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Jim DeRogatis

Pitchfork Music Festival 2011 Day 1: Recap

Like anyone who dares to venture opinions in any way contrary to the perceived wisdom, critics need to have a thick skin. Big deal, so what, it comes with the turf, and this critic ain’t complaining. There really is only one thing anyone ever can say that gets under my skin, and it is this:

“What are you getting so excited about? It’s just entertainment!”

No. Music—at least the music I value—never is mere entertainment. It is a life force, and a reason for living. It means something.

Wait, let me correct that: It means everything.

As an entertainment experience, some people love outdoor festivals. Not me. I hate being rained on, though only slightly less than I hate being outside all day roasting in the sun in 90-degree heat. I hate Porta Potties. I hate sunscreen, but I hate sunburn even more. I hate dicey outdoor sound, and standing in dirt fields, and watching a band on a video screen because I can’t otherwise see the stage. I hate warm bottles of water. I hate being bumped by sweaty drunks, and I hate having a three-hour wait between acts I want to see but not being able to leave the venue to take a break somewhere air-conditioned.

I have always believed that the best rock ’n’ roll happens indoors at night, preferably with a hint of a.c., and definitely with easy access to very cold beer, a proper toilet, and great sound. But that’s me, and I have no problem with people who love the festival experience. I’m thinking of you, Greg Kot; check out the way he basks in the golden glow of the sun if you see him this weekend in Union Park. He’s nuts.

The point of this rant is that while the cons far, far (far) outnumbered the pros at every one of the Grant Park Lollapaloozas I’ve attended, I never felt that way about the first five years of the original touring Lollapaloozas or the first six years of the Pitchfork Music Festival—not once, ever, I swear.

It wasn’t the weather, the venue, the sound, or a better Porta Potty that elevated my favorite festival experiences. It was, first and foremost, the sheer electric thrill and overwhelming joy of losing myself in great live music. But then there was something else, something that amplified that kick: a sense of community—a feeling that, despite the inevitable diversity in a crowd of tens of thousands of dedicated individualists (as all true rock fans are), there was a common bond, a familiar passion... the knowledge that, no matter how different I might be from you, and vice-versa, we share this: the unshakeable belief that the music means something.

No, let me correct that: It means everything. That’s why we’re here, and that’s why we love being here, despite… you know, all that stuff we hate.

Cobain wasn’t expressing a supplicant desire with that line in “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” He was sneering at the very idea. “Here we are now, entertain us,” he sings. But the guitar and the vocals and the unforgettable, all-encompassing thrust of that song really says, “F*ck you! This music isn't just entertainment! It's about changing the world! Or at least changing myself, and maybe changing you, too! And in the end, that's the same thing! So take this!

In year seven, does the Pitchfork Music Festival mean anything? Or is it just a very well-marketed brand catering to a different demographic than the Vans Warped Tour, the Grant Park Lollapalooza, the Dave Matthews Band Caravan, or the Red Bull Riot Fest, but fundamentally the same business proposition: Collect their not-cheap tickets, pack ’em in, sell em a lot of crap, and entertain ’em. Ca-ching!

I suppose we’ll find out over the next 72 hours. At least, I hope we will.

Erika Anderson/EMA. Photo by Robert Loerzel.

The main stages in Union Park kicked off at 3:30 Friday afternoon with EMA, the latest project from indie-rock veteran Erika M. Anderson, formerly of Amps for Christ and Gowns. The crowds were slow to filter in—unusual, compared to Pitchforks past, but the line on Ashland Avenue was reportedly epic—and the guitarist and vocalist seemed a bit frustrated to be playing into a relative void.

Not that the songs from “Past Life Martyred Saints” translated particularly well in the vast expanse of the ball fields and under the bright afternoon sun.

Wearing a giant “Ema” necklace and fronting a four-piece lineup, Anderson tried to put her spin on My Bloody Valentine’s walls of guitar noise and waves of crescendos. But there simply wasn’t enough power behind the group’s attack to make it feel much more than half-hearted, and the quieter moments in the dynamic ebb and flow just got lost.

