Pitchfork Fest, Day Three

What I saw on day three of the Pitchfork Music Festival:

The first half of this day, I was too peripatetic to absorb full sets of music. Rushing around, trying to get pictures, I feel like I did not experience enough of the music. That’s my own fault… though I do sometimes long for music festivals without so much overlapping music.

In the first part of the day, I caught a few songs by The Mae Shi, which seemed rather jagged. And a few songs by Michael Columbia, which seemed more like artsy jazz rock. Kind of interesting.

Frightened Rabbit put on a strong set — I did catch almost most of that one. The studio recordings by Frightened Rabbit don’t thrill me all that much, but they’re awfully good as a live act. Vocalist Scott Hutchinson really gives his all, singing with terrific intensity and whipping around his guitar at the climax of the songs.

Blitzen Trapper were good, too. At times, this band seems a bit too much like the cheesier aspects of early ’70s country, folk and Southern rock, but when they hit their mark with a good song, like “Furr,” it sounds marvelous. A sunny park was a good setting to hear their harmonies.

I wanted to see the sets across the park by two Chicago bands, Dianogah and the Killer Whales, but getting back and forth started to become a hassle. I did see Dianogah long enough to grab a couple of photos.

Pharoahe Monch is a hip-hop act I was not familiar with, but I liked what I heard of his set. He had a good rapport with the crowd and his personality came through onstage, which is key at any hip-hop concert.

Women were playing across the park, and I caught just a few songs. I saw Women previously at the Bottom Lounge, and their record is pretty good. There’s something strange and slightly twisted about their music. I’m wondering if it will develop into smoother or stranger stuff as the band develops.

The Thermals rocked out with a lively set. And hey, I did see all of this show. I was surprised that they included so many covers in their set, including songs by Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Green Day, but hey, what the heck. Judging from the hard-hitting melodic punk-pop sound of the Thermals, those are all probably songs that the band loves to hear, so why not play them?

The Walkmen played a pretty impressive set, from what I saw and heard (which was the first three songs and the last couple of songs). I’ve always liked their intensity, and that came through in this performance for sure. It looked like singer Hamilton Leithauser might burst some of the blood vessels in his neck at the rate he was going. I gladly would have watched the entire Walkmen set, but I wanted to see…

Japandroids — Wow! I like the debut record by this guitar-and-drums duo from Vancouver (it comes out Aug. 4 in the U.S. on Champaign-based Polyvinyl), but I wasn’t prepared for how exciting the live show would be. First of all, from the standpoint of a photographer, it’s great when musicians jump around and shake their hear. Not only did guitarist Brian King do that — he also had a fan blowing back his hair! And he liked to climb up onto the drum riser to get closer to his bandmate, David Prowse. There was so much energy on that stage, it was impossible not to have fun watching it.

For the rest of the day, I stayed on the north end of the park and watched the two main stages. Alas, this meant missing the bands playing down on the B stage: DJ/Rupture, Vivian Girls, Mew and the Very Best. I was especially hoping to see the lovely Vivian Girls in daylight for a change from the dimly lit SXSW show I saw. Oh, well… The park was too jam-packed to get back and forth easily. And besides, I did want to hear the full sets by the bands playing on the big stages.

M83 showed how you can make electronic pop music rock. Main man Anthony Gonzalez twiddled knobs on his electronic gear, played guitar and sang, while Morgan Kibby (who had a strip of blue across her face around the eyes) added lovely vocals, helping the songs to soar at key moments. The drummer played behind a clear-plastic shield.

Grizzly Bear is a band I admire without completely loving. Their new CD, Veckatimest, is quite good, with lots of Brian Wilson-esque touches, though the band always seems to hold back a little bit from delivering the big choruses it’s undoubtedly capable of. The aim seems to be more mysterious, ethereal music that flirts with pop. The crowd on Sunday evening applauded vigorously when Grizzly Bear took the stage, and the set did seem a little livelier than previous Grizzly Bear concerts I’ve seen. They let the songs rock a bit more than usual, which was a good thing. But for most of the Grizzly Bear concert, I was standing across the field, waiting for my chance to get into the Flaming Lips photo pit. The Lips’ stage crew and Wayne Coyne himself were getting their stage ready by this point, which was pretty distracting. I tried to pay attention to what Grizzly Bear was playing across the park, but it started to get lost in the anticipation for the Flaming Lips.

Photos of Day Three of the Pitchfork Music Festival.

The Flaming Lips agreed to take part in the “Write the Night” part of the Pitchfork, playing some of the songs voted on by fans who bought tickets. However, their show turned out to be not all that much different from a typical Lips concert. The fans are partly to blame for that. I mean, I love “Do You Realize,” “Fight Test” and “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” but they always do those songs, so why vote for those? The Lips ended up playing those songs, plus other well-known staples “Race for the Prize,” “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” and “She Don’t Use Jelly.” They played two new songs, which sounded pretty good. And they dug out just a few old obscurities: “Mountain Side” from A Priest Driven Ambulance, “Bad Days” from Clouds Taste Metallic (which I was glad to hear) and “The Enthusiasm for Life Defeats Existential Fear.” It was a good show — fun and audacious as ever, with confetti canons blaring, people dancing in goofy costumes, and Wayne Coyne riding over the crowd in his trademark bubble. I would have liked to have heard some other deep cuts, though. I mean, my favorite Lips song of all time is “The Spark That Bled,” and I would have loved hearing that or just about anything else from The Soft Bulletin. I did enjoy hearing “Yoshimi” played with just electric-piano chords and the audience singing along.

