Saturday's Pitchfork headliners both seemed like mixed bags -- especially to the hundreds of people who stuck with them for two songs and then bolted (I've never seen such an exodus on a Saturday night at Pitchfork) -- but each earned their keep in drastically different ways.
On the main stage, the mysterious and expansive Godspeed You! Black Emperor confounded the curious and exalted the faithful. Reunited after a seven-year hiatus, the nine-member Montreal collective (last here in March 2011, just after reuniting) demonstrated why they are both revered and ignored, building a typical set that was all dynamics but little depth.
What GY!BE does is build tension -- and build it, and build it. This is a band whose debut album had three songs on it, each averaging 17 minutes in length. Their opener Saturday night, as the field had cooled and the crowd loosened up, began with a musical murmur, a sound that could have been a sound check, could have been a tuning. Then a single violin note. Some static footage began (the video screen between the stages went dark for this, the better to force concentration on GY!BE's nonsense imagery behind them), drums began thumping, then an undulating hum. They sustained this intoned intimidation for 13 minutes, basically around a single note. You wondered if they even knew where they were, or cared.
From there, the set throbbed and threatened -- morphing through Turkish violins and Middle Eastern chimes, unnerving drums that thundered and rattled, and occasional wafts of melody, like half-remembered folk tunes or hymns (I know I heard "Amazing Grace" in there). This was symphonic music as it would be crafted by, say, Crazy Horse.
A wordless wonder was a bold choice for a festival headliner, though only the faithful seemed to appreciate the audience with their Olympian legends. Unlike Explosions in the Sky, for instance, GY!BE never seem truly comfortable on -- or even aware of -- stage. Saturday's performance, however, launches a 17-date tour through the summer.
at the Pitchfork Music Festival. (Andrea Bauer/Sun-Times Media)
Meanwhile, another act proved far bigger than Pitchfork's small Blue stage. Vancouver native Grimes (Claire Boucher) took a break from her current participation in the Full Flex Express Tour with Skrillex, Diplo and others to drop in on Pitchfork and draw a massive crowd under the trees. Like GY!BE, she bewildered as many as she entranced -- there was a similar mass exodus from her crowd, too, after a couple of songs -- and seemed to be dancing to a different performance than the one we were hearing.
Despite purring and cooing through soft, skittering ballads and glitchy, gauzy pop fragments, Grimes whipped herself around as if she were spitting out block rockin' beats. Plus, in addition to her DJ (who didn't seem to unburden Grimes of her own considerable knob-twiddling efforts), Grimes was joined onstage by two dancers, of the "Solid Gold" variety. Whereas GY!BE is all structure and time, Grimes chucks structure for sound. Not only does she employ her own, trademark baby-doll voice to its full extent, she adds infantile vox humana to the synthesized mix. The result is often creepy, unsettling and occasionally bewitching. She knows how to craft a hook, but she casts them into strange, murky waters.