By Kyle Pineda
Chicago’s Union Park played host to Pitchfork Music Festival’s 10th incarnation, bringing in bands, vendors, music fans, and a wide array of characters along with it. Featuring a healthy dose of reunited acts, new bands on the up slope, and plenty of acclaimed acts in-between, Pitchfork Fest has pitched their own tent in Chicago’s already busy festival schedule. Tropicult came and conquered through the dusty fields and blazing sun to bring to you the highlights (and the rest) of the three-day extravaganza.
Factory Floor opened up the festival at the Blue Stage with a bang- or perhaps with a mechanical charge, to be apt. The London group has been described as “post-industrial”, armed with a drum set, a guitar, and a synthesizer. Drummer, Gabriel Gurnsey, shifted between a strict four-to-the-floor dance beat and all-out manic assault, providing the rhythm for bandmates Dominic Butler and Nik Colk to demonstrate their unique brand of dance and noise. The crowd took to it well, dancing and even crowd surfing. After forty-five minutes of what seemed to be mostly extended improv jams, the band walked off the stage quietly, leaving behind raised expectations for future showings.
While Friday featured the styling of Sharon Van Etten and the experimental noise of The Haxan Cloak, it was Sun Kil Moon that provided a nice come down before the day’s final acts. Formerly of Red House Painters, Mark Kozelek’s somber, melancholic narrative was well received live by festival goers, who had no problem looking over Kozelek’s drunken ramblings (“I see…a lot of white people here…”).
At the conclusion of Sun Kil Moon’s set, the Red Stage was set for what was definitely the most surprising inclusion into the Pitchfork Lineup: legendary Italian producer Giorgio Moroder. As a fan of his production work with disco queen Donna Summer, I knew the DJ set would be high on the cheese, and even heavier on the goofy dancing. Both were in full swing, with the elderly Giorgio waving his hands in the air, his face superimposed on the screens against Donna Summer, and a spinning, fading disco ball. At the same time! The antics felt quite surreal, almost Lynchian, but the crowd ate it up with disco moves not seen since Saturday Night Fever.
Once the sun set, Beck took to the stage as opening day’s closing act. On the strength of his most recent release Morning Phase, Beck eschewed newer material in favor of his back catalogue, a move that went over quite well with those in attendance. Songs off Morning Phase, like “Blue Moon” just didn’t seem to translate well live. Be it the festival setting, or outdoor environment, Beck fed us with crowd-pleasers, opening with “Devil’s Haircut”, placing “Loser” in the middle of the set, and closing with a one-two smack of “E-Pro” and “Where It’s At”.
The second day of the Festival provided much more hip hop, with acts like Pusha T and Danny Brown captivating younger fans who were camping out for excellent real estate in the front row. Watching from afar, I got to witness St. Vincent, whose set caught me completely off-guard. I’ll admit, I’m not the most familiar with Annie Clark’s material. The studio samplings I’ve been acquainted with are suitable, but they never quite seem to warrant more than a shoulder shrug. This performance though was glam pastiche at its finest, parading around a raised podium, with alien movements and funky rhythms. She finished her penultimate song by repeatedly bashing her head against a drum set, but not before crossing herself and falling to the floor.
Saturday’s headlining act and main attention grabber was Neutral Milk Hotel, nearly more famous to Millenials for songwriter/genius Jeff Mangum’s total reclusion from society than their critically acclaimed album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. I felt rather uncomfortable waiting for Mangum & Co. to walk out, as teenagers next to me were desperately trying to corral those around them to chant “ANNE FRANK”, the subject matter of the aforementioned album. I cringed at the thought of Jeff Mangum walking out on stage to teenagers that took him as a joke rather than a performer; a harlequin instead of a songwriter. Those fears were erased when the band finally appeared after Mangum’s solo intro song “I Will Bury You In Time”, the final notes of the song giving way to the well known sing-a-long “Holland, 1945”.
The soft-spoken Jeff Mangum had the appearance of an indie Fidel Castro, with his unkempt beard and beat up cap, and yet unlike El Commandante, Mangum didn’t need talk too much. Whenever he did, it was to thank the crowd. He didn’t need to do anything else other than play his songs. They spoke for him, and the thousands in attendance understood him just fine.
The third day of a festival is undoubtedly the hardest. The sun seems to rise higher, the water lines grow longer, and fatigue usually settles in by midday. I arrived later than usual, but in time to catch DIIV on the Red Stage. The Brooklyn dream poppers filled the park with music that seemed appropriate for a friend’s summer photo montage. The light guitar melodies were a stark contrast to the band that was setting up at the Green Stage, Deafheaven. I saw Deafheaven initially at Revolution Live in Ft. Lauderdale, notable for being one of the most intense shows I had been to in the last few years. Though the band encountered sound mixing problems, the crowd ate up frontman George Clarke’s antics. Clarke, dressed impeccably in all black, acted as a black metal orchestra conductor. Raising his hands to the crowd, and in unison with the drums, commanded that the crowd come closer. While the task was impossible, Clarke made it a point to climb into the sea of people, reaching crowd surfers that surfed the mosh pit as best as they could.
Neutral Milk Hotel aside, the band that really drew me to Chicago for the festival was Slowdive, the latest in 90’s shoegazers blazing the comeback trail. Over twenty years since their last show in North America, Slowdive arrived on stage with dusk approaching and the sun in their eyes. Neil Halstead’s guitar shimmered brightly, drenched in walls of reverb and decaying echo. Rachel Goswell, still as gorgeous as ever, sung softly, with vocals that floated just above audible. Of course, Slowdive has never been about the words. Like their shoegazing contemporaries, Goswell’s voice is as much of an instrument as Halstead’s guitar; the melody of the vocals being more important than the words themselves. The crowd erupted when Halstead played the initial chords to their classic “Souvlaki Space Station”, a six-minute shoegaze classic filled with noises not thought possible by guitars. The band closed with a Syd Barrett cover, “Golden Hair”, originally off their debut EP.
Pitchfork has long prided itself on reviewing new artists and showcasing underground up-and-coming acts. By and large, the festival lineup is mostly a reflection of that ethos. However, some of the heavy hitters on the bill were long timers (Beck, Giorgio Moroder), and acts making a comeback (Neutral Milk Hotel, Slowdive, Nenah Cherry). Seeing how the lineup successfully meshed newer acts with long timers, Pitchfork for the first time finds themselves at a crossroads for future lineups: go back to the bread and butter of best new artists, or mix it up with critically acclaimed 90’s acts going for a second round. Contrary to what the cool kids with high tops might think, this is a good problem to have.