An Exhaustive Review of the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival

The hipster gradation begins on the subway. You know you’re getting closer to the Pitchfork Music Festival as the crowd on the El, Chicago’s famed elevated subway system, begins to shade from downtown office workers and tourists coming in from O’Hare to twentysomethings in cut-offs, neon, and free-range beards. Unlike other music festivals in more remote locations – Coachella, Bonnaroo – the caravans to Pitchfork aren’t composed of Subaru Outbacks, but rather the Green Line, the Ashland bus, and bikes. Indeed, one of the best things about Pitchfork is the extent to which it identifies with the city of Chicago, home to the e-zine’s headquarters (there’s also an office in Brooklyn, of course).

"It feels good to have established Pitchfork here in Chicago. It really is, I guess, an institution at this point," says Ryan Schreiber, founder and CEO of Pitchfork Media (author’s note: no relation). Chicago pride is on display throughout the weekend–vintage Bulls jerseys abound, and more remarkably still, you can catch glimpses of naked arms displaying Chicago-flag tattoos.

The three-day fest, held in Chicago’s Union Park, provides that rare combination of big-name talent (Animal Collective, Fleet Foxes and TV on the Radio were this year’s headliners) with an intimate, community vibe. Compared to larger behemoths, Pitchfork only sells 18,000 tickets per day; to put that in perspective, the attendance at Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza each hover between 70-80,000 fans. Rather than having every sensory organ pummeled – competing guitar chords, the musky scent of sweat not your own pervading your nostrils – Pitchfork allows its attendees a high-quality experience, where you can actually take in and be aware of your surroundings rather than be overwhelmed by them. Incidentally, it also makes finding your friends and bumping into people you know easier.

"We’ve done it in this park for seven years, and there are many other opportunities to move it to a bigger park or do something different with it, but I just like this. I feel like this is the perfect size. Get much larger and you have to walk for miles to get to where you’re going," says Schreiber.

Because it’s sponsored by the influential online music magazine rather than a big marketing firm, there can be, at times, a distinct ‘industry vibe’ (the ratio of industry-to-non industry folks is higher than at bigger fests, even if overall numbers are low). You can’t go more than two feet without seeing someone prance by in a "VIP" pass, "Artist" pass (which managers, agents, and publicists may wear in addition to the bands), or "Press" pass. All of this is a long way of saying that this festival has cred, both geeky and cool.

In addition to the previously-mentioned headliners, buzz-worthy acts like Das Racist, James Blake, Odd Future, Toro y Moi, Deerhunter, Ariel Pink, and Cut Copy were joined by veterans such as Guided By Voices, Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth), Off!, and DJ Shadow. The process of choosing the lineup is "about booking the artists we really love," according to Schreiber. "We [the Pitchfork staff] come up with sort of a dream list, collectively." image Twin Shadow image Das Racist

Battles was one of the first acts to kick off Friday, playing a high-energy set that included LED screens of Gary Numan and Matias Aguayo singing in the background. Perhaps it was the heat, but the crowd, though receptive to the show, seemed to be conserving its energy, failing to match the moxie onstage. Towards the end of the show, guitarist Dave Konopka shouted "Afterward, everyone’s invited to my house, 857 Marshfield. We’ll have a party there." (A quick and stalker-y perusal of Chicago’s White Pages was unable to verify if the Battles guitarist had actually just invited thousands of people to his house.)

Despite the fact that they didn’t humor the audience by playing "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell," Das Racist provided some on-stage rowdiness, enhanced by their hype man, Dap, deliriously jumping and running around onstage. The crowd erupted and girls were hoisted onto dudes’ shoulders when the three rappers came onstage and played "Who’s That? Brooown!" The energy (both that of the group and of the crowd) dipped a little towards the middle of the set (at one point, a rapper named Danny Brown from Fool’s Gold hopped onstage, and although his performance promised a talented new MC, the crowd was just hankering for more Das Racist). Finally, towards the end of the show, hands were back in the air when Das Racist launched into "You Oughta Know" before ending the set with "Rainbow in the Dark."

