Making the scene at Pitchfork 2009; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.
The second day of Pitchfork 2009 continued the slow-to-somnambulant vibe of much of Day I. First up on the main stages in Union Park: Cymbals Eat Guitars and Plants and Animals, two groups whose live performances failed to captivate in the larger-than-life festival setting, and which seemed to be struggling to find unique identities.
A much-buzzed quartet from New York, Cymbals Eat Guitars could well have been Minneapolis' Tapes 'n Tapes playing the same stage two years ago and failing to distinguish themselves as anything more than vaguely New Wave-sounding generic indie rock, though like Built to Spill the night before, the musicians did at least try to play to the wide open spaces with dramatic use of contrasting loud/soft dynamics.
Slightly less twee on stage than on album, Montreal's Plants and Animals nonetheless seemed confused about whether they wanted to emulate the Talking Heads circa "Remain in Light," as they'd do for one song, or vintage '70s Krautrock with a driving motorik beat, as they'd do for the next. Then, just to confuse things even more, they'd throw in a bit of heavy-metal posturing.
F---d Up singer Pink Eyes struts his stuff; photo courtesy of Andrew Gill, WBEZ.
Things only really got started at 2:30 in the afternoon when Toronto-based art-punk provocateurs F---ed Up took the Aluminum Stage, and bald, bearded, beer-bellied singer Pink Eyes (a.k.a. Damian Abraham) proved himself in the same league as the Jesus Lizard's David Yow, spending almost the entire set in the field with the fans, standing atop the crowd barrier or tearing apart any beach ball tossed his way with his teeth.
In your face with a three-guitar attack and relentlessly propulsive rhythms, the group's wall of sound is nevertheless intensely melodic, and many in the crowd sang along throughout its set. And while some critics have raised alarms about the cryptic politics of some of the band's lyrics, the live show underscores that it's all just about energy, and Pink Eyes' stage presence is just a celebration of cutting loose.
If the musicians really believed in fascism, they could never abide anyone having so much fun.
Finding themselves in the same difficult spot that Built to Spill was in after the Jesus Lizard, the Brooklyn quartet the Pains of Being Pure at Heart acquitted themselves a little better, entrancing the crowd rather than trying to pummel it, and letting the lush waves of shoegazer guitar and wispy pop harmones float over the park like a fluffy cloud.
After the group's pleasant breather of a set, I headed over to the smaller Balance Stage and caught the last half of Bower Birds, one of the several folk-rock revivalist bands on the bill this year. Way too mannered on record, the group was much more impressive live, thanks to the magnetic presence of front woman Beth Tacular, and the musicians' deft juggling of upright bass, accordion, violin and gorgeous harmony vocals. The large crowd responded by listening with an almost reverent silence.
Things quickly got a lot looser and much more energetic with the next band, Ponytail, which had been one of my picks for the best of the fest (thanks to the strength of its 2008 album "Ice Cream Spiritual") and which turned out to be even better than I'd hoped.
Molly Siegal and Ponytail speak in tongues at Pitchfork; photo courtesy of Andrew Gill, WBEZ.
Front woman Molly Siegal is a unique presence, dressed for this occasion in pink jeans and a phosphorescent green Michael Jackson T-shirt, looking like she was having epileptic seizures as she pogoed non-stop and let her eyes roll to the back of her head and singing in mostly insensible, speaking-in-tongues yelps, bleats and squeals. Think of Yoko Ono and Bjork dueting on the part of the B-52's "Rock Lobster" where they make the sounds of the stingray and the narwhal, and you'll still only be about half way there.
Though Siegal demands the spotlight, guitarists Ken Seeno and Dustin Wong and drummer Jeremy Hyman create a melodic and undeniable backdrop for her alien vocals, intertwining repetitive riffs and decorating the rhythms with all manner of cool synthesized or effected noises.
After Ponytail, it was back to the main stages for Yeasayer, a consistently hypnotic and magical live act that has long since proven it's mastery of the festival setting with it genre-defying mix of electronic and acoustic rhythms, folk-rock harmonies, free-form jazz excursions, shoegazer guitars and world percussion.
Doom takes the stage at Pitchfork; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.
If Doom (arty hip-hopper Daniel Dumile) specializes in creating elaborate mythical worlds in the studio, the only gimmick during his Pitchfork set was his trademark super villain mask. Otherwise, his set was a straightforward, hard-grooving assault of steady beats, rapid-fire rhymes and inventive backing tracks.
Finally, Day II came to an end on the main stages in mellow fashion once again as Beirut and the National wrapped things up.
Beirut on the Connector Stage at Pitchfork; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.
The horns that decorated much of New Mexico musician Zach Condon's music with Beirut were lovely, but not lovely enough to make up for his annoying ukulele, and the sometimes pointlessly eclectic arrangements and overall lazy mid-tempo groove weren't what this listener needed to stay motivated as the end of such a long day of music drew near.
The Ohio to New York transplants in the Americana-oriented group the National started out just as slowly, but rumbling baritone vocalist Matt Berninger and his band mates picked up steam as the set went on, and the group's mix of alternative country and chamber pop was beautiful and enchanting at times.
Nevertheless, at the end of the day, it was Ponytail and the National that powered me on the trip home, and which I'll remember along with the Jesus Lizard as the high points of everything I've seen in Union Park this year or any other.
After the jump: More images from Pitchfork 2009.