Taking pictures of the Lips turned out to be a big challenge. Two groups of 20 photographers each were allowed into the photo pit for one song each. I was in the group in the pit during the second song, and managed to grab a few good shots, but far from what I would have liked. Then we were escorted around the back of the stage and ended up pretty far back on the field. I lucked out in a way, though — my 300mm lens was able to capture some shots from all the way back there, thanks to the bright lighting.

And if I had been closer to the stage, I might not have enjoyed myself quite so much. People who were up close told me it was alarmingly crowded and hazardous — a riskier place to stand than the raucous crowd at Friday’s Jesus Lizard show. The WBEZ blog describes what was going on up there: “An impenetrable wall of teenagers refused to budge and started lashing out at the VIPs on the other side of the fence. They tore down the green netting on the fence and attempted to tear down the fence altogether.” Yikes. That seems like the opposite of the spirit that the Flaming Lips communicate from the stage with their joyful spectacle. I’m glad I was far away from that scene. From where I was standing, the Lips brought the Pitchfork Fest to a beautiful and climactic ending.

Photos of the Flaming Lips.

Pitchfork Fest, Day Two

What I saw on day two of the Pitchfork Music Festival:

Cymbals Eat Guitars seems to be getting a lot of hype. The band had good energy, and I liked the lead singer’s humble attitude. The songs seemed a little generic, though. Sort of boiler-plate 2009 indie-rock.

The Dutchess & The Duke played some cool songs with a loose garage-rock attitude, but more of a sing-along, folk-rock vibe than the standard loud stuff. A Chicago band I’m sure I’ll be seeing again soon.

Plants and Animals — I’d seen this Montreal band twice in the last year at Schubas, so I did not make a point of seeing them again, but I did make my way back to that end of the park in time to catch their last few songs. They were great for the most part, although the new song they played seemed to be veering more towards a jam-band sound. Don’t go there, guys!

Fucked Up is just not my kind of music. I read about them, downloaded the record from e-music and promptly decided I didn’t want to hear it again. I do like some punk, but this seemed to me more like the dumb variety of punk. That being said, they put on a crazy live show, with singer “Pink Eye” tearing into beach balls with his teeth and baring his rather massive, hairy stomach for everyone to see. I know a lot of punk fans at Pitchfork loved this set, and I won’t begrudge them their enjoyment of it too much. But I still don’t want to listen to that Fucked Up record.

The Antlers were playing over at the B stage while Fucked Up continued, so I caught the latter part of their set. Good stuff, from what I heard. Still trying to get a handle on what exactly it was. Art rock? Seemed sophisticated and smart in any case.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart played their melodic songs with crunching guitar chords. As with the SXSW set I saw by this band, I enjoyed it — and then reminded myself that I really should listen to their record more often. Some people say they’re not original? OK, whatever, I still like the songs.

Bowerbirds were playing over on the B stage, and by the time I arrived over there, they were halfway through the set. As I feared, the sounds of this quiet, subtle folk-rock band were not carrying very far beyond the stage. Standing at the back of the crowd, I could barely hear Bowerbirds’ music over all the chatter. This is a band I’d much rather see at a place like Schubas (which I did recently).

Final Fantasy does looping violin parts, similar to another artist I love, Andrew Bird. I haven’t quite caught on to Final Fantasy’s music yet, however. It seems pleasant enough, but a little too baroque. Maybe I just need to absorb it more. I stayed for the first few songs and took some pictures, then headed across the park for…

Ponytail — What an insane band this was! Especially lead singer Molly Siegel, who looks like a pixie and seemed to be speaking in tongues as she yelped incoherently and made the most bizarre facial expressions, grinning one second then rolling her eyes back into her head. Her singing reminded me of Björk at times, and the band’s spiky sound had some of the jagged edges of the B-52s or Deerhoof. I’ll have to hear Ponytail’s record before I decide whether this band has staying power, but as a live act, it was flat-out amazing.

Yeasayer is one band I haven’t really warmed up to; their music is OK, but it doesn’t really stick with me. I watched Yeasayer for a few songs, then headed over to see Wavves on the other stage. I might as well have stayed, since the Wavves set was delayed for 20 or 25 minutes. It seemed that the fence between the audience and the photo pit was having some problems after the raucous show by Ponytail, so the crew was working on fixing that. I managed to see a song or two by Wavves (taking pictures from outside the photo pit, since photographers weren’t allowed in for this set)… not enough to get much of an impression.

