My photos from the 2016 Pitchfork Music Festival are featured on the A.V. Club website. Here are some additional pictures from Day 2, July 16. (Click here for photos from Day 1, and here for photos from Day 3.)
By his own admission, Sufjan Stevens has been uncertain about what musical directions to pursue since his 2005 popular and critical breakthrough, Illinois. It’s not as if he’s been silent; his orchestral suite The BQE was an impressive demonstration of his sophisticated composition techniques. His new album, Age of Adz, is a bold attempt to make a dramatic break from the folk-rock that made Stevens music. Or is it a desperate, overwrought attempt to do something different? The new songs aren’t without merit, but too many of them are weighted down by too many layers of electronic bleeps and textures. The problem isn’t that Stevens has gone electronic. It’s just that his new songs are built up with such labored arrangements that the various instruments often seem to be clashing against one another. Perhaps that’s the intended effect, but it makes for some rather weary listening. (Stevens also released an “EP,” All Delighted People, which is actually longer than most albums.)
Backed by 10 musicians and singers, Stevens focused on these new songs for most of his concert Friday night (Oct. 15) at the Chicago Theatre. At a few points, he all but apologized to the audience for playing the new stuff. It was impressive to see the musicians pulling off these complicated songs live, but the songs still didn’t really click. The drawn-out “Impossible Soul” culminated (as it does on the record) with Stevens singing Auto-Tuned vocals, which just felt like a bad joke. (Stevens sarcastically introduced the song as “the adult-contemporary mini-series song,” which wasn’t too far off the mark.)
The highlights of the show were those moments when Stevens played acoustic guitar, banjo or piano. After a long wait for some songs from Illinois, the audience finally heard the band play “Chicago.” And then came an all-Illinois encore, with Stevens playing four songs with minimal accompaniment. It was a great reminder of what made Stevens’ music so compelling in the first place — and a stark contrast with the bulk of the music he’d just played. Before closing the show with his haunting song about serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Stevens thanked the audience for being “very patient.”
The opening act — and also a member of Stevens’ band — was singer-songwriter DM Stith. It was odd to see Stith playing in such a huge room, not too many months after seeing him play at a little Chicago art gallery. He sat by himself now on the dark Chicago Theatre stage, playing an acoustic guitar and using looping pedals to create a spooky atmosphere. His set was captivating, but too short — only four songs.
SET LIST: Seven Swans / Too Much / Age of Adz / Heirloom / I Walked / Now That I’m Older / Vesuvius / Futile Devices / Get Real Get Right / The Owl and the Tanager / Impossible Soul / Chicago / ENCORE: Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois / Decatur, or Round of Applause for Your Stepmother / Casimir Pulaski Day / John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
As much as I liked the 2005 Sufjan Stevens album Illinois — and as much as I enjoyed the concert I saw by him last year at Metro — I had trouble working up much enthusiasm for seeing him this week. Maybe it was because his new album of Illinois outtakes, The Avalanche, is tepid. But he’s undeniably a talented guy, probably a genius at arranging strings and incorporating them into pop music, so this was certainly a worthwhile concert. The cheerleaders from last year were gone, but there was still a sense of spectacle. The 15 musicians backing up Sufjan wore butterfly wings, while Stevens had big bird wings (and wore a feathery bird mask over the top of his head for the opening two instrumental songs). It was postively Peter Gabriel-esque (in a 1972 Genesis sort of way, that is). And then there was that little rooster figure that was sitting on a stool near Stevens throughout the show, which he claimed they’d stolen from a Perkins restaurant earlier on the tour.
This concert focused less on the Illinois songs, but those were the ones that won the biggest applause here in the Prairie State. As I did at last year’s Sufjan concert, I sensed something amazing happening with the music scene. It’s so encouraging to see thousands of young people getting excited and enthusiastic about sophisticated orchestral folk music. I don’t think the worshipful Sufjan cult will necessarily result in a lot of other artists making similar music, but I hope it signals a new willingness to embrace music with unconventional arrangements and musical sophistication that goes beyond the Blink-182’s of the world.
I’m probably one of the few people at this concert who was there mostly to see the opening act, My Brightest Diamond, but I’m hoping this wonderful artist (aka Shara Worden) will soon be attracting a lot more fans of her own. The debut album by My Brightest Diamond (both the name of her band and her stage name), Bring Me the Workhorse, is one of 2006’s most outstanding albums, full of haunting, intimate and intelligent songs blending a deep knowledge of classical music and opera with punk attitude. I had the great privilege to meet with Shara Worden before the concert tonight and interview her for a forthcoming article, and her performance did not disappoint — except for the fact that it was so short, just six songs. She’ll be back at Schubas on Nov. 11, though she apparently won’t have the string section that she was able to borrow from Sufjan Stevens at this show. In any case, don’t miss her the next time she’s in town.
