Given the adventurous “you-saw-them-here-first” bookings, the fan-friendly environment of Union Park (under the Ashland Avenue “L” stop at Lake Street) and most of all the inviting communal vibe created by some of the most dedicated members of this city’s musical underground, the Pitchfork Music Festival remains by far the most exciting of any of Chicago’s sonic summer celebrations.
This is not to say that things have gotten any easier for the promoters since the annual concert originated as the Intonation Music Festival in 2005. In fact, the massive undertaking of Lollapalooza, which hits Grant Park next month, has had a very visible and deeply painful impact on Pitchfork in year four as many of the acts it sought were poached by its bigger, pricier and much more corporate competitor.
As a result, Pitchfork 2008 has more second-timers—some of them welcome, others not so much—and way-below-the-radar newcomers, though the latter may only mean that there will be more surprises. The promoters say they’ve worked hard to correct the fest’s two biggest problems in years past—the sometimes dicey sound quality and the overcrowding at the secondary stage/dance tent (this year, that platform, called the Balance Stage, has changed places with the Flatstock poster exhibit)—and, as always, the corporate sponsorships are so unobtrusive as to be invisible, if you aren’t looking for them.
Here is a look at my best bets over the course of this long musical weekend, as well as the schedule for all of the performers on the fest’s three stages.
July 18: Friday’s Top Picks
Mission of Burma (Connector Stage, 6 p.m.)
Once again, Pitchfork kicks things off with an evening cosponsored by the U.K.’s All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival and celebrating its misnamed “Don’t Look Back” concept of a venerated underground act reaching back into its catalog to perform one of its classic albums.
Making their second Pitchfork appearance, Boston-based post-punk art-rock legends Mission of Burma get the party started by performing their debut album “Vs.,” originally released in 1982, but still sounding ahead of its time today. Best of all, this group is hardly a nostalgia act: The records it’s made since reuniting in 2004 have been every bit as strong, thanks in part to the addition of Chicago soundman and tape-loop-manipulator Bob Weston.
Public Enemy (Aluminum Stage, 8:30)
You’re forgiven for being suspect of these pioneering political rappers as a live act circa 2008: The group’s leader and driving force Chuck D. is always entertaining, but his sidekick turned reality TV goofball Flavor Flav can derail a gig quicker than you can say “fight the power.” If, however, Flav behaves himself and Chuck brings the musical muscle of original Bomb Squad members Hank and Keith Shocklee to back him up—not to mention the S1W dancers/security guards to provide the proper ambience—it’s hard to imagine how things could go wrong when revisiting what may be the all-time classic of urban discontent, the collective’s timeless sophomore album, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” (1988).
Completing the Friday roster—and offering a good time to go get dinner at the food tents—are proto-emo indie-popsters Sebadoh rendering “Bubble and Scrape” on the Connector Stage at 7:15 p.m. I didn’t like this disc in 1993, and I dislike it even more now.
July 19: Saturday’s Top Picks
Jay Reatard (Aluminum, 1:30)
Juvenile and offensive in the best ways possible, Memphis, Tenn.-bred punk/garage-rocker Jay Lindsey has been churning out chaotic explosions on stage and on record since he was 15, and he is now poised to reach the largest audience of his career since signing to Matador Records, which recently issued “Singles 06-07,” a collection of some of his many 45s. King of the short sharp shock, the bandleader tore things up with a rare ferocity at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, TX, last March—and it was all over in less than 20 minutes.
Fleet Foxes (Aluminum, 3 p.m.)
Though their wardrobe, beards and burgeoning following are all in step with the leaders of the so-called “freak folk” movement, this Seattle quintet distinguishes itself from artists such as Animal Collective (also on this year’s bill) and Devendra Banhart (who performed last year) because its members are much less emphatically stoner or self-consciously eclectic, and because their self-described “baroque harmonic pop jams” have much deeper and more convincing roots, ranging from traditional British Isles folk music to the orchestral-pop filigree of ’60s West Coast pop a la the “Smile”-era Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. This generation’s Incredible String Band? Could be.
!!! (Connector, 6 p.m.)
