Dirty Projectors' Dave Longstreth
The verdict from day one of Pitchfork's annual showcase of rising underground stars: Human beings with laptops still aren't as exciting as human beings with other musical instruments. Then again, maybe Tim Hecker just needs to take a page from Skrillex and give us wub-wub-what we want. (Actually, please no, not here.) In a lineup stocked with all sorts of sounds, it didn't matter which kind of tools you used so much as how you used them. Maybe you can get away with chin-scratching soundscapes at an art installation, but at a music festival,true performers rule. On Friday in Chicago, the best sets by far came from those who combined fearless self-expression with a compulsion to entertain.
Here's a band-by-band breakdown of Friday's action. Follow me on Twitter all weekend for continued updates and commentary from Pitchfork Music Festival.
The day began with this Chicago combo, whose rumbling freight train take on garage psych and proclivity toward mile-high gang harmonies rendered them 2012's equivalent to The Mamas and the Papas. They also apparently feature Miss Patty from "Gilmore Girls" on tambourine. Lots of hooks, lots of power and a preternatural grasp of what makes a human shake.
The first time I saw ex-freak folkie Jana Hunter's shoegaze band, it was in a darkened two-story dive bar at South by Southwest. That's a better setting for Lower Dens' music than an open field at mid-afternoon, but they were still impressive in the great outdoors, perhaps the only exception to the aforementioned rule about bands needing to bring personality and presence to the stage. Hunter and her homeys were about as anti-charismatic as musicians can be, but their daydream rhythms + heavenly noise formula produced excruciatingly gorgeous sounds. Seriously, though, why not smile sometime, you know? Even Dirty Projectors have been known to smile.
Olivia Tremor Control
I missed this iconic Elephant 6 retro pop band when they played the Wexner Center last year. Turns out missing them wasn't a huge deal. While their quirky arrangements and 60s fetish yielded immensely pleasant music, it seemed more appropriate for headphones. I didn't regret skipping out on them extra-early, especially since I was such a fan of what came next.
Willis Earl Beal
Considering the amount of hype surrounding Chicago iconoclast Willis Earl Beal, the self-proclaimed "black Tom Waits," I was ready to hate the guy. After all, I think Tom Waits is basically "Sesame Street" for grown-ups. But Beal was mesmerizing Friday. His set felt incredibly fresh even though he was taking cues from Waits as well as the great huffing-puffing James Brown tradition. Backed by an old reel-to-reel, Beal cavorted around stage and howled passionately over his own bizarrely emotional productions, pausing occasionally to swig from a bottle of Jack Daniel's and a can of Coke. He busted out a blanket and used it as a cape. He transformed a mic stand and a folding chair into powerful props. When he turned off the reel-to-reel and quietly strummed a guitar, his voice remained a revelation. You could accuse the guy of being too self-consciously "outsider," as if he's knowingly cribbing from the late Wesley Willis or something, but I feel like that would be a disservice to Friday's rapturous display. Still not sure if I will ever get into his records, but I'm all-in on Beal as a performer.
That pretty motherf---er brought along the whole A$AP Mob, which made his performance almost as chaotic as Odd Future's set from last year's fest. But while Odd Future's madness was frustrating on a hellishly hot afternoon, this madness felt like a party amidst the mid-afternoon downpour. It was certainly more appropriate for a music festival than the electronic soundscapes Tim Hecker was crafting nearby. That said, I'm not sure anarchy is Rocky's best look. The strength of his records is their absolute smoothness, his charisma emanating from every last syllable. That vibe translated into his set opening for Drake's Club Paradise Tour at the Schott back in February, but not so much here. Hard to complain about a set that included all the best tracks from "LiveLoveA$AP" plus the killer single "Goldie," though.
(As an aside, Rocky's fixation on Southern rap style is well-documented, and that seems to include the use of the phrase "turnt up." I thought it was pretty funny that he told the crowd things were about to get "turnt up" right before performing "Wassup," among the most chilled-out rap tracks of 2011.)
K.R.I.T.'s set was so different from A$AP's that they almost felt like different genres. Whereas Rocky openly admitted that he didn't come to perform but to party, K.R.I.T. delivered a performance. He stomped his way through grease-hot tracks from his new "Live From the Underground" and his various mixtapes, rocking the mic with a fiery sense of purpose. I imagine the people who only listen to "real hip-hop" would have enjoyed this thoroughly.
These guys trade in all anthems, all the time, so I was excited to watch them get a crowd all riled up. It's well-known at this point that you can sound explosive with nothing more than drums and guitar, and though the mix was a little messy at the Blue Stage, nothing was going to keep Japandroids from breathlessly barreling forward. I was across the park by the time they launched into their signature song "The House That Heaven Built," but I was glad to hear it triumphantly echoing from afar.
Not sure when I became a Dirty Projectors superfan, but watching them recreate songs from the new "Swing Lo Magellan" last night was just short of transcendent. Who makes music like this? All the passionate squawks and awkwardly scribbled melodies congeal into something unsual but deeply relatable.
Dipped out from the Projectors show for a moment to witness 2011's breakout producer, New Jersey native Clams Casino, in the flesh. The guy is a genius, but again, I'm not sure watching a genius press play is my idea of live music. (Seriously, though, listen to Clams Casino.)
In 2012, "indie rock" has evolved into a synth-pop art project. Purity Ring, who'll play Ace of Cups this fall, is among the poster children for this phenomenon. Their set benefitted from a pretty light show that included singer Megan James traipsing around with a spotlight, but compared to the headlining performance that was happening nearby, this art-school stunt felt soulless.
It seems strange to use the word "uncompromising" to describe such an approachable artist, but that feels about right for Feist. You can tell every last detail is exactly how she wants it, which works out great for us because she's a visionary. (There's another word that shouldn't fit for Feist's coffee-shop rock, but does.) Her music is so well-rounded; she can channel the angels while singing from the pit of her soul or wreck your mind with post-Zeppelin guitar violence. This set was a reminder (no pun intended) of how lucky we are that she decided to keep releasing music.