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Pitchfork 2009: Day III

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The Flaming Lips' big finale in Union Park; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.

As the staff at the Pitchfork Music Festival, largely volunteers from the local music community, made the last-minute preparations for the final day of 2009 two hours before the doors opened Sunday morning, chief festival promoter Mike Reed reported that, despite the grousing of some concertgoers on this and other blogs, the cap on festival attendance has not been raised this year (it's still 18,300 per day, as in previous years) and, regardless of the endless lines, there are not fewer Porta-Potties on site (in fact, another 35 were brought in this morning).

"I think what's happening is that, thanks to the cooler weather, people are just staying here longer, sticking around where in the past they might have said, 'I've seen the band I came for, and it's just too hot--let's go,'" Reed said.

There also is the fact that of any festival I have attended in the last 20 years on this beat--from Woodstock redux to the infamous Furthur rave at a go-cart track in Hixton, Wisc. to Lollapalooza in all of its different incarnations, and from Warped to Lilith Fest to the Guiness Fleadgh--Pitchfork is a fundamentally pleasant experience, with an uplifting communal vibe (again, witness all those volunteers), a non-corporate slant (though there are plenty of corporate sponsors present on the fringes, even in this troubled economy) and most of all an adventurous booking policy that, while it may result in some bands that are nowhere near ready to make the leap from 200-seat clubs to a massive baseball field, always yields plenty of thrilling musical discoveries that definitely do deserve a spotlight this bright.

"People have to realize that there are just some things about seeing a concert outdoors that are never going to be as good as seeing music in a club or theater," Reed said.

True enough; I've always said that rock 'n' roll should happen indoors at night, with air conditioning and free-flowing beer. But as the big summer outdoor music experience goes, it still doesn't get any better than Pitchfork.

Anticipation was high as an even more ambitious stage set-up than usual for psychedelic showmen and festival headliners the Flaming Lips required the promoters to reconfigure the main stage to make way for a giant video screen, but from the beginning at 1 p.m., day three was proving to be the best this year.

The first two acts on the main stages both came out strong. The Los Angeles-based experimental combo the Mae Shi mixed elements of punk, noise-rock, indie-pop, hip-hop, dance music and--the oddest ingredient of all--Christian-themed lyrics. At one point during a high-energy opening set, the musicians passed along a giant multi-colored tarpaulin for the crowd to hold aloft in a simple yet effective bit of showmanship.

Unfortunately, this was the last performance by the group with its current lineup, as Pitchfork (the Web site, not the festival) reports that band founder Jeff Byron will continue under the Mae Shi name while the three other members of the current touring group will split off to form a new band called Signals. I did not hear the band comment on that during its show, but the musicians did lash out at Pitchfork (the Web site, once again) for failing to critique its last album, "HLLLYH."

"Come on, give it a four," one of the musicians said, referring to Pitchfork;s 1-to-10 rating system, "just review that s---!"

Next up was the Scottish quartet Frightened Rabbit, current masters of the deeply emotional, enduringly tuneful heartbreak anthem. Scott Hutchison and his bandmates underscored the emotion in their songs with rolling waves of rhythm guitar and dramatic crescendos, making their well-crafted melodies all the more potent.

The highs continued in the central part of the park with the Portland folk-rock/alternative country band Blitzen Trapper, the sublime vehicle for the novelistic lyrics and timeless melodies of singer and songwriter Eric Earley. The gorgeous songs from the group's last album "Furr" held the audience in their thrall, even during the most quiet moments.

After that, the energy level jumped again with Troy Donald Jameson, hip-hop's Pharoahe Monch. Like Doom on Saturday night, the veteran of Organized Konfusion kept things straightforward and old-school, captivating with just his rhymes and the beats, with occasional flourishes from a soulful backing vocalist.

The Thermals kept the adrenaline pumping as the Portland group delivered its invigorating and tuneful punk sounds--though by far the best song in its set was a cover of Nirvana's unforgettable "Sappy."

