The 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival ran the musical gamut — from the softest and prettiest music to the loudest and most aggressive. And sometimes, the contrasting musical styles could be heard simultaneously, thanks to the sound bleed of noise from one stage wafting through the hot summer air to the other end of the park.
As the day began, the hip-hop of Crissy Murderbot and MC Zulu intruded on the lovely harmonies of one-woman choir Julianna Barwick. Thankfully, if you were close enough to the “Green” stage, Barwick’s sublime voice overpowered everything else, as she used looping to build so many layers of vocals — it was hard to tell at time if it was four parts of harmony or 25. It was a beautiful benediction of sorts to begin the day with.
Other highlights Saturday included the early-afternoon set by Woods, who have released three strong albums in as many years. The latest record, Sun and Shade, features a few longer jams and even some Krautrock-style beats — and the band offered up all of that during its Pitchfork performance. Singer-guitarist Jeremy Earl sounded vulnerable with his appealingly warbly falsetto, while G. Lucas Crane, as usual, sang into a headset and manipulated sounds from tapes to add psychedelic touches to the mix. (It’s hard to tell exactly what he is doing or contributing to the band just from watching him, but he seems to be a key player in making it all work.) Woods’ folkier songs sounded nice, but the bigger jams were the best, with the guitar/tape/whatever solos shimmering out across the park.
No Age’s pummeling punk rock (also using some tape effects) got the audience at the “Red” stage revved up — lots of people seemed to be throwing their water instead of drinking it.
Also on the noisy end of the Pitchfork spectrum, the band Off! (a sort of punk-rock supergroup with members from the Circle Jerks, Burning Brides, Red Kross and Rocket From the Crypt) played punk of a more old-school variety — you could actually hear some melodies hidden inside the growls — generating a similarly raucous response, including some crowd surfing. As singer Keith Morris remarked before the set, “We are going to bring a different flavor to the party.”
The band Destroyer inspires either love or hate reactions, and that was true of its set Saturday at Pitchfork. I like Destroyer frontman Dan Bejar’s contributions to the New Pornographers well enough, but his nasal, affected vocals put me off. Bejar’s fans insist there’s some real genius in his songwriting, but I’m just not hearing it. And Destroyer’s latest incarnation, with lots of soft-rock trumpet and sax, was particularly annoying.
The reunited Dismemberment Plan was buoyant, practically giddy, during its set. The guys certainly looked like they were having a good time playing their old songs. When they stuck with the more straightforward post-punk rock, with clean guitar lines, it sounded pretty good, too. The band’s forays into hip-hop and dance music were less successful.
I was peripatetic at Pitchfork on Saturday, running from one stage to the next and trying to get photos of everyone. I wish I’d seen more of the set by Zola Jesus, who completely dominated her stage. When I saw her two years ago at the Wire Fest at the Empty Bottle, she was an intense performer, but much more contained. (Here’s a photo of her from that show.) This time, she was striding the stage in a outlandishly frilly dress and singing with force.
DJ Shadow began his set by climbing into a giant golf ball and then staying inside it for a good 20 minutes or so, with nothing apparently happening on the stage… just a scintillating musical mash emanating from inside the ball. At least, we think it was emanating from inside the ball. The problem was that he was scheduled to play at an hour when the sun was still up, so the video projections onto the sphere were almost completely invisible. After a while, the ball spun around, revealing an opening on the other side, where DJ Shadow was sitting with his equipment. He asked if anyone had been able to see any of the projections, seeming disappointed that the environment wasn’t working for the show he’d planned. He continued to play an inventive mix, but the lack of visuals was a big minus.
Fleet Foxes turned out to be an excellent act to finish the night. They’re a pretty mellow band for that headlining spot, but their smartly composed folk rock and art-rock suites had a lively, spry feel, and the audience clearly included a lot of people intimately familiar with these songs. Cigarette lighters were lofted. Up-raised hands swayed. Some people even danced. On their second album, Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes has gone almost baroque with complexity on some of its songs, and the band’s interplay on mostly acoustic instruments was as dead-on as the vocal harmonizing. A little too mainstream for Pitchfork? Maybe, but the music was some of the best heard all day.