by Raj Ranade
Torrential downpours! Heat strokes! Handlebar mustaches! The Pitchfork Music Festival poses many dangers for press correspondents but myself and photographer Justin Hamlett braved Chicago’s Union Park to capture a record of the festivities. Here are some of the highlights we found:
Best Band with a Sousaphone: The Olivia Tremor Control. (The Olivia Tremor Control on iTunes)
Only Band with a Sousaphone: The Olivia Tremor Control. (Read my interview with the band here)
Most Effort during a Sound Check: Japandroids
Most bands test out their drum sound levels with a few light taps on each piece of the drum kit. David Prowse, drummer for the Vancouver rock duo Japandroids, repeatedly tears through tricky drum fills instead. This might have something to do with why Prowse’s kick pedal snapped in half a few songs into the band’s set, but it also gives you an idea of the kind of effort these guys pour into every aspect of performing.
Singer/guitarist Brian King was hardly a slouch himself. After an intro so polite as to leave no doubt that these guys were Canadians (after apologizing for the rain – since that was clearly his fault – he explained that they weren’t going to talk after this so they could play as many songs as possible), the band tore through the best songs from their excellent new album Celebration Rock. With his rolled-up-sleeve white-tee tucked into his blue jeans, King recalled Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA cover look, and he worked as hard as The Boss ever did, following the completion of each song with an endearing fist pump. These guys write songs about staving off the fear of death through rock and roll – and that post-song moment of celebration felt like the joy of guys who had warded off the inevitable for one more song. (Celebration Rock on iTunes.)
Shiniest Things: Purity Ring
Purity Ring, the band of singer Megan James and producer Corin Roddick, make lightweight R&B confections distinguishable from mid-00s R&B primarily in the amount of reverb they use and the pretentiousness of their titles (Cassie’s best songs – “Me & U“, “King of Hearts“. Purity Ring’s best songs – “Obedear“, “Lofticries“). But they certainly have a nice sense of theatre. The band’s lavish set decorations, paper lanterns and glowing orbs that flickered and changed color in time with each drum hit and vocal tic, added a welcome sense of theatrical bombast to support Roddick’s twinkling synths and James’ coo. Late in the set, James sheepishly admitted that this may have been the largest crowd the fledgling band had ever played for, but they have the showmanship skills of old pros. (And yes, I am also totally a sucker for shiny lights sparkling and stuff.) (Purity Ring on iTunes.)
Most Contempt for the Audience: A$AP Rocky
A$AP Rocky decided to show up to his own set after a few anonymous members of his entourage had performed a few equally anonymous songs. Once there, he lip-synced about half the time, and let his entourage fill in about half the lyrics for the rest. He stopped the set to ask the audience if they had any weed, and took his time smoking a blunt when they didn’t. He told females to step back for one song, because this one was for the “real fans”. He declared that “I’m not here to perform, I’m here to party,” as if that wasn’t completely evident already.
Here’s the thing – it pains me to admit this as a die-hard hip-hop fan, but what I just described is basically an average rap show. It would be easy to paper over the shortcomings here – did A$AP’s spaced-out, druggy beats sound awesome on the loudspeakers? Sure. Did the drunken crowd have a good time for the most part? Yes (and I include myself in that category). But this kind of thing can be so much more! Lazy rappers on stage only help propagate the myth that rap is easy – since, hey, who can’t get high and stumble through 50% of a song? The people who think that rap is easy are the ones making every inane rap parody video on YouTube (“Get it? It’s funny because they’re incompetent!”), or worse, pursuing an actual rap career themselves. And soon enough the media gatekeepers have lowered the bar for who gets to be on stage, and the latest rapper is even more lazy and incompetent than the one that inspired him, and we’re that much closer to the cultural apocalypse. (A$AP Rocky on iTunes)
Best Example That Rapping is Hard: Schoolboy Q
Say this for Schoolboy Q – at least he was trying, unlike Rocky. On record, Schoolboy Q has a remarkably fast-paced, dexterous flow, and he seemed to match that speed for the first few tracks he performed during his set. But suddenly, the words started slipping, and his DJ started having to fill in the last few words of every line. Between songs, Schoolboy seemed to suggest that this was happening because he was very high, which would have been more convincing if Pitchfork didn’t regularly feature talented rappers in altered states (see: Curren$y, last year) . No, the issue seemed to be more that the dude was just winded – his lungs just didn’t seem up to the vocal gymnastics that his mixtape songs required. A valiant enough effort, though, and one buoyed by Schoolboy’s sense of humor. “Who’s from the north side of Chicago? Who’s from the south side of Chicago? Who’s from the good part of Chicago?” (Schoolboy Q on iTunes)
Most Gracious Set: Flying Lotus
A good DJ is an ego-free DJ. Flying Lotus is an immensely talented composer, a creator of experimental electronic music that draws inventively from jazz and hip-hop while it leans towards the avant-garde. He’s also a guy who knows how to get a good party going. FlyLo threw in plenty of snippets from his own catalog during his afternoon set, but he kept the focus mostly away from himself and on some smartly skewed remixes of crowd favorites, including many songs from other artists at the festival like Clams Casino and Schoolboy Q. The blend between the experimental and the chart-toppers was seamless, and FlyLo’s wide grin was infectious. As he transitioned from track to track, he bobbed and moved to the music so enthusiastically that you’d think he was hearing these songs for the first time. (Flying Lotus on iTunes.)
