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Pitchfork Music Festival 2011: Day One

By Staff in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 16, 2011 6:00PM

Guided By Voices photo by Jim Kopeny

Reporting by: Kimberly Bellware, Michele Lenni and Tankboy

Yesterday WBEZ's Morning Drive podcast closed with the invitation to locals to enjoy a hipster-free Chicago this weekend. Presumably this would be due to everyone riding a fixie, wearing a headband or sporting a '70s mustache would be at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park. The funny thing is that over the years Pitchfork has gained more and more influence over what constitutes popular music so that by this point most of the band's on the bill have either gained, or are well on their way toward, mainstream acceptance. The effect this has is the creation of a truly diverse group of attendees, drawing everything from suburban parents to bros to hippies to, yes, hipsters.

Yesterday the weather was pleasant and the crowd seemed largely in a mellow mood. While things get better every year there are still a few logistical hurdles. The Blue stage, set off on a side field, tends to book up-and-coming bands that draw huge crowds, but unless you get there early and can stand directly in front of the stage the sound is awful. One side is bordered by the back of a line of vending booths, creating a perimeter difficult to navigate. We keep hoping organizers will open this space up to accommodate the inevitable crowd issues but this year is more of the same. And of course there are still sound issues on the main stage involving both sound bleed and fluctuating volume. This is usually only an annual first day issue so we'll see if the trend continues and is fixed by this afternoon. And finally, if you take public transportation there the CTA still hasn't learned that they REALLY need to increase the number of buses coming through as the fest clears out in the evening.

In all other aspects the fest has truly matured into a supremely enjoyable experience. Food lines were manageable, free water was easily available, bathrooms were aplenty and, again, the crowd was in extremely good spirits. We're told that today and tomorrow, due to the expectation of rising temperatures, there will be a CTA cooling bus on the premises and the first 6,000 through the gate get a free bottle of water (that you can refill at the aforementioned water station all day long).

So let's run down who made the biggest impressions on us today.

Kicking off the day for us was Erika M. Anderson, affectionately known as EMA. We really weren’t sure what to expect from the former “Gowns” lead singer. Some of us Chicagoistas speculated that it would just be Ms. Anderson and her guitar, but we were pleasantly surprised to see the inclusion of another guitarist, her little sister on drums and a multi-instrumentalist who toggled between keyboard and an electric violin, sometimes played with a bow and sometimes played with the pluck of a string. As the wall of droned-out, crunchy guitar washed over the crowd you couldn’t help but think, damn, if this isn’t better live than recorded. “That’s what happens when you rock hard; you break shit,” Anderson whispered in her low, husky voice as she knocked over one of the mic stands. A great deal of her charm, as a performer is her awkward yet stealthy presence. She’ll go from slaying the crowd with her piercing guitar solos to telling stories about the time Boys to Men made it to her mall in small-town South Dakota. As she began strumming the chords to “The Grey Ship,” she commanded attention that surprised us. As fest-goers wandered in to the grounds at Union Park they were drawn to her. The song morphed from a slow dirge into an all-out noisy, power ballad, which brought an even larger audience to her stage. At one point during the set she emoted a sound that was fiercer than a grizzly bear’s growl. Something We’d expect more out of a metal or hardcore act, but this was the way she chose to begin the song, “I’m Dancing,” She closed out her performance with the other single off her album “Past Life Martyred Saints,” “California.” A song where she half speaks, half sings and muses over her time in the state. Though she maintained a very jovial demeanor between the songs, she was able to go to a dark place during them that made the hair stand up on the back of our necks. One of the only performers of the evening not to struggle with sound, Anderson proved that she belonged at the fest and has a solid place in the music world.

At least once every year at the festival, a new-ish performer handed the Blue Stage (formerly the Balance Stage and colloquially known as “the smaller one”) hits a big, pre-fest stride in popularity. The result draws a mix of the enthusiastic and the curious, both of whom pack the B-stage area to levels of sardine-like tightness. For the folks who picked day-glo painted (and frequently feathered) Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs over the equally alluring Battles, a screamingly good set was their reward. Fans who packed in early saw Garbus setting up here kit, which consists mostly of a few floor toms and an extensive network of looping pedals. Garbus, who creates the loops for her songs live rather than using a recording, quipped during her very public setup and sound check that “this is like having you all watch me get dressed.” Heads bobbed in time to tracks like “Es-so,” “My Country,” and the crowd favorite, “Gangsta.” The audience went wild when Garbus hit a Prince-like falsetto high note, clearly enjoying her impressive vocal work as much as her steady, tribal percussion. The set hit slower moments at the start and when Garbus brought out a ukulele, but her saxophone accompaniment picked up the pace enough to coax hundreds of sweaty listeners into pogoing along with the beat. It’s early an early call to make, but we think tUnE-yArDs will come out as one of the best of the fest this year.

