July 23 2014
Before diving headfirst into my field report from this years installment of Pitchfork Music Festival, I'd like to thank Pitchfork for curating yet another great year of eclectic music and for accommodating us at Radio Milwaukee with everything necessary to have a productive and enjoyable weekend.
It somehow had been four years since my last trip to Pitchfork festival, so upon crossing the threshold of Union Park I thought it crucial to explore the more nuanced aspects of the festival at the expense of a few early shows. One of the more impressive evolutions of the festival has been their heightened emphasis, or rather the evolution of Pitchfork's desire to embrace independent start-ups. Amongst the myriad of vendors there was a tent brimming with books from independent publishers, a small village of jewelry makers, Flatstock's show poster promenade and the Chirp record fair. Next to Pitchfork's applause worthy emphasis on independent start-ups across the artistic spectrum, the most amazing aspect of the festival was the crowd's collective demeanor. Over the course of the beautifully sunny weekend I didn't notice a single act of ill intent or rudeness, outside of a few teenage fence scalers who were seemingly dragged to that pit from Star Wars and one security guard who's recent binge of wrestle-mania echoed loudly in his aggression toward a wiry stoned kid. The fact that I didn't even witness a verbal altercation over the course of the weekend long festival speaks loudly to the character of both the patrons and the staff. Bravo.
Believe it or not we did see a bunch of great shows, which began for me with Sharon Van Etten. In a matter of moments she managed to overhaul my cynical stubbornness and replace it with a newfound appreciation for her music. From there I dazedly swayed to SZA, opted out of Sun Kill Moon due to a lack of anti-depressants at the medical tent and wiggled gayly to Avey Tare's set, which began mired in what appeared to be exhaustion but progressed into what has solidified Dave Portner as one of the most emotive and fun performers around. How “Little Fang” is not a universal pop hit is still beyond me. Having rediscovered Beck's incredible and eclectic catalog over the past few weeks I opted for a chance at a great view of his performance over meandering into the crowd for Giorgio Moroder. Unfortunately I could still see and hear the legendary producer as his pointer fingers danced along like the mickey mouse head at the bottom of those old sing along videos. Geriatric and yet somehow reborn, Moroder was much like the Twinky booth on the other-side of the festival; I respect the history and the ingenuity of it's past but why was it revived?
Beck on the other hand; holy expletive. Traversing his decades spanning catalog he rattled off brilliant renditions of “Loser”, “Devil's Haircut”, “Black Tambourine” and a nod to the Moroder produced “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer. Amongst the other countless hits Beck closed with two of my personal favorites “Sex Laws” and the irresistible “Debra”. Rarely do artists as big and removed from the height of their powers meet expectations live, but Beck solidified his place in the highest echelons of music on Friday night, well at least in my book.
Saturday started with Twin Peaks (who were one of the pleasant surprises of the weekend) rattling of a set that was reminiscent of Smith Western's first record, but with more passion and intensity. Brownsville lyricist Ka reported on the carnage of income disparity and proved to be the best journalist in attendance with his steady, unblinking gaze into the darkest conditions of our country. After one of the most enjoyable interviews of my life with Mutual Benefit's Jordan Lee, I popped over to Cloud Nothings and was again convinced of their mediocrity and further confused about their large appeal. Pusha T then succumbed to a hip-hop stereotype and arrived on stage 45 minutes late and managed to rattle off mostly guest verses in favor of his best solo work and that of Clipse. Tune Yards was the goofy, fun affair I expected it to be but for some reason the word gentrification still flashes irrepressibly in my mind's eye whenever I hear/see her (Spike Lee email me if you feel the same). And then there was Danny Brown, who made every other hip-hop set of the weekend seem like child’s play. Brown, having fully embraced the characterization of himself as an MDMA fueled goblin hellbent on ransacking your mind and removing your inhibitions and murdering any voice that is usually there to tell you when you look silly. If fun had a spirit animal it would be Danny Brown.
And now for your nincompoop moment of the weekend; I left St. Vincent's thunder-storm electric set halfway through to catch part of FKA Twigs' set. FKA Twigs is a promising artist but I couldn't help but feel like I had been roped into yet another well marketed bear trap. Her set was fine, her banter charming, her voice strong but at the end of the day watching the love child of D'Angelo and Lisa Left Eye Lopez sensually wiggle around while figuring out her live performance over a flaming phoenix rock goddess at her peak like Annie Clark, was a poor choice. Here is my predication: FKA Twigs' album will be universally adored but entirely overrated. I'm looking forward to it but it's seldom that I find myself in an opium den with the costumer designer from the film The Cell wanting to listen to Aaliyah.
Neutral Milk Hotel closed out the day with a set that fluctuated between moments of paralyzing beauty and lulls where I found myself questioning my need to be there. But ultimately I must defer to my colleague Justin on this one, who was in awe with the power of their set and the unwavering adoration of Neutral Milk Hotel's expansive cult.
