I’ve trekked to Chicago this week, and my big toe is sticking out of a hole in my sock. A man yells at me to buy his $10 poncho, but I just want a new sock. That’s okay, I’ve made it to my destination: Pitchfork Music Festival is the record-collecting younger sister to Lollapalooza, her fraternity-rushing older brother. A list on my phone holds the artist lineup, and it is filled with current critical successes along with legends of the past. Looking down, I see the ground swallow rain to spit mud back out. The grey Chicago skies tend to be sporadic. My weather app says the rain will soon clear, but these clouds will linger for a bit to hear some good music.
During a Porta Potty hiatus, the big rectangular urination-box begins to shake. SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE, a band that exists in all-caps on paper and in performance, trembles the park with apocalyptic music that would probably be called “just noise” by any self-respecting person. However, most of us Pitchfork attendees do not have much self-respect, so we pay to see a genre critics have coined “noise pop.” As if the villains in Arkham Asylum formed a band, each member plays their instruments with deranged force. Screeching guitars feel like standing within a 10-foot radius of an acid-dipped chainsaw. BEEHIVE could go from grimy indie rock verses to the loudest, most un-radio-able shoegazy explosions known to man. Each of them pushes their instruments across a lake of fire all the way into the territory of the damned. The glorious nuclear collision of sound hurts my eardrums and itches my brain, I walk away wondering if any of my brain cells jumped ship during that set.
The air surrounding the Parquet Courts fans smells like American Spirits and rain-soaked hair. These New York art punks enter with “Application/Apparatus,” mischievous and soaked in muted color like a gum-covered NYC pole. Bassist Sean Yeason’s head nods in time with the bassline; once the building instrumentals release tension, he starts shaking his hair back and forth like a wet dog. The crowd seems mild at first, but as the band begins to play “Almost Had to Start A Fight,” the audience mirrors the energy on stage by pushing others into the “chaos dimension.” I see many IPA-dipped mustaches snarl with anger as they get pushed around. Of course, this just made us push each other more.
Keyboardist Andrew Bird mentions twice that High Fidelity was filmed in Chicago – on brand for a music enthusiast with such a beautiful mullet and clear circular glasses double the diameter of his eyes. Andrew Savage’s voice sounds as if The Clash’s Joe Strummer is singing through an obtuse traffic cone – his attitude sprinkles far and wide. At the end of the show, the same angry mustached men give in to the joy, joining the muddy push-party for “Stoned and starving,” a delight to hear live. Perhaps the lyrics were especially true for the 7 o’clock crowd.
Jason Spaceman of Spiritualized makes the list of musicians that make you think ‘how did they make it out of the 90’s alive?’ But he’s here behind his tinted sunglasses, he walks up to the stage with aloof coolness. Sitting down in his chair – one he would not get up from the entire performance – he opens the songbook on his stand. ‘Hey Jane’ begins the set, the almost 10-minute song continues like a run-on sentence that even an English teacher would enjoy. He flips his songbook mid-song while his bandmates spaz on their guitar pedals. “Shine a Light” indulges in the early 90’s work of Spiritualized, but the echoing sound is like floating in space without any fuel: invigorating at first, but by the end, I am ready to escape from the icy, reverberating slammer I am trapped in – it doesn’t sound as good live. Speaking of floating in space, it is worth noting that J. Spaceman did not perform a song from the landmark album Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space. It’s nice to evade another 90’s nostalgia tour, but his most quality work rests in that pill-bottle album. The show went in a far more blues-rock direction, and some variety was needed by the end. However, ventures into out-of-tune, guitar pedal chaos serve as fine palate cleansers for us to return to bittersweet moments like “Here it Comes (The Road).”
The National’s black and gray aesthetic paired with increasingly lukewarm album covers previously made me doubt the odds of an entertaining live show. I enter an audience filled with tortured artist types; these INFP’s wait to absorb the baritone bombs of emotion that will soon be handed to them by vocalist, Matt Berginer. Camera work allows for a black and white show on the big screen to serve as the perfect peripheral for Berginer’s theatrics. Colorful sonic and visual ignitions can be seen around the band of veterans when their songs reach a zenith. In “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” Aaron Dessner’s guitar weeps behind Berginer’s revelations that seem to have been spawned by a poetry inducing mid-life crisis. Dessner puts down his guitar to play a rainy day’s piano on “Light years.” The dynamic between the two is similar to rain that is sharpened by the thunder: Berginer’s poetry is propelled by Dessner’s instrumentals of equal magnitude. Because of this, The National’s set lives up to its headlining standards. I am walking out of the park with thousands of other satisfied people. That hole in my sock is much bigger than it was when the day began, and I board the train with a liberated big toe that dances around in my shoe.