As opposed to Thurston Moore’s traditional set up of guitar, bass and drums, he drew to the ranks musicians with more refined sounds. Harp, violin and two acoustic guitars flanked the musician, as he stood tall at the center of the stage. Though the songs were obviously much more subdued than his usual Sonic Youth catalog, there was enough a-tonal noise and off-beat guitar tunings interwoven to conjure his more experimental rock roots. The songs were beautiful, yes, but Moore’s set was plagued with sound problems. For most of this time slot everything was too slanted toward his guitar, making it difficult to hear violin, harp or even his vocals. What we could hear was truly beautiful. Sticking primarily to his new solo effort, “Demolished Thoughts,” Moore captivated an otherwise restless audience with songs like “Circulation” and the rocking “Benediction” closing out his set.

Indie rock godfathers Guided By Voices has been around so long and performed so many times that it’s unlikely that they’ll pull any surprises. Frontman Robert Pollard asks the crowd if they’re ready for “some quality rock and roll music,” before jumping into a set that was full of well-loved tracks and all the high-leg kicking and Robert Plant-like mic swinging that audiences have come to expect. Pollard’s un-elaborate question pretty much encapsulates GBV ca. 2011. He didn't ask if fans were ready to have their minds blown or hear "the best band in the world" (a vintage Pollard proclamation) and he didn't swim in superlatives the way he used to. He asked if the crowd was ready for quality, and delivered just that. While it was exciting to see Neko Case join the band for their opening song, "Echos Myron," it was even better to see the likes of Tobin Sprout onstage again. The band pulled out a flurry of Bee Thousand cuts like "Tractor Rape Chain," “Buzzards & Dreadful Cows,” “Hot Freaks,” and a more juiced-up version of "Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory." It was classic GBV, with the only real surprise being how well the guys have held up over all these years.

James Blake took the stage to a packed audience at the Blue stage alongside an acoustic drummer and his various keyboards and sound making mechanisms. Unfortunately Blake’s voice took a backseat to the overbearing bass that shook the ground. It was so bad in fact that sometimes his vocals were so obscured by the sound we could barely make them out at all. It was akin to being next to that annoying hoopty at an intersection with the bass so loud it not only shakes their and your car, but you end up wondering how they are able to hear and/or enjoy the music at all with the vast amount of distortion coming through the speakers. This is not to say that Blake didn’t wow us; he certainly did. His range as a musician continually deepens his value not only as a musician, but also as an artist. Though the Blake has been lumped into the Dubstep genre, we felt at times during the set more like were at a Carol King concert than an electronic music romp. Ballads like, “To Care” and “I Never Learnt To Share,” where Blake gently caressed the piano and acoustic drums were played with the soft touch of a brush demonstrate that Blake has a great deal of range. “ Blake’s single, “Wilhelm Scream,” exemplified the simple elegance that makes his music so engaging. Though the lyrical content is what some would call repetitive, we find a haunting beauty in their simplicity. Blake did not seclude his selections to his self-titled full length, but got the audience on their feet and dancing with songs from his first three EPs released last year, “The Bells Sketch, CMYK and Klavierwerke.” These songs gave much of the audience what they were looking for from an electronic music artist: a reason to dance.

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Photo of Neko Case by Jim Kopeny
It’s a universally accepted truth that Neko Case can do no wrong, so in typical Neko fashion, she knocked it out of the park Friday night, ranking among the top acts of the fest’s first day (and probably the entire weekend). In a set that drew heavily from Fox Confessor Brings the Flood and Middle Cyclone, Case’s luscious voice echoed around the Red Stage through tracks like “Maybe Sparrow,” “Star Witness” and “People Got A Lotta Nerve” (and in a hat tip to Pitchfork’s crew, the sound seems vastly improved over the muddiness of last year’s fest). The ever self-deprecating Case marveled at finally playing in the park “where I used to pick up my dog’s shit,” and waxed poetic about riding the #9 bus. The crowd, clearly loving all of hometown shoutouts, didn’t seem to mind much when Case trotted out a few newer songs that were surprisingly generic (for her at least). Before the anti-AC crowd had thinned the audience too much, Case swooped back up with her heavy hitter “This Tornado Loves You.” Case’s biting stage banter with her band coupled with a voice that seems tailor-made for outdoor performing made an excellent case for why Pitchfork has brought her back seemingly every other year.

Animal Collective closed out Friday night with a load of new material and a crowd that, as we walked through it, seemed confused about what to do with. The band paid more attention to visuals and their physical performance than they did when they hid mostly in the dark last time they appeared on a Pitchfork stage. Unfortunately while the past appearance was filled with a sense of whimsy and an ear for danceable beats this year's set left us cold. Maybe if we'd been reeeeeally high it would've made a difference but from a strictly musical standpoint we thought there set was a bit of a dud.

So who did you see yesterday and what did you think?