“I’m getting too old for this shit.”
The phrase was a mantra as I entered the Pitchfork Music Festival 2011, the three-day-long music festival sponsored by the taste-making music website which blasted into Chicago’s Union Park from July 15-17. The thought of crowds thousands deep filled with folks almost 20 years my junior, sweltering heat forecast for the weekend and three stages filled with many bands that I had never heard before transformed this generally laid-back, open-minded reporter into a crotchety curmudgeon. I felt like Grandpa Simpson, shuffling around with an onion tied to my belt and an urge to yell at these kids to get off my damn lawn.
Luckily, the feeling didn’t last.
Yes, the crowds — which averaged 18,000 each day — were ridiculous and near impossible to navigate at times and excessive temperatures raged into the mid-90s resulting in a few heat-related illnesses, but they became minor nuisances in the face of the stimulation that Pitchfork provides. While annoying, the overbearing throngs made for perfect people watching. The kids are wearing neon these days, apparently. And a portly man in nothing but a tiny white thong is always hilarious.
Pitchfork staff and volunteers kept the heat at bay throughout the weekend by rolling empty, air-conditioned Chicago Transit Authority buses onto the festival grounds to serve as temporary cooling spots for sweaty festival-goers. Concession prices for water plummeted throughout the weekend down to a single dollar, as well. Smart thinking.
Pitchfork’s vendors have become almost as famous as the musical programing. Everything from locally produced clothing and arts-stuffs to a massive vinyl record fair can be found a stones-throw from the festival grounds, ensuring that you can still hear the tunes. The shaded vendor area also provides a welcome, shaded escape from the heat and the crowds should they become overwhelming.
The vendor area highlight is Flatstock, a showcase of some of the country’s best contemporary Rock & Roll concert posters. Wonderful designed, handmade posters advertising shows ranging from Mastodon to Calexico and all points in-between were on display and for sale (for cheap) in booths running the north side of the festival ground. The artists were on-hand, as well, each eager to discuss their work or simply shoot the shit with browsers.
Pitchfork’s tangential pleasures are nothing without the festival’s raison d’etre, of course. This year’s 45-band musical line-up proved particularly strong, evenly balanced between young turks like EMA, Tune-Yards. James Blake, Das Rascist, the Fresh & Onlys and the controversial Hip Hop group, OFWGKTA, and established acts like Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Superchunk, Deerhunter, Punk supergroup OFF!, DJ Shadow and headliners Animal Collective, Fleet Foxes and TV on the Radio.
Personal faves were plentiful.
Cut Copy and Twin Shadow impressed with 1980s-inspired tunes designed to get folk shaking their asses. And they did. Cut Copy’s Synth Pop set energized the western mainstage. The crowd responded in like fashion, transforming the fest grounds into a massive dance party for an hour. And though relegated to the smaller southside stage, Twin Shadow pumped out an impressive set of understated, lightly funky guitar- and keyboard-heavy numbers reminiscent of the New Romantic era’s best.
The diverse range of Pitchfork’s programming is best exemplified by appearances by Alt-Country chanteuse Neko Case and Savannah, Ga., Metal wonders Kylesa.
Case’s twangy Torch Pop cooled down an early evening amped by Guided By Voices’ booze-fueled, anthemic fist-pumpers (more on that later). Escalating temps plastered Case’s famous red locks to her moist forehead but they never affected that famous voice, which cut through the humidity like a cool breeze.
Conversely, Kylesa’s double-drummer assault and twin riffage by Laura Pleasants and Phillip Cope created a volcanic eruption in the area surrounding the small, secluded southern stage. The thunder fuzz lead a small, but rowdy mosh pit to break out despite the stifling heat and cramped quarters. It brought a tear to this Metal head’s eye.
All of Pitchfork’s acts combined failed to compare to the fest’s real treasure, though. The return of Dayton, Ohio’s favorite sons, Guided By Voices, was a reason to celebrate. The lo-fi pioneers split up in 2004 after two decades of delivering perfect stabs of Pop bliss — all under the tutelage of mad scientist Robert Pollard, the former elementary schoolteacher legendary for his prolific songwriting prowess and love of the alcohol.
Guided By Voices employed a revolving-door line-up during much of its run, but the incarnation that propelled them to initial stardom always held a place in the hearts of GBV fans. This “classic lineup” featuring Pollard, guitarists Tobin Sprout and Mitch Mitchell, bassist Greg Demos and drummer Kevin Fennell reunited last summer to much hoopla, including a string of sold-out shows across the country. Pitchfork 2011 saw their return again.
After opening with a shaky version of “Echos Myron” from their seminal release, Bee Thousand, complete with Neko Case on backing vocals, the Indie Rock elder statesmen ran through classics and obscurities from the GBV early years. Sure, punch and tempo were softened here and there, grey and paunch replaced youthful good looks and Pollard’s leg kicks didn’t reach old heights, but the power, enthusiasm and drunken energy (Pollard’s bottle of booze was a prominent prop) were undeniable. This infection rolled into audience, who showed appreciation by singing along with fists pumped in the air.
By the set’s end, a sweaty Guided By Voices had the crowd in their hands. And though decades older than many of the fest’s other acts, Pollard and company’s performance proved that they aren’t too old for this shit.