I get up for Day two of Pitchfork. 55 years ago today, The Monterey International Music festival had a lineup consisting of Jimi Hendrix, Simon and Garfunkel, Janis Joplin, and too many more legends to name. I eat breakfast and wonder if any of the names at Pitchfork Music Festival will hold the same weight in half a century.
Looking around the Yuele audience is its own wonder; I see earrings made out of vats of blood, cached carts, and cat hair: I trust the show is going to impress. Coming from some Artificial Intelligence server behind the stage, Yuele’s robo-person presence is amplified by her cyborg-eye contacts that scan the audience. The thunderous, slow-hitting bass in songs like “Poison Arrow” rattles my brain and makes my nose twingly. Like a cyborg watching the human world wither away, Yuele dances around – safe from any apocalypse in her realm of dark synths.
While Yuele sings as a cold world is taken over by HAL 9000, Magdalena Bay embraces a video game-like world. They throw an 80’s themed party set one hundred years in the future. Vocalist Mica Tennenbaum bounces around on a cloud during “Secrets (Your Fire).” She throws an actual clock into the way wind before saying she “was thinking about how there’s no true end to anything.” Similar existential comments are treated with a cartoonish attitude and a smile, I feel at ease at this retro-futuristic stage.
It is now 7 pm, and after I eat some incredible fried noodles, I can see that anticipation is high for Japanese Breakfast. Michele Zauner’s Blondie-like group of tuxed men come out and pick up their instruments, ready to flash sharp smiles that make the crowd roar. She walks out in gold light, singing the triumphant “Paprika,” a poodle on her shirt and a mallet in her hand. During that explosive chorus, she beats a giant, flowery gong; a rush of sound and serotonin incites smiles across the audience. Zauner once said that this song is about “reveling in the beauty of music,” and that is exactly what we did.
“Be Sweet” and “Road Head” flex the unique abilities of Zauner to extend her voice by seemingly flexing her whole body. It was one of the best vocal performances I’ve heard live. Although Zauner spotted an unfortunate amount of people passed out during this show, she always immediately stops her songs to call for a medic. The care she holds for her fans strengthens comradery in the park.
In the middle of Kokomo, IN, Jeff Tweedy walks out to join Zauner’s twee-inspired vocals with his grainy voice. Calling him her “favorite songwriter of all time,” they duet an anthem that embodies the Chicago coffee shop ethos: “Jesus Etc.” It sounds like the sum of conspiring forces of musical talent. Bookending the set with “Diving Woman,” we smiled in adoration as the best performance of the weekend came to a close.
Making my way to the Low set, I walk over to the blue stage – which has turned into a black hole of indulgence. Low remains the quintessential band of the slowcore universe, doing numbers on its listeners by stripping their songs back so bare that they nearly embody emotion. However, on their recent albums, they have held onto that raw emotion while creating massive atmospheres, as opposed to their earlier depressed ballads. Their Pitchfork set almost entirely consisted of songs from their new album: HEY WHAT. Alan Sparhawk shoots out seizing electricity with his guitar, and “White Horses’” glitchy sensibilities leads the married couple of Sparhawk and Mimi Parker into a chilling duet over their respective styles. In fact, I haven’t heard a drummer’s vocals sound as great as Parker’s in a long time. “Disappearing” builds up as a massive Tower of Babel: usually when a song builds and releases tension, a large amount of noise and energy are let out in catharsis. But Low literally slows down as they build, messing with the audience’s sense of time to create a slow-motion toppling of sound. If I had an analog watch, I’d imagine the minute hand would be stuck in place, since Low are fond of shoveling time into a coal-fired boiler to create some otherworldly energy with it. However, my phone clock says that it is 8:25, which means it is time to go to see one of the most compelling artists of the last ten years: Mitski.
Mitski’s songs are dipped in the liquids of a gunky puddle of feelings that we often drench our favorite pair of shoes in. When my emotions feel invalid and overwhelming, I run to Mitski to take cover. Now, I am running to Mitski in real life, trying not to miss the beginning of her set. A middle-aged man walks up through the crowd to his wife “damn teenagers kept taking videos of me walking through the crowd.”
