The Second Tine of the Pitchfork
By Scott Smith in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 31, 2006 8:00PM
As the group Liars droned on with their less-complicated-than-it-looks brand of noise rock, they repeatedly intoned the words “the weather is fierce.” It was a lyrical aside that would define the weather, if not necessarily the atmosphere, of the second Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago’s Union Park.
Though Pitchfork was instrumental in creating last year’s Intonation festival, a split with some of last year’s organizers led to two separate events this summer. So the site and local promoter Mike Reed now had to compete with expectations from both this year and last year’s Intonation experience. While not as revelatory or relaxed as last year’s outing, this year featured many great performances and a set from Os Mutantes that recaptured some of the power of Pitchfork’s first foray in the park.
The first day was an uneven bill with interesting and worthy performances alternating with uninspiring sets. Hot Machines delivered on the expectations of its audience giving powerful new life to the supergroup slur. Man Man were fascinating to watch with their bizarre stagecraft and boundless energy, but it’s not music that we’re rushing to add to a playlist.
Mountain Goats played amusing and quirky story songs, based more on novelty than on big ideas. We were bored by Band of Horses and Destroyer and The Walkmen were overpowered by the venue. But Ted Leo made up for his disappointing March show at Abbey Pub with The Futureheads later taking a close second to Art Brut in a hard-fought battle for best act of the day. As emcee Tim Tuten encouraged the audience to put the fest’s ideals of community and music to work in starting their own bands, Art Brut showed (and sang) about how it can be done: combine sardonic humor, blistering musicianship and more stage presence than all of the weekend’s other acts combined.
Day Two threatened rain, but it didn’t stop the 17,000-strong crowd from lining up early again to enter the fest grounds for Tapes ‘n’ Tapes. Any rumored backlash was not to be found as the band opened to a hearty crowd with a jangly, nervous rave-up. Though Danielson packed more punch than expected the charm wore a bit thin. Jens Lenkman’s Swedish charm and Memphis-style, ABBA-outfitted backing band of Nordic beauties that won our hearts with sunny soulful pop, but Liars vainly struggled to make snare rattling and distortion sound like something more than noise. Similarly, Devandra Bandhart was an emperor without clothes as his hippie noodlings had little impact beyond those already drinking his Kool-Aid. Though Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif fell back on too many hip-hop clichés (“Somebody scream!” “Go DJ, Go DJ!”), they engaged the crowd and delivered fast, relevant rhymes.
The duo was a final addition to the bill and seemed largely a response to the diversity of this year’s Intonation slate. Of course, the audience this weekend was overwhelmingly white—though in this case, it’s likely the fault of the genre itself rather than a lack of cross-cultural engagement. Perhaps word didn’t get out about the stellar lineup at the Biz 3 tent. Mixing proven DJs, dance rock acts and rock star guests was a formula for success and made for vital music instead of a ghettoized nod to a genre that too often gets overlooked. Bonde Do Role, Nels Cline, CSS, Flosstradamus, Spank Rock and Diplo all earned raves from the crowd.
Though Spoon made up for a lackluster Lollapalooza showing last year by delivering a much more energized set here, nothing could match the powerhouse trio of Mission of Burma, Yo La Tengo and Os Mutantes. We’ve seen so many mealy-mouthed artistic responses to current events that it was exhilarating to see a roadmap for meaningful anger laid out onstage by MOB. Yo La Tengo’s dreamy pop and stretched-out jams proved that older is often wiser. Though Os Mutantes arrived on an almost insurmountable wave of hype, they matched every accolade thrown at them. Avoiding every pitfall of psych rock and world music, the band combined both to match the spirit of indie rock by illustrating the communal aspects of the genre at its best.
As for creating a community within the fest, we noticed differences between this year and last. With a sold-out crowd before the gates opened, the audience has expanded beyond daily Pitchfork web surfers to include those in the city who might normally have attended the Taste of Lincoln Avenue and spend more time at the beer tent than Depart-MENT. But the two groups mixed well and as the sun set, a DIY art installation sprung up in the southwest baseball diamond as festgoers created a sand dune city festooned with bits of garbage.
But a sour note sounded as Tuten was given the thankless task of cautioning the crowd against passing out flyers or posting notices in the park about their bands or causes and threatened ejection from the park for anyone who did. It was a gesture that flew in the face of earlier comments about creating a community of artists and others who worked together to create a DIY experience and was an effort to appease the city, which threatened heavy fines for the organizers if too much trash was generated. Yet sponsors like Time Out Chicago were seen passing out free copies of their magazine and flyers were available at numerous booths while garbage cans overflowed with discarded cups and cartons from vendors. The environmental effect of some upstart band passing out a few flyers seemed minimal in comparison.
Also, while temperatures remained in the mid-90s and the humidity was heavier than Mission of Burma’s bass, there was still only one water station provided, leading to long wait times. But we witnessed some security personnel handing out bottles of water to the stalwart indie kids at the front of the stage and they’re to be commended for that. (To the jackasses who then threw empty water bottles at the stage when Os Mutantes didn’t perform an encore: stay home next year.)
You never forget your first time. With summer rock festivals now seeming like old hat, we didn’t experience the same starry-eyed amazement as we did during Pitchfork’s first curated fest. (If Go Team! had played this year instead of last, the impromptu dancefest with kids from the city pool would never have occurred thanks to tighter security). But organizers delivered a clear picture of the state of indie rock (for better or for worse) and for a price that beats out larger club shows. Though it’s evolved from its let’s-put-on-a-show beginnings to a more traditional festival experience, there’s no argument that Pitchfork Music Festival continues to set the benchmark for smaller events with more rock, less pandering.
Chicagoist writer Sarah Dahnke contributed reporting to this piece.