Pitchfork Festival :: Chicago, Day Three

frightened-rabbitJ. Neas here, winding up AD’s coverage of the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. I want to start by laying some serious kudos on the festival staff and planners. Not only was it a breath of fresh air commerce and surroundings wise – from the diverse but non-traditional food booths to the exclusive beer sales of just local, excellent micro-brewery Goose Island to the great and interesting companies, non-profits and charities with booths – but also in the responsiveness to festival-goer comments. When complaints mounted about long lines at bathrooms on Saturday, the festival brought in additional facilities for Sunday. The result? I didn’t wait longer than five to ten minutes for a toilet on Sunday, where Saturday had been an average of anywhere from fifteen to thirty. Obviously a festival run by people who, as music fans themselves, get what people want from a festival, Pitchfork is a shining example of what can go right in festival planning.

Today was full of tremendous highs and some disappointments as well. It opened with quite possibly my favorite performance of the weekend, Frightened Rabbit. I’m a bit behind on this band, but I do enjoy getting to have one eureka moment at a festival. I knew nothing of this band other than their name going in and was floored from moment one. Every song was a winner and I literally had chills sitting there listening to them. Strains of Scottish jangle pop and even some things resembling American roots-rock strolled through their songs. Thrilling live, even more so in a smaller setting – go see them if you can.

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I don’t know whether it was the supposed ‘quiet’ that seemed to hang over the A stage, but Blitzen Trapper was, amazingly, one of my disappointments for the weekend. For a band with six people on stage, they didn’t put out a lot of noise, even though it looked like they were trying to do so. They opened with a tepid and slow version of “Wild Mountain Nation.” A serious pet peeve of mine is when bands play songs slower than the album version. If you’re changing up the whole structure of the song, that’s one thing. But when it’s faithful to the recorded version, just slower? Irritating. I’d been looking forward to seeing this band live for over a year now, but found myself walking away after four songs. My theory is that, much like another band I’ll discuss later, they just aren’t an ideal band for festival settings.

Thank goodness for Pharoahe Monch. Not only did he redeem the lackluster performance by the only other hip-hop act from the weekend, he did it in serious style. With a ton of swagger and some energetic and involved backup singers, he came out and woke up a crowd that hadn’t been seriously energized yet in the afternoon. The Thermals followed Monch and they put on a textbook showcase of why guitar/bass/drums rock is far from dead. Not to mention throwing down no fewer than four covers – including opening with a run through of Sonic Youths’ “100%.” I’m kicking myself for not having gone to see them in a club a few months ago, but they carried those big power-punk hooks over nicely. Also incredibly dynamic were the Walkmen. This was the epic rock of the evening and their sweeping music was a great lift to the early evening.

Today’s ‘music from another room’ moments – bands I caught just a bit of, or even just heard snippets of: The Mae Shi – shifted from shouty, fractured punk I might have cared about when I was 17 to some sort of rap-rock hybrid at the end – not sure what was going on there; Michael Columbia – I don’t remember much other than him saying that one of their songs was about a character from stone-cold classic TV film V – points for that alone; M83 – I think I really missed out in not seeing more of their set as it looked like a rave in the early evening and more people dancing than I think I saw the entire weekend – reminds me of how well CSS went over at Monolith last year; Vivian Girls – love the record, but was nonplussed by the live incarnation.

Grizzly Bear took the stage as the evening headliners took off and promptly put me to sleep. Grizzly Bear is undoubtedly a talented band, but they were just not made for festival audiences. I can easily see what they did tonight going over well in a club where the audience a) has the opportunity, potentially, to sit down, easily get a beer, etc. and b) everyone is there, specifically, to see them. But when one slow fuse of a song turned into a second and a third, I gave up and moved over to try and get a place for the Flaming Lips. I could still hear the band, so got to hear the ‘hits’ — “Knife” and “Two Weeks,” but by that point they had lost me.

Here’s where things got weird. While I was still watching Grizzly Bear, setup had begun on the other stage for the Flaming Lips’ elaborate set pieces. But it wasn’t just the crew. All the members of the band, including Wayne Coyne, were out on the stage doing various things. Confetti was fired off, by Wayne and by technicians, and the audience was goaded by band members into cheering and responding. All of this happening during Grizzly Bear’s set seemed more than a little disrespectful.

Next, while talking a bunch of gibberish about “giving the audience what they want every night,” it’s obvious that the Flaming Lips completely ignored the Write the Night theme of the their show. A look at the set list from tonight’s show matches up incredibly with every other show the band has put on for the last couple of years. The exceptions were a couple of new songs (both pretty good) and a less-than-awesome run through of Clouds Taste Metallic‘s Bad Days.” In a Priest Driven Ambulance‘s “Mountain Side” was played, but has been a staple of their live set for some time; as has their biggest hit of all time, “She Don’t Use Jelly.” For audience members hoping the voting would help them hear some Lips songs they might not hear otherwise (me, for instance), this was a terribly disappointing turn of events. I was also disheartened to have Wayne announce they were going to play “Fight Test,” only to have the song’s humongous, towering drums completely eliminated in favor of an almost a capella rendition with light guitar backing. A similar reconditioning was used on “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1.” All the confetti, balloons and dancing furries on stage couldn’t salvage the show for me.

