24 Questions About the 2010 Pitchfork Music Festival

With answers! So gather round all ye hipsters, and come take a seat on Uncle Dilemma’s knee. I’ll tousle your hair (you’re still wearing Conor Oberst bangs, right?) and tell you some tales about this year’s installment of the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago.

OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG! How was Pavement?!?!?!?! How did Malkmus look???
Jesus, take it easy. We’ll get to that. They were the last set of the weekend, for God’s sake.

How long, upon entering Union Park on Friday, did it take you to see someone lighting up a pipe?
<30 seconds.

How long, upon entering Union Park on Friday, did it take you to want to punch a hipster in the stomach?
<30 seconds. (Unrelated)

Is it a good idea to open a big music festival with two acoustic folkie troubadour types?
No, it is not. Friday’s lineup kicked off with Sharon Van Etten, and then Tallest Man on Earth, both alone on stage with an acoustic guitar as sole accompaniment. The crowd remained disinterested, to say the least. Both Ms. Van Etten and Mr. on Earth were perfectly fine, but I don’t think pre-Newport Bob Dylan himself could have built any momentum on a brutally hot day in front of a still-sober crowd. Van Etten was charming in a little-girl-lost kind of way, inspiring paternal, protective feelings — which is not really what you’re looking for at a rock festival.

So how do you properly start a day at one of these festivals? It can’t be easy, right?
Right. But the bookers did a much better job with the kickoff acts on both Saturday and Sunday, and in doing so proved there are a couple different directions you can go with these openers.

Sunday’s first main act was Best Coast — a relatively quiet three-piece that sings gentle, beachy California pop. A lesser writer might label them “chillwave.” Though not much louder than the solo strummers, Best Coast at least adds a beat so you can absent-mindedly bob your head until you realize you’re enjoying yourself. And they provided a lovely soundtrack to standing in the sun, praying for a breeze, drinking a beer, and slowly getting into the flow of the day as your mind and body re-acclimate to festival life.

On the other hand, Free Energy opened Saturday’s proceedings with a boozy riff-filled set heavy on tambourines and tight jeans, and light on pathos. Free Energy seems to have figured out a secret that most bands never do: that indie kids, deep down, beneath all the judgmental show-me-something facades and thirst for experimental new sounds, just want to clap along. They just want to be told what to do. They want to participate in all the classic rock party tropes; they just need an excuse to do so without having to listen to actual classic rock.

Lead singer Paul Sprangers seems like what would have happened if Julian Casablancas, at a formative age, had discovered Milwaukee’s Best and Sticky Fingers instead of cocaine and the Velvet Underground. Free Energy’s immediately accessible pop songs provided an instant energy boost instead of a slow build to start the day.

OK, but let’s say you’re one of those acoustic troubadours, and you’re doing the best but the crowd’s just not feeling it. Can you save yourself through stage banter?
Probably not. But definitely not by saying this, as Tallest Man on Earth did: “Wow, you are really catching me at my weakest. It’s just so hot. And I’m very jet-lagged. I haven’t slept in two days. And it is very hot up here on stage. I’m sorry. But thank you for being so kind to me.” Maybe that line of self-deprecation works in Sweden, but not here in God’s America, buddy. We demand confidence!

You know what usually helps stage banter? Cheeky humor told in a British accent. Am I right?
Well, Liars’ Angus Andrew certainly agrees: “It’s very hot out today, so make sure you stay hydrated. There are a lot of water stations around, and we’ve even got one up here on stage…in my pants!”

What was the most entertaining overheard conversation all weekend?
It happened during Best Coast’s set, early on Sunday.

Guy: Did you guys swallow your tabs?

Girl #1: No.

Girl #2: No.

Guy: What? Why not?

Girl #1: I didn’t know I was supposed to.

Girl #2: I don’t know. Just didn’t want to.

Guy: What is wrong with you? You’re supposed to swallow them. Don’t you know that?

Girl #1: I thought you just sucked on them and spit them out.

Girl #2: I don’t know.

Guy: Unbelievable. What is wrong with you? Do you know what a waste that is? Why would you do that? Why would you do that? Please explain it to me.

Girl #2: I don’t know. I just didn’t feel like swallowing it.

Guy: Fine. Whatever.

Girl #1: Don’t be like that. We didn’t know.

