Over forty top independent rock acts took the stage on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Chicago's Union Park for the annual Pitchfork Festival. The event was initiated by Pitchfork website, one of the most respected sources of interviews on new and rising artists (see http://www.pitchforkmedia.com.)
The event drew over 20,000 rock fans. Although there were some thirty and forty somethings in the audience, it was mostly a younger crowd there to cheer their up and coming favorites.
The first night’s performances were somewhat uneven. Three veteran acts (Sonic Youth, GZA, and Slint) did their best known classic recordings, even thought the records didn’t necessarily sell that well when they first came out.
The highlight of the whole festival was seeing the great noise pioneers Sonic Youth performing their classic CD double LP “Daydream Nation” in its entirety (it sounded better and fresher than the day it came out in 1988.) To coincide with the tour, an expanded version of the CD has been released with bonus tracks (but you can argue that the original was already perfect). The highlight was probably a wonderfully atonal version of "Teenage Riot."
In contrast, Slint’s performance of “Spider Land” was filled with directionless noodling, passionless vocals, and a complete lack of on-stage charisma. Slint are highly regarded in Indy rock circles for their influence on post rock bands, but their set was one of the low points of the festival
The Wu Tang Klan graduate GZA, acquitted himself well with a robust rendition of his hip hop masterpiece, “Liquid Swords” His set included fine rhyming, and extremely creative uses of kung fu film soundtrack samples and machine gun sounds.
Saturday night offered the strongest array of acts overall. The day opened with two highly inspired and tasty sets by jazz greats, Ken Vandermark and William Parker. Yoko Ono delivered a stunning set with guest guitarist Thurston Moore (from Sonic Youth) joining in for a few numbers (he provided a torrent of feedback during “Mulberry.”) The 72 year old Yoko shocked (and in some cases drove them way) with a gutsy set that included a great murder story set to music and two versions of “Don’t Worry Yoko,” and a devastating version of "Walking on Thin Ice." At times when she cried out her voice sounded a combination of a yell, a laugh and a duck quack.
Despite sound problems, the downbeat countryish influenced Chan Marshall (she calls herself Cat Power) offered the most emotionally resonant set of the night including many great numbers from her latest, “The Greatest.” Her weird, soulful, and magnificent versions of “Tracks of My Tears’ and “New York New York” were nearly unrecognizable. Her sand paper voice was used to good effect and her guitar playing sounded like a cat crying out in pain.
Other highlights included The Battles’ set of edgy techno funk rock. The minimalist rap of “Clipse” was hard hitting and Professor Murder provided one of the most danceable sets driven by two drums.
Sunday featured good sets by headliners De la Soul whose infectious songs sounded less psychedelic live than on record., and the New Pornographers offered their usual infectious blend of pop rock and alt country (although I did miss their absent secret weapon Neko Case.). The Klaxons delivered a fast paced punk influenced set, and they reminded me of the garage band, The Libertines. But the most entertaining set was by the neo glam group “Of Montreal (they’re actually American) which was filed with gender bending humor, strange costume changes. The lead singer’s effeminate vocals were like a throwback to 70’s David Bowie or Gary Numan
Now for the complaints. There were some definite dead spots on the roster. Grizzly Bear’s songs were more tranquilizing than infectious, and the celebrated Stephen Malkmus’s set only got a rise from the crowd when he did songs by his old band, Pavement. Also the novelty of hearing the Junior Boy’s 1982 style techno pop wore off after awhile.
Also, very few of the newer acts struck me as particularly dangerous and too many of them were mellow. (Yoko actually pushed the envelope more than anyone else),
Still in all the festival was strong and invigorating. It also served to remind audiences just how much good music never gets on mainstream radio including so-called alternative rock stations.
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