Kicking off the third and final day of the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival with a welcome burst of energy made all the more impressive for defying the sweltering heat, San Francisco’s Fresh & Onlys mixed upbeat power-pop rhythms and weirder, more moody guitars and vocals for a set that, while it wasn’t particularly original, at least had an inspiring pulse.
The quartet also flashed a laconic wit. “Stick around and you’re gonna hear some other bands,” they cracked at one point, their lack of enthusiasm for that idea made obvious.
Rating for the Fresh & Onlys: 6.8
Far more impressive, the English group Yuck was no more original, but they do more interesting things with their wide-ranging thievery. As my editor Andrew Gill noted, for rock fans with roots in a certain era, say 1985 to 1995, the fun lies in identifying from whom the group is borrowing and how they’re mixing and matching those elements: “Hey, that’s like a Lush vibe paired with a Pavement guitar solo and a little Dinosaur Jr. thrown in!”
But you don’t have to know or appreciate any of that to be swept away by the band’s noisy swells, on its recent self-titled album or, even better, onstage.
Rating for Yuck: 8.7.
Though he can be notoriously shy and withdrawn at times—not for nothing do critics often invoke Nick Drake—Kurt Vile came out of his shell during a heat-of-the-afternoon main-stage set, stressing the second half of a sound that, at its roots, essentially is folk-rock.
Maybe he knew he’d have to up the energy to carry the dusty, sweaty ball field. Or maybe he decided to try to roll right over the crowd of several hundred Odd Future fans staked out at the opposite stage, rowdily chanting “F*ck Steve Harvey!” and “Swag!” and “Kill people, burn sh*t, f*ck school!” before, during, and after Yuck’s set and into his. Either way, a few mellower moments aside, set number two of the day kept the momentum going.
Rating for Kurt Vile and the Violators: 8.1.
So, in the end, Odd Future, the most controversial booking in the seven-year history of the Pitchfork Music Festival, turned out to be a thoroughly unexceptional live hip-hop act, no better or worse than a hundred other mediocre ones you’ve seen before, albeit even more than usually foul-mouthed.
Yes, they indulged in a bit of stage-diving—including crew leader Tyler the Creator, who did it with the cast still on his broken foot. Big deal; so what? It was nothing we haven’t seen Courtney Love do. Or Justin Bieber.
The bottom line: Music’s current antichrists are true showbiz professionals, and that might be the most disturbing thing about them. Here is the current new low in lyrical homophobia and misogyny, brought to you by the Chicago-based Windish booking agency, Life or Death PR, Sony Music and XL Recordings (also home to Beck, Radiohead, and Vampire Weekend), and, of course, the Pitchfork Webzine and festival.
What are you getting so excited about? It’s just entertainment!
And to underscore that, shortly before performing under the blazing sun in Union Park, the crew visited the booth where Rape Victim Advocates and Between Friends and LGBTQ groups and others were handing out their hand fans and literature and… the rappers dropped off a bunch of cupcakes. “They didn’t say anything, they just smiled,” said Colleen Norton, Between Friends’ Prevention and Education manager, though others overhead the musicians saying, “We love you.”
They were accompanied by their publicist, Heathcliff Berru, of course—he later could be seen taking a running dive off the stage into the crowd, the better to be part of the fun—and Tyler, needless to say, Tweeted about it: “Went And Gave The People Who Don’t Like Us Some Cupcakes.” He even posted a photo on yfrog.
A short time later, the gang took the stage. After blasting Bob Marley’s “One Love,” they proceeded to intersperse a 45-minute sampling of the tracks fans have come to love via their prolific mixtapes in between alternating shouts of “World peace!” and “F*ckin’ bitches!” (with many more of the latter than the former) and "Kill people, burn sh*t, f*ck school."
“F*ckyour contradiction/Here’s my composition,” they rapped to kick things off. Truth in advertising, sure enough.
Oh, and then, shortly before closing the set, Tyler addressed the fact that some in the Chicago music community question what it means to be entertained by the lyrics he intentionally crafted to be as foul, vile, shocking, hateful, and enraging as possible.
“I dedicate this beautiful song to everyone who doesn’t like me… every protestor… every organization… everyone who’s gonna write a faggot-ass review.”
He started to get a bit more specific—“This one’s for the fat guy”—but reconsidered, cutting himself off, and finishing the show.
He is, as noted, a true professional.