As a twist to this year’s account, in homage to the often inscrutable, unjustly monolithic, but nonetheless trademark Pitchfork Webzine rating system, what say we adopt that tact to sum up the sets we experience?

Rating for EMA: 3.2.

Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs.

Much more exciting was the next act on the second stage, which managed even to overcome significant sound bleed from Battles across the way. Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs is, quite simply, a magnetic and undeniable performer. She seemed a bit nervous during a hasty soundcheck in front of the already assembled crowd—“It’s like you’re seeing me get dressed!” she joked—but a faulty bass head and the sound problems were overcome by the time she launched into “Gangsta,” one of the standout tracks from her stellar second album, “w h o k i l l.”

Part of the fun is watching the Oakland-based singer and songwriter build her loops onstage, electronically layering vocal harmonies and polyrhythmic drum patterns, augmented on this tour beyond her old one-woman shows with the addition of three backing musicians, most notably on horns. But the technological gimmickry really is secondary to the strength of her songs—so obviously a deeply informed and very loving homage to African music, as opposed to the cheeky cultural imperialism of Vampire Weekend—and the power of her enormous personality, which shines with every note she sings and plays.

And yeah, I’ll say it: She’s so great, she even makes you forgive the ukulele.

Rating for tUnE-yArDs: 9.2.

The polar opposite of Garbus in terms of personality, Sonic Youth legend Thurston Moore had an even harder time than EMA generating any excitement back on the main stages. No surprise, given he was highlighting the material from his recent acoustic album “Demolished Thoughts,” playing the soft-strumming, mumble-crooning troubadour while backed by violin and harp. (Yes, harp.)

Aside from name recognition, it’s hard to explain the logic of putting Moore on a primary stage with this kind of material at 5:30 p.m. There’s no kind way to say it: The set was a snooze-inducing bore, the most interesting aspect of which was the sound bleed (coming from the second stage to the main stages this time), producing unexpected juxtapositions of Thurston chamber music and Curren$y hip-hop.

Rating for Thurston Moore: 1.3.

Consciousness-raising from Rape Victim Advocates and Between Friends. Photo by Robert Loerzel.

Meanwhile, on the other stages...

By Pitchfork Special Correspondent Althea Legaspi

While the duo comprising Gatekeeper officially kicked off the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival at the Blue stage promptly at 3:20, it was a sleepy start. New-York-by-way of Chicago’s Matthew Arkell and Aaron David Ross carefully blended atmospheric waves that rushed over horror-soundtrack-styled beats. There were some creepy synths, and Atari-like ping-pong sounds, which progressively grew somewhat into dance rhythms with added skittish grooves. Despite the build, it was ultimately monotonous and no matter how much they undulated to their own grooves, essentially chair dancing, the two were less than engaging to watch live. The occasional sound bleed from EMA, who played across the field at a main stage, was almost a welcome respite.

Battles/Photo by Robert Loerzel

Across the field, Battles, whom you could hear a little too well at times during tUnE-yArDs, were midway through a sweat-soaked frenetic set. Their latest release, Glass Drop, featured various singers who weren't present for this performance. However, two video screens featured their contributions, but proved a bit distracting. The growing crowd was engaged by the angular riffs and off-kilter quirk as the day progressed.  Still, the now trio (Tyondai Braxton left last year) of guitarist/keyboardist  Ian Williams, guitarist David Konopka and drummer John Stanier, with their knife-edge precision and astute technical feats made up for the lack of live singing.

Louisiana’s Curren$y hammed it up between dropping a few lethargic Southern rhymes from various songs, but the thing was he barely stuck on a rhyme before ushering a new one. So, between some funny, sage advice that showed a bit of his charm (“I see a few young ones. Just say no, regardless of how cool it looks”; “Act like you heard this before” “You got your festival shoes on!”) and a smattering of raps, there just wasn’t enough substance amid such brief samplings of couplets to really get a sense of his talents beyond his sense of humor.

