter, Heartless Bastards, or Of Montreal are any more “populist” than the Flaming Lips or Yo La Tengo. In terms of providing rock enjoyment in a bad economy, it’s tough to argue with Pitchfork Fest’s ticket prices. The traditional complaints against Pitchfork still remain: giving special treatment to bands the site happens to like, providing less support for bands that are less fitting with Pitchfork’s brand, claiming to be humble in scope but no less ruthless in their writing. Even with the snobby associations with Pitchfork’s lineup, the fest has something for everyone who cares about music, which is more than most American summer music fests can offer.
The Jesus Lizard. A band that perfected a subculture makes their first appearance in a decade, and many Pitchfork readers—and writers—still consistently underestimate the band’s significance. The Jesus Lizard’s rabid fans, who will most likely be coming from several continents, will make an interesting contrast with the Girl Talk-loving crowd that generally comes to Pitchfork Fest.
Yo La Tengo. With nearly 30 years under their belt, Yo La Tengo is still by many indie press standards the greatest band in the world. The band’s gone through a number of phases since the 1980s, most recently a psychedelic-folk phase in the style of 60s great Arthur Lee. After a deliriously snarky album of covers as their alter egos, the Condo Fucks, Yo La Tengo has a new album, Popular Songs, coming out in September. The Hoboken legends can’t possibly reinvent the wheel once more…can they?
Wavves. Will Nathan Williams attack the people who built him up and brought him down? Will he respect his hosts, or get vitriolic, as many fans may expect? Most of all, will Wavves prove to be a bigger musical force than a 22-year-old with an excellent GarageBand-produced album to his name?
Fucked Up: A hardcore band whose epic sound is particularly suited for the outdoor festival setting. With an undeniably entertaining live show, Fucked Up is possibly the only band that can entertain everyone in attendance while still finding a way to cross a line.
Beirut. Possibly the most blatantly fun-loving act of the fest, singer Zach Condon always puts on a great show, and Beirut’s bountiful backing members make it hard to predict anything that will happen, except that it will be entertaining.
M83: A shoegazing band with an exceptional sense of eclecticism and electronica for the genre, M83’s Anthony Gonzalez is versatile enough to adjust to any setting, and he’s fresh off one of the his better albums, Saturdays = Youth. All that makes M83 a dark horse for festival highlight.
Vivian Girls: A band that’s built a rather astounding amount of hype over a 21-minute debut, the band being touted as the successors to the riot grrrls needs to back it up with a solid set at Pitchfork, both with a heavily anticipated follow-up coming this fall, and to help dispel Pitchfork’s notorious reputation of being male-centric tastemakers.
The Thermals: A Seattle band that’s blatantly punk, The Thermals have always been popular in the Pitchfork crowd, but never able to capture the attention of their peers. With four albums worth of blasting anthems, The Thermals may overpower those who’ve shrugged them off prematurely.
Mew: The Great Danes are one of the few major label bands at Pitchfork, but the band’s American fan base and ethos is entirely in line with the Pitchfork’s audience. Nonetheless, Mew’s major label production values may make their set, at the very least, a technical spectacle.
The Flaming Lips: Three words: human hamster ball.
Ethan Stanislawski will be providing daily follow ups to Pitchfork Music Festival 2009, plus interviews with select musicians. He will also be providing real-time updates on Twitter at @tynansanger.