In its fifth year in the West Side's Union Park, since its origin as Intonation in 2005, the Pitchfork Music Festival has cemented its reputation as the premier annual celebration of cutting-edge music in Chicago--and arguably the entire country.
With a comfortable if not particularly scenic setting, manageable crowds, bargain-priced tickets, an encouraging community vibe and most of all imaginative and musically challenging bookings, Pitchfork is everything the festival experience should be--that is, for those of us who value the music over "making the scene."
Here is an hour-by-hour look at the acts on this year's bill, with my choices for absolute must-sees marked by * * *.
Tortoise, 5 p.m., Connector Stage
With all due respect to their accomplishments over the last 15 years, Chicago's instrumental progressive-rockers can be sleepy on album--witness their newest, "Beacons of Ancestorship"--and absolutely narcotic on stage. But they're well positioned to get the festival off to a low-key start, and since opening day is devoted to the "Write the Night" concept, with fans having voted online for the songs they'd like to hear live, we're certain to get the band's best track, "Djed."
* * * Yo La Tengo, 6:10 p.m., Aluminum Stage
The long-running, Hoboken, N.J.-based trio of Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew probably have done more with less than any band in the history of indie-rock. Fans most likely voted for a lot of the raucous guitar blow-outs and Krautrock trance-drones, but I'm hoping they also chose some of the quieter material, like the minimalist masters' gorgeous cover of Daniel Johnston's "Speeding Motorcycle."
* * * The Jesus Lizard, 7:20 p.m., Connector Stage
If you never experienced the full-throttle chaos of these Chicago noise-rockers live during their late '80s and early '90s heyday, nothing I say will prepare you for the onslaught of frontman David Yow, the indomitable rhythm section of Mac McNeilly and David William Sims and guitar wizard Duane Denison. Even if they've lost a step or two to age before their recent reunion, you may still be carrying your head home in a basket.
Built to Spill, 8:40 p.m., Aluminum Stage
Their many devoted fans swear by the Crazy Horse-like guitar extravaganzas of Doug Martsch and his bandmates, though they've never done much for me: Why not just listen to "Cowgirl in the Sand" or "Down by the River" again? Or leave early and conserve your energy for the next two days.
Disappears, 1 p.m., Balance Stage
The sound of this Chicago quartet is a lot more spacey and trance-inducing than its members' roots in the Pony's, 90 Day Men and Boas might lead you to believe. Think of a more raw and nasty take on shoegazer guitar-pop.
* * * Cymbals Eat Guitars, 1 p.m., Aluminum Stage
The first big buzz band of the weekend, this is a quartet from Staten Island whose debut album "Why There Are Mountains" follows in the skewed art-pop tradition of Modest Mouse, Pavement and, in their more psychedelic/orchestral moments, the Flaming Lips.
The Dutchess and the Duke, 1:45 p.m., Balance Stage
"Campfire punk" from Seattle hipsters Kimberly Morrison and Jesse Lortz, this duo doesn't do anything for me on record: Do were really need another postmodern take on "The Anthology of American Folk Music"? But maybe they have more charm live.
Plants and Animals, 1:45 p.m., Connector Stage
Also in the redundant category is this trio, yet another twee, genre-jumbling folk-rock art project from Montreal, with tunes such as "Faerie Dance" and "A L'Oree Des Bois" that make me yearn for the Incredible String Band.
The Antlers, 2:30 p.m., Balance Stage
This Brooklyn act could go either way: I haven't cared for the more folkie solo recordings of falsetto-voiced frontman Peter Silberman, but his new band the Antlers add a hazy shoegazer ambience to the proceedings, and that could be entrancing onstage.
* * * F---ed Up, 2:30 p.m., Aluminum Stage
After the Jesus Lizard, this anarchist art-punk group from Toronto has the potential to blow more minds than any other act on the bill, though pseudononymous band leaders Pink Eyes and 10,000 Marbles wreak their brand of chaos in a much more tuneful way.
* * * The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, 3:20 p.m., Connector Stage
Don't let the awful, way-too-emo-sounding name of this young Brooklyn quartet throw you: Its self-titled debut is an invigorating mix of jangly pop and shoegazer drone, and it was a highlight of the South by Southwest Music Festival last March.
Bowerbirds, 3:35 p.m., Balance Stage
Vying with the many shoegazer-influenced bands at this year's fest is the surprising number of acts mining the old-time Harry Smith folk sound, and the Raleigh, NC-based trio of Phil Moore, Beth Tacular and Mark Paulson are another group in that vein. Too polite on record for my tastes, they could be better onstage.