Pronounced, as every hipster knows, “chk chk chk,” this primarily Sacramento, Calif.-based dance-punk octet released its third album, “Myth Takes,” on Chicago’s Touch and Go Records last year, maintaining its status as the second best group mining this genre in the world today. (LCD Soundsystem remains No. 1.)
Jarvis Cocker (Connector, 8 p.m.)
The veddy, veddy British erstwhile leader of cult-hero pop sociologists Pulp, Cocker released his first proper solo album, “Jarvis,” in 2006, and it was the next best thing to a new Pulp album, with most of the cues coming from ’70s glam rock and New Wave, and Jarvis continuing to do Jarvis better than anybody on standout tracks such as the delightfully rude “Fat Children,” the beyond over-the-top Wall of Sound tribute “Black Magic” and the snide but indelible “Don’t Let Him Waster [CQ] Your Time.”
Rounding out the rest of the main-stages schedule on Saturday: Titus Andronicus (1 p.m.); Caribou (2 p.m.); Dizzee Rascal (4 p.m.); Vampire Weekend (5 p.m.); the Hold Steady (7 p.m.) and Animal Collective (9 p.m.).
And on the secondary stage: Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar (12:30); A Hawk and a Hacksaw (1:25); Icy Demons (2:20); F--- Buttons (3:15); the Ruby Suns (4:15); Elf Power (5:20); Extra Golden (6:25); Atlas Sound (7:30) and No Age (8:25).
July 20: Sunday’s Top Picks
The Apples in Stereo (Aluminum, 3 p.m.)
Always the heart and soul of the much-vaunted Elephant 6 collective from the mid-’90s, guitarist, vocalist, songwriter and producer Robert Schneider made a welcome return to top psychedelic-pop form with last year’s “New Magnetic Wonder,” and the group’s current touring lineup is its strongest ever. The only thing better would have been Pitchfork’s dream booking of the Apples’ still M.I.A. compatriots, Neutral Milk Hotel.
Les Savy Fav (Connector, 4 p.m.)
One of the stand-out surprise favorites at the first Pitchfork/Intonation Festival four summers ago, this New York art-punk quintet levels the stage like a bulldozer, but with a smile on its face the entire time, thanks to its fierce but fun dance-punk.
Spiritualized (Aluminum, 7 p.m.)
Led by third-wave psychedelic-rock hero Jason Pierce, a founding member of Spacemen 3, Spiritualized has perfected the aural evocation of a religious/mystical journey toward the white light via a mixture of rock drone and gospel uplift. After a string of classic albums in the ’90s, including “Lazer Guided Melodies,” “Pure Phase” and “Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space,” the group seemed to be running out of steam with “Amazing Grace” (2003). But it has come back strong with the new “Songs in A&E,” inspired by Pierce’s near-death experience and lengthy hospitalization for massive respiratory failure, and after years of personnel changes, its touring lineup has been steady for some time now, making good use of several veterans from Julian Cope’s likeminded combos.
Spoon (Aluminum, 9 p.m.)
The Austin, TX-based art-punk band has been one of the most promising lights in the indie-rock underground for almost a decade, but bandleader Britt Daniel has never run short of inspiration for his group’s trademark mix of stripped-down, propulsive rhythms, jagged, insistent keyboards, haiku-like observations of the modern world and irresistible pop hooks, as evidenced by last year’s stellar “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.” The only thing goofy about it was the name.
Completing the main-stage lineups on Sunday: Times New Viking (1 p.m.); Dirty Projectors (1:30); Boris (2 p.m.); M. Ward (6 p.m.) and the beyond hoary (and hairy) Dinosaur Jr. (8 p.m.).
And on the secondary stage: Mahjongg (12:30); High Places (1:25); HEALTH (2:20); King Khan & the Shrines (3:15); Occidental Brothers Dance Band International (5:20); Ghostface Killah & Raekwon (6 p.m.);the Dodos (6:25); Bon Iver (7:30) and Cut Copy (8:25).
Pitchfork Music Festival
Union Park, Ashland at Lake and Racine
6 p.m. July 18, 1 p.m. July 19 and 20
$30 per day (three-day passes sold out; daily tickets going fast)
Check http://pitchforkmusicfestival.com/ for ticket sales and the run-down of what festival-goers can and can’t bring to Union Park.