Tortoise at Pitchfork; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.
Having survived a brief picket by union stagehands earlier in the week, and with the promoters hoping that the ominous, low-lying gray clouds wouldn't open up, the fifth annual Pitchfork Music Festival got underway in the West Side's Union Park late Friday afternoon in a lulling, low-key fashion with a set by Chicago's instrumental navel-gazers Tortoise.
Never a very inspiring act in concert, the instrument-hopping quintet didn't gain any excitement from partaking in day one's "Write the Night" concept, which involved concertgoers voting online in advance for the songs they'd most like to hear. Since so many of the band's sleepy grooves and repetitive minimalist melodies are so similar, it all sounded like one long, boring song anyway, this part with mallets, that with Moog synthesizer, this part with a bit of jazzy guitar from Jeff Parker.
Quipped one festival-goer: "I'm just going to consider this like that music they use to test the P.A."
The only drama in Tortoise's set came from drummer John Herndon's introductory dedication of the performance to local poet Thax Douglas, a ubiquitous presence reading his short, music-inspired poems at local rock clubs and theaters, and "a dear friend of ours who died this morning."
The problem with this moving sentiment is that no reliable news organizations have been able to confirm Douglas' alleged death at the time of this posting, and it appears to have been debunked as an Internet hoax.
Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.
Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.
Pitchfork 2009's second act, long-running Hoboken, N.J.-based guitar-rockers Yo La Tengo, also started out sleepily, leaning toward more trance-inducing Krautrock-style drones early in the set.
The flaws in the "Write the Night" concept quickly became apparent: Since the results weren't posted in advance, you really couldn't tell if the band was fulfilling fans' requests or not. Also, if the broad base of fans doesn't have a deep knowledge of the band's catalog and history, instead of challenging it to perform some rarely heard nuggets, they probably just asked for the best-known songs, many of which they'd likely have heard anyway.
Whatever the results of the balloting, guitarist-vocalist Ira Kaplan, drummer-vocalist Georgia Hubley and bassist-vocalist James McNew kicked into gear about 20 minutes into their set with a ferocious noise-guitar blowout, and from that point on, they proceeded to alternate some of their most straightforward and winning pop tunes with chaotic Velvet Underground-style noise rock.
Jesus Lizard singer David Yow goes into the crowd (briefly) and stares lovingly into the eyes of stage manager and always amiable scenester Howard Greynolds, charged with the unenviable task of fishing him out ; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.
By far the highlight of Day I--and such a powerful presence that it seemed pointless for any other band to even try to compete--the Jesus Lizard took the stage in Chicago once again, a decade after the legendary noise-rock quartet disbanded.
Through the '90s, singer David Yow earned a place on a short list that includes Iggy Pop and the late Lux Interior of the Cramps, similar forces of nature who courted chaos whenever they picked up a microphone.
As he prepares to celebrate his 49th birthday next month, Yow may be mellowing some: Unlike many shows in the past, where he seemed to spend most of his time atop the up-stretched arms of the crowd, Yow only dived in the seething mass of humanity a few times. He kept his clothes on--there was no reprise of the infamous "Tight and Shiny" routine of old--and he didn't pop any of his limbs out of joint.
He could have been intimidated by the distance between the stage and the crowd barriers. And it's also possible that the festival setting just didn't inspire the same lunacy that used to grip him at Metro or the Vic Theatre back in the day. But it really didn't matter.
The relative absence of outrageous stage antics allowed fans to focus on the fact that, while Yow is by no means a great singer in any traditional sense of the word, he is a unique and unforgettable one, with a voice one alt-era critic described as a hostage screaming through the duct tape over his mouth, and another said evoked a possessed preacher speaking in tongues.
Meanwhile, bassist David Wm. Sims and drummer Mac McNeilly showed they hadn't lost a beat, remaining one of the best rhythm sections of their generation, with an undeniable James Brown swing under their ferocious punk-rock-meets-John Bonham bombast. And cool as ever through it all, Duane Denison churned out spare but indelible riffs without ever breaking a sweat--that is, until he allowed himself the indulgence of rolling on the floor amid sweeping waves of feedback during the last song of the set (followed shortly thereafter by a two-song encore, a rarity at Pitchfork, but well-deserved).
Yow and Jesus Lizard drummer Mac McNeilly; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.
Duane Denison; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.
Even if you weren't a big fan of Built to Spill--and I was never converted by their postmodern updates of classic Neil Young and Crazy Horse guitar jams--you had to pity bandleader, guitarist, vocalist and Idaho native Doug Martsch for having the unenviable task of trying to follow the Jesus Lizard, headlining over that band in its home town.
Martsch and his bandmates tried their best, making impressive use of dramatic dynamics shifts with quiet interludes exploding into six-string rave-ups. But it was sort of like following a gourmet meal with a Twinkie for desert: It might have been fine as a snack at a different time, but after what had preceded it, there simply was no point.
Built to Spill; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez. More photos from Day I after the jump.
More photos by Oscar Lopez for the Sun-Times.
Above: Two more shots of Tortoise in action.
The proud sons and daughter of Hoboken, N.J.: Georgia Hubley and James McNew (top) and Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo.
More shots of Built to Spill in action.
Mac McNeilly of the Jesus Lizard, and another look at David Yow (who, it should be noted, sported a Hot Doug's T-shirt, broadcasting his great taste in hot dogs).
Scenes from the crowd in Union Park.