According to A$AP Rocky, it’s “raining like a motherfucker.” Yet it feels more like a light drizzle. It’s the first day of the Pitchfork Music Festival held in Union Park on Chicago’s West Side. Now in its eighth year Pitchfork is what one acquaintance and PR person calls a “more lax festival” than others — notably Bonnarroo, Coachella and Lollapalooza. As evidenced by the toddler bouncing his head up and down by my side as A$AP Rocky instructs him to “put his hands up,” our acquaintance may be correct: Pitchfork is a mellow place.
“There are a lot of people that may not have come seen us just because they can’t come see us at a club,” Zach Medearis of Outer Minds told me in an interview. “We were playing for people that aren’t really old enough to get into bars. I like that. I’m into that.”
Significantly smaller in size than any of the “Big Three,” you can walk from one end to another in a matter of minutes. And if you do traverse all the way from the press check-in point to the corner straddling Warren Boulevard and Ashland Avenue, you find the Blue Stage where Tim Hecker is performing.
He stands absolutely still as pulsing, rhythmic beats emanate from the surrounding speakers. It sounds like something very close to music but with a loud, gonging noise thrown into the mix. The audience members are also still, some of whom have their eyes fully closed, as they smile and nod as though they understand Hecker’s message to be beautiful in its simplicity. Exactly what it is they understand remains unknown.
It’s 4:35. Indie rock band The Olivia Tremor Control graces the green stage with their ’60s nostalgia vibes, reminiscent of the Beatles and more contemporary experimental pop. Representing the festival’s older age bracket — the group originally formed in ’92, went on hiatus in 2000, and then reformed in 2009 — in an interview after the performance, founding member Bill Doss jokingly said the band sometimes questions themselves due to their age.
“I think our music is kind of about following your dreams, not your dreams, but whatever your dream happens to be,” he said. “I mean, that’s what we’re doing. We’re old enough where we should be growing up and getting jobs, but we’re not.”
In addition to the music, there’s a handcrafts fair that’s been at Pitchfork for eight years, back when it was still called the Intonation Music Festival. There are handmade earrings made from scrap materials like electrical wire and copper. There are black purses and necklaces with small pocketknives dangling from them; headphones and Mac Book chargers with yarn tied around the cords, like friendship bracelets to protect your technological devices. Adjacent to the crafts is the record fair where individual labels like Domino and EMMP sell vinyl. There’s also a book fort with proprietors like The Paper Cave, an exclusively online bookstore that sells such titles as “The Avian Gospels” and “Psycho Dream Factory.”
Bringing it back
Divided into three main stages — red, green and blue — other names that appear on Friday include hip-hop act Big K.R.I.T. and one of the evening’s final two performers: Leslie Feist. A buzz of excitement precedes her entrance. Leading with her newer material she interacts with the audience, making jokes like an old pro.
“Uh-oh, hold on, I just remembered how the next verse goes,” she says during a solo performance. The crowd cheers, loving her.
At one point she commands the audience to pull their time machines out of their pockets as she takes us “all the way back to 2006, I think.” And so begins her return to her older, more famous songs. Except she puts her a different spin on them, remixing her own stuff.
The audience’s echo of the refrain from “Graveyard,” “Whoa, bring them all back to life,” is pulsating, creating a symbiotic connection between artist and attendees before she lets us go back into the “sweaty night to get even sweatier.”
“Let’s bring it back to life, ladies,” she tells her backup singers before turning to the audience and shouting, “Are you with me?” The response is affirmative. She then asks for everyone present to help her out in the next song with some “good old-fashioned na-na’s.” A dose of classic rock ‘n’ roll injected into the Chicago night.
As we file out onto Ashland Avenue where the church across the street casts a shadow over the entire festival, Laura, a photographer from another publication who bums a ride home from us, tells me, “Pitchfork’s the ultimate hipster place.” After a pause she explains her statement, saying, “Because it’s all the people who read Pitchfork.”
And yet, Pitchfork doesn’t just put on so-called hipster bands for their loyal readers. There’s another objective at play here, one in keeping with its traditional festival nature: introducing smaller groups to those who may never have heard of them.
“What I like about Pitchfork is that they try to bring up bands that no one knows about and no one cares about,” Medearis said. “Nobody knows about us. We’re pretty new and pretty small. And they gave us a good opportunity and a good chance.”
The next generation
Saturday. 2:30. Atlas Sound (Bradford Cox of the band Deerhunter) is concerned about your health. Wearing white face paint that made him look like a kind of psychedelic mime, he singled out a woman at the front of the crowd.
“Little miss, little miss,” he said. After capturing her attention he politely suggested that instead of hydrating with cold water, she should drink room-temperature water so it’s not such a shock to her system. This is a trick he learned in Boy Scouts, he told the crowd. He paused, then elaborated that this was before the Boy Scouts kicked him out for “being a queer.”
“God bless America. And God bless the Boy Scouts,” he said. Though Cox had to compete with the pouring rain, he still managed to enchant, using an acoustic guitar to create music that is eerie, otherworldly. But he kept everyone grounded at the end of his performance, offering a modest apology for the rain’s damage to his set.
“The rain killed my shit,” he said.
4:15. Steven Ellison (Flying Lotus) mixed and matched tracks from artists like Erykah Badu and Pharoah Monch. The rain had abated and the sun was hot, allowing him to momentarily turn the grassy field into a dance party at a club.
Amid the frenzy of dancing, Fly Lo’s hype man — whose sole job seemed to consist of getting the audience more excited than they already were — addressed the crowd, saying, “We’re the next generation, and we don’t give a fuck.” The statement elicited cheers and applause.
6:15. Green stage. Sleigh Bells lead singer Alexis Krauss is a real rock star, and she looked the part: leather gloves, jean cutoff shorts, a cut-up t-shirt. She crowd-surfed, danced across the stage, sweated it out and, most importantly, belted out husky vocals in the vein of Brian Johnson or Joan Jett. In short, she captivated.
The sun begins to set and the two choices for the night’s conclusion, Grimes and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, are on opposite stages, not next to one another. Their genres are extremely different, Grimes being more intense and upbeat and Godspeed being more low-key.
Godspeed’s first song lasts about 40 minutes. Sounding initially like one long tuning session, they soon gained momentum, turning their instruments into a cacophony of epic din.
“I was initially worried,” an audience member at Godspeed tells me. “Sleigh Bells and Hot Chip were very high-octane and in-your-face. But this is more ambient post rock, and I don’t think a lot of people like that.
“But I think this more ambient sound is a good way to end the night.”
Godspeed’s aesthetic seems to be white-noise-esque. It’s interesting to note that the jumbotron placed between the red and green stage that typically displays various shots of the bands playing is totally blank during their set. There is, however, a screen behind the band that plays on loop a series of images of cityscapes with blueprints placed over them.
The sun is down now and the day is over. Godspeed could have provided the score to a Lord-of-the-Rings type movie and that feeling is hard to shake.
Despite its small size and Laura’s words of Pitchfork as a haven of hipsterdom, I smile because I barely know what the word “hipster” means. Yet for a period of time I stood with thousands of others and withstood the rain, discussed bad sci-fi movies with an up-and-coming artist, met a band that’s back in the game and danced to remixed hip-hop beats in a field of mud. I smile because I look past my usual cynical outlook, recognizing that I was part of something bigger than myself, if only for 48 hours. I smile because the audience on my first day, the one that understood something, seems a bit less mysterious now than before.