Rating for Odd Future: Why bother? It’s just entertainment.
Busy writing up Odd Future’s performance, I missed the act that immediately followed it on the main stages, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, with its odd mix of glam rock, psychedelic pop, and plain old surrealism. But a half dozen fans told me they were disappointed that front man Ariel Rosenberg, seemingly aggrieved with sound problems and/or his band mates, threw a minor hissy fit two-thirds of the way through and stormed off the stage, cutting the set short by at least 15 minutes.
He could learn a thing or two about showbiz professionalism from Tyler the Creator. Then again, it’s probably good if he doesn’t.
The next two acts in the center of Union Park did their best to redeem the day, if not the weekend.
Unlike many of the ’80s and ’90s indie-rock heroes who’ve come back to the Pitchfork fest for a celebratory victory lap, often in front of a majority of fans who never saw them in their heyday, Superchunk hardly is living in the past. Last year’s “Majesty Shredding” was as good as the band’s very best releases in the past, and the band has lost none of its effervescent enthusiasm and seemingly boundless energy in concert.
Indeed, guitarist-vocalist Mac McCaughan is rock’s never-aging Dorian Gray, though without the negative character traits of Oscar Wilde’s protagonist. And while mixing new material with old favorites, the group schooled many musicians this weekend half their age on how to play it like you mean it. The only downside was that more than a few fans who’d set their digital video recorders were bummed when Mac ruined the surprise about the Women’s Soccer World Cup.
Rating for Superchunk: 9.4.
Similarly, though Deerhunter and front man Bradford Cox have played the festival before, lessening the likelihood of surprising anyone, they never fail to impress with a stunning wall of psychedelic sound, indelible melodies, and Cox’s utterly unique and ultimately winning stage presence. Sounds, songs, personality—the band has the full mix, all in the right proportions, and on stage as on record (including last year’s “Halcyon Digest”), it just keeps getting better and better.
Rating for Deerhunter: 9.4.
Then, at last, we were down to the final two main-stage bands of the weekend.
Cut Copy fared better with its light show than DJ Shadow did the night before while holding down the same slot; after a painful day with temperatures in the mid-90s, boy, was it a relief when the sun finally set. But the group’s music was nowhere near as interesting.
The Melbourne, Australia-based quartet opened with several fairly straightforward power-pop tunes; think of Crowded House remade as modern indie-rockers. Then the drum machine kicked in, and suddenly we were transported to Brooklyn, hipster dance-rock center of the universe.
The grooves were a sort of aural Red Bull to help keep anyone who was fading on their feet through the home stretch. But the band certainly wasn’t anything to get excited about, making for my second perfectly-right-down-the-middle, not abysmal but certainly not great rating of the fest.
Rating for Cut Copy: 5.5.
In welcome contrast, not only to its predecessors but to an awful lot of what we heard over the last three days, ultimate headliner TV on the Radio was transcendent. The genre-defying art-rockers came out swinging with a strong opening salvo of several of their hardest-hitting anthems before calming things down for the more bedroom-oriented jams from their latest album “Nine Types of Light.”
Tunde Adebimpe’s stunning vocals shone as brightly as the full moon throughout, but the middle of the set made you long to hug the one you love (sweat and all). Finally, the group closed things out in high-energy mode once more, including a well-chosen cover of Fugazi’s “Waiting Room.”
Rating for TV on the Radio: 9.3.
Thus it ended, and overall it was a more confusing jumble of music great (OFF!, Superchunk, Deerhunter, tUnE-yArDs), horrible (Animal Collective, Gang Gang Dance, Thurston Moore), and overwhelmingly bland, mediocre, or just O.K. than in any year past. As always, hundreds of the familiar faces that make the Chicago music community such a vital and vibrant place worked hard as volunteers or staffers to make the festival happen, peopled the booths representing their organizations or businesses on the midway, or just shared the grooves and said a friendly hello. But then the corporate sponsors with their beer-preference surveys and foul-smelling blasts of body spray were more obnoxious and ubiquitous than in any of the previous six years, too. And, of course, there was Odd Future.
Maybe the last word and final verdict should come down to the numbers, as it does with the Pitchfork Webzine. Over the last 72 hours, I saw 23 acts with a combined total rating of 147.2 averaging out to… 6.4. And make of that what you will.
HERE IS MY COLLEAGUE ALTHEA LEGASPI ON THE SECOND-STAGE ACTS