My photos from the 2016 Pitchfork Music Festival are featured on the A.V. Club website. Here are some additional pictures from Day 3, July 17. (Click here for photos from Day 1, and here for photos from Day 2.)
For a long while now, Pitchfork has been about a lot more than indie rock. The Pitchfork website and the Pitchfork Music Festival both have a history of mixing obscure, strange and intellectual music with unabashedly mainstream pop. This past weekend, the festival put an exclamation point on that attitude by booking controversial R&B superstar R. Kelly as one of three headliners. The other two were more typical examples of the sort of music originally associated years ago with Pitchfork: Björk and Belle & Sebastian.
In theory, I like this idea of mashing Top 40 artists and DIY bands together into one musical amusement park. It pushes fans out of their comfort zones, helping them to discover artists they’ve previously ignored because of a bias toward particular genres. I’m one of those music fans who needs some pushing. Call me an indie snob … a guitar-centric elitist … a rockist. I’ve been ignoring the vast majority of mainstream music for the past few decades. The reason is simple. To my ears, most of it sounds overproduced, unimaginative and uninteresting. I realize that the sonic style of this stuff — the way this music tends to be performed and packaged — probably leads me to overlook some creative and well-crafted songs. But it feels like a chore to sift through it all to find whatever gems might be hidden in there.
So … R. Kelly? Sorry. I’ve barely even listened to the guy. What I have heard didn’t make me want to continue listening. The controversy over the disturbing criminal charges he once faced — and was acquitted of — doesn’t make me especially eager to dig any deeper into his music, either. This weekend, I was taking photos for The A.V. Club. After being allowed to take pictures from the photographers pit during R. Kelly’s first song on Sunday night, I had fulfilled my duty. And I needed to get home to edit a day’s worth of photos. So I left Union Park at that point, missing most of R. Kelly’s set. I’ll leave it up to other writers to say whether his performance was what R. Kelly fans wanted to get out of the experience. Judging from most of the comments I’ve seen, his fans rated the concert as a smashing success. From what I did hear, I doubt that R. Kelly would have made a new fan out of me.
I did stay for Björk on Friday night. There was never any doubt about that. And I stayed for every minute of Belle & Sebastian. Both of these iconic artists delivered terrific performances — the only problem being the weather alert about an approaching storm that forced Björk to end her concert prematurely, cutting a few songs off her set list. Certainly, Björk’s more recent compositions aren’t as catchy as the earlier songs, but even the less memorable tunes came off as intriguing, complex creations as she performed Friday, wearing a sparkly set of spikes on her head. The set’s emotional climax was the moment when Björk sang “I love him, I love him, I love him, I love him…” in “Pagan Poetry,” tilting her head skyward, while her choir of female harmony singers responded, “She loves him, she loves him…” And then, shortly after Björk conjured some bottled lightning with a Tesla coil, actual lightning sparked in the dark clouds overhead.
Nothing so dramatic occurred during Belle & Sebastian’s set the following night. It was, quite simply, a fun time — a lively concert packed with so many fabulous songs that it was hard to imagine how anyone could come away from it without being a Belle & Sebastian fan.
The three-day festival had plenty of other highlights for me. Woods jammed with a more Byrdsy vibe than ever. Swans droned and declaimed with frightening intensity. Savages made good on their hype. Wire started off a bit slow but finished with a strong buzz. Yo La Tengo played loud, and then quiet — so damn quiet that you had to listen — and then loud again.
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead dug into its songs with fierce power. Foxygen’s flailing lead singer, Sam France, climbed halfway up the red stage’s metal support column and jumped down, as the band fell into a delightfully shambolic groove. Phosphorescent leader Matthew Houck’s voice keened with longing. Julia Holter’s music floated as she stood as still as a statue. And Waxahatchee’s songs blossomed from bedroom folk into slacker rock.
Alas, I wasn’t able to stay for whole sets by Mikal Cronin, Angel Olsen, Low and Metz, but they all sounded great for the few songs of each that I did catch. (I wasn’t there when Low closed its set with a cover of Rihanna’s “Stay,” transforming a mainstream pop song into, well, a Low song.) And I wish I’d seen more of Parquet Courts to figure out what all the fuss is about.
What else happened over the weekend? Pissed Jeans cavorted with glee. Daughn Gibson intoned with brash confidence. Trash Talk praised old people for “having us all and shit.” The Breeders fumbled. Mac DeMarco stuck out his tongue. Joanna Newsom plucked her harp and warbled, the subtleties of her songs getting a bit lost in the park.
I went into this Pitchfork fest with a bias toward old-fashioned, guitar-based indie rock, and I came out of the weekend with my bias intact. Still a rockist, but trying to be open-minded. Toro Y Moi’s frothy pop did nothing for me. M.I.A. put on an impressive and energetic show, but her music quickly wore me down, as it has in the past. I still have no idea what Lil B is all about, other than the fact that he has some really enthusiastic fans. Solange, Beyonce’s sweetly smiling sister, seemed to charm much of the audience. Hearing her music for the first time, it struck me as unremarkable. Maybe just not my cup of tea.
