Pitchfork Music Festival 2013: A Father-Son Dialogue

Tonje Thilesen for Pitchfork
Bjork performs at the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, IL

My dad had no idea that A$AP Rocky was coming. But he was ready for Lil B.

Last summer, I brought my father to the Pitchfork Music Festival, that annual indie-rock utopia in Chicago's Union Park, and the first artist he watched in full was Lord Flacko and the rest of the A$AP Mob, back before "LongLiveA$AP" was named Best New Music by a certain alternative-embracing website. An attorney from South Jersey with an avowed distaste for hip-hop music, my father had never heard of A$AP before the first day of Pitchfork 2012, but he watched the Harlem MC writhe in the rain and loved every ounce of energy emitted from the stage and lapped up by his crowd. He appreciated how seemingly every fifth word was the f-word, and months later, he got a kick out of the title of Rocky's breakout single, "Fuckin' Problems."

When I asked my dad to come with me to Chicago last year, I had a nagging suspicion that my coverage of Pitchfork Fest for Billboard would somehow, at least tangentially, include his presence alongside me -- and then he watched A$AP Rocky, and I watched my 57-year-old dad rock to "Peso," and I realized that I wanted to know what he thought of every single group we were going to watch that weekend. He provided his unique, age-inappropriate takes on Feist, araabMUZIK and Big K.R.I.T.; I jotted each reaction down in my iPhone notes, completely unbeknownst to him. The morning after last year's festival ended, I showed him a draft of what became "Pitchfork Music Festival 2012: Invading Hipster Central With My Father," and he was floored, and moved, that he had morphed into part of the story. 

Fast-forward one year, and my dad is watching Lil B warble the line "You can fuck my bitch" an absurd number of times in a row while the irreverent Based God performs the song "Eat" to an audience that's almost exactly as ravenous as Rocky's was on the same stage in 2012. He gazes upon the stage-divers, drops his shoulder in time with the squelching beat, smirks at the lyrics being presented in a park that stands in the shadow of a Catholic church. But this time, my father's unexpected pangs of appreciation have him reaching for the pad and pen tucked in his gym shorts. He jots something down, puts it away, and listens to Lil B sing "You can fuck my bitch" again.

PHOTOS: Pitchfork Music Festival

My dad, now 58, decided to make a return trip to hipster mecca after having a blast the previous summer, and I told him I was going to put him to work. Last year, I could record his secondhand musings while he remained unaware of my true subject, but this year, I wanted to read his own thoughts in his own words, for a unique perspective on a festival geared specifically toward younger, digital-savvy music fans, many of whom pride themselves on championing bands that don't have their albums available at the local Target, if they even have albums at all. 

This year's Pitchfork lineup admittedly featured more veteran artists than last year's gathering -- headliners Bjork, Belle & Sebastian and R. Kelly all reached their commercial and critical peaks in the 90s. But it's not like my dad can rattle through Bjork's back catalog. When he walked into Union Park on Friday, he had probably heard less total material from its three days of performers -- a handful of Belle & Sebastian songs, Kelly's best-known singles, Sky Ferreira's "Everything is Embarrassing" and a few scattered tracks from the rest -- than compared to the 2012 incarnation of Pitchfork Fest. Like last year, I hoped to get a reaction to this year's slate of buzz bands from someone who has never used the term "buzz band" in his life, who never visits Pitchfork's website and who can base an opinion of an artist solely on the 45 minutes of live music being presented onstage, to see where exactly we differ. So, we both went to Union Park three straight days, we both took notes this time, and we both wrote up our notes when the festival had finally concluded in the shadows of R. Kelly's inflatable doves on Sunday night.

Beginning on the next page, a written dialogue between my 58-year-old dad and 25-year-old me about the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival. 

