“We specifically enjoy [movie] scores that use early synthesizers and drum machines,” Aaron David Ross said in an interview with F Magazine. That vague notion seems to sum up bland Chicago duo Gatekeeper, of which Ross is half. They enjoy playing stormy synths and drum machines on stage and, with the exception of some sunglasses and matching black tank-tops, it seems they enjoy little else. As the opener to a festival already glutted with synth-pop, Gatekeeper’s tepid stage presence made their name their only relevant characteristic.
Battles’ dancey math-rock translates very well to a live environment. Each of the three members bound around to the erratic instrumental tunes; and the music was awash with intricate time signatures and pounding percussion from the shirtless traction engine, John Stanier. They teased with the drawn-out buildups of songs such as fan-favorite “Atlas,” before launching the danceable breakdowns. One could barely notice the recent omission of singer and guitarist Tyondai Braxton.
Watching the Collective’s psychedelic dance-rock left a rather empty, unsatisfied feeling for such a big-name headliner. They paid far more attention to the visuals of their performance, with a kaleidoscopic, multi-colored, acid-trip display on the big screen, and a stage layout that looked like an elementary-school art classroom. Their songs largely blended together into one long experimental jam, only with a couple of stand-out hit songs to keep the festival crowd interested.
There was something endearing about EMA vocalist Erika M. Anderson’s split personality on Friday. On the one hand, she was trying to play a disciple of Zola Jesus’s brand of country and goth-pop, all whispers and moodiness. On the other, she was charmingly nervous and grateful to be at Pitchfork at all, calling out to the sound tech to cut her off on the microphone as she rambled and admitted her tic of rambling. Sandwiched between these odd bits, however, were some entertaining songs, in which the three-piece band (including, at points, two violinists, for whatever reason) jumped from quiet mumbles into distorted pounding, and even paused for what sounded like a bizarro, pissed-off version of Joni Mitchell’s “California.”
Guided By Voices
Some might argue that GBV’s “classic lineup” has aged about as well as the cheap tequila Robert Pollard was swilling on stage Friday night. Nearly thirty years of chain smoking and epic feats of on-stage alcohol intake certainly have slowed the lo-fi rockers, but they’re pretty unapologetic about it, which was always their appeal in the first place. Pollard’s kiddish leg kicks and Tobin Sprout’s windmill guitar licks prove they haven’t quite run out of gas, even as they wind down their reunion tour. They’re still here, and shit yeah, it’s cool.
Shrieking never sounded so good. Merrill Garbus really began her set before her start time, entertaining the audience as she pre-constructed her loops, filled with her definitive tonal howling. True to her stage name, the end products were equally if not more tuneful.
Audience members were invited to play on a hip-hop playground as the trio supplied catchy beats along with some good-old-fashioned fun. While the performance itself probably won’t go down in history, there were certainly some memorable moments, like their synchronized, hilarious dance to a line about tiny hand movements.
Although audio difficulties may have rendered his harpist and fiddler all but irrelevant, the increased focus may be for the best for Moore. The most conspicuous rock star at the festival, Moore was cool on much of his famous noise-rock, No Wave pedigree, instead focusing on a softer, more adult-contemporary vibe, punctuated by jabs at his own celebrity to the reverent crowd like “You want to hear songs about rape and incest?” Yet certain breaks into distorted acoustic guitar and shrill violin marked a welcome lapse into his well-trod Sonic Youth roots, jolting the listener out of the pleasant trance induced by the quieter numbers.
The question: Can James Blake do anything more to live up to his reputation as a British wunderkind? The answer: No. Between diplomatically thanking the audience after every song and cobbling together live tracks so riddled with daedal technology they seemed pre-recorded, the 22-year-old composer still managed to look perfectly at ease in a collared shirt and blistering weather. Even as he reinterpreted songs from his self-titled debut and prior EPs with explosive, rattling waves of bass, Blake had more the appearance of a soft-spoken singer-songwriter than an electronic prodigy. Another enigma to add to his already extensive collection of them.
She arrived onstage sans shoes but with passion intact. Her velvety voice leading the chorus of strings was a perfect opportunity for roasting, exhausted attendees to chill out. Her performance epitomized what the Pitchfork Festival should be: relaxed, engaging and drenched in talent.
Sun Airway showed how the dreamy pop which defined the festival could be harnessed to make something shimmery, seductive and clean. In a crowd already exhausted from the previous day’s battering heat and humidity, the band, secluded in the shade at the south of Union Park, broke out of the weekend’s monotony of droning synthesizers with Jon Barthmus’ sangfroid vocals—part James Mercer, part Panda Bear—and lyrics that suggested oblique hope. Sun Airway might not present the most realistic perspective on life, but their message sure is wonderful.