I will say this, though – while I was busy being a curmudgeon, thousands of people around me were having a ball, and ultimately that is more the measure of the success of this show than anything. The Flaming Lipss are nothing if they aren’t showmen and they put on a rock show to rival just about anyone. My biases extend to the fact that, to me, the band hit its creative peak a decade ago and have been coming down since – not necessarily a valid way to judge a live show, but something I can’t help but let affect my vision of the show. The smiling faces of all the people around me, oblivious to my nit picking, are all the affirmation the band needs, no doubt. Â  words/ j neas

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11 thoughts on “Pitchfork Festival :: Chicago, Day Three

  1. Re: The Flaming Lips… I saw them, by surprise actually, at their Earth Day performance on the National Mall (had no idea it was going down, don’t even live in DC, but found myself there that weekend and went to kill some time downtown and there they were.) Anyway, felt the same way about “Fight Test” and “Yoshimi”…both versions were kind of unexciting a capella renditions. After being super excited about this spontaneous treat, I ended up leaving after six songs or so to go check out the National Gallery.

  2. Totally out of line for Wayne Coyne to be out on the stage egging on the crowd during Grizzly Bear’s set. I couldn’t believe it either.

  3. Dude, you didn’t go see The Very Best??? I realize it was them or the Lips, but I found Esau Mwamwaya to be totally thrilling. He kicked things off on a bit of a weak note w/ Chalo, but after that the crowd swelled and people just ate it up. Everybody was waving hands and doing impressionistic, tropical-hula dances. Especially during the Paper Planes rendition, Tengazako. When they were done, that’s when I moseyed over to catch the Lips doing Fight Test, and- as you mentioned- it was basically underwhelming in every respect.

    Also, Japandroids and Mew were both really solid. Mew was blasting from the B stage and messing w/ my ability to pay attention to Grizzly Bear, so I went over and got a nice spot by a tree to lean on.

  4. Whine, whine, whine.

    1) In the right context, as you say, (both the Synagogue in DC and the 9:30 club packed with happy people where I’ve seen them) Grizzly Bear are mind-blowing. Truly splendid. The clarinet booms, the voices coalesce, things go completely fucking right.

    2) I too caught the Earth Day Flaming Lips show… however, I was up front and enjoyed myself enormously. One’s enjoyment of a F’Lips show is determined largely by how much you are sucked in by the positive, celebratory vibe they aim to create. And that, in turn, might depend on where you are in the crowd, physically — who’s around you. I agree about the slowed-down songs, though. I hope that on their August Embryonic-backing tour, they bring things to newer, weirder places — the 3 released new songs are prrrrrromising.

  5. In defense of my colleague J Neas, and to second Blaaaarg, it’s been my experience that Grizzly Bear are better in a club than at a festival. I saw them about a year after Yellow House in a tiny bar in Baton Rouge, and it was one of the best shows I saw that year. At Bonnaroo, though, I ended up sleeping through the set after hearing “Two Weeks.” It may have more to do with the fact that it was a hundred degrees and I’d just sat in the sun for a less-than-brilliant Animal Collective set, but I just wasn’t feeling ’em. Though, like Josh said re: the Lips, everyone else seemed to be pretty into it. I was saving my energy for the Beasties.

  6. I’ve seen Grizzly Bear numerous times, and their show a few weeks ago at the Wiltern in L.A. was one of my favorite concert experiences of the past two years. I can see how it would be very different in an outside, festival, environment.

    – AD

  7. I watched a good majority of the Flaming Lips show on the feed, and it did seem like they ignored the Write the Night thing. Bad Days must have been fun to experience, but their older catalogue has so much more to it that they could have brought out. A year ago I was at one of their shows and had a lengthy conversation with drummer Kliph. He told me how the band has been mulling around the idea of doing a tour where they play smaller venues, tone down the theatricalities, and play longer sets of older material. That would be cool to see. Yet I’m afraid that will never happen, the casual fan doesn’t go to a FLips show for the music but rather the spectacle of their live show, to sing along to “Do You Realize?” while confetti is raining on them. So I could see if they did strip their performance down a lot of people would be disappointed.

  8. @Joel – by the time I decided the Lips were disappointing me, I was way too trapped inside the large crowd to make an effective break for the Very Best. Believe me, I thought about it, as I had an interest in seeing them anyway, but just didn’t make it.

    @Blaaaarg – I will admit that I was affected mightily ahead of time by a) seeing the set list and b) the on-stage antics while Grizzly Bear were playing. But I was, seriously, super excited to see the Lips heading up to those very moments. I’m a huge fan and always have been up until the recent albums. I still expected an awesome show and just came away disappointed. That probably did keep me from really participating in the celebratory mood of the show which, undoubtedly, sucked many a person in and I don’t blame them.

  9. grizzly bear was a snore. but i knew i was going to say that before i was there. it’s really a throwaway argument, either side you fall.

    the set list was a bummer. regardless, it can’t be denied that there are far more fans of ‘next generation’ flaming lips than otherwise, especially among a large festival crowd. ‘bad days’ was awesome, but i really didn’t like the feeling/attitude that i was being done a favor by coyne and his band. it’s what i paid for, actually.

  10. I gave up on the Lips performance after it seemed like Wayne was doing more talking than singing, which kind of killed some of the energy I had going into their set. I’ve never seen them before, so I was really excited. Instead, I was just kind of put off by his explaining why they were sort of doing the Write the Night thing, but not at the same time.

    However, I was glad I did give up because The Very Best was easily the best personal discovery of the festival for me. They were also the absolute best way to end the whole thing. Have to find a copy of their mix tape. In order, Pharoahe Monch, The Very Best, and Frightened Rabbit were my favorites of the festival, making Sunday the best all around day.

  11. The Very Best was a MUST-see for me, especially since I saw the Flaming Lips in 2004. I was front and center and not only did I see the best show of the festival but I got free liquor from the band! It was so amazing being up so close and looking around and seeing nothing but smiles. I love the Flaming Lips and they put on an amazing show but I definitely made the right choice!

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