I went into the 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival with skepticism. Vampire Weekend as a headliner? Meh. Not my cup of tea. The same goes for several of the other big names Pitchfork booked for its annual festival, including Beach House and Sleigh Bells, to name just a couple. And yet, as always, Pitchfork also included some top-notch bands — and a bunch of artists I was largely unfamiliar with.
My duties included taking photos for WBEZ’s website, and I wasn’t always able to stick around for full sets. Some of my regrets include not seeing more of Purity Ring, a Canadian duo that delivered a highly intriguing show of Björkeseque art rock on Friday night — and missing The Men altogether on Sunday. But it’s impossible to see and hear everything. Other bands I want to hear more from after catching a few songs: Milk Music, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Youth Lagoon.
I’ll leave the hip-hop and electronic dance music reviews to others, though I did enjoy the energy I felt as I was standing in the photo pit in front of the fans waving their arms for Flying Lotus, AraabMuzik and The Field. Some of the laptop artists, including Clam Casino, left a lot to be desired from a photographer’s viewpoint. Just how many different shots can you take of a guy pressing a space bar as he stares blankly at a computer screen? Even if I weren’t taking pictures, I’d feel bored watching these performers.
Some of the musical acts seemed too subtle for the setting, but let’s give credit to the devoted fans and adventurous listeners who gathered in front of the stages for artists such as Tim Hecker and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, putting their brains to work as they took in the musical undulations washing over them. GY!BE is fierce and fabulous, and their Saturday-night closing set was fantastic in many ways, but it felt strange coming right after Hot Chip’s peppy dance pop. The Pitchfork programmers seem to revel in these jarring juxtapositions. GY!BE’s epic instrumental compositions slowly built to frantic climaxes as the band’s trademark film projections cast an atmosphere of urban decay in the midst of the dimming park.
Feist played a decent if not exactly rousing headline set on Friday night, boosted by the presence of the excellent female trio Mountain Man on backup vocals. Sunday’s festival-closing show by Vampire Weekend drew an almost frenzied response from a throng of young fans, but the band’s music was as bland as ever.
As for the other hyped bands I was skeptical about: Sleigh Bells was highly entertaining to watch, whipping up an enthusiastic response from the audience, but the band failed to break out of its noisy-riff formula, boring me when I wasn’t up-close and watching singer Alexis Krauss and her hair flying around the stage. On the other hand, Beach House was as stiff as ever, barely moving as the duo intoned its pretty but ultimately soporific pop creations. Cloud Nothings played with impressive energy and the band’s fans loved it, but I still found the group’s songs a little lacking.
So what was great? Willis Earl Beal’s booming voice and his reel-to-reel recorder. The ladies of Wild Flag holding their guitars aloft as they tore through Television’s “See No Evil” and their own excellent rock songs. The perfectly pretty retro girl pop music of Cults. The mellowness of Real Estate, which felt right on a sunny afternoon. The mind-bending harmonies and pretzel-twisty guitar lines of Dirty Projectors. Outer Minds, Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall digging hard into their ’60s Nuggets-style garage rock. Fans moshing and crowd-surfing to bands including Thee Oh Sees and Segall.
In fact, Segall himself surfed almost all the way across his audience and back to the stage. Alas, I failed to capture this moment on my camera — not realizing until later that Segall was that dude who seemed to be setting an Olympic record for longest time aloft. Here’s a video from Sei Jin Lee:
Now, that’s what an outdoor music festival is supposed to be all about.