Final Fantasy, 4:15 p.m., Aluminum Stage
A classically trained violinist from Toronto, Owen Pallett has written string arrangements for Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear and others, in addition to dabbling with film and video game soundtracks and opera. His last album, "He Poos Clouds," is every bit as annoying and precious as that title indicates.
* * * Ponytail, 4:30 p.m., Balance Stage
On the 2008 album "Ice Cream Spiritual," the often insensible, speaking-in-tongues yelps, bleats and squeals of front woman Molly Siegal were exuberant and ecstatic, and it's hard to imagine that the Baltimore band's buoyant, rollicking art-pop won't be even more inspiring in the festival setting.
* * * Yeasayer, 5:15 p.m., Connector Stage
Get ready for a late-afternoon bliss-out: The beautiful, layered vocals of this Brooklyn band's 2007 album "All Hour Cymbals" were beautifully paired with hints of folk, free-form jazz and shoegazer rock and a wide range of worldbeat influences. And the group is even better live.
Wavves, 5:30 p.m., Balance Stage
Beneficiary of an underground buzz so loud it's deafening, San Diego slacker Nathan William is a lo-fi bedroom-studio maven whose tuneful recordings are a pastiche of everything that seems to be happening at the moment in underground rock and hip-hop. The high expectations seemed to have gotten the better of him at the Primavera Sound Festival last May, where he melted down onstage. Hopefully he'll be in a better mood in Union Park.
* * * Doom, 6:15 p.m., Aluminum Stage
One of the most inventive and imaginative forces in hip-hop, the artist formerly known as MF Doom gets his look and persona from the super-villains of Marvel Comics and his gonzo sound from Mars by way of Venus. Live performances are a rare thing, so this could be something special.
Lindstrøm, 6:30 p.m., Balance Stage
Prime purveyor of "space disco," Norwegian producer Hans-Peter Lindstrøm splits the difference between vintage Kraftwerk and recent LCD Soundsystem.
Beirut, 7:25 p.m., Connector Stage
Inordinately fond of ukulele and sometimes needlessly busy orchestrations, and jumping from genres such as Balkan folk to French cabaret, Albuquerque, NM musician Zach Condon seems to be vying to take Andrew Bird's place in the indie underground, now that the latter has gone mainstream. And that is not a good thing.
* * * Matt & Kim, 7:30 p.m., Balance Stage
Quite possibly the happiest band Pitchfork has ever booked, and certainly the giddiest act this year, keyboardist/vocalist Matt Johnson and drummer/vocalist Kim Schifino deliver the melodic dance-pop goods on their recent album "Grand," and songs such as "Daylight" could become joyous anthems in the park.
* * * The Black Lips, 8:30 p.m., Balance Stage
More onstage chaos, this time likely to involve nudity and questionable bodily effluvia. Atlanta's rowdy garage-rockers can be sloppy, disgusting, goofy and frightening--sometimes all at once--but they are never, ever boring, more so onstage than on clattering recordings such as "Good Bad Not Evil" and "200 Million Thousand."
The National, 8:40 p.m., Aluminum Stage
Day Two comes ends with the respectable, rootsy but predictable Midwestern rock of these Ohio-to-New York transplants. Give me the Hold Steady any day.
The Mae Shi, 1 p.m., Aluminum Stage
Taking its name from the Japanese words for "business card," this Los Angeles sextet evokes Jane's Addiction crossed with the Black Lips--which could be brilliant onstage, or a disaster.
Michael Columbia, 1 p.m., Balance Stage
Launched by Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist indie-rock veterans Dave McDonnell and Dylan Ryan and since expanded to a trio with the addition of Chris Kalis, this synth-rock project jokingly refers to itself as "Can Halen," as in the Krautrock legends meet Van Halen. And songs such as "Dog Dog Camel" and "Call Off Your Buffalo" bear that out.
Dianogah, 1:45 p.m., Balance Stage
Operating at the fringes of the Chicago scene since the mid-'90s, it's been easy to take this trio and its complex yet seductive mood-rock for granted. It's nice to see the group scoring such a high-profile gig, and it's likely to rise to the occasion.
* * * Frightened Rabbit, 1:45 p.m., Connector Stage
The second album by this Glasgow quartet, last year's "Midnight Organ Fight" was a collection of deeply emotional, enduringly tuneful broken-heart ballads strong enough to make you forget you've heard a million of those before. And the band is only more powerful live.
* * * Blitzen Trapper, 2:30 p.m., Aluminum Stage
By far the best of the folk-leaning groups on this year's bill, the Oregon band Blitzen Trapper stands out both because of the novelistic lyrical eye of songwriter and band leader Eric Earley and the extremely sympathetic and accomplished accompaniment of his five bandmates.