Doom also got started a bit late. According to the rumors floating around the photo pit — and subsequently reported by Greg Kot in the Chicago Tribune — Doom wouldn’t take the stage until he’d been paid. And Kot also reported that Doom was lip-synching during his set. I couldn’t tell if he was really rapping or not. He was wearing his trademark mask and a camouflage outfit that looked like it was made of leaves. I’ve enjoyed a couple of Doom’s past projects (the Danger Doom album, among them), but what I heard tonight did not thrill me too much. I spent most of this set waiting in line for fish and chips while Doom played behind me like distant background music.

Beirut played an enjoyable set, with some lovely songs and solid horn arrangements. I haven’t become a big fan of this band yet, though I think they have a lot of potential and I hold out the hope that they might accomplish better things in the future. By “they,” I basically mean the lead singer-songwriter, Zach Condon. He has a pleasant enough voice, but he isn’t the most charismatic singer. Still, I thought it was cool to see the crowd waving arms in the air to a Beirut song that was essentially a Balkan brass tune. I did enjoy a couple of Beirut’s remarks on the stage: “This might be the biggest crowd this ukulele has ever played for.” And: “I think we just set a record for the slowest song with crowd surfing.”

The National finished the night with a great set, playing many of the songs from the band’s 2007 album Boxer. (Hey, isn’t it time for another National record, guys? Oh, I guess one is supposed to be coming in 2010…) The National set at Lollapalooza last year was one of my favorites at that festival, and if anything, the band topped themselves this time, supplementing their lineup with horns. Singer Matt Berninger seemed to be intoning his words in a narrow tone, while the band keep the arrangements tense until a few carefully placed moments of catharsis. Berninger and his band have a knack for coming up with lines that seem so simple but somehow stick in your head, and it was wonderful to hear the crowd singing along at these key moments: “I’m so sorry for everything…” or “Squalor Victoria…” Berninger even got into the antic spirit of the weekend and went out into the crowd, walking quite a distance from the stage. He briefly considered getting into a garbage can before thinking better of it.

What I missed: Disappears, Lindstrøm, Matt and Kim, The Black Lips. Hey, I really like the Black Lips and I would gladly have seen them if they hadn’t been playing at the same time as the National.

Photos from Day Two of the Pitchfork Music Festival.

Pitchfork Fest, Day One

My photos are up from day one of the 2009 Pitchfork Music Festival.

The night was a cool start to the one summer festival I’ve been eagerly anticipating — cool in more than one way. Temps were unseasonably low for Chicago in July, though that was fine with me. And the music was cool all night, too. It turned out to be a great idea to let fans vote on the set lists for this “Write the Night” section of the festival. Predictably, fans picked mostly older songs by the four bands playing Friday: Tortoise, Yo La Tengo, the Jesus Lizard and Built to Spill. (Well, all of the Jesus Lizard’s songs are “older,” since the band hasn’t played in a decade.) I wouldn’t want these bands to play this sort of sets all the time, but it was nice to hear some songs you don’t always hear in concert.

I’m terrible remembering song titles in general, and the fact that Tortoise doesn’t sing makes it doubly difficult for me to name which tunes they played, but the show included several key tracks from their early album Millions Now Living Will Never Die. An outdoor festival is not really the best venue to see this subtle band, but the Tortoise performance functioned well as an introductory set to the weekend’s festivities.

Yo La Tengo played a set loaded with many of its best songs, including “Autumn Sweater,” “Sugar Cube” and “Tom Courtenay.” When Ira Kaplan moved from organ to guitar, the music became more fierce, as he really dug into those strings for some sharp, almost atonal solos. At one point, Kaplan announced, “We’re going to deviate from your requests a little bit,” and then Yo La Tengo played a track from its forthcoming album. The song was called “Seeing Double and Triple,” and Kaplan dedicated it to Ron Santo. It featured a bouncy organ riff as well as key-banging organ solo. This was one of the better Yo La Tengo sets I’ve seen in the last few years, with more emphasis on the rock than on the mellow lounge-y stuff. (But hey, I wish they’d played “My Little Corner of the World.” I can’t complain too much, since I didn’t vote.)

Within about two seconds after the Jesus Lizard took the stage, lead singer and general all-around crazy guy David Yow had leaped into the audience for some of his trademark crowd surfing. And he kept up those antics throughout the show, whenever he wasn’t pausing to get back up on the stage to spit on the floor. The band sounded loud and intense, and the fans loved it. Yow made a few very foul jokes I won’t repeat here… I did laugh when he introduced one song by saying, “This is a dance song. Everybdy, get at arm’s-length distance so you have plenty of room to dance.”

After that sort of performance, Built to Spill was bound to seem a little sedate. As much as I love Built to Spill’s records, the group has seemed less than lively during the two previous concerts I’ve seen. Well, this time, they were pretty darn good, even though leader Doug Martsch and his bandmates seemed like zombies compared with David Yow. (Most human beings do.) It was a strong set of most of Built to Spill’s best songs, coming from several albums — maybe not all that different from a typical Built to Spill concert, but when the three guitars were talking to one another in those epic solos, the sound was magnificent.

Photos from day one of the Pitchfork Music Festival.