Julianna did her best Circle of Life routine to a disinterested crowd that couldn’t even find the motivation in her music to stand up. Each of her near-identical choral songs built up in a dull crescendo of multilayered, looping vocals until they petered out after three or four minutes. Her music may have been more enjoyable had Union Park actually been a futuristic cathedral in southern Italy.
Chrissy Murderbot Feat. MC Zulu
Hearing the electronica-infused drum ‘n’ bass of Chrissy Murderbot alongside the incessant barking of MC Zulu through a megaphone was not exactly what the doctor ordered for 1pm on Saturday afternoon. There is a time and a place for music such as this: during the witching hours of a Saturday night in a dingy West Side warehouse. Nonetheless, many enthusiastic revelers used the opportunity to dance away in the searing summer heat.
When a band comes out wearing black leather jackets and tight black jeans on a day that feels like it’s in the 100s, you know you are in store for what is known as ‘style over substance.’ Cold Cave’s homage to eighties new wave is tired and uninspiring. Not even synth-player Ian Dominick Fernow’s outrageous and energetic dance moves could lift the set to anything more than mediocre.
OFF! was exactly what Pitchfork Festival needed: minute-long blasts of anger, energy and passion to break up the monotony of yet another experimental, quirky indie band. OFF!’s brand of confrontational hardcore punk is undeniably a throwback to the eighties style that Keith Morris, the singer, made himself famous for thirty years ago in Black Flag and Circle Jerks. More of this next year, please.
What made their performance infinitely more exciting? Saxophone. An instrument not used enough in today’s popular music spiced up an otherwise averagely enjoyable performance.
The Radio Dept.
Delivering some bubbly, breezy and sway-worthy tunes on the Blue stage on Saturday evening, the pop group’s had a tranquil contrast to the otherwise chirpy aspects of their genre. But this quietness, along with technical difficulties, made it troublesome for The Radio Dept. to transfer their recorded sound to the stage.
After No Age’s first song on Saturday, someone in the crowd shouted “More vocals!” On the two-person band’s first two albums, where they showcased their gift for writing fast, noisy two-minute punk songs, drummer/singer Dean Allen Spunt’s yelps seemed more like an instrument, the lyrics often indecipherable. But the songs on 2010’s “Everything In Between” made it possible for fans to sing as they (sort of) moshed, particularly to the melodic crowd-pleaser “Fever Dreaming.” Guitarist Randy Randall energetically jumped all over the stage, as the front rows, filled primarily with teenage boys, kept up an endearingly goofy attempt at a mosh pit.
Gang Gang Dance
A group better seen than heard. During a weekend where several groups seemed bored or disinterested, Gang Gang Dance certainly was a sight, even if they were making you wonder what the hell was going on.
Stuck inside his signature white dome for a significant part of his set, the venerable DJ was only visible through camera inputs to the Pitchfork JumboTron. As a vague light show danced over the stage—barely visible in the dusk—the crowd got the chance to watch a pro at work, kinetically mixing and scratching his way through easily the most bass-heavy set of the festival. Having a veteran DJ like Joshua Paul Davis play at a gathering like Pitchfork was a risk, but by the time he spun the dome open, he’d proven it paid off.
The story floating around this year’s performance was one from three years ago: Dizzee Rascal, so the tale goes, shouted “F—that folk s—!” after Fleet Foxes had finished their set, and before kicking into his own. The reason the story has gotten so much press? The band engendered an enormous amount of goodwill on Saturday night, and the number of people retelling it ad nauseam demonstrates which side most are on. From the trickling finger-picking of “The Cascades,” to the blown-open opening number of “Grown Ocean” to quieter fare like the gorgeous “Blue Spotted Tail,” Fleet Foxes lived up to their reputation as spiritual successors to CSNY. They’re more than that, of course. But in the dusty red smoke that enshrouded them at Saturday night’s performance, they more than looked the part.
The area was packed around the Blue stage for Jack Tatum, who records as Wild Nothing, and deservedly so: he crafts dreamy, intricate pop songs you could almost sink into, and they were the perfect escape from the stress and exhaustion that begins to take hold after the second day of festival-going. While listening to Jack’s quiet, meditative voice on the record almost feels like intruding on self-reflection, seeing him performing live and feeding off the energy of his band is almost startling, but satisfying as well.
The Fresh and Onlys
Sounding better live than on the album, The Fresh and Onlys did their best laidback Grateful Dead impression on the Green Stage early Sunday. They put on as good a show as a relatively simple rock band can, even coming out a little more interesting than on their record.
