To begin, a corny — but, in a roundabout way, thought-provoking — joke I heard while attending this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival:
Q: “How many hipsters does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
A: “It’s a pretty obscure number. You’ve probably never heard of it.”
This joke was met with groans and blank stares, plus one “shut up.” But I’m not including it because it’s funny. Rather, it helps clarify why I was a little apprehensive about this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival.
Fact: The bulk of Pitchfork’s audience was comprised of late-teens and twenty-somethings in various stages of hipsterdom. I saw enough plaid and flannel shirts to wallpaper the Sistine Chapel — hipsters as far as thy eye could see.
In effect, the Pitchfork Festival, housed in Chicago’s Union Park, was a giant confluence of people who — as the joke reminds us — pride themselves on obscurity and smug eccentricity. I had thought that at some point during the festival, a lot of these people would take a look around and realize they resembled practically everyone else around them. They would become aware that they weren’t as unconventional as they once thought.
And herein lies the seeming paradox that had bothered me in the days preceding the festival. How can Pitchfork cater to its audience if it inherently contradicts everything they stand for?
Fortunately, there was no evidence of an identity-crisis pandemic in Union Park. In fact, the paradox I’d been contemplating beforehand dissolved as soon as I entered the festival grounds Friday evening.
To be sure, the crowd at Pitchfork had to be one of the most reasonable, polite and generally caring crowds ever assembled in the name of music. My feet were stepped on, my back elbowed and my ribs gored. But not once did the offending person fail to apologize. A guy with a Tortoise shirt on didn’t scoff when a girl behind him asked who Tortoise was, even though the band was playing at the time. When Pharoahe Monch commanded everyone in the audience — despite its overwhelming whiteness — to put their right fists up à la a Black Power salute, they did, dammit. And without irony, even.
What I’m saying is that at Pitchfork, the music came first. And while I’m sure a majority of the outfits worn by attendees were meticulously prearranged, it was clear that once the bands started playing, image became mostly a distant concern.
With the Pitchfork paradox debunked and my apprehension thoroughly squelched by early Friday evening, I had time to focus on more important things, like my band-seeing strategy. I decided, save for a few rogue amblings, to camp out at a particular stage, securing a front-row spot but also missing some bands I wanted to see at other stages.
In retrospect, I think I made the right decision. I rarely ate, drank or went to the bathroom, but there’s really nothing that compares to consistently being a few yards away from your favorite bands. Plus, I felt a sort of pride when I looked back from my privileged position and saw thousands of faces vying for a closer look.
Built to Spill was very impressive, showing off its 17-plus years of experience, and Doug Martsch’s guitar work on “Conventional Wisdom” might have been the deftest display of musicianship of the festival.
John Hughes pop revivalists The Pains of Being Pure at Heart were charming and cute, but despite issuing a stellar debut earlier this year, their live show suffered from a lack of dynamics and panache.
But I was floored by Brooklyn’s Yeasayer. Looking back, I count the sun peaking out from the ever-looming clouds during their song “Sunrise” as one of the festival’s highlights.
The National was the headliner Saturday night, and it may have had one of the best overall sets of the weekend. The sound was full and layered, and vocalist Matt Berninger gave the crowd everything he had, even marching into the audience during the manic “Mr. November.”
Grizzly Bear, who had the unfortunate position of playing right before The Flaming Lips, was marred with sound problems (problems in the control booth were a common theme throughout Pitchfork). Incessant, ear-ringing bass feedback filled the gaps between songs, making the audience, but especially the band, very uncomfortable. But when the band started playing, all was forgiven. The vocals were nearly perfect, and the breakdown during “Fine For Now” was probably the best musical statement of the day.
Things ended abruptly when The Lips’ Wayne Coyne’s voice echoed from the adjacent stage and Grizzly Bear’s Dan Rossen concluded with a meek “I guess we’re done now.”
The Lips were literally born onto the stage, emerging from behind a giant LCD screen that displayed a pulsating, neon vagina. The rest of their set can’t really be expressed in words. They used a rumored $5000 worth of confetti, hundreds of zeppelin-sized balloons that were pogoing off the crowd for the entirety of the show and an embryonic bubble in which Coyne rolled into the crowd. While the music was sometimes less-than-spectacular (they unnecessarily slowed down both “Yoshimi” and “Fight Test” to ballad speed), they certainly had a full-blown spectacle on their hands. I’m not even a huge Lips fan, but I don’t think I stopped smiling once during the show.
The set ended with a stunning rendition of “Do You Realize?” perhaps a little too early (strict neighborhood noise curfews, I suspect). And that was it. The 2009 Pitchfork Music Festival was over. We were left with a “Please file out orderly and quietly” and an unsettling absence of music. My back was spasming and my feet were numb from long-term standing. I was both dehydrated and starving. I was in a coma-like state from prolonged musical overstimulation. But the only thought that ran through my head was: “I feel bad for the person who has to clean this shit up.”