While it'll probably be nigh on time for the Apocalypse before consensus has finally been reached on whether Pitchfork represents the apotheosis of music journalism or everything wrong with everything, there's no denying that Ryan Schreiber and cohorts stage a pretty spiffy festival. Photographer Charlotte Cook went over to this year's edition and returned with some words and images.
Now in its fifth year, the Pitchfork Music Festival is the smaller, cooler sibling to the Windy City's enormous Lollapalooza, which takes place in August. I was told by one journalist that Lollapalooza holds a two million-plus crowd, which warped my tiny British mind and was, of course, entirely false. It is, however, bigger than Glastonbury by some 50,000 people, to give some perspective. Pitchfork, by comparison, has a daily capacity of 18,300 and so is decidedly smaller than average.
But to the reasons for the long-haul hot-footing to an average-sized festival in the Midwest. Well for starters, I’ve become twee in my mid-twenties and the following things were extremely appealing:
- The festival is held in Union Park, which is in Chicago itself. Chicago is one of the only US cities to have a half-decent public transport system, one that includes an overground metro system with a stop directly outside the festival entrance.
- Even the cheapest hotels in central Chicago are nice; being able to go back to a £30-a-night hotel within 20 mins of leaving the grounds is decidedly pleasant. Likewise, the ease of travel combined with the 1pm start means that you have the morning to see Chicago, or just sleep and recover from the day before in comfort.
- The festival is cheap – tickets for the entire weekend are under £60.
- Flights to Chicago are fairly reasonable. When you are looking at around £450 total for the whole shebang it doesn’t seem like too ridiculous an endeavour.
- The combination of the CHIRP Record Fair and FLATSTOCK poster market may have made me fear my next credit card statement, but at the time it created a musical/consumer/visual version of heaven.
- And then of course, there are the bands. Pitchfork’s line-up included: Yo La Tengo, Built to Spill, The National, Beirut, Yeasayer, Beirut, Grizzly Bear and The Mae Shi. Too much to pass up on.
- I was there to photograph it.
Pitchfork kicked off at 5pm on Friday night, which was civilised to all those coming from work. Tortoise opened the festival, providing a calm and beautiful backdrop to the multitudes arriving during their set. They were followed by Yo La Tengo who, despite having been around for 25 years, still maintain a huge young following. In the interim I had somehow managed to become friends with three incredibly hip New Yorkers who didn’t understand all the commotion from the YLT crowd and, when 'Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind' got to its halfway point, began moaning that the song was nothing more than a nine-minute intro. Tsk.
The real buzz, though, was with The Jesus Lizard. The noise legends' first show in their home town since their reunion, they fully embraced their homecoming with 49-year-old frontman David Yow, clearly not broken by those European dates, diving straight into the crowd as an entrance. In a slightly unfortunate error in scheduling the now hyped crowd moved onto the headliners of the night, Built To Spill who, although wonderful, are really not the greatest of showmen.
Staten Island's Cymbals Eat Guitars were first on stage on Saturday: their self-released debut album is outstanding and their set matched that high standard. Frontman Joseph D'Agostino has a real Fred Savage/Wonder Years look about him, and so his incredibly dweeby contorted guitar-solo face and bright cerise-cheeked screaming added a certain panache to the show. The 21-year-old singer was incredibly embarrassed by this afterwards and, despite my compliments about their performance, he seemed slightly scared by the photographs appearing online.
To photograph Fucked Up (or F’ed Up as every US publication insists on calling them), you need your wits about you. Singer Damian Abraham likes to use the photo pit as a spring board into the crowd, and he came right up to my face and nearly squashed me on several occasions. He was, however, on top form and decided to eat several beachballs before wearing one on his head for a large amount of the set.
The Pains of Being Pure At Heart have received a large amount of press and acclaim, and although their cutesy nature tugs on your heart strings, their live sound doesn’t match that of their album and they have a tendency to resemble your average Nineties Britpop band. While not necessarily a bad thing, they provide little in the way of a new and exciting sound.
In DiS's review, Ponytail’s debut album Ice Cream Spiritual was described as being 'like an unexpected fist in the face from a five-year-old', and that’s spot on for their live show too. On arriving I honestly thought they were fronted by a small boy; on closer inspection it was evident that front-lady Molly Siegel is certainly one of a kind. At around 5'2", she had bigger stage presence than many of her more gainly male counterparts at the festival, not least because of the incredible noises she made while rolling her eyes into the back of her head. After leaping from the stage to the front of the crowd, she showed that what she lacks in size is more than made up for in gusto, actually breaking the barriers to such a degree that they had to be reinforced and were never quite right for the rest of the festival.
Yeasayer had promised a set full of new material and provided this with a mixture of the best tracks from their debut album. They managed to create one of the best moments of the festival when after a fairly drab and slightly drizzly day, the sun burst out as the thundering drums of their festival-perfect song 'Sunrise' began.
