Pitchfork Music Festival 2015: Giving Out Pitchfork Grades with My Dad
From the boisterous Run The Jewels to the dad-friendly (or were they?) Wilco, here's our annual father-son recap of Indie Rock Mecca.
Okay, let's get this out of the way now:
That's my dad, dancing with very little care in the Future Islands crowd to "Seasons (Waiting On You)" at the 2015 Pitchfork Music Festival. He's wearing a Spoon shirt and a Bernie Sanders button underneath his world-famous mustache. He is exhausted after standing all day at a music festival, shirking off the heat to get a good spot for Parquet Courts and the New Pornographers. But he's still dancing, because "Seasons (Waiting On You)" is a dance song and it feels great outside and he looks forward to this weekend all year. I do, too, which is why I'm dancing right beside him (sans mustache and political button, of course).
I don't force my dad to do this. This is the fourth straight Pitchfork Fest for Dave Lipshutz, my 60-year-old attorney father, and third straight in which he is taking notes during the various sets using a small pad and black pen he has tucked away in his cargo shorts. He's been a pro at this for some time, knowing exactly where each craft tent is located and understanding how close to get to the Parquet Courts stage to avoid the mosh pit. He's also been embraced by the makeshift community at Pitchfork: other writers ask me if he's having fun when I run into them, he's gotten recognized by strangers on a few occasions, and when I showed Future Islands singer Samuel Herring that Instagram video backstage after the band's performance, Herring could only cackle and gasp, "Your dad is the coolest!"
After hearing my dad spout off reactions to the performers at his first Pitchfork Fest in 2012, I started writing them down and turned them into an article he didn't know I was writing; since then, I have asked him to write alongside me, so that Billboard readers can have a multi-generational breakdown of the most hipster-friendly music festival in America. When I was seven years old and typing up three-page novels on his typewriter, my dad taught me how to write coherently; since 2013, I've been helping him formulate sentences on Deafheaven, Lil B and FKA Twigs.
For this year's father-son Pitchfork Music Festival rundown, my dad and I dished out Pitchfork-esque numerical grades to each performance we watched together, and bestowed some acts with the 'Best Fest Music' tag that Pitchfork itself would undoubtedly endorse. If the numbers seem high, it's because this year's Pitchfork Festival boasted the strongest lineup in the four years we've attended together, by far. Sprinkled in between the reviews are a few Random Dad Observations, just for good measure.
FRIDAY, JULY 17
DAD: He was unusually poised for a young performer, and respectful: "Thank you, Pitchfork, for letting me live my dream." Good vocals, decent music, average lyrics. The crowd was subdued at first, then warmed up to his song "Tuesday" -- but the word "Tuesday" seemed to be repeated a hundred times. 6.5
SON: This was my first time seeing Makonnen live, and while I expected him to be likable, I was pleasantly surprised by his energy. He was whipping his wrist, shaking his hips and FaceTiming his mom in the span of two minutes! "Tuesday" was a blast, of course, and it was a shame that he was scheduled in the midday heat, because this crowd would have exploded during a nighttime set. 7.7
iLoveMakonnen Average: 7.1
DAD: Nice, pleasant, light melodies. Good band. However, the material was forgettable. If you're going to cover a song for this crowd, "Reelin' In The Years" by Steely Dan was an odd choice. 6.0
SON: Yeah, Mac always seems like a lovely dude whose music I just cannot crack or find enthusiasm for. His inoffensive tunes were less fun than he seemed to be having chilling out backstage the rest of the weekend. 5.2
Mac DeMarco Average: 5.6
RANDOM DAD OBSERVATION #1: "Most performers need to take a course in crowd rapport -- so many of them have no idea what to say and usually just end up mumbling the same thing over and over, or try out some really lame funny line."
TOBIAS JESSO, JR.
