The second day of the fourth annual Pitchfork Music Festival kicked off amid a whole lot of mud and a light but steady drizzle that has yet to abate. But the first of Saturday's main-stage acts was anything but soggy.
Titus Andronicus is a distinctive indie-rock band from suburban New Jersey led by bushy-bearded vocalist Patrick Stickles that has at times featured as many as 11 members onstage churning through the most aggressive shoegazer psychedelia you've ever heard--or, if you prefer, the dreamiest hardcore punk you can imagine. For this gig, Stickles was joined by a mere five band mates, but that was more than enough to create an impressive wall of sound, with as many as four guitars churning away at some points.
In between climbing the stage scaffolding, jumping into the audience and waving an American Revolution-era banner, Stickles addressed the damp throngs.
"This is a really nice thing, like, all these like-minded individuals coming together," the hyperactive vocalist said. "Community spirit is a nice thing."
Here he insert a dramatic pause worthy of a group that takes its name from a Shakespearean play.
"Just remember that Monday morning when you're back in the real world all this will make absolutely no difference. This is a song about that."
The band proceeded to tear through yet another memorable tune with the standout lyric, "The enemy is everywhere." It was the sort of moment that can make you proclaim, "This is my new favorite band."
I had another of those moments last March when I saw Jay Reatard perform at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, TX, delivering the short, sharp shock of an incendiary 20-minute garage-punk assault. Unfortunately, whether he's starting to believe the building buzz in anticipation of his first Matador Records release, or he thought he needed to alter the game plan and up the wattage for a festival crowd, the former Jay Lindsey upped the metal quotient in his trio considerably for this early-afternoon gig, and it just didn't match the frenzied intensity of his show a few months ago.
Dialing down both the tempos and the volume, Caribou followed with a gorgeous, trance-inducing set of electronic/psychedelic folk music. The precise nature of bandleader Dan Snaith's layered compositions speaks to his background studying mathematics at the University of Toronto, but the gentle drones building to gorgeous climactic swells never failed to seem warm, inviting and very organic.
The main-stage acts continued on this soggy Saturday afternoon with Fleet Foxes, a Seattle quintet touring in support of the "baroque harmonic pop jams" on its self-titled Sub Pop debut, a collection of lush and stunningly beautiful folk-rock.
In a striking testament to the strength of the band's songs as well as the patience, curiosity and indulgence of the Pitchfork crowd, the vast field full of fans--the festival is sold out at 17,000 paid entrants per day Saturday and Sunday--fell pin-drop silent as the group opened its set with the extended a cappella passages of "Sun Giant," exquisitely layering complex multi-part harmonies.
"What a life I lead in the summer," Fleet Foxes harmonized. "What a life I lead when the sun breaks free."
Though there was still no sun of the actual sun--or a break in that troublesome 98-percent humidity--the group's 45-minute set was a definite bright spot.
The same cannot be said of British rapper Dizzee Rascal, a.k.a. Dylan Mills of East London. The artist's mix of rap, the U.K. "grime" sound, raga and hints of other world rhythms is not without its charms. But his new album "Maths + English" isn't nearly as strong as his 2004 debut "Boy in da Corner," and onstage, he lacked the charisma and intensity to make much of a mark on the festival crowd.
Next, at 5 p.m., came the band that, as one of the festival's sponsors put it, many of the crowd had either pegged as the must-to-see or the must-to-avoid: Pitchfork Webzine favorites Vampire Weekend, perhaps the most-buzzed band of 2008.
Readers may know I have my problems with this Columbia University-educated, New York-based, Dockers and Top-Siders-sporting preppy quartet (enumerated at length here), and I still find the costume, the contrivance and the lyrical couplets exceedingly annoying. How to put it? It all... just... feels so unnatural, Peter Gabriel, too.
Nevertheless, there was no denying the infectious melodic charms of the ultra-clean interweaving guitar leads and kalimba-like keyboard lines, or the rousing good cheer of thousands of kids joining on the "whoa-whoa's" and the "hey hey hey's." And most impressive of all was the deft but powerful, tom-tom-heavy, Soweto by way of the Manhattan subway grooves pounded out by drummer Chris Tomson.
If only too-cute-for-his-own-good bandleader Ezra Koenig would decide to sing about something more substantive than Louis Vuitton, Benetton and Cape Cod.
The day began to wind to a close with the Brooklyn by way of Minneapolis roots-rockers the Hold Steady, veterans of both the revitalized Lollapalooza and an earlier Pitchfork booking. That's no surprise, since the group's indie/college reworking of blue-collar, shot-and-a-beer Everyman rock (but with literary pretensions) is the perfect big outdoor summer rock fest soundtrack.
Think Bruce Springsteen scaled down for the Hideout. Or, if one is inclined to be less kind, John Mellencamp shoe-horned into the Empty Bottle.
The arena bombast and bargain-basement Beat aspirations of "Boys and Girls in America" (2006) left me cold, and my verdict is still out on the group's new album, "Stay Positive." But I have to confess that unapologetically nerdy vocalist, lyricist and guitarist Craig Finn and his bandmates finally won me over as a live act with their set of one rah-rah-rousing anthem after another as the sun was beginning to set in Union Park.
Some bands, it seems, are made to be heard in a festival setting--though it did take me three festivals to appreciate the Hold Steady's foot-tapping, fist-pumping merits.
From those extremely all-American sounds, the mood shifted to something veddy, veddy British for the penultimate main-stage set on Saturday.
Former Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker had yet to perform in Chicago in support of his strong 2006 solo album "Jarvis," and I can't remember the last time the late, lamented Pulp played here. But the skinny but suave singer took the stage with all the swagger, wit and style he's displayed since the Britpop heyday of the early '90s, and he sashayed, shimmied, crooned and wisecracked his way through a strong set of deliciously melodic and delightfully melodramatic pop.
The show built to a climax with an encore of a song that Cocker identified as a Chicago hit from the mid-'80s, though he couldn't remember the name, and he didn't identify the artist. (If you can, please let me know.) It sounded like a generic house track, but he brings such personality to everything he does, you'll hear no complaint from me.
Pitchfork Day Two ended with the field filled to overflowing for the trancey, droning freak-folk of another big Pitchfork Webzine favorite, the ever-shifting Brooklyn ensemble Animal Collective.
The group's moody lightshow seemed to have as much appeal as its free-flowing sounds, which, at their best, recalled Pink Floyd in its "Amazing Pudding" incarnation during the early '70s, circa "Meddle" and "Obscured by Clouds" before the songcraft of "The Dark Side of the Moon." At its worst, during the other half of the set, the group abandoned any hint of rock drive in favor of shuffling, hippies-on-the-bongos-style arrhythmic clatter, and it played like an unfocused, over-indulgent but inexplicably popular indie-hipster version of the Grateful Dead's dreaded "Drums in Space" wank-fests.