Guy: She did! That’s just stupid! Oh my God! What is wrong with you?

Who played the best sets?
LCD Soundsystem, obviously. Titus Andronicus, further establishing their reputation as a must-see live act, and compelling the crowd near the stage to form a quasi-mosh pit in sauna-like conditions. Sleigh Bells, although Pitchfork’s infamous sound quality and volume issues reared their ugly heads (even so, I think I would pay to watch Alexis Krauss dance to pure silence). The aforementioned Free Energy. To be fair, I didn’t catch Robyn or Big Boi, who were reported to be great.

What about Pavement?!
We’ll get to that.

Who played the worst sets?
Panda Bear, Liars and Here We Go Magic, feet and ankles below everyone else.

Were you the oldest person in attendance?

Was your slightly older, Stephen-Malkmus-looking buddy the oldest person in attendance?

What do El-P and Raekwon have in common?
Together, they reinforce the notion that both mainstream and indie hip hop acts are usually awful live. El-P’s beats sounded Casio cheap, and his overused, Chuck D/Flavor Flav main guy/sidekick routine was stale within half a song. Raekwon came on late and seemingly unprepared, as one half-assed Wu-Tang song disappeared into another. None of Raekwon’s assured dexterity comes across in concert. There were, however, a lot of requests for us to put our hands in the air.

Did Jon Spencer of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion wear leather pants in 95-degree heat and outrageous humidity?
He did indeed, and managed to get through a tight set without fainting. I wouldn’t want to be around when he was trying to get them off, though.

Enough about the music. What’s up with indie fashion these days?
Irony is on the way out. T-shirts with pithy phrases were almost non-existent, and band T-shirts were also few and far between (most seen band shirt: The Hold Steady). Although it does say something about how deeply irony is ingrained in indie culture that I briefly wondered whether a “Save Darfur” shirt was meant ironically. The biggest upward trend is sports apparel — mostly retro baseball jerseys, T-shirts and hats, and soccer jerseys. The Argentine Messi jersey popped up everywhere. World Cup Fever!

Clothing was pretty toned down over the course of the weekend — nothing too outrageous or fashion-forward. Frankly, it was a disappointment, and made people-watching significantly duller than in the past. Everybody seemed to be playing it safe — perhaps due to the oppressive heat.

How else has the festival changed since its 2005 debut?
In short: growing pains.

In long: Pitchfork is now trapped between two worlds — the upstart, DIY, small-time indie festival that it used to be, and the massive, corporate Lollapalooza-type monstrosity that it’s becoming. When the Pitchfork Music Festival (nee Intonation Festival) began in 2005, it was notable for all the things it didn’t do:

  • Cram too many people into too small a space
  • Overcharge for beer and food
  • Shove corporate sponsorship down your throat
  • Overwhelm the senses with too many bands, too much stuff to do, too many things to see

Intonation began as a well-run, manageable music fest that didn’t leave you feeling soul-dead after three days. Of course, the headliners that first year were Tortoise and The Decemberists. Cut to 2010, and after a half-decade of slow, steady growth, Pavement are the main attraction — the first Pitchfork headliner that could conceivably close a night at Lollapalooza (with all due respect to Os Mutantes).

With great power comes great responsibility. And with bigger bands come bigger headaches. In some respects, the organizers insist on continuing to treat Pitchfork as a mom-and-pop music fest, in ways both good (diversity of bands; a relatively respectful and well-mannered crowd) and bad (terrible sound quality; the how-the-hell-do-we-get-home-from-here location). But the event has outgrown that attitude, however commendable it may be.

Beer and food prices are creeping up. Heineken provided the beer this year, instead of past sponsor and local brewer Goose Island. As crowds have increased, lines have become unmanageable for entry, food, beer and bathroom facilities. Too many bands are crammed into too small a space, resulting in soundbleed between stages, and the complete failure of an attempted comedy stage, as Michael Showalter and others were completely drowned out by nearby music.

Pitchfork needs to pick a direction and go with it: either admit that they’ve become Lollapalooza Jr. and adjust accordingly, or pare down the lineup, make a little less money and retreat. Spoiler alert: that second option isn’t going to happen.

Are the indie rock girls as cute as they used to be?
Sadly, no. The magic is gone.

I’m outraged you would include a sexist comment like that in an analysis of the festival. Aren’t you ashamed?
A little.