DAD: Blazing start with a Supertramp-esque uptempo number ["Crocodile Tears"] with electric violin, horns, keyboards and bass jamming nicely. Then he lost the crowd with a succession of ballads that didn't work, except for a few horn riffs. 6.0
SON: Aw c'mon, I liked the ballads! This set really impressed me, for both the musicality and the way Jesso's voice can carry his songs without ever threatening to overpower his audience. I think my dad shrugged off his vocals as tinny, but the way he carefully unpacked his fragile delivery left a mark on me. I have to check out Goon again. 8.2
Tobias Jesso, Jr. Average: 7.1
DAD: A winner of a set -- driving electro-pop by a fine band with an excellent vocalist. The crowd loved it and was dancing to the hooks. Funny moment: Lauren Mayberry called for a beach ball, had her guitarist hold it down and ever-so-gently kicked it into the crowd. 9.0
SON: CHVRCHES are already pretty popular, but it's time to invest even more stock in them. Songs like "Gun" and "The Mother We Share" pummeled the audience as they should, but new single "Leave a Trace" sounded invigorating, as if the Scottish trio had unlocked an entire new dimension to their aesthetic. And yes, Lauren Mayberry remains impossibly charming, but projects a newfound confidence onstage. From the get-go, this was a high point of the weekend. 9.4
CHVRCHES Average: 9.2, BEST FEST MUSIC
DAD: Solid set by solid pros, especially vocalist Jeff Tweedy. Some fine guitar-playing and long solos, although the set list was poorly chosen -- they played their entire new album, which nobody knew since it was released the previous day, before shifting into more familiar territory. Play what the customers want to hear, boys. Also unforgivable: they didn't play "Jesus, Etc.," their best song. 7.1
SON: …But they did play "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart," and "Heavy Metal Drummer," and "Camera," and "Impossible Germany." By performing all of Star Wars for the first 35 minutes of their set, Wilco delivered a mea culpa in the form of 55 minutes of fan favorites (save for "Jesus, Etc.," which really is their best song). Wilco was always going to sound a bit muted following CHVRCHES, but the new songs came across as free-wheeling and easy to decipher, and the old songs were hard to resist even for casual fans. How is it possible that I'm giving a higher score than my dad to the quintessential dad-rock band? 8.1
Wilco Average: 7.6
SATURDAY, JULY 18
DAD: Loved the powerhouse, Melissa Etheridge-type voice of the lead vocalist, Alicia Bognanno. Smooth 90's rock with driving guitars, and they connected well with the mosh pit. 7.4
SON: I made my dad hurry over to Pitchfork early on Saturday so that we could catch Bully, who have made one of my favorite albums of 2015, play on the side stage at 1:55 PM. Bognanno's hellcat cries sound even thicker live than they do on the band's album, and the Nashville outfit deserved the oversized crowd watching them instead of the like-minded Protomartyr on the main stage. 8.0
Bully Average: 7.7
RANDOM DAD OBSERVATION #2: "Many more girls this year with pink or purple or blue or green hair."
DAD: One band always gets screwed by the weather, and Ex Hex's set was cut short by a downpour and lightning However, what they did play -- simple but catchy pop melodies -- was smooth and very enjoyable. 8.5
SON: Damn the weather gods for toying with Ex Hex, a band I was anxiously awaiting this weekend. No matter: Mary Timony showed their mettle over the span of four songs, and "Waste of Time" in particular was a tightly wound burst of wrath. Can they come back next year, too? 8.3
Ex Hex Average: 8.4, BEST FEST MUSIC
KURT VILE & THE VIOLATORS
DAD: Excellent guitar-playing was able to make up for the average melodies and vocals. The slow jams were stuff you could lie in a hammock and close your eyes to and enjoy. 7.0
SON: I've seen Kurt Vile a bunch in person, and have never found his chill vibes as effective live as they are on record. The weather also shortened his set considerably, but my mind was already wandering long before Vile was finished strumming. Sorry, Kurt -- I can't even give you Best New Hammock Music here. 5.2
Kurt Vile & The Violators Average: 6.1
DAD: Uncomplicated, driving rock that the crowd loved. The lead vocalist is high-energy, but his voice is not strong enough. Funny moment: the frontman asked the crowd, "Who snuck in here and didn't pay?" That was met (not surprisingly) by silence. 7.8
SON: I have seen high-octane Parquet Courts shows and molasses-esque Parquet Courts shows; this one was somewhere in the middle. It was disappointing not to hear the richest tracks from Light Up Gold ("Stoned and Starving"! It's all we ever want!), but Parquet Courts work so well as a unit that the guitar blasts sound brawny no matter how they're contorted. Also, my dad has now seen Parquet Courts multiple times, which is nuts. 7.2
Parquet Courts Average: 7.5
THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS
DAD: Terrific melodies and harmonies from a veteran band. It's always smart to throw in a sing-along with lots of "ooh-ooh's" and "heya-heya's." The crowd responded really well, and this was without Neko Case or Dan Bejar! 9.3
SON: The absence of Case and Bejar was a bummer, although A.C. Newman and co. did an admirable job keeping the mood as happy-go-lucky as possible. If you think about it, the New Pornographers are the perfect parents-at-a-festival band -- minimal profanity, Beach Boys-esque harmonies, lots of slick pop-rock tunes. I wonder how many older fans the name 'New Pornographers' has cost them over the years. 8.3
The New Pornographers Average: 8.8, BEST FEST MUSIC
RANDOM DAD OBSERVATION #3: "Every performance that I saw started on time -- nice work, Pitchfork!"
