People may be getting suspicious that Chicago is plotting to corner the market on summer music festivals. Long-time events such as Blues Fest, Gospel Fest, and Jazz Fest continue going strong on the city’s lakefront. Add the Intonation Festival and Lollapalooza to that line-up, and the level of talent and diversity parading through this city is getting pretty ridiculous.
And the cherry on top may just be the Pitchfork Music Festival 2006 (Chicago, IL, July 29-30), held for the second summer in a row at the city’s Union Park just west of downtown. Organized and run by the “indier-than-thou” website, Pitchfork.com, this event was even better attended than in its inaugural year of 2005. The event attracted an impressive 36,000 fans over the course of the weekend, despite brutal humidity and daytime temperatures hovering in the mid-90s.
And every one of those sweaty fans certainly got his or her money’s worth. Not only were an incredibly varied 41 performers booked for the festival, but ticket prices were kept intentionally low – $20 for a one-day ticket, and $30 for a two-day pass.
A thorough review of the entire weekend’s events would take up far too much space, but a quick summary of each of the performers I managed to catch may provide the most info in the least time. With that in mind, here’s a recap of the 18 acts I witnessed. And for those of you who are really, really lazy – we have a ranking from one star (nap-inducing) to four stars (throw elbows to get a closer view). So here goes:
8 Bold Souls – This Chicago-based jazz group provided a great kick-off to the event. With a style that ranged effortlessly from avant-garde to flat-out swing, these cats simply tore the canvas roof off of the small Biz 3 side-stage where they performed. And with an appreciative crowd applauding talented horn, cello, and upright bass solos, there was no doubt what city we were in. [ ***½ ]
Man Man – The first of many truly bizarre acts to be witnessed over the weekend. This group of furry musicians from New York and Philadelphia started their set with howls and grunts, and it just got weirder from there. The set included a musical ode to their favorite sandwich. Seriously. Overall, a promising beginning to their performance just sort of flattened out by the end. [ ** ]
Chicago Underground Duo – Rob Mazurek and Chad Taylor are probably best known for their cutting-edge rock association with the likes of Tortoise and Sea & Cake, but in this incarnation they bring a blend of jazz and electronica to the stage. Unfortunately, the emphasis was a bit too heavy on the latter for my tastes, but these guys are still amazing musicians working in just about every genre out there. [ **½ ]
Destroyer – Featuring Dan Bejar from the New Pornographers, I didn’t quite know what to make of this project at first. It is certainly less laden with pop hooks than his better-known outfit, but did grow in intensity as the set went on, closing with a couple of really dense and solid arrangements. [ ** ]
Art Brut – These Brit-popsters came into the festival with perhaps the most hype and anticipation of any performer. And frankly, they lived up to every bit of it. Taking the stage with a wink and a sneer, they tore through a set of songs that were so self-effacingly disarming that when singer Eddie Argos sang with triumphant excitement about seeing his new girlfriend “naked… twice!” you believed him. A fantastic stage presence – such as referring to the Polish barbershop down the street from Union Park giving him his “most Britpop haircut ever” – and a band with the chops to back it up. [ ***½ ]
The Walkmen – The first band of the day to seem genuinely sluggish due to the extreme heat (or maybe I’m just making excuses for a terribly uneven set). I wasn’t familiar with these guys before the event, and they gave me no reason to change that fact, although their more upbeat stuff certainly came across better in the festival environment. [ ** ]
Futureheads – Taking to the so-called Connector stage as the sun finally began to set and temperatures dipped below “scorching,” this was the second British act of the day to prove that we Yanks still have a lot to learn about pop music. Their energy level was through the roof, complete with crowd sing-alongs, punk-influenced guitar riffs, and three-part vocal harmonies. At their best moments, they reminded me of the English Beat or perhaps even the Clash – and that is saying something. [ *** ]
Silver Jews – Another act that inspired a lot of anticipation among fans was the Silver Jews, fronted by longtime indie darling David Berman. Unfortunately, following the rave-up, manic energy of the Futureheads, this set felt flat and ordinary. Part of the blessing/curse of festival booking, I suppose – it’s much better to follow a crappy band than a good one. Solid musicianship all round, just not much energy. [ ** ]
Tapes ‘ n Tapes – There’s nothing wrong with a good, solid 4/4 pop song, and these guys proved it. Nothing spectacularly innovative on display here, but these guys were more than happy to play their asses off as the crowd trickled in during the early-afternoon heat. They also provided one of the best quotes of the festival: “Last year we were in the audience at Pitchfork, now we’re up here.” Rock on, boys. [ *** ]
Parker/Cline Quartet – Jeff Parker and Nels Cline (of Tortoise and Wilco, respectively) cut loose on this avant-garde jazz project. I spent a good portion of the set literally sprinting back-and-forth between these guys and the “rock” stages, but the quartet ultimately won out by making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up with a particularly ethereal and spooky track. This stuff was absolutely brilliant. [ ***½ ]
