The Pitchfork Music Festival:
Two years ago, I went to the original Pitchfork
Festival (when it was called the Intonation Festival). The
one day I went was a terrific experience, despite the 95 degree
heat, as a laid back crowd of folks got to hear a great variety
of music for a very low price. This year, the festival got
more ambitious. They added a Friday night bill, curated by
All Tomorrow's Parties, featuring three artists doing full
albums. The two main stages now had video screens. And there
was a new side stage for smaller acts, used on Saturday and
You might think more would be better, in
a fest where a three-day pass cost only $50. However, two
things stood out about the festival that kept it from being
great. First, there was the sound. It was not very good. One
thing that I fondly remembered from the 2005 festival was
that from most parts of Union Park (which is a fairly typical
Chicago park, with two softball fields, a pool, etc.) you
could hear the music pretty well. This year, the sound was
On Friday, the sound was poor. This victimized
Slint, whose quiet music was so much quieter with the lousy
P.A. But even Sonic Youth wasnt even close to loud enough.
The promoters recognized this and had a new system brought
up from Champaign, Illinois in time for Saturday. But even
the new system was far from perfect. On one stage, speakers
would go out from time to time. During Cat Power's Saturday
set, she frequently apologized for the sound. And the side
stage was a disaster -- the sound set up was amateur, making
it hard to hear unless you were within 20 or 30 feet of the
stage. This ruined the Oxford Collapse's set for me, as I
could tell they were rocking out, but I couldnt get
close enough to share that joy.
Rumors abound that the Pitchfork people skimped
on the sound this year in a cost-cutting effort. These rumors
were flying on gapersblock.com, an indie Chicago news and
culture site. And I spoke to a good friend of mine, who heard
that a soundman from a local club received a desperate call
seeking help on Saturday morning. The folks behind the fest
really need to resolve the sound problems for next year's
The other noticeable difference was the size
of the crowds, and, to a degree, the behavior. They sold 13,000
tickets for Friday night and 17,000 for the other two days.
My understanding is that sales had previously been capped
off at 15,000. You wouldnt think 2,000 more people would
make such a difference, but it sure seemed to this year. Moreover,
there were a lot of people who brought blankets and chairs
and camped out, which was not so prevalent when I went two
years ago. On one hand, I can understand the need to sit down
for a while during the weekend shows, as it can be a long
day in the sun. On the other hand, the middle of the park
was congested, and getting around was made more difficult
by people who parked their blankets, etc. wherever they felt
And I should not be surprised that the folks
who treated the fest like a campsite seemed to have a lot
less interest in the music. This made some sets difficult
to hear if you couldn't get close (of course, the inadequate
volume exacerbated this problem). One set that was bollixed
by yappers was Iron & Wine. Even though the band's newer
material has more percussion and is a wee bit more forceful,
it still floated away from the position me and my friends
were at. This wasn't the only set where I noticed a lot of
gabbing, making me wonder why these folks bothered to show
up at all. Im not sure what can be done about the babbling
squatters. It might help if they banned chairs or designated
areas for people to spread out. But I'm not optimistic that
either will happen.
Despite my gripes, I still enjoyed the festival.
The hook is still the fact that you can see a bunch of music
for a low price and get exposed to new things. As long as
I see a few things I like, hearing some stuff that doesnt
do much for me isn't such a big deal. The highlights for me
included Voxtrot, whose take on '80s jangly Brit pop was fun
and they looked like they really enjoyed it; Menomena, mixing
rock and Krautrock and jazz and funk and other genres in a
very engaging way; and Fujiya and Miyagi, who overcame the
lousy sound on the side stage and blended Kraftwerk, Krautrock
and R & B into a very nifty concoction.
Sonic Youths performance of Daydream Nation
was marred only by the fact that it wasnt loud enough.
Lee Renaldo and Thurston Moore were wonders -- they have played
together for so long and sometimes they blend, sometimes they
clash. Either way, the interplay is something really special
to experience, especially in service of such great songs.
Not to slight Kim Gordon, who still is a charismatic figure,
and Steve Shelley, who is so great on drums. This was really
a can't miss proposition, and I'm so glad that I saw it.
I also have to give props to The New Pornographers.
Despite the absence of Neko Case and Dan Bejar, they put on
a nice hour full of hooks. Im still undecided on their
new album, but the songs they played at the fest sounded as
good as the well selected tunes from their first three releases.
Beyond those acts, it was a mixed bag. Stephen Malkmus played
solo acoustic, which was risky in a big festival environment.
I thought that he came off better than would be expected.
Still, the format was limiting. Moreover, he was joined by
former Pavement bandmate Bob Natstanovich on drums for two
songs. Just having the percussion lifted the energy ten fold
and the two Slanted, Enchanted tunes they did were excellent.
But the set wasnt quite a winner.
The Sea And Cake were competent but dull.
GZA, who played Friday night, demonstrated why so much hip-hop
is limited live. Pre-programmed backing tracks sound tinny,
the bass drum overrides the sound anyway, and the raps tend
to be rushed. It=s hard to be engaged. I only listened to
a little of The Clipse, but I thought their set had similar
problems, although they really worked the crowd.
And soft music is pretty much death in this
setting. I already mentioned that Iron & Wines set
was defeated by talkers. Cat Power only fared a bit better,
though I dig her smoky voice. I also have to report that she's
developed a little bit of stage presence, though her outfit
made her look like Sporty Spice.
I did not stay for Yoko Ono on Saturday night,
opting to check out a Frisbie record release show. But I spoke
to Matt Berlyant of bigtakeover.com, who told me that the
park cleared out during her set. Matt enjoyed her avant-garde
music and noted that Thurston Moore joined her for some songs.
What was disturbing is that some of the folks who stayed decided
to heckle Ono. Not that she heard any of it, but there is
no need for that at a festival that is supposed to celebrate
so many different types of music.
I'd give the festival this year a B-minus,
which would have gone up one or two notches had the sound
been better. As the Cubs fans say in Chicago, wait til
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