Enough with the foreplay. What about fucking Pavement?
The foreplay’s the best part. Here, put on these nipple clamps and sit tight.

OK, well if the festival is showing signs of strain, what would you do to improve it?
Glad you asked. And a tip of the ironically worn American-flag umbrella cap to David Simon Cowell and Musky Canadian Scent, who brainstormed most of these ideas.

1) Hydration. Have I mentioned it was hot? To their credit, the Pitchforkers handed out bottles of water near the stages, and dropped bottled water prices to $1. But it wasn’t enough. Tall sprinklers should be installed near each stage, intermittently spraying the crowd with delicious, refreshing, ice-cold water. Would that cause the ever-worrisome festival mud issues? It would, but that leads to:

1a) Find the first person who throws mud at the festival, drown them in the business end of a Port-a-Potty, and then hang their corpse high above the soundboard as a warning to others.

2) Clothing. Everyone there sweated through their clothes. Everyone. But while you could buy overpriced food, high-quality band posters and tons of artisan jewelry, you couldn’t find a reasonably priced T-shirt to change into. While David Simon Cowell will be on Ashland Ave. next year, selling Hanes T-shirts for $5 a pop, I’d like to suggest a few bands make their shirts available at the fest for less than $20. I understand that I can’t go to a Bruce Springsteen concert and buy a $15 T-shirt. But I’m not fucking paying $25 for a Free Energy or Sleigh Bells shirt.

3) Covers. We’ve been over this before, but every single band, in every single set, should be required to play at least one cover. There are literally millions of songs to choose from. Pick one. There’s no better way for an unknown band to endear itself to a skeptical crowd than by playing something recognizable or something with hipster cred.

4) The handoff. When one band finishes its set, the band on the adjacent stage should be standing there, ready to go. One song ends, another begins within a matter of seconds. There’s plenty of time to finish soundchecking, and there’s no excuse for additional waiting time.

5) Consolidation. Eliminate the smaller “B” stage. Union Park isn’t big enough for concurrent acts. Drop to two stages, and play one band at a time. And if you insist on sticking to three stages, do a better job of booking. Sleigh Bells, Neon Indian and Surfer Blood, among others, are more than popular enough to play on the larger stages. And having Sleigh Bells, Big Boi and Pavement play sets that overlapped, or very close to it, was sheer idiocy.

Where did the guy from Neon Indian get his dance moves (and denim jacket)?
Either Jim Kerr of Simple Minds, or Debbie Gibson.

You son of a bitch. If you don’t tell me how Pavement was, I’ll skin you alive and throw you in a vat of rubbing alcohol.
That’s not a question.

OK, fine.

Pavement was…great. Pavement was…Pavement. A new and improved version of Pavement, one in which Stephen Malkmus looks like he cares what’s happening. At least a little.

They’re still a little sloppy at times, which I’m duty-bound to tell you is part of their charm. Bob Nastanovich still yells a lot and plays a needless tambourine. Songs still feel like they might come apart at any time.

But most importantly, Malkmus seemed fully invested, which certainly wasn’t a guarantee going into this reunion tour. He was even animated at times, and played guitar solos better than I’ve ever heard at a Pavement show before.

The setlist was a near-perfect mix of “hits” and rarities (only Pavement could make a song as bizarre as “Conduit for Sale” a late-set crowd-pleaser), with the likes of “Cut Your Hair” and “Range Life” sharing time with “Fin” and “Frontwards.” The band built momentum with a surging streak of uptempo songs toward the end of the set (“Stereo,” “Two States”) but really shined most on mid-tempo songs like “Grounded.”

It was enough for me to declare the Pavement reunion a success, even if the Pitchfork crowd seemed a little unsure of what to expect — as if they had been told all about Pavement, but not actually listened to them much. Given that a decent portion of the crowd hadn’t been born when Slanted and Enchanted came out, that’s probably not much of a surprise.

How do you feel today?
My back hurts. Now get off my fucking lawn.


1 Comment

Filed under Music Has AIDS, The Dilemma

One response to “24 Questions About the 2010 Pitchfork Music Festival

  1. Musky Canadian Scent

    One other for the pro column of the sprinkler argument: you won’t have to watch a band through a sea of iPhones. Hey, fuckwads, people with better lines-of-sight and sound equipment will put everything online anyway. Live life, don’t film it.

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