Where else but Pitchfork would you find Belle & Sebastian and R. Kelly gracing the same sweaty field of fest-ers, all in one weekend? Where else but Pitchfork could you nod your head earnestly to Sky Ferreira’s mid-range vocals, attempt to slow-grind to Solange’s sinfully sultry neo-soul, and stand back warily, trying not to look too confused at whatever post-punk noise was coming off of the Swans set. Again, all in one weekend. It’s enough to give even the most stoned (and the most sober) a good deal of whiplash.
I’ve never been one for outdoor music. I’m not good with the heat&sun combination, and outdoor picnics accompanied by a swarm of mosquitoes and the sounds of a badly tuned middle-aged cover band don’t do it for me either. But I was offered the chance to attend Pitchfork Music Festival, and you could say I jumped at it. I just had to see what this lineup had to offer. Call my reasoning 30% general curiosity and 70% Solange.
I gladly skipped the Friday lineup and 95 degree heat. Bjork has never really held my attention and Joanna Newsom gives me second-hand vocal nodes. Saturday rushed by with minor heat sickness and a few highlights. I hurried over to Julia Holter’s set, mostly because I knew it would be a rare chance to see a cellist on stage at Pitchfork. Her compositions were lovely and layered, but didn’t project, and you could tell half the crowd was contemplating a move over to hardcore punk/noise-rock band Pissed Jeans. I’m sure those guys were projecting just fine.
After a stroll around the just-overpriced-enough food and drink options to the sounds of post-hardcore/math rock band … And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead (a band whose name reminded me of an obscure Gilmore Girls reference that I could make, but I won’t), I settled in to watch Savages.
Alright. Here’s everything you need to know about Savages. They’re not riot grrl. They’re not even overtly feminist (though that’s a whole separate conversation). They are three women who can and do play the shit out of their instruments and one hell of a frontwoman by the name of Jehnny Beth. They took the stage dressed in all black when the sun was high and the crowd was a little restless. One song in, and they had the crowd nearly on its knees. I mean if Jehnny had asked us to kneel before her, we would have. There aren’t many words that could adequately describe this band or this performance, but “searing intensity” almost does it. Apparently they were quite “over hyped” (what that really means is a little bit beyond my knowledge and level of hipness), but Savages delivered, and you could tell as Jehnny closed with a curt “thank you” and something else about hanging out with Solange that she knew they had just proved a lot of people wrong, and a lot of people right.
The day passed and the sun set with an adorable set by Solange—whose cover of “Stillness Is the Move” by The Dirty Projectors is something akin to religious experience—and the night closed in with a perfectly fine performance by Belle & Sebastian, a quick rainstorm, and a damp train ride home.
Sunday was mildly forgettable in my opinion. It was easily the most crowded of all three days and the extra bodies were not making things any more comfortable. I missed the early afternoon’s performances for the most part, though I hear Killer Mike gave an earnest solo hip hop set before joining El-P for some hits from their excellent album, Run the Jewels (the two had also teamed up with sponsor Goose Island Brewery to roll out a novelty Run the Jewels brew, served liberally all day).
And after some waiting around and a less than captivating performance by Yo La Tengo, I finally got to the reason I even bothered to attend that day. But M.I.A.’s set was hampered by some technical difficulties, and though she handled it well, the spark of “Bad Girls” was cut painfully short when the music kicked back in during her purposefully a cappella ending and the whole performance ended on a sour note. And then I left before R. Kelly’s soundcheck even began.
In the end, it was a good showing. But I agree with Jim DeRogatis and his review of the overall festival experience:
“No matter how you cut it, those performances and the other highlights cited above all would have been much better experienced at Metro, Lincoln Hall, the Riviera Theater, or, really, pretty much anyplace else. And at any of those places, minus the now ethically vacant Pitchfork imprimatur of cool, maybe the music would have meant something, too.”
Though I have less of an idea and less of a stake in what the purpose and mission of Pitchfork actually is, I will tell you this. If you took a statistically sound polling sample, drawn from the crowd waiting for R. Kelly’s set to begin, and you asked them to honestly tell you why they were really there, I think you’d get a lot of varying answers.
Why were we there? Well, I was there to smile widely all the way through Solange’s buoyant set, to be blown away by Savages, and to eat a hot dog and drink Run the Jewels beer. But as I said, it was 70% Solange and 30% curiousity. Curiosity about what? I’m still not really sure.
Some of my friends who accompanied me to Union Park on Saturday mentioned how impressed they were with how nice and respectful everyone was. Well, using the Newport Folk Festival 2011 as my only other festival going experience, I would probably disagree on that. There was one moment when a man in the over-40 set kindly asked the pudgy frat boy in a likely ironic Bulls jersey to get out of my space bubble before M.I.A. But then frat boy just proceeded to stand directly in front of me. And sure, Pitchfork did pass out free water bottles to the front rows of the main stages, but they followed that up with a confusing, noncommittal recycling system in which the recycling and trash bags were exactly the same color. Belle & Sebastian made a lovely joke about their being “just like our uncles and aunties,” before making a cringe-worthy and completely off-color attempted joke about gun violence.
So it seemed to be a weekend of contradictions. And maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be. The shifting between the extreme discomfort of standing out in the sun to the less extreme discomfort of being rained upon. That catch of wearing a VIP badge and knowing that I’m not important at all, not in the slightest. Catching the final song of Killer Mike’s sermon-like set—his telling the crowd that hip hop is like church and we are the parishioners—and then, mere hours later, leaving the scene before I had the chance to witness whatever music an acquitted rapist was about to make. Maybe that’s the way that goes. Fall in love with Savages, groove to Solange, and leave before things get too messy.
Photo via ChicagoMag.com