Though it's unlikely that most of the 17,000 fans who've attended each day know it, the Pitchfork Music Festival originated as a small concert run by a grassroots group called Interchange formed to register voters before the last Presidential election.
Through its remarkable growth, Pitchfork has retained that activist spirit: Some 70 volunteers have registered more than 1,200 voters from 34 states and the District of Columbia over the course of the festival's fourth year at the West Side's Union Park. But the community spirit is here in other ways, too.
If you've spent any time at all in Chicago clubland, and you came to Pitchfork for even an hour, you've probably seen 200 familiar faces working to make the concert happen: club bookers, sound technicians, bartenders, security workers, musicians and dedicated fans.
Even as it has become the country's most significant annual showcase of the rock underground, the festival has continued to be a celebration of everything that makes the Chicago music scene great--a stark contrast to the bigger, pricier, more corporate and often soulless Lollapalooza.
The third and final day of the fourth annual festival kicked off under a bright blue sky Sunday afternoon (finally!) with the Columbus, Ohio, trio Times New Viking.
When I caught guitarist Jared Phillips, drummer-vocalist Adam Elliott and keyboardist-vocalist Beth Murphy at a high-profile Matador Records at South by Southwest last March, I wasn't at all impressed with the group's deliberately primitive garage-pop: It seemed like yet another in the long line of lo-fi Guided by Voices imitators/acolytes.
Under much more pressure to deliver a big sound to carry across the baseball fields, the group rose to the occasion Sunday, and the songs from its recent album "Rip It Off" as well as earlier material came across as frenetic explosions of energy and melody delivered with a pervasive exuberance that made any technical ineptitude irrelevant.
Equally energetic and even more memorable was the Melvins-inspired Japanese noise/stoner-rock band Boris, which proudly does everything to excess: It has released 18 studio albums since the early '90s, and its stage setup included doubleneck guitar and a giant John Bonham drum set complete with a massive gong.
This arsenal was put to good use as the band ruthlessly pummeled the crowd with a beyond-heavy metal assault.
Sandwiched in between those two acts and instantly forgettable were Dirty Projectors, a fragile indie-pop group led by Yale dropout David Longstreth, who takes pride in esoteric songwriting projects such as a concept album inspired by Don Henley ("The Getty Flag," 2005) and a "reimagining" of barely remembered Black Flag songs ("Rise Above," 2007).
It might have been a different story at Schubas. But on the Pitchfork Stage, Dirty Projectors' weak group vocals and thin, Afro-pop-inspired guitar lines just didn't have the power to carry the day.
The mid-afternoon highlight came from veteran Elephant 6 psychedelic-pop band Apples in Stereo, which is still riding high on its stellar 2007 release, "New Magnetic Wonder." The ambitious, Beatlesesque studio masters overcame a muddy sound problem early on to deliver their gleeful pop gems in typically effervescent fashion.
"And the world is made of energy," bandleader Robert Schneider sang. "And there's a light inside of you/And there's a light inside of me."
Looking out over the throngs of thrilled fans, it seemed as if truer words could not have been spoken.
When the Brooklyn-based old-school punk band Les Savy Fav made its first Pitchfork appearance several years ago, the crowd very nearly surged out of control, thanks to the group's amphetamine overdrive and a wild performance by vocalist Tim Harrington, who spent much of that show half-naked and in the field amid the crowd.
Fans expected the musicians to up the ante on their return visit, and they didn't disappoint.
While somehow leading the band in performing tunes from its fourth album, "Let's Stay Friends," Harrington ran through the masses, rolled in the remaining mud puddles, hopped inside a garbage barrel that he then encouraged his fans to pass through the crowd and finally donned a one-piece flesh-colored body suit with his internal organs drawn on it--no actual nudity this time, thank you very much--while leading the crowd in a chant of, "This is my body/This is what it does/I try to make it better/But I know it's gonna bust."
Mind you, all of this was more effective for the fact that Harrington is a portly, bald, bearded and otherwise delightfully mild-mannered fellow who looks more like a mathematics professor than a punk-rock front man.
Les Savy Fav was a hard act for any band to follow, and although the Dodos tried with a spirited set of multi-instrumental progressive-punk complete with polyrhythms hammered out on a dented steel trash can, the San Francisco group wore out its welcome after several samey-sounding tunes.
M. Ward did even less of a convincing job matching the fiery intensity of what had preceded him. The cult-hero singer and songwriter tried to carry the large crowd with genteel folkie acoustic guitar and hushed understated vocals.
He was rewarded with the sound of Ghostface Killah wafting over from the Balance Stage at the far end of the park and almost completely drowning him out. And things were only marginally better later in the set when and the band finally plugged in.
Next up, perfectly timed to start as the orange glow of twilight began to fill the park, the veteran English space-rockers Spiritualized took the stage and entranced a crowd just beginning to reach the saturation point with its undulating waves of alternately beautiful and frighteningly dissonant gospel-tinged psychedelia.
Powered by one of the group's strongest lineups ever, with Julian Cope veterans Thighpaulsandra and Doggen and two stunning female backing vocalists, the set ranged from early material such as "Shine a Light" from "Lazer Guided Melodies" (1992) through "Come Together" from "Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space" (1997) up to material from the new "Songs in A&E," all of it timeless, brilliant and wonderfully evocative of that fabled journey toward the white light.
Finally, closing things out at the end of three long but rewarding days of music, fans wallowed in the dated indie-rock guitar jams of Dinosaur Jr. and, much stronger and one last highlight in a fest that was full of them, the angular but irresistible grooves of the Austin, TX, art-punk band Spoon.
Always strong on album, including last year's more danceable "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga," bandleader Britt Daniel, longtime drummer Jim Eno and their bandmates have sometimes been an inconsistent live act. But augmented by a horn section and swathed in a moody, atmospheric light show to rival that of Animal Collective the night before, the band delivered as powerfully as it ever has, justifying its concluding spot at Pitchfork Year Four.