Most Animated Performer: Danny Brown
If ever there was a rapper who should have performed with Gorillaz, this is the one. When I say that Brown is a bawdy rap cartoon, I mean it in the best possible way – from his asymmetrical haircut and rubber-faced expression to that nose-pinched squeal of a rap voice, Brown is a truly original oddball in a genre that does a lot to discourage weirdness. He’s also an immensely talented rapper on stage, the kind of guy whose brag line is that he’s “your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper’s favorite rapper” – that’s the kind of line that suggests he’s as concerned with the purity of his technique as with the profanity of his content (and believe me, the guy is profane is some impressively inventive ways). I could quibble that Brown’s set focused too much on his party-starter tracks and too little on his more somber (and more interesting) material – his record XXX is, among other things, a pretty fascinating first-person examination of addiction and urban poverty. But I was so relieved to hear a rapper just kill a set that all was forgiven. (Danny Brown in iTunes.)
Best Set of the Festival: Kendrick Lamar
The moment that it became clear that Kendrick Lamar was the best rapper performing at Pitchfork this year was actually the first time the beat dropped out. The rapper had the crowd rapt during his biggest hits, of course, but the peak of the set were his stunning autobiographical acappellas. These bounced in subject between the political, the fleshly, and the spiritual just as easily as Kendrick was able to flip between single and double time cadences. Equally impressive was his fine-tuned ability for crowd control. Kendrick went beyond the standard lazy “throw your hands up” exhortation to the crowd, instead playing the audience like a conductor – he orchestrated surprisingly complex call-and-response chants between different sections of the crowd and somehow managed to get the weed-smoking, beer-chugging crowd to follow through with them. He got those same inebriated kids to enthusiastically sing along to a new single which appeared to be a caustic satire about the effects of alcohol and drug use. He spoke solemnly of rap as a sort of ritual, a “Compton spiritual” with healing purposes – but he had enough of a sense of humor to use a Bible verse to lead into a sex joke. It was a set that was thoughtful and worthy of head-nodding in equal measure – and truly one of the best rap shows that I’ve seen anywhere, let alone Pitchfork. (Kendrick Lamar on iTunes.)
Best Exit: AraabMuzik
Virtuosic is the only word that adequately describes AraabMuzik’s abilities on the MPC, a programmable drum machine. If you watched the Jumbotron during his Sunday set, all you could see was fingers flying across the screen triggering samples at seemingly inhuman speeds, while crowd-members looked on with jaws wide open at the sight of a something awe-inspiring. It was a performance that was as stunningly athletic as it was skillful – the guy continuously hammered away at his keypads for 45 minutes with maybe one or two breaks of 20-30 seconds. It’s also worth noting that AraabMuzik is as impressive for the kind of sounds that he makes as he is for how fast he makes those sounds. The guy is a musical omnivore who’s unafraid to rework genres that a Pitchfork hipster crowd might perceive as cheesy, like trance and dubstep, remixing songs from these divisive genres into innovative, crowd-pleasing hip-hop epics.
The funniest part of the set, however, was the way the DJ decided to leave the stage. Towards the set’s end, Chicago rapper Chief Keef came out onto the stage, along with members of AraabMuzik’s entourage. As Keef launched into his hit single “I Don’t Like”, he and his crew briefly obscured AraabMuzik from view, and when they cleared out, Araab was gone. He had used the rappers as a smokescreen to make his getaway. You might have expected after a performance like that for a performer to want to bask in the crowd’s adoration or at least take a quick bow. But I suppose Araab had said everything that he needed to already. (AraabMuzik in iTunes.)
Ideal Festival Closer: The Field
On record, the minimal techno stylings of the Swedish electronic act The Field are pleasant enough. But at the end of the festival, they have a strange, wonderful healing power. After being assaulted by a cavalcade of sounds from different genres, it was thoroughly therapeutic to sink into the band’s minimal grooves and focus on one simple sound at a time. Call it dance rehab – hypnotic beats to transition you from a sensory assault back into the real world. (The Field on iTunes)
Raj’s Ace’s Pitchfork Coverage
Read Pitchfork Festival Preview here.
Read Raj’s Pitchfork Festival Live Blog here.
Read Raj’s interview with The Olivia Tremor Control here.
Read Raj’s interview with Alex Zhang Hungtai of Dirty Beaches here.