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.