Killer Whales, 2:40 p.m., Balance Stage
If the Fugs or the Shaggs tried to play worldbeat in Wicker Park, they might sound like this Chicago quartet. Dreadful on record, the group is said to be killer live. We'll see.
Pharoahe Monch, 3:20 p.m., Connector Stage
The only other hip-hop act on the bill, rapper Troy Donald Jameson made his name as part of Organized Konfusion, but his solo recordings have been even more inventive and powerful, and he is gearing up to release his third album, "W.A.R. (Let My People Go)."
* * * Women, 3:35 p.m., Balance Stage
The self-titled debut by this Canadian quartet was one of my favorite buried treasures last year, and I'm eager to hear how its unique take on the classic Velvet Underground noise-rock drone translates in concert.
The Thermals, 4:15 p.m., Aluminum Stage
Tuneful pop-punk from Portland, the Thermals recently left Sub Pop for the Kill Rock Stars label, and their fourth album "Now We Can See" delivers an intoxicating sugar rush.
DJ/rupture, 4:30 p.m., Balance Stage
Talented New York producer and turntablist Jace Clayton mixes hip-hop, ragga, jungle, noise, a cappella music and much more for a unique and often political sound.
The Walkmen, 5:15 p.m., Connector Stage
After a track-for-track remake of "Pussycats," Harry Nilsson and John Lennon's famous "lost weekend" album, this New York band formed from the ashes of Jonathan Fire Eater gave us last year's "You & Me," a real hangover record if ever I heard one. With luck, the band's Velvets-style rhythms will preside over the soggy melodies live.
* * * Japandroids, 5:30 p.m., Balance Stage
Vancouver art-punks Brian King and David Prowse aren't kidding when they say they're "a two-piece band trying to sound like a five-piece band." They certainly pull it off on album with "Lullaby Death Jams" (2008) and the new "Post-Nothing," alternately evoking Pere Ubu, Television and Mission of Burma.
M83, 6:15 p.m., Aluminum Stage
One-man band Anthony Gonzales from Antibes, France, is a prolific studio craftsman who brings touches of shoegaze ambience and experimental noise-rock to his lush dance-pop. I'm eager to hear how he pulls it off live.
* * * Vivian Girls, 6:30 p.m., Balance Stage
This Brooklyn trio captures the inherent power of burgeoning female sexuality better than any group since X-Ray Spex, and its performances at South by Southwest last March were searing. It could well steal the day at Pitchfork, especially since it's on the small stage.
Grizzly Bear, 7:25 p.m., Connector Stage
Many indie-rock fans are insanely devoted to this much-hyped freak-folk band from Brooklyn, and some hail its recent third album "Veckatimest" as a masterpiece. Me, I think the moments of quiet beauty are far outnumbered by the boring bouts of pure inertia and overweening pretension.
Mew, 7:30 p.m., Balance Stage
Pitchfork's shoegazer resurgence concludes with this space-pop quartet from Hellerup, Denmark, which has been recording for more than a decade, starting right about the time that first-wave shoegazers such as My Bloody Valentine and Ride were wrapping up. With a big sound and bigger ambitions, they've jokingly called themselves "the world's only indie stadium band."
The Very Best, 8:30 p.m., Balance Stage
Fans of Vampire Weekend might forget those preppy nerds forever if exposed to the joyous grooves of this collaboration by Etienne Tron and Johan Karlberg of Radioclit and African songwriter Esau Mwamwaya, who's also worked with M.I.A. and Santogold. The sound that starts with the traditional music of Malawi, then veers far and wide across the globe.
* * * The Flaming Lips, 8:40 p.m., Aluminum Stage
The veteran psychedelic-pop heroes from Oklahoma City have always been one of my favorite bands, on album and onstage, though for much of the new millennium, their live shows have become a predictable Las Vegas-on-acid shtick, more about the spectacle--the space bubble, the plushies, the confetti cannons and all the rest--than the music. After Pitchfork initially announced that Wayne Coyne and company would reprise the "Write the Night" concept as this year's closing act, the Lips said no, they wouldn't. Then they reconsidered and said "some" songs in their set would be taken from fans' suggestions. In any event, here's hoping that instead of the circus of recent years, we get some measure of the unpredictable, intense and often astounding rock band of the past.
Pitchfork Music Festival
Union Park, Randolph at Lake and Ashland
4 to 10 p.m. Friday [July 17]; noon to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday [July 18 & 19]
A limited number of single-day passes remain for Friday at $35; Saturday and Sunday are sold-out.