The Pitchfork Music Festival is strange. It’s strange because unlike so many other festivals around the United States, the organization behind the festival has its own ideas and its own opinions – opinions that are widely known. Indeed, Pitchfork could be considered the MTV of the 21st century blogosphere, a tastemaker and a major influence on the popularity of bands in the indie scene and, increasingly so, in the hip-hop scene. Whereas a Lollapalooza or a Coachella will book a group based on the number of fans it can attract, Pitchfork looks to not only attract visitors, but also showcase their taste. It comes as no surprise that a vast majority of the artists playing at Pitchfork have received the publication’s coveted “Best New Music” tag, either on an album, track, or reissue. So when multiple acts thanked Pitchfork for their “generous support” or “continued enthusiasm” or what have you, the gesture seemed a bit stranger, and it seemed that the artists had a more intimate relationship with the publication that they might have with Bonnaroo’s organizers.
Pitchfork’s opinions have not gone without criticism and controversy. Anti-domestic violence demonstrators picketed outside of Chicago’s cozy Union Park, where the festival is held, to protest the appearance of rap group Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. (In response, Odd Future gave them cupcakes before their show). Pitchforkreviewsreviews.com, a website cryptically run by a guy named David, used to review the reviews that Pitchfork posted everyday. Now, David has taken to analyzing Pitchfork in a more meta, grander fashion, including writing a screenplay about the publication. Indeed, a perusal of this website’s comments on a review for a Pitchfork-approved album should demonstrate the type of scrutiny the website’s reviews go under.
For better or for worse, Pitchfork has a say in today’s indie music scene. Given that, analyzing the Pitchfork Music Festival offers the opportunity to examine more than the individual artists who performed at the three-day festival. It also offers the opportunity to examine a microcosm of today’s indie music scene.
Much like Bonnaroo’s Thursday schedule, Friday at Pitchfork is a shorter day, though still featuring one of the three festival headliners. It began at 3:00 with Gatekeepers, although I did not show up to see anyone until tUnE-yArDs played at the concealed, isolated Blue Stage, where I would spend most of my day. I showed up a bit late, but I could hear vocalist Merrill Garbus’ wailing of the hook from “Gangsta”, “Bang-bang-bang oi!/ Never move to my hood, ‘cause danger is crawlin’ out the way,” from a pretty far distance. While no one on stage seemed to move, Garbus gave everything she had, creating drum loops and vocal loops on the fly to create full-on recreations of her seemingly arduous studio labor. But given Garbus’s live set, where she ad-libbed powerful vocal embellishments to the crowd’s raucous approval, her albums may be more effortless than we thought.
Next on the Blue Stage was Curren$y, fresh off the release of his latest album, Weekend at Burnie’s. Surprisingly, however, the New Orleans rapper hardly performed any cuts from his latest, instead opting for songs from last year’s Pilot Talk and more obscure mixtapes and collaborations. What sold Curren$y, however, was not the familiarity of his songs (indeed, aside from “Audio Dope” and a few other choice cuts, no one knew the words). Curren$y sold himself solely on his charisma and perhaps the most relaxed live flow I’ve ever heard. While many rappers can achieve relaxed flows on their studio recordings, most get too amped up and bouncy in their live sets to recreate their recognizable voices. Curren$y sounds identical to his live recordings, and even more impressively, will often drop the beat for entire halves of sounds and perform the rest a capella. While the trick got old pretty quickly, since he did it in nearly every song, Curren$y proved that, while he pretty much only raps about weed, he can do it with the best of them. And Curren$y is funny. While the next act, Das Racist, was expected to bring all the jokes, Curren$y’s banter with the crowd toed the line on excessive, but his charisma overcame.
But indeed, Das Racist did bring the jokes, performing a few killer songs off of their forthcoming album, including “MIchael Jackson”, which boasts an absurdist refrain that somehow becomes anthemic behind the song’s surprisingly huge production: “Michael Jackson/ A million dollars/ If you feel me/ Hollah.” Much of Das Racist’s campaign since their second mixtape has been to prove their rap worth. If you never figured out the chorus of “hahahaha jk?”, they are indeed, not joking, and by bringing out Detroit rapper Danny Brown for a few songs, they upped their rap legitimacy by befriending a rapper who takes his job seriously, but still cracks the occasional witty joke in his verses. Their final song, “Rainbow in the Dark”, echos their viral hit “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” (which was not played), but instead of trying to find each other at the infamous restaurant on Jamaica Ave., they immediately set the scene at a White Castle. They’ve moved on, and they’re ready for you to move on as well.
Despite three excellent acts on the Blue Stage, the Blue Stage’s closer, James Blake, easily outplayed all of them, and indeed, anyone I saw at the festival that day. The cards were stacked against him, playing to a crowd of leftover hip-hop fans who just experienced two energetic shows. In his most stark moments, notably “Lindesfarne”, Neko Case overpowered him all the way from the Red Stage. But Blake overcame all of these and even took them in stride, calling “Lindesfarne” “a wonderful duet with… whoever is playing over there.” At the start of “I Never Learnt to Share”, Blake loops his vocals to achieve the stuttering harmonies on heard on the track. On the first loop, the crowd cheered, approving the song, and the cheering got caught in the loop. The result was haunting, an ironic cheer to the lyrics “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me/ But I don’t blame them.” Yet the highlight of the set didn’t even come from Blake’s superb 2011 self-titled album. It was “CMYK”, off last year’s EP of the same name. On the record, it’s a good four minute dubstep song. Live, it’s a 10 minute dance odyssey, changing grooves from hard dubstep to raucous kuduro. Blake’s shapeshifting throughout the hour-long set made the time fly.
Finally, Animal Collective headlined. I don’t have much to say about Animal Collective, except that it was long, uninteresting, and a disappointment. They set up in a four-piece rock band, not a laptop in sight, and certainly provided more energy than when I saw them as a duo at Bonnaroo two years ago. Still, they dabbled too long in unknown psychedelic jams that went nowhere, and even destroyed songs that could be anthemic by taking too long to get there. “Brothersport” proved that their jam style can work if the energy stays high, and was the easy highlight of the set.
Stay tuned for Saturday and Sunday’s coverage, and a more general reflection piece.