NEXT PAGE: Day 1

DAY 1: THE ICELANDIC WALL 

DAD: "I enter the main gate and quickly realize that I don't look like almost any of the thousands gathered at Pitchfork. My '99 Springsteen concert t-shirt by itself seems older than half the crowd. I wonder why that is for a few seconds. Ahh, who cares? My generation's loss. There are some terrific bands here and I'm eager to check them out."

SON: "We've been talking about that a little bit over the past week -- why the majority of older music fans, including all of your fifty-something friends, have zero interest in discovering the Next Best Things in the medium. Is it just willful ignorance that keeps most people your age (and again, most, not all, because there are hipster dads and moms out there and they must be saluted) away from the newest musical trends? Surely a fan of the Sex Pistols could appreciate what a band like Savages is doing, and could easily discover them with an Internet connection. We watch Savages on Saturday, though, and you're one of very few people north of 30 in our part of the crowd. But, as you said, who cares?"

Pitchfork Music Festival Photos

DAD: "There are a ton of groups I know nothing about, which is part of the charm of this festival, along with its remarkably wide range of performers. I figure I'll love some and hate some, but learn about all of them (and then have no one my age to discuss them with for the rest of my life)."

SON: "Maybe there's a support group we could find you? A mailing list of Best New Music junkies who get senior discounts at movie theaters? I'm not kidding when I say that I'll look into this when we get home."

DAD: "First up on Friday is Frankie Rose, and she doesn't disappoint. She puts on a strong set of pop pieces, with lots of 'ooh-ooh's' and nice guitar work. It's very danceable, and she has a raspy voice that's like the Bat For Lashes vocalist."

SON: "Whoa, a Natasha Khan tip-of-the-cap! Somebody's been studying up, I see. But yes, Rose is totally beguiling, despite being saddled with a too-early time slot on the side stage. I don't know about the Bat For Lashes comparison, but Rose has grown as a live performer in a similarly short time period, and the 'Interstellar' songs are more muscular now. This is going to be one of the highlights of the day."

DAD: "Then I get an uneasy jolt from Daughn Gibson. The singer has a super-low baritone, and the music's too dark and grim. He's highly rated? What am I missing here?"

SON: "Gibson's use of unsettling samples and haunted-house vocals results in a very singular sound, and it seems like a difficult performance to jump into midway through. I like Gibson more than you, and I wish his set hadn't overlapped so much with Frankie Rose's, but such are the trappings of festival life."      

DAD: "Mac DeMarco shows tremendous energy, but throws in random covers, like BTO's 'Takin' Care of Business,' that mystify me. After that, Mikal Cronin plays a solid set on the side stage. I'm always amused at the abrupt endings of punk songs. The band simply stops playing, sometimes in the middle of a riff, like someone onstage checked their watch and announced 'Okay, that's enough.'"

Then I see a group from my time, Wire, and damn if they don't still sound great. These guys were producing excellent punk music when the rest of the music world was chasing disco. They're visionaries. There's no audience chatter during their set -- they just rattle off one knockout piece after another for an hour. I'm dancing. I'm feeling this one."

SON: "Wire is very much an outlier in a Friday lineup that features a ton of newbies and two females that have little to do with straightforward rock music. Whereas Cronin and co. disappoint me -- 'MCII' is an album worth unlocking, but the songs sounded unkempt live -- Wire are predictably tighter and more effectively snarling, if a bit short of 'edgy.' As for DeMarco, he at least told an awesome joke about how Bjork personally moved all of her equipment onstage. 'She's spiritually strong! She's physically strong!'"

DAD: "Then... the wall. Joanna Newsom." 

SON: "Joanna Newsom, as you know, is one of my 10 all-time favorite artists. I think you have heard only one of her songs, 'Good Intentions Paving Company,' before Friday's set, and she doesn't play it." 

DAD: "She plays the harp (the harp!) with no band, just her vocals and some dreamy lyrics. There's a few songs on the grand piano, then it's back to the harp. Her talent is off the charts... but frankly, I'm bored after a few songs."