And so, when New York Times critic Jon Caramanica writes that the Pitchfork fest’s second half “served as a reminder of how dance music has become the most exciting emergent narrative in pop,” I have to wonder: What was I missing? I much preferred the weekend’s indie rock, which included, according to Caramanica, “bands in various stages of delusion and defensiveness.”
Killer Mike won me over, though. Of all the hip-hop artists I watched at Pitchfork, he was the one who had the most to say, even if his rap denouncing Ronald Reagan’s lies in the Iran-contra affair seemed oddly dated. “I want to encourage Chicago to take care of each other,” he said in one of his mini-sermons in between his raps, apparently alluding to the city’s violence. “I’d like to encourage the people of Chicago to look out for one another.” Later in his set, looking out on a Pitchfork audience that was more racially diverse than it had been on previous days, Killer Mike declared, “This is what church is supposed to look like.”
The New York band Woods was back in Chicago last week (Dec. 10) at Subterranean, with what seemed to be a temporary change in its lineup. The band didn’t explain why, but the usual tape-effects guy and harmony singer, G. Lucas Crane, was absent. Matt Valentine, who is the “MV” half of the duo MV + EE, filled in for Crane, adding another guitar to some of the songs, while playing bits of harmonica and keyboards at other moments. It’s always hard to tell exactly what sounds Crane is adding to the mix as he hunches over his cassette tapes and sings into headphones. With his contributions absent, Woods’ sound was touch less psychedelic and more direct. Lead singer and guitarist Jeremy Earl’s stage demeanor was as low-key as usual, but he really let loose on some of the guitar solos, making for a hard-rocking set.
The New York band known as Woods was back in Chicago last night (Monday) for another fine jam session. After playing last year at the Empty Bottle, Woods and opening act Real Estate nearly filled a bigger venue this time, Lincoln Hall.
As in past Woods performances I’ve seen, vocalist/guitarist Jeremy Earl sang in a creaky falsetto reminiscent of Neil Young or maybe Canned Heat, while letting loose some wonderfully shambling electric guitar solos. Meanwhile, G. Lucas Crane is kneeling as he plays old cassette tapes, twiddling knobs, doing who knows what with the sounds coming out of the tapes, and singing into what looks like a set of headphones. When Woods stretched out its tunes, it rocked in a way that felt spontaneous and unpracticed. Despite sustained applause at the end of the concert, Woods did not come out for an encore.
The middle band on Monday’s bill, Real Estate, has been getting some buzz with its recent self-titled debut. The music’s very unassuming: nicely constructed little guitar pop songs, with just a touch of 1960s chamber pop or psychedelia. It all came across well in concert, although the laid-back Real Estate guys could stand to show a little more energy and enthusiasm.
Chicago trio Netherfriends started out the evening, playing songs from its debut EP. At times, Netherfriends sounded like White Rabbits (when keyboards were the dominant instrument), but more often the band went for an Animal Collective sort of vibe, with heavy rhythms and overlapping musical motifs. If anything, the percussion was a bit too aggressive in this live performance, but this band has some potential.
I feel like I slacked off a bit last week when I missed most of the Wire Festival, a.k.a., “Adventures in Modern Music,” an annual showcase of some of the strangest music around, which the British magazine Wire curates and the Empty Bottle hosts. I’m sure I missed a lot of provocative music during the first four nights of the festival. I did catch the final night on Sunday (Sept. 13). The club seemed less than half full, but it was an excellent night of the sort of challenging music that Wire Fest is known for.
First up was Woods, a really cool band from New York with one of this year’s noteworthy records, Songs of Shame, whom I saw at SXSW. The core of this band’s songs are catchy rock tunes sung in a high falsetto, which remind me a bit of Canned Heat or Neil Young or something from that early ’70s era — but twisted through an experimental, improvisational, psychedelic vibe. Woods also played some extended instrumental jams, building their sound around drones and tape loops. Actual cassette tapes are part of the Woods’ sonic arsenal. Cool stuff.
The next band was the Subarachnoid Space. Never heard of ’em. They put on a pretty impressive set of heavy instrumental rock — heavy metal and art rock without any singing. The music was loud, but it was also fairly diverse within the limits of heavy instrumental rock. The third act of the night, Zola Jesus, was Chicago singer/composer Nika Danilova and two keyboardists, playing chilly techno pop, but with slightly stranger vocal melodies than the usual techno pop.
The headliners were Phantom Orchard, a collaboration between two highly respected experimental musicians, drummer Ikue Mori (who was working a laptop instead of drumming at this concert) and harpist Zeena Parkins. Their music included quiet, delicate tapestries of harp notes dancing over bubbly electronic textures. But Phantom Orchard also cranked up the volume and discordance for some sharp, piercing compositions as well.