Guided by Voices. Photo by Robert Loerzel.

Though, from the start, you had to applaud all of the ingredients in Guided By Voices’ effervescent mix—from short, sharp, smart art-punk a la Wire to the best first-wave Britpop like the Creation and the Kinks—I never was a major fan of the group in its heyday, mostly because it was too damn prolific. Yes, there might have been 10 exquisite gems on an album. But there were 30 songs, often on two albums a year, and the other 40 tunes, truth be told, kinda sucked.

Then, too, there was the uncertainty of the band’s live shows, which were famously dependent upon bandleader Robert Pollard’s, um, state of mind at the time.

The GBV that took the stage at Pitchfork, however, was the band at its very best—a reunion of most fans’ favorite lineup, with Pollard, guitarists Tobin Sprout and Charles Mitchell, bassist Greg Demos, and drummer Kevin Fennel, playing songs from “Bee Thousand,” “Alien Lanes,” and other favorites from 1992 to 1996.

Opening with a delightful guest turn by Neko Case on “Echos Myron,” through the end of a stellar set 45 minutes later, Pollard and his bandmates rode a rollicking sugar buzz—and thankfully that was the they only substance abused—delivering one insanely catchy mini-anthem after another in a blur of ringing chords, rousing choruses, and propulsive rhythms.

Yeah, it was an oldies show. But it was a pretty great one, and a nice lift after Thurston’s lull.

Rating for GBV: 7.6.

Neko Case. Photo by Robert Loerzel.

Next up, Neko calmed things down again during her headlining set, but in the gorgeous, heartfelt, and sultry way that is her specialty, and perfectly timed to the setting sun and the day’s first hint of a welcome breeze.

A few weeks ago, a Twitter sniper gave me crap for calling Neko “a chanteuse,” noting that critics can’t ever come another with another word for this massive talent and notorious wandering soul. I’ve always intended it as the highest compliment: For the word to fit, you really have to be able to sing. That incredible vocal instrument is what sets Neko apart, on top of her evermore impressive abilities as a songwriter, and it held the large crowd in the park spellbound in a way that nothing else during day one did, through a set of favorites and two new songs from an album we probably can expect next year.

Rating for Neko Case: 7.8.

Meanwhile, on the other stages...

By Pitchfork Special Correspondent Althea Legaspi

James Blake closed out the Blue Stage and it was packed.  Joined by two others, Blake’s moody, glitched out and atmospheric set beginnings grew with simmering, percolating rhythms by midset. While the more driving dubstep stylings had fans grooving, one of the largest reactions was during his stellar cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love,” a subtler song whose minimalist grooves, piano lines and lyrics felt extra palpable in Blake’s hands. Another highlight was “Whilhelms Scream.” Aptly building a soundscape that employed tension and release, the song launched with its sweet guitar and undercurrent of subtle beats progressed into a wall of washed-out white noise before receding when Blake and Co. peeled back the sonics and only his processed vocals and spare accompaniment  remained. “I’m falling, falling, falling. Might as well fall,” he said, and it seemed the crowd had done just that. A definite highlight.

Unfortunately, nature, hunger and filing the first post called, which led to my missing pretty much all of Das Racist’s set. My colleague Jesse Menendez caught the set and tweeted a few thoughts, though.

Animal Collective. Photo by Robert Loerzel

Animal Collective. Photos by Robert Loerzel.

Finally, Animal Collective closed things out on the main stages. The set started strong, with the group delivering focused, concise, and entrancing versions of its trippy psychedelic pop songs.

Alas, midway through its performance, the band shifted into its dreadful imitations of the Grateful Dead’s “Drums and Space,” jamming out its electronic grooves with a bit of space-swirl vamp, and causing painful and unpleasant flashbacks to last year’s abysmal set by the absurdly overrated Panda Bear (Noah Lennox). And thus day one petered out in a most uninspiring way.

Rating for Animal Collective: 2.4.

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