It was a busy weekend of concerts, and I didn’t even go to Farm Aid. It was a pretty remarkable three days of music, with at least three performances that rank among the year’s best.
SEPT. 16: LAURA VEIRS started off the weekend at Metro with an excellent set of her spacey folk rock, mostly drawn from her new album Year of Meteors. In concert, it becomes clear how much of her music’s odd charm is rooted in her guitar playing, with its peculiar sense of rhythms and unorthodox finger-picked chords. Viers has a lovely deadpan voice, and a tendency to smirk a lot … as if she can’t believe she’s actually up onstage in front of a crowd.
She was just the opening act, followed by the impressive spectacle of SUFJAN STEVENS and his seven-person backup band/cheerleading squad. The songs from Illinois sounded great in concert. If listeners hadn’t already realized these are complicated and well crafted compositions, it became obvious watching Stevens and his band pull it off in concert. The mostly young crowd was wildly enthusiastic. Who’d have thought we’d see a crowd of 20-ish rock fans whooping at a trombone solo or the unfurling of an Illinois state flag? The band, dressed in Illinois shirts, with the three female musicians decked out as cheerleaders, performed cheers in between the songs and even formed a human pyramid onstage. It was a strange mix of the seriousness of art rock with giddy silliness.
SEPT. 17: The Hideout Block Party is always a great event, and this year’s featured a couple of especially noteworthy shows. ELEVENTH DREAM DAY played a set of new songs, which will be on a just-recorded CD. This band plays only once or twice a year, but whenever it does, it’s one of the best rock shows of the year. The new material sounded great, and the members of Eleventh Dream Day again showed that they’re all outstanding musicians. The band’s core trio was supplemented by keyboard player Mark Greenberg.
The headline of the day, however, was the first gig anywhere by the reunited original lineup of THE dB’S. They look a lot older than I remember, but then, I saw them twice back in the mid 1980s in Champaign, so I probably look a lot older, too. The dB’s played a couple of new songs, which sounded good, but the set focused on the classic power pop songs from their first two albums. It still sounded fresh. The band came back for a rare festival-set encore, “Neverland.”
I also caught sets at the Hideout Block Party by Kevin O’Donnell’s Ensemble General, an intriguing big group led by drummer-around-town O’Donnell. His monologue during one song about blue states invading red states was a highlight. And with his between-song banter, O’Donnell revealed himself to be one funny guy.
I’m not sure what to make of the Sam Roberts Band, from Montreal. The songs were OK, but the sound was too jam-band for me.
The always-excellent Ponys were going strong when I had to depart the block party for…
BOUBACAR TRAORE, a Malian guitarist and singer who played a spellbinding set at Park West. (I also saw him the following night at Logan Square Auditorium.) Traore plays a style of percussive acoustic-guitar music that will remind American listeners of the blues. Using just his thumb and forefinger to pick the strings, Traore rarely plays actual chords, essentially soloing throughout each song, even as he sings. Traore was the opening act for…
AMADOU & MARIAM, a married couple of blind singers from Mali, whose new album is one of the best of 2005. The music sounded great in concert, too, with Amadou taking the chance to stretch out with some pretty amazing guitar solos. Another difference from the studio recordings was the stronger emphasis on percussion, one of the reasons the crowd was dancing almost nonstop. (Why no photos of Amadou & Mariam? Because I idiotically left my camera in my car, thinking the Park West does not allow photos, though it turns out I could have brought it in.)
SEPT. 17: After another exceptional opening set by Boubacar Traore, Brazil’s SEU JORGE played tonight at the Logan Square Auditorium. Like last night’s concert by Amadou & Mariam, this was part of the Chicago World Music Festival. Jorge is a commanding singer, and his songs (which I wasn’t familiar with) sounded excellent. At times, he sang softly with gentle guitar or ukulele rhythms carrying the beat. At other times, the music was heavy on percussion (the band included Jorge on guitar, a bass player and three percussionist) with Jorge growling, rapping or singing full-out in a more rock-music style. After Jorge left stage, the three percussionists led the crowd for a while in some clap-alongs, then Jorge returned for an acoustic set, including three of the David Bowie songs he covered for The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. At the end of the night, Jorge stood before the crowd and gave an impassioned speech about the people of his generation trying to make Brazil a better place.