James. Blake. James Blake is perhaps the most buzzed-about artist to play Pitchfork this year and, perhaps, one of the must buzzed about new artists anywhere. Let’s not mince words: Blake did not disappoint. Whereas, after listening to the slow and sparse songs on his debut self-titled album, it can sometimes be tricky to see how his music is affiliated with dubstep, his pitchfork performance was a new (and exciting) experience entirely. The powerful, heavy bassline that’s so characteristic of dubstep came across more clearly in his set than I’d ever heard it before, yet the enveloping beats still left space to enjoy Blake’s haunting vocals. Blake’s stage presence (much like his demeanor in person) was charming and mild-mannered, most clearly evidenced by the fact that he chose to sit off to the side of the stage rather than front-and-center. When he played "CMYK," the crowd turned wild, getting down to the lighter and dance-ier track. Before a rapt audience at dusk, he closed the set with a great rendition of one of his album’s signatures, "The Wilhelm Scream."

After Animal Collective’s Friday night closing set, the crowds dispersed, many en route to any number of "Official" and "Unofficial" after shows and parties. One of the most cleverly marketed parties proved to be a fête hosted by Patron XO Cafe, Spin Magazine, and Superfly marketing group. Invites had been emailed to guests a few days before, revealing only the date and time of the party and vague instructions about finding a food truck parked near the festival grounds, where more information and directions would be dispensed. By 10pm, a small crowd was gathered outside Mama Green’s Gourmet Goodie Truck eager to continue the party-meets-scavenger hunt. We were given cups of iced coffee with the secret address of the event written on the coffee sleeve, which turned out to be the site of Chicago’s Prairie Studios. We party-goers ended up being a funny mix of media folk a little grungy from hanging outside at the festival all day and some of Chicago’s most beautiful people decked out in cocktail dresses and heels. Once inside, you could pose for professional photographs with models dressed in 20s-inspired burlesque costumes, sip any number of Patron-inspired cocktails, and chomp down on classic Chicago-style hors d’oeuvres such as "mini deep dish pizzas" or mini Italian sausages. Walking around the beautiful inside-outside space, sipping Patron margaritas, we could also listen to a live band and watch a magic show. Even if some of it was a little gimmicky – and more than a few people wished the live band could have been replaced by a DJ (of which there are many in Chicago, like the Hood Internet and Flosstradamus) – the party was a success. image Fleet Foxes

Saturday’s uncomfortably hot temps didn’t stop people from getting down during Gang Gang Dance‘s set, which provided a raucous blend of their unique multi-instrumental, percussion-heavy dance music laced with electro. After feverishly jumping and jolting onstage during instrumental breaks, lead singer Lizzie Bougatsos took the mic and told the audience, "If you can’t act crazy onstage, there’s no reason to live. If you see me humping a monitor, you just know."

As it grew later and became just a touch cooler, crowds coalesced before the Green Stage to see Fleet Foxes, who played one of the best sets of the weekend. Given the usual amount of delays in between set changes, people were visibly impressed when the band hopped on stage to begin their show a mere seconds after DJ Shadow ended his at an adjacent stage. Playing mostly songs from their first album led a guy next to me to remark, "They’re just putting on a big show. That’s what they’re doing." Yes, sir. The sound quality was stellar, such that you could actually distinguish between the various instruments onstage. The hushed crowd broke out into cheers when the first chords of "White Winter Hymnal" reverberated out across the crowd–a song that can evoke feelings of wintry tranquility and Christmas tidings even during the peak of summer. In a smart move, they brought the crowd out of their trance with a rocking rendition of "Ragged Wood" before ending on a song from their new album, the titular "Helplessness Blues."

As Day 2 drew to a close, not everyone had the stamina to keep up with the afterparties, but for those of us who did, many chose to head over to Beauty Bar, which hosted one of the few "Official Pitchfork After Parties," featuring DJ sets by Twin Shadow, members of Deerhunter, and Tim Koh of Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. The Pitchfork crew (including Ryan Schreiber) were in attendance, as well as members of the Windish Agency (disclosure: I do some on-and-off unpaid work for Windish), which represents both Twin Shadow and Deerhunter and DJ/local celeb Million $ Mano.

