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.
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.
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.