As the day drew to a close, things slowed down again, first with the Walkmen, whose merger of Tom Waits and the that classic New York Velvet Underground (or Strokes, if your prefer) drone might have been much more effective if singer Hamilton Leithauser's theatrical vocals weren't so annoying, and then with M83, French one-man band Anthony Gonzales, augmented for the occasion with some help on drums and keyboards. His own merger of shoegazer guitar swirl and lush dance-pop would have been much more appealing in a club, or perhaps at another time than after 19 hours of music in the park over the rest of the weekend.

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Grizzly Bear at Pitchfork; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.

Much loved by much of the indie-rock underground, the Brooklyn quartet Grizzly Bear took the stage as the penultimate act of the fest, riding high on the success of their recent third album "Veckatimest." But the group's brand of slippery, slinky "freak folk" wasn't nearly as effective as the more traditional sounds of Blitzen Trapper had been, and it was overpowered by the cheers of fans at the other end of the field every time one of the Flaming Lips' crew members walked onstage for last-minute preparations.

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Wayne Coyne inside the space bubble; Sun-Times photo by Oscar Lopez.

Finally, it was the Lips' moment. The band had flip-flopped on whether it would reprise the "Write the Night" concept to close the fest, ultimately agreeing to honor "some" requests. This longtime Lips fan--and, full disclosure, author of a biography on the band--was eager for anything different from the tried and true tricks of the last decade: the costumed dancers, confetti showers, giant balloons, bandleader Wayne Coyne's roll through the crowd in a "space bubble" and the rest.

In the end, the Lips kept all of those gimmicks, and they played many of the songs that have become staples of every show. But they rose above what's been in danger of becoming a Vegas on acid shtick in part because the festival setting called for the visual overkill, but even more because they challenged themselves musically onstage, playing two brand new songs and digging way beyond deep for several rarities they've almost never performed live, including the 1995 song "Bad Days" and the studio outtake "Enthusiasm For Life (Defeats Internal, Existential Fear)."

It was a great ending to another outstanding Pitchfork festival, with the only disappointment being that the no-exceptions 10 p.m. curfew meant the Lips couldn't play an encore, and even after so much music all weekend long, fans had to leave wanting more.

The Flaming Lips' setlist: "Race for the Prize"; "Convinced of the Hex" (new song); "Bad Days"; ""Enthusiasm For Life (Defeats Internal, Existential Fear)"; "Yeah Yeah Yeah Song"; "Fight Test"; "Silver Trembling Hands" (new song); "Mountainside"; "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Part 1"; "She Don't Use Jelly"; "Do You Realize?"

More photos from the Flaming Lips' set by Oscar Lopez for the Sun-Times after the jump.

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30 Comments

Why are you such an apologist for Pitchfork? Do they advertise in the paper? The porta-potty situation was unacceptable. The sound is not adequate for the crowd size. Concert promoters should anticipate having to adapt for weather conditions. Just because you like the bands booked and it's not corporate-sponsored doesn't mean that the Festival should get a pass.

By the end of the day on Saturday, the porta-potties were literally overflowing. And the lines earlier in the evening had stretched to a half hour. The lame excuse that we will bring a few more in for Sunday is too little, too late.

The sound was almost universally way too weak, regardless of the band, the stage and the style of music. Pitchfork cannot expect to sell 18,000 or whatever tickets and put in a sound system designed to reach 1000 ears. I've been to city street fests with better sound systems. And many of the other fests you refer to have at least done the sound right, despite many other flaws.

I'm skeptical about the claim that the crowds were unexpected due to the weather or that the same number of tickets were sold as previous years. Indeed, the demographic of the audience was significantly older than in past years (average well into thirties). Older crowds are less likely to stick around all day. But the higher percentage of older people means more beer sales and more need for porta-potties.

In any event, the promoter's comments about people not leaving beg the question of why Pitchfork has a no re-entry policy. If Pitchfork wants to oversell, it should allow people to leave for a few hours and then come back. Part of the over-crowding is caused by the necessity of hanging out for hours in between bands when you have little or no interest in the interim. Of course, a re-entry policy would cut the profit from beer sales which is probably the reason why Pitchfork traps you in there.