Sunday was the most anticipated day at the fest if for only one reason: Odd Future. Already one of the most hyped new acts, Odd Future’s show at Pitchfork received a particularly large amount of publicity due to the planned anti-violence protest during their set. For better or for worse, it appeared that by the end of the afternoon it was Odd Future: 1, Protesters: 0. Representatives from anti-violence groups were in attendance and handing out fans as first reported, but the ill-conceived gesture didn’t seem to have much impact. Sunday was an inferno and concert attendees were grateful to get a fan–any fan–but hardly anyone gave nary a glance to see what was emblazoned on its side (besides, there had been several different sponsors handing out fans throughout the weekend so any novelty was lost). If anything, the preceding controversy and the insane amount of PR that ensued only upped the ante for Odd Future, increasing what would already have been a huge crowd. image Odd Future

Though it was the first time I’d ever seen the collective, Odd Future’s set was basically exactly as I expected: brash, punky, and a pretty damn good time. As Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah reported in her feature on the group in this month’s BlackBook, the guys understand the role they (and the media) have created for themselves, and they work hard to live up to it. They seem to relish playing the part of the villainous rap group, donning freakish masks during set, strutting across the stage, and chest thumping with the bravado that only a twenty-year-old can possess. Occasionally, the heavy bass drowned out some of their lyrics, but when you could hear Tyler, the Creator or Hodgy Beats, their oft-reported crudeness and offensiveness was in full force ("You fucking bitch, you smell like dick").

One majorly weird thing I witnessed were hipster parents who’d brought their toddlers to Odd Future’s set, the dad bopping around to Tyler’s jams with the tot on his shoulders (there were actually a disconcerting amount of hipster parents who brought their kids–sometimes babies!–to the fest). Neither the baby sightings nor the fact that Tyler had been hobbled by a broken foot and monster cast (he spent much of the set seated but managed to get up and chant "Kill People, Burn Shit, Fuck School" at the end) killed the vibe. As the show ended, Left Brain did a half stage dive/ half body slam, throwing himself projectile-style into the crowd. It was a fitting description of the group itself and their Pitchfork show: aggressive and in your face but openly received by the mainstream.

After that intensity, it was nice to take a breather before heading over to absorb Toro y Moi’s blissed-out, disco-y electronica. Even though the crowd was subdued–maybe still recovering from the heat or Odd Future’s set, or both–their stillness could not be mistaken for disinterest: all eyes were fixed on Toro y Moi, lapping up his every beat.

Finally, as the sun set over the Chicago skyline, TV on the Radio came on and gave everyone a festival-wide second wind. With the ubiquity of electronica or experimental pop at the fest, the explosion of percussion heralding their rock show was a welcome sound. Throughout the set, intensity built up with a steady trajectory but, almost teasingly, would hold out, captured as if like steam pressure in some kind of boiler. That is, until they broke out full-force into "Dancing Choose" ("He’s a newspaper man") and "Wolf Like Me," their crescendos giving the crowd the relief they wanted. The audience ebbed and flowed in a massive wave of dancing and even the industry folk gathered on the VIP risers had their guards down and were seen grooving (one VIP was even maniacally jumping around). Finally, towards the end of the show, hip-hop group Shabazz Palaces joined TV on the Radio onstage, playing tambourine shakers as backup to "A Method."

And with that, another impressive performance ended along with another impressive effort by Pitchfork’s organizers. The festival proved that once again it lived up to much more than the hype of being an "indie fest" or "hipster fest," displaying a diverse line-up and three days of non-stop musical experiences. Combining the cool, industry-ness of SXSW with the grassy, park setting of a large-scale music festival and the intimacy and community vibe of your local fest, Pitchfork has managed to create a unique festival experience. It is sure to continue being a destination for those seeking to hear some of the best acts they know and to be exposed to new ones they don’t.

image James Blake

All Photography by Steve Scap

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