If you follow music at all, you’re likely familiar with Pitchfork Media. Founded in 1995 by high school grad and Minnesota native Ryan Schreiber, the website has grown over the years, evolving from its beginnings as a niche outlet for indie rock culture to something much more far-reaching, eventually surpassing Spin and Rolling Stone as the preeminent music culture media source. The diverse selection and content-driven model Pitchfork brings to this crowded media landscape has served to expose a deeper and wider variety of artists to the general public. It’s not an overstatement to say they’ve helped to change the very notion of what constitutes “mainstream” music today. The music media behemoth is equally loved and derided by music fans, but it’s impossible to ignore. In 2006, Pitchfork took their curatorial chops to the realm of live music, establishing a yearly midsummer weekend-long music festival in their home base of Chicago, highlighting up-and-coming acts from around the world. Much like John Cusack’s character in the movie version of High Fidelity (fun fact: also filmed in Chicago), Pitchfork’s longtime critics and professional appreciators have now become creators. Love ’em or hate ’em, you can’t deny they put their money where their mouth is.
Since 2008, I’ve made the drive from Minneapolis to Chicago to take in Pitchfork Music Festival‘s three full days of live music. Part of my reason for attending the festival is admittedly to sell the records on my label and other Twin Cities labels at the CHIRP Record Fair. But the truth is, I go because I’m a music obsessive unable to resist the prospect of overloading on their buffet of live offerings.
I know, I know: When I wrote a few short weeks ago about Rock the Garden, I started my piece off with the many reasons why outdoor music festivals are generally insufferable. And those complaints all ring equally true if you’re talking about Pitchfork. Large groups of people crowded together, trying to traverse a small area of land to see lots of different sets, everybody outdoors — it combines to create myriad opportunities for unpleasantness.
But given the right lineup, I’m willing to roll the dice.
As with SXSW, I’m compelled to attend the big music festivals, despite the inconvenience and all the gross commercial trappings inherent in such heavily sponsored and marketed gatherings. Past Pitchfork Music Festivals have given me opportunities to see a mix of artists I wouldn’t have otherwise seen or heard of, alongside performers I’d always be eager to see again. I got to watch David Yow of Jesus Lizard yowl as he swam through seas of fans from around the world. I’ve joined crowds, ten thousand festival-goers strong, as we all bounced in unison to LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip and Cut Copy. I got to be there when TV on the Radio finished off a set of showstoppers with a brilliant surprise cover of Fugazi’s classic “Waiting Room“. After seeing them at Pitchfork, I can attest to the fact that the hype-bands Grimes , How to Dress Well and Dirty Projectors really are incredible heard live.
These are the reasons I come back. Sure, I’ve seen plenty of sub-par performances and music there too (and will, no doubt, see more). But I treat the festival much the same way I handle the Pitchfork’s website: I home in on the stuff that’s appealing, fighting past my own knee-jerk, OCD inclination to take it all in. You have to pick and choose: Pitchfork, in all its incarnations, is sprawling enough to overwhelm even avid music fans.
When Belle & Sebastian and Bjork were announced as two of the headliners of the festival this February, I nearly passed out. I’m a completist when comes to these two iconic artists. (I discovered I have over 300 tracks by each as I was prepping to write this piece.) Previous live shows by both over the years have eclipsed even my fanboy-level expectations. Suffice it to say I was plenty excited by the prospect of their consecutive-day appearances at Pitchfork this year. And after trudging through the crowded field shared by the festival’s two mainstages, I founds spots each night, with a good sight-line stage right, well in advance of the artists’ headlining sets. I braced myself to deal with lots of pushing and jockeying for crowd position, but it wasn’t that bad — just the lowgrade hubbub of a few too high/too drunk couples trying to keep their shit together long enough to see each evening’s capper.
From the moment Bjork appeared in front of us in her sea urchin-esque mask, she had the audience in the palm of her hands. She maintained absolute command of both the stage and the crowd. Joined by a large choir of women in shimmering blue cloaks, with two instrumentalists to accompany her, Bjork took the audience on a fairy ride. Time slowed down; each word, each note she sang held us fast. A massive tesla coil encased by a cage hung from the stage directly above her, visibly responding to the pulse of the music. Bjork pulled together bombastic songs like “Army of Me” with subtler tunes, like “Hidden Place,” and a healthy dose of tracks from her last album, Biophilia. She offered up that impressive body of work and distinctive voice in a way that revealed her to be an artist still in conversation with her craft. Prior to her set she displayed a message asking fans to not to focus on documenting the show, urging them just to watch and listen in the moment. So, in that spirit, I didn’t take any video or photos while she performed. But trust me: next time she’s in the area, go see her. It’s an amazing show, well worth traveling for. A trip to see her perform again soon is already on my to-do list.
