For me, this past summer can be effectively summed up by the following three items: car detailing, a casual mental breakdown and music festivals. But for the purpose of this column, I’ll focus on the music festivals.
Now, this being the summer of threes, I went to three music festivals: Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, Detroit Jazz Festival and the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. But for the purpose of this column, I’ll focus on the first two.
The latter can be effectively summed up by the following three items: I paid $30 for a green wrist band, I saw a man who had shaved a checkerboard pattern into his leg hair and I saw Flying Lotus. Flying Lotus was incredible.
At this point in my music-listening career, I’m turning into a little bit of an asshole. Of course, I went though my little-kid-in-a-candy-store period when I discovered indie music and realized there’s more to life than “Hot in Herre.” But two things happened this summer that started making me feel a little bit jaded: I started listening to a lot of jazz music and I attended the Pitchfork Music Festival.
Before I get too many hipster-propelled tomatoes launched at me, let me expound: There were a lot of great acts at Pitchfork. Watching The Flaming Lips get birthed from a gigantic vagina on a video screen was a life-changing experience. The National put on a much more intense show than its broodingly bookish discography would ever suggest. And Grizzly Bear kicked ass. Period.
But a festival should be more than its headliners and, sadly (for me at least), Pitchfork was not. Save for Yeasayer, I did not see one “minor” band that I felt was anything more than a one-trick pony, regurgitated from the bowels of much cooler, more original ponies (who know a hell of a lot more tricks).
The poster child for this least-common-denominator, processed indie Spam is a little three-piece I like to call The Thermals (they like to call themselves that too, apparently). Never in my life have I heard such linear, derivative music that isn’t on the radio. By no means are they the worst band in the world — they played decent enough power pop to keep my head bobbing intermittently. But their transparent formula of straight-up-and-down chord progressions over relentlessly punk-tempo boom-boom snare beats (with the bass and guitar playing the same exact part for 90 percent of the set) begged me to ask this question: If you’re going to play music that’s doing absolutely nothing — or at least nothing new — then why the hell are you making music in the first place?
This isn’t saying that every band needs to be doing something groundbreaking. Deerhunter is a great example of a band that has honed a very distinct sound without having done anything other than deftly collaging the remains of the indie pedigree and putting their own spin on it. It just feels ironic to see all these dime-a-dozen indie rock bands gathered at Pitchfork like American Apparel mannequins when the very term “indie rock” is supposed to denote bands doing things too exciting and offbeat for the mainstream to digest.
Enter Detroit Jazz Festival, stage left. Here, I can saunter in halfway through the set of a band I’ve never even heard of and be completely blown away. Is this because jazz is intrinsically a better genre than indie? No, not in the least. I don’t think any one genre can be deemed empirically superior to any other genre (unless that genre is neo country, in which case it’s inferior to all other genres). But I certainly feel that the least-common-denominator bands at Jazz Fest trumped the shit out of the least-common-denominator bands at Pitchfork.
Jazz music is all about improvisation, and improvisation usually packs a high interest quotient. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have its pitfalls — in fact, jazz music can be just as structurally formulaic as indie music. Straight-ahead jazz like hard bop often consists of virtuosos simply taking turns spitting freewheeling solos over a relatively unchanging rhythm section. In essence, the genre is rigidly structured on a complete lack of structure. And after a long day at Jazz Fest, sitting through an entire bop set left me craving more unpredictability via — completely paradoxically — a little bit more structure.
But the fact that hearing these musicians taking turns exorcising their souls through their instruments is considered run-of-the-mill at this sort of festival is incredible to me. By definition, all genres are going to feature music that’s “generic.” And I find it fascinating that, in the case of jazz music, this generic-ness comes in the form of virtual anarchy. Hence, my recent love affair with jazz (although the ring on my finger still currently belongs to indie).
Fittingly, my favorite act between both festivals was Tortoise, far and away the jazziest band at Pitchfork (with a little bit of luck, they could probably even land a spot at Jazz Fest). So are they indie or are they jazz? Probably neither (and both). And that’s why I like them so much. Because when I’m listening to music, I don’t give two Regis Philbins what genre it is. In fact, I like it best when I can’t figure it out at all. I just want to go on an adventure. So take me on an adventure, goddamnit.