Leading up to Sunday I was astounded by how stacked it was; afterwards I felt a bit mislead. Mutual Benefit was an incredible way to start the day, with cumulus clouds drifting across the skyline and Jake Falby's violin gliding in accordance with the gusts of wind while Lee and his female bandmate soothed me with tender harmonies. DIIV was solid and their cover of “Like A Rolling Stone” was the most original and best I've seen; believe me when I say I've seen a lot and that this one was by far the only one I've liked. I maintain that Zachary Cole Smith's other, more selfless project, Beach Fossils is far superior on record and live. And then I experienced a truly terrible and disturbing 5 minutes I will never get back at Deafheaven. As George Clarke, screamer front man, looked out upon the crowd with an overdone grimace that meant to convey that we were soon to be his causalities, he motioned at us to come near and grabbed his crotch. Dressed in all black, his hair precisely gelled back, he looked like a guy who you wouldn't leave your children with and had a voice that sounded like a dying pterodactyl. Admittedly metal, black metal, hardcore etcetera are not my forte but the question for me has always been: why would I want it to be when the contrived personas of those playing it seem to conflate violence with catharsis and favor it over introspective reflection?
The next few hours were spent taking in some typically boring hip-hop shows. Isaiah Rashad's debut this year is highly underrated and is one of the more promising debuts I've heard in hip-hop this year and last, but live he did little to distinguish himself, something that is admittedly rare in a genre bogged down by the lack of live instrumentation and a greater reliance on charisma. Earl Sweatshirt dealt with much of the same issues and he seems to have gravitated toward conventional rap pitfalls rather than embracing his wonderful wit and insight. He did although provide a festival highlight when he playfully berated a guy in the crowd, who he deemed Brett, for not chanting back Earl's requested words. Schoolboy Q followed shortly thereafter with stumbling showmanship and an inability to keep his breath and sing his choruses for himself. Q's song selection was spot on but his and every other rapper's (outside of Ka and Kendrick) desire to perform in the vein of Danny Brown prevented the crowd from seeing him for what he truly is: a man torn between his afflictions and his moral righteousness.
Fortunately there was a bit of a reprieve from hip-hop in the late afternoon with Real Estate, who are so consistently good that it's almost boring, and Slowdive who may have covertly had the best set of the entire weekend with their sprawling shoegaze masterpieces. Next were two artists that I was fortunate enough to see way prior to their stardom, (and the award for most snobby music journalist comment goes to...) which made for an interesting contrast to end the festival. Firstly Grimes, who has seemingly fully embraced her potential superstardom with the same fervor that her fans exude. Her most recent song, was in my mind a disaster, but as much as I felt justified being hyper-critical of Grimes I found myself appeased by her bubbling sincerity, her infectious giggle/lisp and the undeniable fact that she is making authentic music. During her set I had two thoughts that I think encapsulate the greatness of Grimes: she could very easily be this generation of music's Madonna, not Lana Del Ray, not Miley Cyrus or whomever but Grimes has the potential; and secondly that that would be the best thing ever because Grimes is so wonderfully her own person that the possibility of her becoming an icon for young girls holds with it a potentiality for extreme tolerance and acceptance. If I had a daughter I would take her to a Grimes concert and buy her literally everything Claire Boucher produced.
In 2011 I went with my hetero-life-mate to see Kendrick Lamar at The Shrine in Chicago, which feels like an eternity ago because in April of 2011 Kendrick was seemingly unknown and was yet to release even Section.80. So over the course of just 3 years he has gone from performing for 50 people in a small intimate venue to headlining nearly every major city and festival across the world playing almost exclusively songs from one album released in 2012 for two and a half years. Re-read that sentence; it's unbelievable. In 2011 Kendrick sat on a stool facing the crowd and told us about his childhood in intimate detail, talking about growing up between LA and Chicago and the influence of the cities on himself and his parents. Little did we know that that very same dialogue would be re-appropriated as the skeletal framework for the best rap album of the past decade. Sunday night's performance was largely indebted to the same idea, but pulled off with less intimacy (for obvious reasons) and a tangible mental exhaustion that comes with touring the same material for numerous years. I in no way doubt Lamar's sincerity but the time has clearly come for new material and for a the new passion that comes with performing something that hasn't been beaten to death for the past three and a half years. Compared with other rap concerts Kendrick Lamar decimated his competition on Sunday night, but in objective comparison to great performers across the entire spectrum of music he was mediocre. And that point right there seems to be the general issue with rap music in the live setting. Kudos to Kendrick for having a live band and a well orchestrated experience that included a great video display. He is well on his way and is already one of the greatest musical talents we have today, but his live show has a lot of room to grow. I have not a single doubt that he will eventually get there.