A need in the festival haystack

Attending the first Intonation Festival in Chicago’s Union Park last June was one of the strangest experiences I’d ever had. As music website par none Pitchforkmedia has stated, the fundamental cultural force right now is not art, but technology, and there

I was. I was surrounded by thousands of men and women, some beautiful, some popular, some shyer than a Belle & Sebastian protagonist, and each one of us only had one thing in common: in some sense, we shared an LCD screen a few times a week, to observe what a few aging critics from Chicago kids held up as a standard of cool.

Even that year, Pitchforkmedia.com was undergoing a transition from home of the snarky, off-topic music review to staid, professional, revisionist protectors of pop music. Once a place where conversations you once had with your soccer coach said more about the Beastie Boys than any analysis of the music ever could, years of obscurity had eventually created a culture which could sell just about any album, or even “make” new bands in a powerful new way. Having become the purveyors of musical cool, Pitchfork had taken on

a great responsibility. So it only seemed fitting that they’d expand their role to become curators of pop, a role they began last years the “curators” of the first Intonation Festival. This year, the name “Intonation” and Pitchfork split, (the former occurred a month or so prior in Union Park with Bloc Party and Jon Brion, among others) but this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival carries on the duty of Pitchfork to fit every man into tight jeans, every girl into hot pants, and put a Radiohead CD in every pot.

Of course, such an event is far from just music. Poster art and a record sale drew the attention of those who just can’t fathom noise rock, as a people-watcher, this writer experienced a practical sensory overload. If the crowds on the shady edges of the park, far away from the music, are any indication, this wasn’t just a concert for fans, it was an event. In case you have ever wondered who buys all those indie CDs and Onitsuka Tigers, there are a LOT of indie music fans, almost all of whom have some serious commitment to fashion, however misguided. The sold-out crowd was as varied as a mixed group of white high-school and college-age music fans could be, spanning half-a-dozen counter-cultures, but trends could be discerned (in: bandanas for both sexes; out: ballerina flats and band t-shirts). As boys blazed a joint midset and tendrils of smoke wrapped through the crowd, older men in Ramones t-shirts sipped Goose Island beer brewed just three blocks away. During a down moment, fans created a giant piece of art in the dust of a baseball diamond, a sort of Zen garden organized around found objects. Only at Pitchfork.

Festivals positioned in mid-summer, a slow time for record labels and new releases as so much of the record-buying public live on college campuses, are therefore a time for songwriters to debut new material. Some bands, however, took it too far; Yo La Tengo, a perpetual favorite of the independent music community for their diverse sound and extensive talent, played a Sunday dinner-time set of almost all new material from their forthcoming I Am Not Afraid Of You and I Will Beat Your Ass LP. 3 times 15 minutes of droning rock equals a short, unsatisfying set from these normally-inventive musicians. I suppose they ARE afraid of playing their hits and fan favorites to a young, open-minded crowd.

Unlike some festivals where several large stages compete for fans, most of the attention is focused at Pitchfork on one of two large stages at a time, as performances are staggered. However, the festival features

a giant tent where DJs and other fringe acts perform. Last year’s Biz 3 tent was mostly odds-and-sods DJs, including bizarre pairings like (Company Flow producer) El-P vs. (Yo La Tengo bassist) James McNew (neither of whom bothered to beat-match). This year’s tent was greatly improved (though, like last year, the sound was of low quality compared to the main stages) and for whatever reason, fans responded by keeping the tent stinking with sweat and heat of dancers. Former M.I.A. beau Diplo, the only returning performer (excluding, McNew, who as mentioned, performed with Yo La Tengo), put on one of the best sets of the weekend, playing his mashups of ’80s pop and current rap hits, dancehall toasting and Brazilian pop, this time to clever video accompaniment. The largely drug- and alcohol-free crowd ate it up; it’s difficult to imagine just how hard Diplo can, then, rock a club.

Brazil, as it happens, was big this year, as evidenced by not just their multiple musical contributions but also the preponderance of green and yellow football jerseys. Another interesting performance CSS (short for Cansei de Ser Sexy, a Portuguese translation of Beyonce quotable, “I’m tired of being sexy,”) a Brazilian party band from Sao Paulo. Their punk-guitar sound failed to reach critical mass, but their fan’s familiarity with the material and dancing kids more compensated, despite the fact that the narrow tent and tiny stage permitted very little visibility. Go see them if you know the words. CSS also contributed during the set of Diplo-promoted Bonde de Role, a Brazilian trio of AC-DC samplers and rappers, after one member took a bad fall while crowd-surfing.

It seems there was no room for subtlety in the hot afternoon sun, if fan reaction was any indication. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, essentially a talented pop-punk trio, seemed an odd pick for the Pitchfork festival, but fans responded to earnestness and hooks. In two records and three years, Leo has greatly increased his fortune from the time he played to a few score enthuasistic fans at the Union courtyard. Newer material like “Me and Mia” went over just as well as Leo’s personable “Timorous Me,” the stuttering line a companion for his skanking guitar.