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti
The shaggy-haired Ariel Pink managed to be the least adept at coping with the Chicago heat, breaking down on stage and prematurely ending the set, much to the surprise of his backing band, Haunted Graffiti. The two thirds of the set that Pink did get through was too eccentric to impress as he shouted through a tiny microphone over the psychedelic pop-folk of his backing band.
Superchunk fit the late-afternoon Sunday slot like a hand in a glove. Their bouncy, effortlessly catchy brand of indie-pop brought smiles out on the faces of myriad people in the searing afternoon sun. Singer Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance pogoed around the stage like it was still the early nineties, whilst the material off of last year’s “Majesty Shredding” slotted alongside the classics with graceful ease.
Kylesa is heavy, oh so very heavy. The emphasis on percussion is clear: even with two drummers, the singer/guitarist Phillip Cope still felt the need to keep himself company with a floor tom. Cope and fellow founding member Laura Pleasants screamed, shouted and bellowed their way through a set full of face-melting songs saturated with sludgy riffs on their drop-tuned guitars while the infatuated audience nodded aggressively along. Yet it is Kylesa’s experimental outlook that made them stand out as they refused to be pigeonholed in the metal genre, taking particular influence from psychedelic rock on their latest output, “Spiral Shadow.”
After their show on Sunday, the Tribune’s Greg Kot tweeted that Cut Copy might be poised for a massive breakthrough. We have to agree. The group took the stage at dusk and rallied a sun-beaten crowd back from near exhaustion.
Yuck looked a bit nervous at their first P4K fest. The fuzzy-sounding, Dinosaur Jr.-loving Brits ran through some nice high points from their debut album to an early afternoon crowd at the Red Stage on Sunday, most of whom were probably planting themselves firmly in wait of OFWGKTA. They very well could have been a bit antsy playing the same stage their indie forebear Thurston Moore had just a couple days earlier.
Deerhunter was… technically proficient. But that can’t be considered a success at a weekend festival. Fans are paying for a performance, or at least they should be. They sounded great, but might as well have been sleepwalking during their set.
Lyrics featuring misogynism and necrophilia aside, OFWGKTA was one of the only acts that really got the P4K crowd going over the weekend. Tyler the Creator hobbled out on crutches, then stage dove and crowd surfed and, well, seemed to be enjoying his moment as a rock star. Even if the group’s abrasive nihilism is starting to seem a bit hammy at this point (Tyler dedicated the last song to all his haters, despite drawing the largest and most enthusiastic crowd of the weekend), they were still the most lively and entertaining group at the fest.
Will Wiesenfeld made you want to squeeze his cheeks one moment and flop around like an entranced fish the next. The adorably humbled electronic artist threw down his buoyant tunes like they weighed a ton, and the audience seemed to enjoy the pressure.
Toro y Moi
The group impressed audiences beyond their expectations, ironing their typical indie-rock influences in a smoother, sexier sound. And while their attention to detail was not exactly sharp, the copious amounts of dancing, if not downright boogying, proved that something was working.
The third song Kurt Vile played in the heavy heat early Sunday afternoon was “On Tour,” off of his latest album “Smoke Ring For My Halo.” In it, he softly sings: “On tour/lord of the flies/I’m just playin/I’ve got it made/most of the time,” and these mixed emotions about his rock-star status and lifestyle seemed apparent throughout the intense performance with his band, the Violators (which includes two members of his old band, The War On Drugs). He seemed to alternate between acting like a real rock star—his long locks flowed in the wind (of a fan sitting right in front of him), his gaze was on the crowd as he belted the anthemic “Freak Train”—and seeming to play only for himself, such as in his softer songs, onstage alone with his guitar.
How To Dress Well
How To Dress Well is the name of Brooklyn artist Tom Krell’s project which combines symphonic, layered instrumentals with his R&B-style vocals. His exaggerated movements seemed overly saturated with soul; at times wide-stanced and belting, he often pressed one hand to his chest and threw his head back. People at the chill Blue Stage seemed to be digging it, but it all ended up sounding too similar for it to always be so sincere.
Festival-goers flocked to the shady Blue stage on Sunday afternoon to hear the funky Brooklyn buzz band Twin Sister. The danceability of their biggest hit from last year, “All Around And Away We Go,” was definitely present, but it does not define their sound; the set was also filled with slower, equally dreamy-sounding jams. Andrea Estella, the lead singer, looked like a cross between Gwyneth Paltrow and a blue-haired mermaid, and looked elated as she sang in her distinctive airy and slightly scratchy-sounding voice.
TV on the Radio
The most likely contenders for inheriting the neo-soul crown gave an impressive fusion of different genres that, along with their magnetism, got even the most judgmental of audience members moving. Just a damn good time.
—Alex Baumgarten, Maureen Clancy, Mike Gillis, Rachel Lazar and Ben Small