Pitchfork Festival, Reviewed Through Inanimate Objects
From freshly cut hair to condom balloons to Stuff in general, these were the literal things that made Pitchfork unforgettable.
Everyone has a different Pitchfork experience. There are so many things to see and to do. There are also lots of physical things to see and, in some cases, do—the fascinating objects, toys, products, and debris that participate in our time at Pitchfork. Sometimes we find these objects. Sometimes the objects find us. They affect our experience in new and surprising ways. Think about it! What is a music festival without objects? What is a music festival as an object? Let's explore!
SHARON VAN ETTEN
Object: A clump of freshly cut human hair, in the trash
There’s layers to this shit.
A day at a music festival can feel so long, so detached from the actual passage of time, that you almost feel like a different person by the time you leave. You may look different, too; you leave with a sunburn, covered in mud, shoeless, or without your dignity intact. Or without the hair you wore in.
Across from the stage from which the forlorn charm and slick vocal harmonies of Sharon Van Etten and her band emanated was another stage—or at least a platform dressed up to look just enough like a stage to confuse people—where some barbers were cutting hair. There was a sizable line for the free haircuts, with dudes looking to kick the festival off in style. Looking to get transformed.
Transformation was clearly on Sharon Van Etten’s mind. She was out to win converts and dispel doubts lingering from her underwhelming Pitchfork 2010 set. Relying on new songs from this year’s excellent Are We There, Van Etten endeared herself to the crowd, thanking them for “continuing to be nice.” Her focus and friendly camaraderie were exactly the kind of thing you look for in the first set you see at a three-day music festival after work on a Friday—and the same characteristics you’d want, for instance, in a person you’ve just met who’s taking scissors to your scalp.
So, if we’ve learned nothing else from this set, it’s that Sharon Van Etten would probably be good at haircuts, or at least really pleasant while she gives you a bad one.
Then Sun Kil Moon’s soft, aloof set swept up the excitement that Van Etten had just created in the crowd and threw it in the trash.
At Pitchfork, everything is ephemeral.
AVEY TARE’S SLASHER FLICKS
Object: A spilled beer
Much is wasted at Pitchfork. This particular beer was knocked over by an excitable, all-white-clad shill for Hostess, who was trying to get people to take post Twinkie-themed selfies on Instagram and who apologized a little too earnestly for knocking this beer over. Then he helpfully positioned the cup upright again, this time with only imaginary beer left in it.
It’s weird, though, how cavalierly beer is thrown away here, since it’s kind of expensive and takes forever to get. But beer is just one of many good things at a music festival, and like some of those things, it goes from eagerly anticipated to a lukewarm sort of whatever almost immediately. Expectations are a bitch.
So it was with Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks. Playing on the Blue Stage, the Flicks amassed a large, expectant crowd at the beginning of their set but couldn’t sustain the energy to keep it. It seemed like the set ended after every song, so total was the exodus. The three-piece was the victim of some serious (and better-sounding) sound bleed playing opposite Giorgio Moroder, but on a whole the group just seemed hesitant and not all that into it. Like that sixth or seventh Goose Island 312, this set might as well have been left unfinished.
Object: A giant video screen that says “STUFF”
Pitchfork does a mostly good job at keeping advertising unobtrusive. Unless you’re at the actual food/product/content tents, it's mostly limited to between sets on the giant video screens adjacent to the stage. But if there was one thing that people wanted to be sold, it was Giorgio Moroder. The 74-year-old electro-dance pioneer accompanied his minimalist stage setup—just the man and his equipment—with a dazzling, sublime array of visuals playing on the screens.
From hot-hued fractals to the charmingly literal (during “Hot Stuff,” made famous by Donna Summer, it literally just flashed “HOT” and “STUFF” over and over again), the visuals egged the crowd on through several disco-era hits. Throughout the set, a Moroder logo, consisting of a hat, shades, and a mustache, flashed intermittently on the screen. Moroder accompanied this subliminal mustache messaging by conducting the crowd with his fingers, pushing them forward into a state of dance-y delirium. Hell of an ad campaign.
Objects: Sunscreen, a bottle of water, a Pepsi, and a pack of cigarettes
At a festival like Pitchfork, there’s always something you want next, something you need to consume immediately—unless maybe you’re on molly, in which case someone can just throw a bug at you and you’ll be happy for hours.
Pitchfork festival-goers quickly amass all sorts of conflicting consumables, including some things that will help you prolong your day (water! sunscreen!) and some things that will shorten your life (cigs! soda!) but make the individual days more fun in the process. Getting these things and entertaining yourself with them is an important part of the music festival, since it is very long. The diversion needs diversions.
The Blue Stage is Pitchfork’s undercard, featuring the newer or niche bands that may not draw—and/or keep the attention of—the masses constantly seeking the next thing to do. It was also the spot to decamp for the people who, it seemed, wanted to see none of the actual shows—the group I saw playing Uno multiple times during the day, for one.
Circulatory System, kicking off the day at said stage to a smallish crowd, really went for it anyway, offering a diversion to divert from the prior diversion from diversion in the form of psych-pop, jazzy clarinet, and solid riffs for a meandering but surprisingly focused set.
Speaking of diversions, it was also a perfect time to break out that spliff hidden in the pack of cigarettes.