As for up-and-comers, Philadelphia’s Man Man showed up ready to impress in white golf clothes and tribal paint. Band Of Horses and Tapes ‘n’ Tapes each turned in sets that were more gimmick-free. Destroyer, the band of New Pornographer Dan Bejar, received a warm welcome from crowds, and raised expectations that Neko Case will be appearing next year (New Pornographer A.C. Newman was featured at last year’s Intonation Festival.)

Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif took the stage mid-afternoon. Say what you will about the validity of “backpacker rap,” Aesop is a consumate performer who did his very best to entertain during a difficult time, the hottest portion of the day, though he had an uphill battle. It’s a pity, though, that the Pitchfork curators chose a less-popular white MC to represent the only hip-hop at the festival.

The two most-exciting performances came during this crunch-time, though. On Saturday, Art Brut, a British import hyped by the website, took the stage. Lead singer Eddie Argos strutted and talk-sang with confidence about girlfriends, impotence, and the Velvet Underground. The somewhat muddy riffs on their Bang Bang Rock ‘n’ Roll debut turned into AC-DC-sized jams on stage, fans exhibited the greatest amount of devotion to this simple band, while Argos mucked around with irony and earnestness onstage. In “Moving to L.A.,” Argos ad-libbed drink-celebrity pairings to match his line about sipping Hennessey with Morrissey, and at no point was the fanboy tension higher than when he delivered his signature “I’ve seen her naked…TWICE!” line in “Good Weekend,” which tells of his first weekend with new girlfriend.

But for those who don’t need context, Liars was a surprise during the clutch spot. It’s here that the openness of the Pitchfork audience was an asset. Unlike many festivals, where artists are known to the fans, it’s safe to say that only a small portion of the attendees were familiar with Liars, touring under the strength of their new album, Drum’s Not Dead, but you didn’t need to be prepared to appreciate shrieking lines from The Crucible over pounding drums and guitar droning to appreciate the challenge. Though drum experimentalism (two drummers were generally working at any time) was their stated aim, Angus Andrews, dressed in what appeared to be a blue woman’s dress, attempted some daring things as a vocalist as well, using falsetto and tuneless droning. Only one of the bands to discuss the Israel-Lebanon conflict during stage banter, their music was probably the best for the WWIII comparisons fluttering around the minds of fans.

Mission of Burma’s late afternoon performance was nothing short of monumental. While “Donna Sumeria” from their new album, The Obliterati, may only be the second-best song about the Fertile Crescent, the math-rock guitar taps and arching chorus of devotion put it on par with the trio’s picture-perfect, angsty recitation of “That’s When

I Reach For My Revolver,” one of the most important “college radio” songs dating back 25 years. Though they reformed during “rush to reunite” that reconstituted half a dozen dead post-punk bands a few years prior, including fellow Bostonites Pixies, the performance displayed a range of emotions and creativity that should exonerate the band from any charges of gold-digging.

Both night’s closers were special treats for music geeks, as neither band has played live in years. Silver Jews, a project by poet David Berman and members of indie supergroup Pavement, announced their first-ever tour this year. Sadly their performance came off as ponderous and flat to the tired, hungry crowd, a sort of poor-man’s Leonard Cohen, despite Cassie Berman’s brighter vocals.

On the other side of the coin, Brazil’s Os Mutantes were the hipster-approved choice. The band was at the forefront of Brazil’s Tropic†lia movement, a sort of counter-counter-culture art form that nearly defies description. During the poorly-publicized and brutal military junta which took control of the South American nation during the ’60s and ’70s, protest art in major cities was strictly suppressed. In response, a group of artists from the more-rural north put together a movement dedicated more to national/trans-national identity and less to political bickering. Os Mutantes have been critically forgotten despite their contribution, partially because their classic albums have been unavailable for decades. This year, critics and bloggers have dedicated their time to examining this band and their newly reissued albums, which walk the line between bossa and psychedelia. Few knew what expect of their recent reunion when the hit the west-side Chicago stage. Joined by a crowd of ringers, the original members performed a string of newer songs and older Portuguese material. Perhaps because of the technical ability of their accompanists, however, it sounded more like Santana covering Os Mutantes than the fuzzy, subversive music of their past, or for that matter, Mission of Burma’s continued . Here’s holding out for them to play “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”

The Pitchfork festival certainly indicates that the two festivals, Intonation and Pitchfork, have survived as separate entities. Though festival economics is difficult to calculate for non-professionals, one can be sure that this sold-out weekend indicates that the booking agents choose artists that could move all the available tickets. Since there were few expensive gambles at this festival compared to next week’s Lollapalooza, for example, one can be sure that the right amount of obscure, new, and original artists were chosen and that the investments had excellent returns. Economics aside, I believe that the Pitchfork Music Festival has become the best bargain on the extremely-crowded Midwestern music scene, in a great city, with the greatest bands of today and yesterday. Make sure to go.

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