DOOM apparently insisted upon driving his car all the way to the back of the stage and refused to get out until he got paid in cash. The rapper took to the stage ten minutes late and, according to the rumour surrounding him, apparently lip-synced through his entire set. From the photo pit - ie 3ft away - it looked like these rumours were just hot air, but whatever the truth, the crowd lapped his showmanship up and seemed to love every moment of a set that plucked tracks from his 15 solo albums interspersed with the best moments from his numerous outstanding collaborations.
However, the majority of the whispers were reserved for Wavves’ Nathan Williams and, more specifically, his mental state following a reported breakdown at Primavera. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see his set since he was fifteen minutes late onto the stage and all the photographers were kicked out, bizarrely, for ‘safety’ reasons.
Joining Cymbals Eat Guitars on my list of highlights were Matt and Kim, whose enthusiasm rivalled even Ponytail's. The more downtempo pace of their recent work certainly appears to be reserved solely for the studio as the duo positively exploded onto the stage with Cheshire cat smiles permanently fixed on their faces and Matt’s cheeky puns bookending every song. The crowd matched their ADHD attitude, with every lyric shouted back at the stage with supreme devotion.
Day two’s headliners were The National, but for some reason I had been persuaded to photograph The Black Lips after being told that they like to toy with photographers – it was only after entering the pit that was I warned this ‘toying’ often involved urine. Luckily they weren’t in a playful mood, but they did maintain their rowdy reputation by smashing a guitar before finishing the first song.
Heading back over to the main stage, The National were playing to the biggest crowd of the day for the first show of the day in darkness, which suited their delicate arrangements perfectly. They proved their worth as a headlining act and had the entire park captivated.
This was a controversial set from The Mae Shi, billed as the last under the current line up, but in fact solely featuring the members leaving the band to form Signals. Several Signals songs were performed as part of their set, but although it’s hard to resist the temptation to pick sides/a real shame they couldn’t work out their differences as The Mae Shi, the show itself was almost disarmingly electric. Whether they acted rightly or wrongly, Signals will certainly be a band to watch out for.
I have to admit feeling an element of embarrassment at not knowing much about Frightened Rabbit, the only British band on the line up, but as they began I realised just how many of the songs I knew. I did feel a small amount of pride as, having felt slightly disheartened by the amount of American indie bands that had just taken to the stage without feeling any need for showmanship of any kind, Scott Hutchison’s passion and presence was a real tonic.
The Thermals came to Pitchfork to have fun, performing a slew of covers starting with Sonic Youth’s '100%', going on to merrily fritty with 'Sappy' by Nirvana, The Breeders' 'Saints' and 'Basket Case' by Green Day. With a lot of very new and nervous acts and some more serious ‘hip’ bands, it was a treat to have an anomaly and The Thermals certainly weren’t afraid of messing with their own formula and trying something new.
Knowing little about Japandroids I joined a tiny group of photographers on the B stage expecting little and left having seen my favourite performance of the weekend. The Vancouverite duo were relentless: singer Brian King informed the audience that although he usually liked to chat in-between songs, they didn’t have much time and as it was their first show in Chicago they wanted to play as many songs as possible. He held true to his word, as back to back the pair performed songs with unrelenting pace and vigor, King leaping between guitar and drum kit to blast through debut Post Nothing.
M83 were the only act to truly have the weather on their side and the blinding sun couldn’t have been more suited to such a magical set. Vocalist Morgan Kibby’s beauty and haunting voice had everyone mesmerised, including the entire photo pit - myself included - as she smirked and waved and enchanted the crowd.
The last 12 months have been monumental for Grizzly Bear; I managed to have a quick chat with Edward Droste, who was incredibly sweet during our bizarre 15-minute conversation about the weather. He was surprisingly calm despite desperate tweets throughout the morning in search of a replacement omnichord, which appeared to have been solved by The Mae Shi. Whether you love or hate Grizzly Bear one thing that certainly has to be said: they pulled in by far the biggest VIP area audience - walking back out of the photo pit it was a veritable Where’s Wally? of every musician there, watching a fairly low-key band performing the most haunting and powerful set of the festival.
Conversely - and entirely expectedly - The Flaming Lips closed the festival with the weekend's most extravagant show. The set began with a team of men dressed as workmen constructing various parts of the stage before an enormous visual appeared at the back of the stage of a woman with her legs open. Frontman Wayne Coyne popped his head around the side of the stage to further rouse the crowd before bursting out through the aforementioned woman’s legs in his trademark bubble and walking across the crowd. After hopping out on to the stage, he shot confetti into the air as enormous orange and yellow balloons were released and the set began accompanied by costumed frogs and rabbit backing dancers. Pretty much the usual Flaming Lips fare and, of course, the crowd loved it. The perfect, peculiar spectacle to end an impressively eclectic festival.