Few of us Miami-bound music fans were lucky enough to get up to Chicago for the Pitchfork Music Festival last weekend. Local musician Jorge Graupera, who plays guitar live in PLAINS, was. Humid with envy, we asked him to report back on his experience.
When we traveled to Chicago in the winter of 2010 to see Jens Lekman at the Empty Bottle, Celia and I vowed to come back during a more hospitable season. The Windy City is transformed during the summer with seasonal flowers dressing the vast urban landscape of downtown and its surrounding areas. Taking the Green line train west to Harlem, we got off at the Ashland stop and made our way to Union Park for the first day of the 2011 Pitchfork Festival.
The park is a city block in length, with the northern two-thirds under an open sky carpeted with faux grass and the remaining third a shady collection of trees separated by a paved road. The two main stages, the Red and Green, were located in the larger side of the park, but we started our festival experience by the Blue stage where tUnE-yArDs was beginning to warm up for their set. Like Eastern musicians who don’t define a beginning and ending point for a performance, lead singer and conceptualist Merrill Garbus began the show with a series of on-the-fly vocal loops that grew into roaring melodic chants. Slowly, the rest of the players joined the fray promoting w h o k i l l, one of the most unique records of 2010. Unsurprisingly, the single “Bizness”, which has been making the rounds in cyberspace for a year now, got the biggest response from the crowd.
Guided by Voices was my first highlight of the day. Playing on the large Green stage, they quickly won over the swelling crowd with instantly recognizable classics and more than enough to ensnare the causal concertgoer. Robert Pollard lived up to his legend, drinking plenty of Cuervo and chain smoking throughout the set. “Are you ready to see professionally played rock ‘n roll?” he said at one point, true to his reputation for bantering with a crowd.
When Neko Case took the adjoining Red stage shortly after GBV wrapped up, I realized that Pitchfork fest is a well-oiled machine and catching our favorites would be cinch. Case mainly performed songs of her biggest-selling album, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, with her regular band, including lap-steel player Jon Rauhouse. The mix for the alt-country queen was a little muddy, and though you couldn’t clearly hear the electric guitar lines from her lead guitarist, her voice and the backup singer’s harmonies managed to come through unscathed.
Friday night belonged to Animal Collective. After their road crew finished setting the stage with what looked like Halloween decorations hanging from the light rig, they started their show with a song led by recently returned member Deacon. Playing a host of new songs, the band started to peak with a new number mid-set that was AC at their best: music incredibly strange, oddly compelling, and irresistible.
The climax of the show came during “Brothersport”, when the entire mass of bodies rushed forward with dizzying speed. It was as if a landslide had occurred beneath our feet, a moving communal experience that made me both frightened and joyful. I felt as if I was dancing with my tribe, devoid of ego, part of a single organism. Save a couple of misfires with the more abstract songs, Animal Collective made good on their headlining slot.
You’re only allowed to bring sealed bottles of water into the Pitchfork Festival. After making the long lines the previous day for beer and the curry chicken, we decided to take matters into our own hands by tossing a plastic shopping bag containing Doritos, cherries, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and two turkey sandwiches over the fence by the N.W. corner of the festival grounds. Once inside we recovered the bag and hastily made it over to the green stage for Gang Gang Dance, who I caught performing a very late night set at BAR during Art Basel 2009.
Coupling a jubilant spirit and a tight, frenetic, Electro World dance sound, GGD flowed nicely through a set that covered older material as well as their last single, the 11-minute “Glass Jar”. Singer and occasional percussionist Liz Bougatsos seemed to be having the most fun of all, crowd-surfing and, once back onstage, declaring to the crowd that she was “drippy drippy all the way down” with their love.
Changing pace on the smaller Blue Stage, OFF played a classic brand of punk rock that harkened back to the days of the early ’80s L.A. scene, which doesn’t come as a surprise considering the band is fronted by Keith Morris of Circle Jerks/Black Flag fame and backed by other members of that scene, including Steven McDonald of Redd Kross. Plowing through their slot despite technical problems with the bass rig, the four seasoned players delivered a scorching set of short songs that left the crowd visibly satisfied.
The Radio Dept followed on the same stage. The highly anticipated appearance by the rarely seen Swedish band started off awkwardly with singer Johan Duncason accidentally hitting himself in the face with his mic stand when he approached to sing the beginning lyrics of the opening song. Starting off with too many down-tempo numbers, the three piece never seemed at ease, though that might have been a result of the technical problems they were experiencing throughout the performance. Nonetheless, their particular take on pop music came through towards the end of the set when they played “Heaven’s on Fire” from their 2010 album Clinging to a Scheme.
As the sun started to descend on Union Park, Fleet Foxes took the main Red stage in front of a massive crowd eager to hear their folk-rock stylings so brilliantly honed to perfection on their second full-length album, Helplessness Blues. Flawlessly pulling off three part harmonies live, it’s not hard to see why Robin Pecknold and the rest of the sextet are considered one of the premier live acts at the moment. Reinforced by a clean live mix, the rich acoustic textures, electric guitar, and piano flourishes sparkled and pillowed the soaring vocals that make songs such as “Montezuma” and “Lorelai” so achingly beautiful.
It was a fitting ending to a beautiful and rainless summer day.
As mentioned above, Graupera plays in the band PLAINS. You can see him do so at the Vagabond on Friday night for the band’s self-titled CD-release party. Check out our events page to get all the details.