Following the Icelandic treasures Bjork offered the night before them was no small task. But fellow northern hemisphere islanders, Belle & Sebastian, took the stage with a joie de vivre you might not expect given the music’s sometimes dour tone and intricacy. But band frontman Stuart Murdoch pantomimed playfully across the stage. On more than one occasion, he invited fans on to the stage or jumped down among us, to join the frolicking crowd below them. During one song, he had a fan apply his eyeliner and then returned the favor – all told, a heartening display of solidarity with his fans. Even though the stage was filled to the brim with the full ensemble of musicians behind the group’s hallmark sound — chamber pop-meets-60s girl group-meets the Smiths — Stuart invited almost 20 fans to dance along with him on the stage. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous, but the sing-a-long happy energy of the audience was more than fair compensation. Listening, as Belle and Sebastian wrapped the set up with “Judy and the Dream of Horses” and an encore performance of “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying,” the crowd singing along — it was pure music-lover bliss.
Even if the festival had only featured those first two evening headliners, I’d deem it worth the price of admission for the weekend twice over. Fortunately, this year’s Pitchfork had an exceptional number of truly fine musical moments. Minnesota’s own Low had the audacity to play a fairly straightforward, strong set of newer songs, concluding with a brilliant cover of Rihanna’s pop hit “Stay”. Swans played well too, with no sign of being worse for wear after more than 20 years — with Michael Gira at the helm, their continuing aural explorations of punishing-cathartic sound went from chaos to something almost beautiful. London’s newest punk saviors, Savages, invoked the ’80s post-punk spirit of Joy Division, Siouxie and the Banshees, and Gang of Four. Ripping through their songs at full bore, dressed all in black to play at the punishing peak of the midday sun, Savages convinced me that seeing them (indoors) later this fall is necessary. Wire, a band that likely influenced Savages, played a set of mostly newer songs that can’t touch the brilliance of their first album, Pink Flag; all the same, the new work shows another iconic band not hindered by their age. R. Kelly was the surprise of the weekend. Blowing through a staggering 38-songs set of his musical history, the controversial Chicago R&B superstar showed that despite his lavish entourage and microphone he can still connect to his hometown audience. He put on an crazy yet passionate performance — filling the night sky with a release of white balloons filled with LED lights along with dove-shaped inflatables is anything but understated.
Not a shabby capstone to the festival either.
Of the nearly 50 artists on stage and some 20 hours of music July 19 through 21, I saw at least half the bands playing. Some newer groups that I wanted to see — Parquet Courts, Phosphorescent and Merchandise, for example –I missed only because I got caught hanging out too long in the record fair or checking out gig posters at Flatstock. Some artists I only saw in bits — like Yo La Tengo, Killer Mike, Mikal Cronin, The Breeders and Joanna Newsome — caught me at an off moment, when I needed a reprieve from the sun or knew I wouldn’t have the patience to brave the crowds for a whole set. I mention all this by way of offering some hard-won advice: You’re going to miss some shows worth seeing, and that’s okay. Have you ever eaten so much of something you love that your enjoyment turns ugly, gets spoiled by overindulgence? It’s a little like that. It’s good to respect your limits.
There have been a few well-curated and under-the-radar music festival options over the years in the Twin Cities, and I’m hopeful that First Avenue will be able to pull something together for 2014. Unfortunately, the majority of our state’s well attended music festivals are poorly curated, pathetic or are hobbled by unbalanced lineups. I don’t think there is a music culture or tastemaker in Minnesota right now that can pull off something with the scope of Pitchfork Music Festival. Pitchfork draws a massive national and international audience that few cities can appeal to. But let me tell you: Pitchfork sets the standard template for how to do a big-ticket festival right. The best moments of Pitchfork this year had me overcome with emotion, and it made me love all this music even more. I left the festival each night humming tunes under my breath,wanting to get home just so I could put the needle on my favorite records. Creating both the opportunity and atmosphere for such once-in-a-blue-moon moments to happen — that’s an art that Pitchfork has down.
Tom Loftus is founder and owner of the Modern Radio record label, a creative/music event planner, social media consultant, DJ, mini-golf enthusiast and a college career adviser. He has been deeply involved in the Twin Cities music community since the mid-1990s and has attended over 2000 shows across the world in basements, bars, ballrooms and beyond. While not immersed in the world of music, he loves word games, traveling, and his two cats adopted from Pizza Farm.