Chicago's Pitchfork Music Festival remains the premier annual showcase of cutting-edge music in town, in the country and -- given its recent expansion overseas with Pitchfork Music Festival Paris -- in the world.
Dominated every year by indie rock, hip-hop and electronic acts whose buzz is just cresting -- some you're just starting to hear about, some you'll be sick of hearing about next week -- the comfy and affable Pitchfork fest is still a great bargain (ticket prices stayed level this year) and, as pop-up cultural supermarkets go, a comparably friendly and easygoing experience. Even when the lineup doesn't knock your hipster hat off, like this year, the tickets come pre-loaded with potential for pleasant surprises.
PITCHFORK MUSIC FESTIVAL
• 3-10 p.m. July 13, noon-10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
• Union Park, 1501 W. Randolph
• Three-day passes are sold out. Single-day tickets are $45
For me, Pitchfork acts usually divide into two camps: music with a pulse, and whatever noodling electronic stuff has applied a new prefix to the word "wave" (chillwave, darkwave, etc.).
The latter is great indoors, in a club, where it belongs. Outside in the annual Union Park steam, not so much. Youth Lagoon, for instance. Do I enjoy listening to his album, "The Year of Hibernation," while hibernating indoors? Oh my, yes. Do I want to watch him stand stock-still behind a keyboard and play the droning "July" in its namesake heat? Lord, no.
Thus my underlined, highlighted, asterisked schedule usually trends toward the bands who came to kick it. For the eight years the festival's been going (it started at Intonation in 2005), here are my eight must-sees (nine if you count the impossible-to-break tie) from the revolving, three-stage Pitchfork schedule this weekend:
Willis Earl Beal
Willis Earl Beal's web site lists his South Side phone number and the note, "Call me and I will sing you a song." He's not kidding. "I don't mind if people call me," he said. "That would be cool. I like people." His debut album, "Acousmatic Sorcery" (released in April, but first available last year in a box set that included Earl's poetry and art), is an eccentric surprise, built of home-recorded tinny acoustic melodies with alternating soulful and folkie flourishes, full of ragged beauty and -- brace yourself -- something like actual authenticity. How it will translate to the stage is anyone's guess, and he may be the most must of the must-sees.
4:15 p.m. Friday on the Blue Stage
In recent years, rappers have made the most noise at this fest. A$AP Rocky probably won't make much literal noise, but the 23-year-old Harlem critics' darling might be worth recommending above the Danny Brown hype. Opening his hits, "Peso" and "Purple Swag" (the mixtape "LiveLoveA$AP" was out last fall, his debut album "LoneLiveA$AP" is due in September), with spare slo-mo flow, Rocky throws a counterpunch to most of his more frenetic, less-laid-back peers. He recently appeared as JFK in Lana Del Rey's "National Anthem" video, too. Crunk Camelot?
5:30 p.m. Friday on the Red Stage
The indie-rock guitar-drums duo, take 1,317. What makes Japandroids stand out is something considerably greater than Canada's requisite answer to the Black Keys is their way with melody, their on-stage combustion and their blessed lack of a national blues heritage. So Vancouver's Brian King (guitar) and David Prowse (drums) thrash about with a tuneful New Wave zeal and, right now anyway, are making good on several years of positive press. Their third album, "Celebration Rock" (out last month), proves this is one duo not sorry for party rocking.
6:15 p.m. Friday on the Blue Stage
Just because Beyonce's baby sister covered a song from Dirty Projectors' previous album doesn't make the band suddenly accessible and commercial. But, my, how they keep trying. "Swing Lo Magellan," out this week, is the newest offering from this much-loved, genre-defying collective (minus longtime member Angel Deradoorian) and tries hammering out the group's herky-jerky tendencies into a more streamlined, guitar-driven, singer-songwritery album. It's a valiant and occasionally successful effort that should make this dicey live band's stage show a better bet on their return to Union Park.
7:20 p.m. Friday on the Red Stage
Deerhunter's walls of noise crushed the entire field at last year's Pitchfork festival. Now that Geogria band's towering singer, Bradford Cox, is back in the guise of his solo project, Atlas Sound. Apart from his band, Cox crafts crisp, layered sounds considerably more dreamy and often more soulful than Deerhunter's danceable squall. Last year's "Parallax" album sounds like David Sylvian as produced by the Bird & the Bee, sometimes grounded in American roots-rock rhythms, sometimes floating in Major-Tom space. Fragile but remarkably confident.
3:20 p.m. Saturday on the Green Stage
Reckless abandon and brazen instrumental performance made Wild Flag's self-titled debut an easy pick for the best album of 2011. Debut, sure, but these women are veterans -- singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss (two-thirds of the celebrated alt-rock trio Sleater-Kinney), plus ex-Helium guitarist Mary Timony and keyboardist Rebecca Cole -- and have been touring their no-nonsense rock for more than a year to frothing acclaim, myself included. Once more into the screech!
5:15 p.m. Saturday on the Red Stage
After slaying critics with their 2010 debut, guitarist Derek Miller and singer Alexis Krauss cranked up the guitars within their claustrophobic sonic space for this year's sophomore Sleigh Bells outing, "Reign of Terror," a record of heady, high-EQ rock full of Krauss' high, breezy harmonies. You can hear Krauss demanding to "push it!" as the album starts, and the increased amps could translate to a shredding stage set.
6:15 p.m. Saturday on the Green Stage
The festival describes Grimes' latest album, "Visions," as incorporating "influences as wide-ranging as Enya, TLC, and Aphex Twin, drawing from genres such as New Jack Swing, IDM, new age, K-pop, industrial and glitch, resulting in a sound that is both otherworldly and futuristic." Accurate, believe it or not. Grimes, aka Vancouver-born Claire Boucher, sounds like Sabrina the pre-teen witch and fashions music around her unique vocals that vibrates into this plane of existence via wispy half-melodies and (somehow) timeless dance constructs. It should make for a trippy summer night in the park.
8:40 p.m. Saturday on the Blue Stage
Ty Segall vs. Thee Oh Sees
Orange County revivalist Ty Segall (pictured) and San Francisco psych-rockers Thee Oh Sees are touring together this summer. At Pitchfork, their sets overlap. It's a difficult decision to make, or you might compromise by starting with Thee Oh Sees and trying to dash over to Segall's set. Either way, it's liable to be some of the best rock at the fest. Segall has a decade under his belt in post-Strokes bands, but his solo stuff is muddy, cruddy '60s reverb straight down the elevator from the 13th floor. Thee Oh Sees draw somewhat from a similar era, but they put the sounds through a blender on high speed. One, the other, or both -- you'll fling some sweat.
Thee Oh Sees: 2:50 p.m. Sunday on the Blue Stage
Ty Segall: 3:20 p.m. Sunday on the Red Stage