Object: A small Swedish flag atop a very long pole
Right around the mid-afternoon mark of Pitchfork’s two full days, the patch of grass between the adjacent Green and Red stages turned into a murky morass of people saving space up front for sets four hours later, blanket-dwelling slumberers, committed fans, stoned gazers, and people-watching people watching.
This tangled mass could make it hard to find the people you were actually there with, which is why we needed guidance—universal objects that, like north stars but during the day, helped us place ourselves. There were a few memorable such shepherds (the guys with the hand-scrawled “Feeling Spacey?” Kevin Spacey sign, for instance), but none more steadfast and sure than the small Swedish flag atop a very long pole.
In the air at the center of Cloud Nothings’ crowd, the Swedish flag was symbolic of the noisy Cleveland outfit’s downright patriotic mission to stir shit up. They flew headlong through 11 songs, including about half of this year’s Here And Nowhere Else, with frontman Dylan Baldi screaming into the heat and drummer Jayson Gerycz keeping the band’s motor whirring. The crowd ate it up like an army, descending into the second day’s first wild frenzy.
If the Cloud Nothings ever want to start a country, I might secede to go join them.
Object: Merrill Garbus’s pink hat
Life’s tough being a hat. First you’re on a head, next you’re on the stage, abandoned next to a cymbal. Then there are loud drums and shrieking. Maybe you get stepped on, maybe you don’t.
Life goes on.
NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL
No cameras or video allowed here. The video screens go dark; the festival descends into eerie pitch-black chaos, with nothing visible. People crawl around on all fours, groping out senselessly for something or someone familiar. But then “I Will Bury You In Time” blares out from the sonic sky that is your whole world now, like a strange angel, delivering you unto glory. Jeff Mangum’s voice sounds stronger, clearer than ever, piping out from where the stage used to be, the haunting horn-and-accordion procession reminding you with every passing song why you love this band and always will.
There were no objects at Neutral Milk Hotel’s set. Only subjects. Only people, singing sweetly with one voice.
Object: A questionable hat
Man, where to start with this one? Not only is this dude wearing a bucket hat a la Schoolboy Q, but it has Native American headdresses on it. You almost have to admire his commitment to cultural appropriation with this workaround, like, “I know I can’t wear a headdress, people will get mad—but what if it’s just pictures of headdresses?” We admire your gumption and foresight.
Fortunately for this hot, it wasn't the only thing being made fun of. Earl came out with a grand gesture, playing “Don’t Stop Believin’,” the official song of white people. (We don’t deserve better.) He was having a ball, coming across as the only artist who decided he wanted to be entertained as much by the audience as they were by him. Everyone had a better time for it. He led the crowd in a chant of his glorious line from “Molasses,” “I’m gonna fuck the freckles off your face, bitch,” then called out a dude in aviators (who Earl said he was going to call “Brett” unless the dude could come up with a better real name) who wasn’t playing along.
Later, his companion Domo Genesis took a Snapchat of the crowd yelling the line, “hot soup in a motherfucking bowl.” A guy was lounging in the midst of the upbeat crowd with a copy of American modernist Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts on his stomach. There was a lot of culture going on. Earl was the perfect hyped-up, lunatic ringmaster, keeping the crowd engaged as well as showing off the spectrum of raw emotion he packs into his songs.
Brett. What a dumb name.
DUM DUM GIRLS
Object: Two cigarette butts floating in a mud puddle
Objects: The sun and the clouds
There’s a sports term called Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which essentially calculates how much better a specific player is than the consistently average guy in his sport. It can be applied to pretty much anything else as well—for instance, a cloudy and slightly humid but otherwise all right day is about replacement level for a Chicago summer day. And Real Estate is a replacement level band.
That’s not a terrible thing. To even be considered replacement level, you still have to be really talented at your thing and consistently productive. To be as dependable as the sky showing up every day. And think about it—Real Estate really works anywhere, and you feel like you’d get the same show out of them whether they were playing in a basement, a music festival, a circus, a shoes factory, a vehicle emissions testing facility, a commercial for laundry, Bon Jovi’s rec room, a Sacramento Quiznos, Cuba—really just about any place. The sunny dream pop, the crisp oxford-and-khaki-an brightness, the melodies reassuring as the coming spring, the feeling that you’re going to be on a friend’s deck at a laid-back wedding reception forever.
When you see them, you know exactly how it’s going to be, and then it is that way. You could do a lot worse.
Object: A blown-up condom floating amid white balloons
Although her groovy, unpredictable mishmash of electronic synthpop has set her apart from weirdo-pop contemporaries, Grimes’s newer material (including one song she said was still possibly unfinished, lyrics-wise) seemed to scale things back. These songs (including “Go,” the song famously made for Rihanna) just sound like blander pop-dance tracks, and, like babies, we certainly don’t need any more of those.
The blown-up condom joined a small flurry of white balloons that rose from the crowd toward the end of her set, hinting at an idea of restraint that might also be seen in Grimes herself. Instead of continuing to indulge her spacey side, maybe Grimes just wants to dip more into straightforward EDM,. Although her live set, complete with two dancers, was intended to look much looser than St. Vincent’s tightly choreographed movements during a revelatory set in the same slot the night before, it felt more deliberate. It was certainly not as interesting.
The one note the set hit wasn't necessarily a bad one, but hitting it over and over again offered diminishing returns. There was just no climax.
Devin Schiff is an animate object. He's on Twitter - @devinschiff
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