Pitchfork Festival: Day One, Chicago

J. Neas here reporting from Chicago. The opening day of the 2010 Pitchfork Music Festival is done and what a wild ride its already been. The park feels more full than last year (did they release more tickets or something, or am I imagining things?), but the atmosphere is still great. I’ll return to some of the daily production notes in a second, but first to the music.

I arrived in time to catch the Tallest Man on Earth’s set. Kristian Matsson openly complained (in his low-key, Swedish, non-griping way) of having had little sleep and the sun being unbearable. It was a warm Chicago afternoon and the cloudless sky was making it quite the oven down on the field. But he worked through his set with the same energy he has brought to other performances. All solo acoustic or slow-tempo performers face the same uphill battle at an outdoor festival: keeping a hot, sweaty audience from getting antsy. He did a noble job of it and the crowd reacted accordingly.

But as soon as he was done, El-P took the stage and brought energy to an afternoon that sorely needed it. Pulling out new songs, a handful from I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead and even one or two from the legendary Fantastic Damage, the set was full of fist pumping works. Even on the more dour, depressing material, his band, hype man and himself put on a great show. It was a great lead into the day’s first certifiable noise act, Liars. I wish I could say I caught more of their set, but the rather punishing sun was making the stage where stand-up comedians had now begun, which is under a complete canopy of trees, way more inviting.

I wandered over there to find Hannibal Buress, a comedian I hadn’t noted in our pre-fest coverage simply because I wasn’t familiar with him, slaying an audience. I had wondered how a stand-up performer would do against a band on the main stage, even with the separation of a bit of space. This works fine for full bands – the competing noise drowns it out. But Hannibal was up against Liars and at one point he stopped in mid sentence and said: “I swear Liars just turned their shit up on me. Did they just get louder?..I’m going to start beef with Liars..it’ll be the most obscure beef ever.” Wyatt Cenac followed and continued the great set of comedy, this time putting his delivery up against the thumping bass of Robyn on the main stage. Both Burress and Cenac are must-catches if they come do stand-up near you.

At this point the afternoon was starting to cool off, so I headed to the field to catch Broken Social Scene. As stated on my Twitter, this was one of two bands I haven’t spent a lot of time with. I’ve never been blown away by BSS, and after a few songs I decided to go back and catch Michael Showalter’s set of comedy. A long time fan of The State, Stella and pretty much everything else he’s been involved in, I was looking forward to it. What I walked into was a comedy set falling apart. I’m not sure what had happened prior to me getting there, but Showalter was complaining that he had been knocked off of his rail and was rambling telling stories about poor performances in reaction to people in the audience shouting things at him. Whether it was intentional or not, it was a bit of a flop and I have to say I was disappointed in someone whose work I’ve so long enjoyed. I went back to catch the end of Broken Social Scene and really enjoyed the tail end of their set. They were joined on stage at one point by John McEntire from Tortoise playing drums and it was a pretty energetic way to ramp up the evening.

I went back to the stand-up stage one more time to catch the end of Eugene Mirman’s set. Eugene is an absurdest comic who can take some time to warm up to, but his set was good. His closing bit was about fake business cards he’d designed to hand back to people who gave him their own. “This one says..’Eugene Mirman: Ass Commander’..and then the tag-line ‘Your ass..is my command.'” He wound his set up by saying “let’s all go see Modest Mouse!” So we did.

As I said on my Twitter feed, Modest Mouse is a band I inadvertently slept on years ago (ed. what?!?). I never really gave them a listen and while I can certainly identify the major songs (or song in the case of “Float On”), I’ve never seen them live nor really listened to their albums. I wasn’t sure how I’d handle the evening, but there were a couple of things going here. First, the audience was infectious. This is one of the biggest audience reactions to a headlining band I’ve seen at Pitchfork, and it helps that this was a band working from a pretty deep catalogue. While I have no idea how far back any of the songs went (I’m pretty sure I recognized a song from The Moon & Antarctica), the set was obviously engaging to the audience who cheered loudly at the opening riffs to many of the songs in the set. Second, the performance was top notch. The band, especially lead-singer Isaac Brock, put a lot of weight into the performance and it was a joy to watch. By the end of the set, I was convinced of what I think I’ve been missing over the years. Looks like it’s time to do some back-catalogue combing.

A couple of festival production notes: when the heat became an issue yesterday, the festival not only lowered the price on water to a dollar, actively encouraging people from on stage between acts to make sure they stay hydrated, but they also were giving out free water to the people who had taken up positions on the railing in anticipation of Modest Mouse, Broken Social Scene and so on. A class move by Pitchfork that, while maybe rooted in avoiding lawsuits, also obviously comes from caring about festival-goers. Second, a truly novel idea is their booth where you can trade recyclable trash for Pitchfork Fest gear. By the end of the night, Union Park’s fields are usually covered with plastic beer cups, water bottles and so on. If you bring a certain amount of recyclable trash to this booth, they’ll trade you pins, t-shirts or posters for it. 70 cups or bottles gets you a t-shirt, 80 a poster, 5 a pin, etc. It’s a great way to encourage people to actively clean up after themselves and fellow festival patrons.

Day one has me excited for day two – Free Energy, Real Estate, Bear in Heaven, LCD Soundsystem and a lot more. Stay with me on Twitter for live updates and check back tomorrow for the summary of Day Two. words/ j neas

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8 thoughts on “Pitchfork Festival: Day One, Chicago

  1. mostly comedy reviews (on a music website) and little homework done to contextualize the music–and lines like “I’m pretty sure I recognized a song from The Moon & Antarctica.” Please, some attempt at thoroughness would help elevate this post from the most banal of amateur blog-posts…

  2. Yeah, it might have been nice if you’d brushed up on some of these bands that you knew you’d be writing about (by which I mean, like, listening to them at all).

    Also: “First, the audience was infectious.” That does not sound like a positive thing; in fact, that’s quite alarming. Are they turning into zombies? Should we have the festival quarantined?

  3. I never thought Modest Mouse would get big back when I heard “Third Planet” – and then they absolutely blew up. Either way, that song is forever how I will envision them.

  4. @dono204 – The comedians were a curated part of the festival the same as the bands. They deserve equal mention in that respect. As for the rest, duly noted.

    @oyvey – Correct on the semantics.

  5. he’s at a festival. He wrote about HIS experience. If he felt the need to alter his day to please the reader, that would be quite sad. Great post. Reading it was kind of like being there, wandering around like I always do.

  6. The comedians were . . . curated, yes, that’s a great way to put it, and I suppose the extensive coverage given to comedians in the post is totally in line with AD’s heavy comedian focus.

    Wait, what?

    Here’s the thing: there’s an unprecedented ability to listen to music and learn new things nowadays. You can bone up on stuff pretty easily. I read AD in my feed, and I read whatever y’all write–and it was a jarring to get a post heavily focused on seemingly random elements while ignoring the headliners and undisputed musical heavyweights of the first day. Whether you like Broken Social Scene or not, you gotta at least make the obligatory “there were like a dozen people on stage, so crazy” comment.

    If J. Neas had said “dude, it was so hot, I kept vamoosing to the B stage to get some shade,” I would have completely given it a pass, because I did the same. Heck, my festival partner and I even “watched” couple bands from the leafy green area stage right of the A stage to hide from the sun.

    As it is, this post just feels like a “that’s REALLY what you did with your summer vacation?” kind of thing.

  7. I haven’t seen Modest Mouse a lot, only four times before Pitchfork, but that was by far the best performance I have seen.

    The highlight for me was what they did with Dramamine (off of This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing to Think About) which they extended and geared up quite a bit.

    Good stuff.

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