Actually the Mae Shi album, HLLLYH, was reviewed, quite favorably, by Pitchfork:
http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/11147-hlllyh/

The guy who complained on stage about the non-review was Yea Big, who was a guest vocalist during the Mae Shi set.

In 2007, Greg Kot wrote "This weekend's festival sold out weeks ago; all 48,000 tickets were snapped up by fans..." which is about 16K a day. A wrap up you wrote last year - a year that didn't sell out as far as I can tell - mentions "17K visitors a day." So if they're selling 18,300 a day it seems like they number of tickets sold has increased a bit each year, rather than remaining static as organizers claim.

Yeah, just to be clear, the two guest vocalists were Yea Big + Kid Static, two longtime collaborators with The Mae Shi. YB+KS have toured / played shows with The Mae Shi and worked on a mashup EP spun off of HLLLYH together.

YB+KS new record, by the way, is outstanding.

Jim got a shout out from the Flaming Lips about the Write the Night requests and then played Bad Days, but sadly that wasn't one on Jim's request list. Nice to have the webcast to follow along.

Letting people out would require a lot more police and clean up I think the local pols and organizers decided it's too risky. The southeast corner was rather quiet. Oh and The Nationals' horn/violin section seemed there for show not sound. Ye4asayers great. I wish I was more pushy and saw more acts up close. I stepped on someone's leg - sorry. Did anyone else get that asian dish that was iceberg lettuce green beans and peanut sauce? Whoops!

As a veteran of ~10 Flaming Lips concerts spanning some 17 years and a fan of their music for even longer, I have had it with their circus shtick. I'd need more space than this comment box allows to fully express myself, but perhaps it suffices to say that I was happy to leave their show to go watch The Very Best on the other stage.

Amen, Jim.

The Lips have been one of my favorite bands for 20 years going, and I'm glad they are making money so late in life/etc/making people happy.....but they've been doing this comedy prop schtick for going on 10 full years now (at least since, they went out the first time as a 3 piece using backing tracks)....Wayne has become a sortof Captain Kangaroo of indie rock and hey, that's a pretty good way to earn a pretty darn good living. But I can't go see them again. They're coasting. The last album was their first dud ever, uninspired tunes that would have at best been 90s Beck B-sides....

The band didn't plan this unlikely success and they sure deserve every dollar of it. But....wouldn't it be great if they actually challenged themseleves musically again in some way/anyway. Heck, do an all acoustic album, something new, something without Spencer Gifts props, and false "cheer"...

Those are some beautiful photographs; well done, Oscar Lopez

"...several rarities they've almost never performed live, including the 1995 song Bad Days"

Actually, Bad Days was frequently played in 1994 through 1996...

Hey Jim, it was nice to hear the shout-out to you, but I wonder if you ultimately felt as let down by the band as I did tonight. Wayne sure did a lot of talking about "Write the Night", but seemed half-hearted at best about it, and more than a little passive-agressive, taking up so much time talking about the format (and how, in his opinion, the band always plays what the audience wants at every show). More than one song ('Fight Test', 'Yoshimi') was played in a bare-bones, almost lullaby style, with only basic chords and instrumentation. Wayne repeatedly gestured and yelled for the crowd to respond, but only gave them half-hearted mid-tempo renditions of the recnt go-to songs to work with.

Perhaps I let myself get carried away with the prospect of the Lips playing a cross-section of the best songs from their catalog, but I felt mighty let down tonight, not so much by the lack of variety but by the lack of energy and passion. The Lips had a chance to give the audience perhaps the most memorable finale to any Pitchfork festival so far. However, with their lackluster retread of mostly tired tricks, I'm left to think that the increasingly spark-less output of the last two albums (and tours) is no lull, and that this band is spent and can't (or won't) recreate their past highs, even for an evening.

m83 were amazing, especially since they brought back a completely reworked version of "Sitting" from their very first LP. but i'm sure you didn't notice, as it sounds like you were all tuckered out there jim, probably too busy getting ready for some flaming lips cirque du soleil nonsense. flaming lips were cool when they were punk, now they are about as challenging as a screensaver.

I think it was kind of douchey to not honor the "write-the-night" more to the letter. Instead of wasting time apologizing for it, just play the top 10 or 12 requested instead of the 25th or the one you heard 2 or three fans wanted to hear.