I see a teardrop fall from someone’s face into the midnight sea of Doc Martins below us when Mitski comes out. The choreography serves as a high-quality music video for every single song. She stabs herself with an air knife three times as she makes confessions at “3 am” in “Francis Forever.” Audience hearts wave a white flag at Mitski when they sing these lyrics in unison. The catharsis does not just come from singing her noisy indie rock songs. Mitski’s drives us to the eighties with “Nobody,” a song that surely would have been a New Wave classic 40 years ago. She dances around and plays a very believable game of tug-of-war with an invisible opponent. Her melodrama thrives under green lights, as her loss of innocence is allotted its own physical outlet.
Nobody expresses emotional frustration like Mitski. When I was a kid, creepy sounds in my old house would set me off. Crying, I’d run to my parents’ room to tell them that there was a ghost. I’d receive the same response “that’s just the house making noises.” I don’t blame them, I’m sure the pipes and vents were making sounds. But if 7-year-old me knew who Mitski was, I would have listened to her music in that scenario. When I feel small, Mitski makes me feel seen. I look around the crowd to see thousands of other people that Mitski has the same effect on. Somebody understands the gunk, and it is nice to see that person standing on a stage in front of us.
The last day of Pitchfork has come, and I am in an Earl Sweatshirt crowd with hundreds of other people that get their vitamin D from the light on a computer screen. You know the performance is going to be good when the DJ – Black Noi$e – has an Aphex Twin hat on. Audience conversations go as expected before Earl makes his entrance: people speak of Earl Sweatshirt’s Myspace lore and make fun of the security man who has cut off the sleeves of his extra-small work shirt to show muscles. As Black Noi$e toys with the crowd, the rain starts pouring, and our feet sink deep into the mud. Grimy weather warrants grimy sounds: “Riot!” comes on. Messy but triumphant in its chaos, the song feels like a Basquiat painting – the perfect walkout song for Earl.
Earl’s banter with the crowd is filled with layers of irony. “You’re all going to jail, I don’t know any songs,” he says. A crowd member yells in response “Play EAST.” Earl says “Okay” and laughs. He plays the 1700 sea shanty beat on “East” and the crowd screamed. A youtube comment on this goofy song once said “this song is like getting ready for a sneeze and nothing happens,” Earl’s beats are beyond comprehension and we embrace the brain-scratching disarray.
After an hour of Earl telling the crowd he “doesn’t know what we’re talking about, I don’t know any songs,” Earl begins to play Meek Mill’s most known song: “Dreams and Nightmares”. Earl is saying every word over the recording, building to the breaking point that this song is known for. The crowd is getting excited for the climax, the piano tempo speeds up and Meek’s voice is gaining more energy… oh, Earl just turned it off and walked off stage. I can’t think of a better way for such an offbeat artist to end his show.
While I saw kids chief entire joints by themselves at Earl Sweatshirt’s show, The Roots’ audience happily pass around the pleasure. This foreshadows a sense of community that the 90’s jazz-rap legends capitalize on as soon as they appear. Questlove’s drumming serves as the heart of the group, pumping out essential nutrients for the rest of the group to bounce off of with their instruments. Backing musicians are all pieces of a complete organism; most of these people have played The Late Night Show and know how to rev the engine of an energetic show. And the Brain of this project, Black Thought, is unmatched in charisma. He taps into the “summertime Chi” love that can be felt under the night sky.
This cohesive show doesn’t hold a second lacking in instrumentals. Even during Black Thought’s profound between-song talk, the playing of a trumpet or piano in the background creates an environment for those words to be heeded Gil Scott-Heron style. Songs blend into each other like oil paint soaked in medium, and the backing band can all spontaneously catch onto a new dance or tempo as they please. Black Thought raps nonstop through the horizon of world-class jazz behind him. It’s like he physically can’t stop. Guitarist, Captain Kirk Douglass, showers in spotlight with Pianist Ray Angry as they reach final form. Near the end, the group slides into the 90’s smasher “You Got Me,” cooling down the auditory fire that has been set in the vicinity. It is one of those shows where you know that they walked off the stage and laughed about how damn well they did. If they gave me the pleasure, I would buy this live album in a second.
I walk out of Union Park, the line for the train spans two blocks and bottlenecks at the stairs. I go into my notes app and cross a good deal of names off of my list of artists that I want to see live. The Parquet Courts keyboardist has convinced me to watch High Fidelity for the fourth time. I catch a vision of Jack Black’s character asking a question like “top five concerts you’ve ever seen,” and I can confirm that this weekend has added a lot more contenders for my answer.