Bonde Do Role – Ah, from the sublime to the ridiculous. These pathetic wannabes defiled the same stage that Parker and Cline had sanctified only a few minutes earlier. Picture a drunk Brazilian sorority chick screeching with a talentless DJ spinning bad 80s records behind her. And this description is being polite to Bonde Do Role. A fellow critic told me that one of the “band” members broke their arm stage diving long after I had run screaming from the area – and I just didn’t care. (Note to Pitchfork staff: Just because a group is from a country whose music is really “trendy” at the moment does not make them worth booking. This was an embarrassment.) [ * ]
Jens Lekman – Leave it to the Scandinavians to save the day. From the land of fantastic creations like 100-proof vodka and Swedish porn comes this truly unique songwriter whose style is blissfully hard to pigeonhole. He cranked out a catchy, groove-heavy set that featured a fascinating combination of instrumentation, vocals, and samples. And I think he was surrounded by about half-a-dozen women in white gowns, but that could’ve just been the heat stroke kicking in. [ *** ]
The National – Again, there’s nothing wrong with a little 4/4 beat. After all, even white people can dance to it. And while The National didn’t provide anything spectacular, they did play in the hottest part of the day and still manage to crank out enough hooks to hang your entire wardrobe on. [ **½ ]
Liars – You probably won’t believe any of this, which is okay, since I’m still wondering what the hell I witnessed. Liars started their set with two guys pounding out relentless tribal beats on a pair of full drum kits, and this three-piece just cranked it up from there. Guys were switching from drums to guitars and back again. The 50-minute set featured exactly two breaks in the cacophony coming from the stage, as the male lead vocalist varied between a throaty growl and a Yorke-esque falsetto. Initially dressed in a mod-style suitcoat, he did a striptease mid-set to reveal a blue and white dress worthy of an “I Love Lucy” rerun. Then came some high-kicks followed by a nice climb onto the amp stacks. One of the most bizarre sets I have ever seen, and I just couldn’t look away. Liars is a beautiful, noisy trainwreck of a band. [ ***½ ]
Mission of Burma – Lets face it, these guys were one of the most influential bands of the late 70s and early 80s. Even if they weren’t hugely popular back then, they still get name-checked by everyone from Billy Jo to Bowie. After a couple of “comeback” albums got pretty good reviews, they’ve taken the show back on the road. And age be damned, these guys can still rock out. Some early sound problems were overcome by mid-set, and the live version of “(That’s When I) Reach For My Revolver” was #@$% brilliant. [*** ]
Glenn Kotche – Well, Lollapalooza may have the current incarnation of Wilco as part of its line-up, but Pitchfork apparently booked everyone who has ever played as a part of the band. And that includes drummer Glenn Kotche, who has obviously gotten into a lot more world-beat styles of late. Don’t get me wrong, Kotche has long displayed a wide range behind the kit with Wilco, but in this solo set – accompanied by only a handful of electronic blips and bleeps – he really stretched it out. And despite a couple of dropped beats here and there, due no doubt to the 100-degree-plus temperatures inside the side-stage tent, Wilco’s little-engine-that-could put on a pretty damned good percussion clinic. [ *** ]
Yo La Tengo – This was my fourth time seeing this group live – not surprising considering they’ve been around for literally 20 years. The problem was that by the time I made my way over from Glenn Kotche’s set next door, the crowd surrounding the stage was so large that I ended up pretty far back. This would not have been a problem had the side stage not immediately cleared Kotche and cranked up some god-awful generic techno-electronica noise pollution that obscured all but the rowdiest of YLT’s songs. Luckily, there were a couple of trademark feedback-fests that were clearly audible despite the competing drone of computers with the hiccups. And Georgia Hubley’s drumline during the set-closer was worth the price of admission all by itself. [ set: ***, sound: * ]
Os Mutantes – Kudos to Pitchfork for taking the risk to host the reunion show of one of South America’s best-known rock bands. Unfortunately, I’m sure it looked a little bit better on paper than it played out in person. There were definitely moments of brilliance during the set, particularly when the band broke into their trademark bits of psychedelic guitar rock. But other moments felt labored and outdated. The youngish crowd tried their best to stay attentive, but by the end of the set most of them were sharing barstools with me at the Cobra Lounge a couple of blocks down Ashland Avenue. [ ** ]
Overall, the 2006 incarnation of the Pitchfork Music Festival was an undeniable success. Ticket fees – and even concession prices – were kept at extremely reasonable levels, which certainly contributed to the large attendance numbers. Planners were obviously prepared for the oppressively hot weather, with plenty of available shade, porta-johns, and water. (Ahem, anyone paying attention, Lollapalooza?)
My two biggest complaints were: 1) The apparently automatic addition of anyone with a Brazilian passport to the lineup, and 2) The overly loud bass-thud of the Biz 3 stage drowning out actual musicians on more than one occasion.
If these are the two biggest problems I had with two entire days at a festival, then something was done very, very right. And that something was the music itself. The bands were a diverse and talented bunch, and one can hope that with a little fine-tuning the level of talent on the bill for next year will be even more consistent. I know I’ll be there to find out.