SON: "Look, I'm always going to love watching Joanna Newsom perform; she is one of the few artists making music today that truly captivates me, whose aesthetic and demeanor can make my entire heart swell. But I find her first-ever Pitchfork performance, which doubles as a rare outing for her this year, especially enthralling. The way she commanded the crowd with no backing band and just her fingers delicately plucking melodies out of that towering harp made me never want to watch her with a backing band again. Every song was delivered so fully formed, from the heartbreaking closer 'Sawdust & Diamonds' to a new song that carried a more urgent tone, and each one thankfully made the crowd stop yapping amongst itself."

DAD: "I'm astonished that this crowd of thousands of kids, with tattoos and piercings and marijuana and crude t-shirts, stands for an hour listening to this music and applauding wildly. Again: what am I missing?

But then the wall falls in on me with Bjork, who follows Newsom. The garish costume is already a red flag for me -- my rule is, if a performer needs gimmicks, the music isn't strong enough by itself."

SON: "Truthfully, dad, I don't think the rules of gimmickry apply to the Icelandic pixie that is headlining a major U.S. festival while wearing what appears to be a brownish koosh ball on her head. Bjork is in her own world, and it's a world that I will fiercely defend. She's another one of my personal favorites -- I sifted through her entire discography in college and tried to get everyone I could to look past the swan dress -- and despite the understandable focus on her uneven 'Biophilia' album, this performance is scorching to me. 'Army of Me'! 'Pagan Poetry'! 'Joga'! Bjork stays killing it."

DAD: "I try, I really do, but I can't get into the music at all. She struts around the stage playing disjointed songs and her strange Icelandic choir jumping around. The crowd loves her! I know the younger generation is more tech-savvy, but do they hear songs differently, too?"

SON: "Apparently, Mother Nature agrees with you, and due to thunderstorm warnings, Bjork's set gets cut short 24 minutes early. It's a shame, because I think she was about to melt faces with 'Hyperballad' and 'Pluto.' Oh well, maybe she'll make up the lost time by duetting with R. Kelly on Sunday night."

NEXT PAGE: Day 2

DAY 2: SING SWANS SONGS 

DAD: "The first band I catch on Saturday is Parquet Courts on the side stage, and I zoom back to music heaven. It's fantastic guitar-driven rock, with hints of everything from Chuck Berry to Roy Orbison to the Stones. The crowd's energy is sky-high, almost reminiscent of A$AP Rocky's effect on the red stage last year. Hands are waving, heads are bopping, and I'm doing air guitar like I'm back with my friends at a Dire Straits concert."

SON: "Not much to add here. Your air guitar remains impressive. Parquet Courts' deliriously great 'Light Up Gold' album is stripped of all pretension, and it's not surprising that you enjoyed this set more than Bjork's headlining opus. And good Lord, 'Stoned and Starving' sounds even better with that 'Light Up Gold' reprise that Andrew Savage added onto its conclusion."

DAD: "Savages is fascinating. This all-female rock group has a dynamo for a lead singer and a completely insane drummer. The material, and the way the band presented it, was a little too hard-edged for me. There were no smiles, and everyone was angry as hell. You have to admire a song called 'Fuckers,' though."

Pitchfork Music Festival Photos

SON: "Brace yourself: it's time for Swans." 

DAD: "My jaw literally drops after a few minutes of Swans, and it stays there the entire set.  All my ancient ears hear is loud, random noise, bizarre lyrics that I can't get a hold of, and a frontman gyrating around wildly. I assume it all means something, but I confess it isn't even in my musical universe." 

SON: "It was hard watching Swans with someone who so obviously hated what Michael Gira and his troupe were doing from the get-go. I've never seen Swans live before this weekend, but I've heard tales of their majesty and thought 'The Seer' lived up to the accolades. When the group's fury was properly harnessed to the point of complete cohesion between its various guitarists and percussionists, I found Swans' mid-afternoon performance utterly mesmerizing. Unfortunately, I didn't think they were locked in for the majority of the set."