Also, agreed Pitchfork needs to do a better job with sound.

glad I sold my ticket for Sunday. I would have been mighty disappointed to hear only ONE song that people ostensibly 'voted' for. I'm through w/ the FL.

I honestly didn't at all mind hearing "Race for the Prize" first (even though I've heard it at the last three Lips concerts I've been to). But after that, most of the set was unbelievable. I adored the new tunes, and hearing "Bad Days" and "Enthusiasm for Life" was a huge treat. Even "Mountainside," which seems to be their new favorite dig-deep track, sounded better than it did the last time. It was like they were going for an almost krautrock-y noise thing for most of those tunes. Plus, they managed to do "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" without the hokey sing-along at the beginning, which vastly improved it. I felt like "Fight Test" had the wind knocked out of its sails because it was so slow; it was still pretty but kind of a letdown before the brilliance of "Silver Trembling Hands," which was, for me, the show's highlight.

I was really disappointed, then, when the last three tracks were not only predictable but not particularly interesting. I've heard that rendition of "Yoshimi" before, I'm tired of hearing a valuable concert tune spot be taken up by "She Don't Use Jelly," and "Do You Realize??," though great, has outlived its shelf-life. In the end, though, I suppose I can't complain too much -- bands like the Lips have a hard balancing act, especially when introducing new material and playing some deeper cuts. And I got over half the show that I would've wanted, so that's pretty awesome.

Great festival. Have to agree this is by far one of the most laid back good vibe festivals I've ever been apart of. Sound was great at every stage I went to ..Jesus Lizard, DOOM, Vivian Girls etc.

They need to open up will call on Thursday next year. Even if it's just for a few hours in the evening.

"Convinced of the Hex" came later in the setlist than the second song. Perhaps you have the titles of the new songs reversed?

You write a book about the flaming lips and they publicly thank you. This isn't journalism it's d--- sucking. The lips were all flash, no substance---so much confetti so little heart---grizzly bear, who even had sound issues were far more captivating musically---If we are just judging visuals I guess the flaming lips win for that but they also take home the emperors new clothes award, and left a lot of trash

I should actually correct myself -- Mountainside & ..Existential.. are older songs, though they seem to be playing Mountainside more as Brendan D. noted.

what they used to be:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ReNnBNetlsY

First of all, I waited on Saturday to use the bathroom for AN HOUR. There will always be lines but the way Pitchfork is set up is idiotic. The beer tent was right behind the bathrooms. So there was just one huge line blocking traffic to the smaller stage. And nobody really even knew if they were in the right line. I stood in a line for the first 30 minutes not sure if I was even in line for an actual bathroom because the line just wasn't moving.

Also, whether the festival is commercialized or not, obviously the festival is being advertised much more to the point where people who don't even like the festival are cluttering the grounds with their blankets and lawn chairs so you can't even walk around. There were people constantly getting up and walking around and talking very loud. This never happened previous years.

I was disappointed overall by this year's Pitchfork. There was a new crowd of people, and for some reason it seemed they knew this because they booked band that NEVER would have been asked to play at Pitchfork. I.e. The Flaming Lips. This is not Bonnaroo.

The best band I saw was M83 and that show was tainted for me because of the overwhelming number of rude Flaming Lips fans who were sitting on blankets 6 rows in front of the stage. WHO DOES THAT.

At any rate, Pitchfork IS becoming commercialized. It was significantly worse this year. And personally, this being my third year attending the festival, I think may also be my last. Unless they have an outstanding lineup for 2010. Doubtful. They should probably just book Phish now.

That wasn't the Mae Shi who pleaded to pitchfork about the album review, but rather the chicago rap duo (Yea Big + Kid Static) that joined the group onstage.

Re: the Walkmen. "if singer Hamilton Leithauser's theatrical vocals weren't so annoying"

I thought they were amazing, and he was fearless to throw his pipes out there in a live setting. Definitely the highlight of the weekend for me--ambitious and engaging.

As for the Lips, I should've used a watch to record the rationalizing/whining/BSing:playing ratio. Gee Wayne, if you want the audience to be into your sound and show some excitement, maybe you should actually play some songs instead of offering up half-hearted singalongs and playing out the clock.

@ Isabella:

I had the same problems you describe with the crowds at Lolla in '07, and I haven't had an inkling to go back since, even to see bands I'd otherwise like to see (case in point this year: Animal Collective). If you're that unhappy with it, there's definitely no reason to go back.

But I think it's a little ridiculous to assert that the Flaming Lips "would never have been asked to play at Pitchfork" in previous years. First of all, I don't really understand why that's an issue, since the festival has obviously grown bigger. But why exactly wouldn't the Pitchfork organizers want the Lips to play? The band has been a darling of the indie press (even though they've been with Warner for almost twenty years) for a very long time. Pitchfork itself raved about The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi. They may not be an underground success anymore, but that's only because they've been in the business for so long. I think the best comparison I can give to the Lips is Animal Collective, who, if they last long enough, I can see charting a very similar career path. If Animal Collective is still an active band ten years from now, I can almost guarantee they'll be a pretty well-known band by the mainstream, even if they never actually have a radio hit.

I also don't think it's fair to criticize fans of one band the way you do. It's entirely possible that some Lips fans were being rude, but I know for a fact that there were plenty of rude fans of other bands, too. That's what happens at an outdoor festival, especially when it's located in a city rather than out in bu-fu. It has, I think, little to do with the bands invited and more to do with the fact that Pitchfork is a growing fest in a big city.

Seriously, the Walkmen whipped everybody into a frenzy. Damn good songs, damn good set.

And the Tom Waits comment? Love the guy and his work, but the comparison hasn't a leg to stand on.

Jim DeRigeur missed it.

I don't understand why you even bother reviewing some of these bands. You already hated some of them from the get go and didn't even watch their sets! As a volunteer there, I saw you chatting over the flaming lips stage for the Grizzly Bear show and didn't see you anywhere close to the Walkmen. You are hard to miss being the , errr "large" person you are, don't review a show if you don't watch it. It's bad form. Commence you love affair with wayne coyne now, who sucked and seemed like the biggest ego maniac ever. You don't sound check and spurt confetti during other people's set. A--hole.

I agree with a lot of what Jim says, but here's my take on it which differs some: http://rockandrollghost.blogspot.com/2009/07/live-review-day-three-of-pitchfork.html

Did anyone else out there catch the Japandroids set? I was not too familiar with them, but had heard good things. I can only speak for sunday, but they rocked my ass off with most of the surrounding crowd in agreement. That there is what the fest is all about, and as for the Flaming Lips, not a great show but that happens, i just take the good and move on. Its not easy to try out 2 new songs to a crowd that always wants something else. I loved "Convinced of the Hex", and
"Silver Trembling Hands", they sort of evoked Black Sabbath, which in my mind is A-OK. I went a whole day without dying of heat exhaustion and leaving with money still in wallet, great fest overall, some of you might be complaining alot, but im sure its just your personality.

Hey Jim, will I ever get to hear The Satellite Hearts again?!

I was extremely disappointed in the Lips set, as I have been for a few years now, the only reason I bothered seeing them this time was the hope that the Write The Night would provide some excitement and a spark of their old magic.

Yes it was great to hear Bad Days and Enthusiasm. But those two songs were the only bright spot on this tired retread of a set. Fight Test performed as it was was such a waste of time and condescending to the listener thinking they could phone it in and that would be acceptable. And the dragged out 5 endings to Do You Realize reminded me of watching Lord of the Rings...just waiting for it to end.

Additionally this performance was 70% spectacle and 30% music. They easily could have fit at least 3 if not 4 or 5 more songs in had they kept the schtick to a minimum. And knowing they had a 10 o'clock curfew I'm disappointed they didn't head this.

I know this is all just a lot of complaining. I expect a lot from this once great band and believe they are capable of so much more.

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on July 19, 2009 10:54 AM.

Pitchfork 2009: Day II, the Balance Stage was the previous entry in this blog.

Pichfork 2009: More on the backline, Day 3 is the next entry in this blog.

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