DAD: "I've read the accolades about Swans' 'wall of sound.' You've warned me that it was an acquired taste... but I only have 30 years left."

SON: "Zing!" 

DAD: "We then pivot to Solange, who serves as a perfect antidote. She's smooth as silk with R&B and party tunes that only sound better with a masterful band and backing vocalists. She shows off some nice dance moves and works the crowd with a strong stage presence. We're all busting moves in the grass, too. This young lady has good genes and talent."

SON: "Solange -- who came after a Breeders 'Last Splash' performance that unfortunately could not take precedence over a hasty dinner -- really was the anti-Swans. She's so comfortable onstage and is constantly inviting her audience to join her in that comfort. Solange's 'True' EP was the best R&B release of 2012 not named 'Channel Orange,' and her live show now eschews most of the material that preceded it. I'm not sure anyone is complaining, though."

DAD: "Onto Belle & Sebastian, who proceed to knock off Parquet Courts in my personal cage match for the best performance of the day."

SON: "I know you're biased because you know and appreciate their music more than any other group playing this weekend, but Belle & Sebastian really did slay, as much as an unassuming Scottish pop collective can 'slay.'"

DAD: "They start soft with some folk-rock songs, then slowly ramped it up. Every number is tight and catchy. The vocals, keyboards, flute, fiddle and horns are all pro. Then, a downpour starts, and Belle & Sebastian moves into dance mode. They bring a bunch of audience members onstage for 'The Boy with the Arab Strap,' and it's a giant, soggy, enjoyable dance party."

SON: "The best part of Belle & Sebastian's performance is the way Stuart Murdoch and his merry mates turned some of their more muted numbers into total crowd-pleasers. I wouldn't expect 'Piazza, New York Catcher' to inspire random audience flailing or 'Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying' to serve as a satisfying encore, but both did so in spades. And, as you pointed out, Murdoch (who was wearing a baseball tee that read 'If you don't practice... You don't deserve to dream') worked the crowd terrifically, save for an unsavory joke about Chicago's gun violence. 'Just don't shoot me, okay?' Not even he could make that whimsical."

DAD: "True. But I have to admit, I loved this performance. This one will be hard to top." 

NEXT PAGE: Day 3

DAY 3: MY MIND IS TELLING ME NO 

SON: "Sunday will undoubtedly belong to Robert Sylvester Kelly, Chicago's hometown hero and he who remains trapped in various closets. But first, Autre Ne Veut's Arthur Ashin is leaving his bleeding heart splayed across the side stage. Homeboy's passion is spectacular, but his soul musings are suffering because he's losing his voice. I watch him hoping that he'll stick around for R. Kelly's set to recognize the power of control."

DAD: "It's 'rap day' at Pitchfork Fest, and this old white fart is blown away by Killer Mike. Unapologetic, biting social commentary, carefully weaved in with exquisite poetry, rhyming, dancing and heartfelt pleas for the audience to give a damn and be good human beings."

Pitchfork Music Festival Photos

SON: "'I know the deaths that are going on in Chicago are unacceptable to you, and I want to challenge you to do something simple, like: get to know your neighbor.' Where Stuart Murdoch was glib last night, Killer Mike is wholly sincere."

DAD: "He's crying at times! He snarls 'Fuck Ronald Reagan' and preaches 'the opposite of bullshit' on 'R.A.P. Music.' Killer Mike lets Chicago know that we're all standing in the real church."

SON: "It was clever to schedule Killer Mike and El-P with back-to-back sets on Sunday, making for some very expected, very awesome 'Run The Jewels' goodness. The two MC's have worked relentlessly to earn this swarming crowd, and always on their own terms."

DAD: "Waxahatchee, a.k.a. Katie Crutchfield, produces some of the prettiest numbers of the festival with some fine guitar and vocals. A little later, Sky Ferreira shows off a terrific voice, some Top 40-worthy material and a top-notch backing band."

SON: "The disconnect between Sky's ultra-timid personality and confidence-oozing performance style is fascinating, and comes to a head when she performs 'Ghost' and starts crying midway through. As in, tears streaming down her face, unabashed weeping, her dark eyes becoming swollen and searching for an exit. It was an endearingly 'real' moment, and was only topped when Dev Hynes came out for an impromptu duet of 'Everything is Embarrassing.' At this point in her career, Ferreira feels refreshingly authentic."

DAD: "Lil B..." 

SON: "Yes! Lil B! It's time to discuss Lil B." 

DAD: "He puts on an interesting, high-energy performance, but 'You Can Fuck My Bitch' is too derogatory for me. It leaves me cold."

SON: "Sigh. It's a hard point to argue with. Based God's high-wire act is easy to loathe, ignore or exasperate. I nod toward his positivity from afar -- he ends his Pitchfork performance by telling the audience 'I love you' again and again -- without taking him seriously as a capital-a Artist, as no one should. I appreciate you stomaching the entirety of his set, though, so I could see 'Wonton Soup.'"

DAD: "Toro Y Moi has an enjoyable R&B/electronic slate with a full sound. You, meanwhile, caught the last half of Chairlift."

SON: "Ah, the perennially underrated Chairlift, who are relegated to the side stage presumably because they're not quite as established or flashy as some of their peers. 'I Belong In Your Arms' soared, though, and they ended with a searing new track with a rubber band rhythm and Caroline Polachek at her most bewitching. After that, it's time for a quick taco break before M.I.A. does whatever she'll do in the pre-headliner slot."

DAD: "I couldn't connect with M.I.A., who was high-voltage as well and had the biggest crowd yet for a rap-leaning artist. The music seems too sing-song, and the lyrics almost unintelligible."

SON: "Part of the problem was that the sound was immensely screwed up, causing Maya to shoot off death stares without abandon. Overall, though, M.I.A.'s set hits the right notes for me, and reminds me how much I have missed her. The first three songs on 'Kala' ('Bamboo Banga,' 'Bird Flu' and 'Boyz') will forever be the hottest of fire, and the closing one-two punch of 'Paper Planes' and 'Bad Girls' is pretty lethal."

DAD: "It would've helped if I had gone in with some familiarity, I guess. 

R. Kelly is the finale, and the crowd-pleaser, for an insanely large crowd." 

SON: "Everyone is hyped to see Kellz take the stage. I feel bad for TNGHT, who has to compete with this on the side stage. What a lousy draw."

DAD: "Kelly's got a full choir and excellent musicians. He's smart enough to do snippets of all of his many hits that his fans want to hear."

SON: "And some that they probably don't! Did you really need to perform your 'Go Getta' hook, Robert? Asking for a friend."

DAD: "I'm in tight to the stage, but literally can't move, and this delirious girl keeps screaming every single lyric into my ear. So I leave and push through to the back, where I can see, and hear, and dance. 'I Believe I Can Fly,' with a choir and inflatable white doves being released into the sky, was a perfect send-off for Pitchfork."

SON: "No one can touch R. Kelly as a crowd-pleaser in my book. He's smiling the entire time, asking for a towel, breaking down 'Sex in the Kitchen' a cappella, holding the climactic note from 'When a Woman Loves' for about 40 seconds... wow. Pitchfork doesn't love him when it comes to online album ratings, but they were smart enough to recognize the power of an R. Kelly headlining set at their annual Chicago festival. I'm physically and emotionally drained."

DAD: "It was a terrific three days of music and hanging out with my son. I'm going to pick up the Parquet Courts and Killer Mike album at a record store when I get home. Hey, people, you gotta tell your moms and dads to try it -- I could use some peers next year!"


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