DAD: The total package, and it started with vocalist Samuel Herring, who was in total command of the show. His histrionics -- jumping around, grinding, making dramatic gestures, growling like a caveman -- went over well, and he had a fine rapport with crowd, explaining songs' meanings (what a novel idea!). And then there's the music: dance party, uptempo pop tunes that had most of the crowd jamming. My favorite performer of the festival. 9.7
SON: Yeah, what he said. Future Islands are getting tighter, more muscular, more self-possessed with every passing month; even their set list has become markedly more polished since last year. They're an essential live act right now, and Herring was the madman Pitchfork needed. 9.5
Future Islands Average: 9.6, BEST FEST MUSIC
DAD: Solid rock music from real pros. Fine vocals, fine musicians, and a surprising versatility, ending with an excellent stripped-down harmonica ballad. Fun encore that gave the audience a choice between two Meat Loaf songs (they ended up playing both). 8.9
SON: Future Islands stole their thunder a little bit, but the sight of Sleater-Kinney ripping shit up as a headliner in the year 2015 was nothing short of spectacular. No other straight-ahead rock act this weekend came close to matching their precision, as they swiveled through the hits and made their No Cities To Love sound like new pearls in their catalog. I didn't see Carrie Brownstein's stage fall because I was too busy running to buy a Sleater-Kinney tee. 9.3
Sleater-Kinney Average: 9.1, BEST FEST MUSIC
SUNDAY, JULY 19
DAD: A choppy set that didn't grab the crowd. Every good song seemed to be followed by one that didn't work. The lead vocalist didn't seem to carry songs -- she was much better when she was harmonizing with other vocalists and/or leading instrumental breakdowns. 5.8
SON: I think my dad is being a little hard on Katie Crutchfield's lo-fi confessions, and while I'm happy to see Waxahatchee graduate from the side stage two years ago to the main stage with Ivy Tripp, her 2:30 set in the midday heat was simply the incorrect forum to appreciate the careful lyrics of her new music. She shouted out Kathleen Hanna, whose Julie Ruin sounded like they were having more fun during a concurrent set on the side stage. 6.2
Waxahatchee Average: 6.0
RANDOM DAD OBSERVATION #4: "Pitchfork's selection of old vinyl albums and rock posters is amazing, as always."
MADLIB & FREDDIE GIBBS
DAD: This struck me as a comedy act with some rap music, rather than the other way around. The strength was Gibbs' rapport with the crowd: he enjoyed clowning around in between displays of spewing words with lightning speed. Trouble is, all the songs had the same singsong cadence, and the lyrics, while clever at times, depended way too much on the N-word and F-word. Having the crowd chant "FUCK PO-LICE" every three minutes didn't add anything, either. 7.0
SON: My dad's hesitance to embrace songs like "High" and "Shitsville" was not surprising. The technical skill of Gangsta Gibbs is dazzling to behold in person, and he was at his smarmy, self-aggrandizing best on Sunday afternoon, telling the white dudes in the crowd that it was okay to use the N-word and bringing out his brother and sister, the latter of whom was "some sort of scientist" according to Gibbs. Piñata still knocks and this performance blew off my socks (look dad, I'm a rapper too!), although I thought Madlib's beat selection was a little tame for my taste. 8.6
Madlib & Freddie Gibbs Average: 7.8
DAD: Remarkable raw talent for a young performer. There were so many well-constructed rock songs, lyrics with dry observations on everyday life, and powerful vocals. The pop-rock melodies worked best -- the numbers with the thrashing guitars, not as well. Wins the award for Most Potential. 9.1
SON: Courtney Barnett's triumphant main stage showcase of her Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit was always going to be one of the weekend's high points. "Small Poppies" was a bit of a drag, and the urgency of the final three songs could have been more evenly dispersed, but these are minor errors in a majorly entertaining set. Also, Barnett told the crowd something that sounds like should be worked into one of her future songs: "This is the second time in my life that I've ever worn shorts onstage. … Dunno if you should feel lucky." 8.5
Courtney Barnett Average: 8.8, BEST FEST MUSIC
DAD: Nice, driving, danceable synth beats. "Smooth" is the perfect adjective, but at times a tad too repetitive. 8.4
SON: I didn't mind the repetition, but was hoping for more of the dance breakdowns that popped up intermittently in Caribou's performance and defined the euphoric last two songs. We chose to skip Jamie xx, who played an hour before Caribou, in order to grab food, but it felt like we could have skipped the first half hour of Dan Snaith's kaleidoscopic synth breakdowns instead. 7.8
Caribou Average: 8.1
RANDOM DAD OBSERVATION #5: "I'm still the oldest person at Pitchfork… and the gap isn't closing."
RUN THE JEWELS
DAD: Disappointing. I saw Killer Mike perform solo a few years ago, and this set with El-P seemed more like standard rap than the unique blend of stinging social commentary and non-conforming music I recalled. High-energy and the crowd liked it, but didn't seem like anything special. Perhaps the problem was that I was far away from the stage and missed a lot of the lyrics. 6.5
SON: I don't think that was the problem -- the truth is, Run The Jewels songs are not as politically conscious as what you heard on Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music, an album I personally think is stronger than both of the RTJ full-lengths. That doesn't mean that Mike and El don't put on a hell of a show, though. Their energy and stage rapport are infectious, and their Pitchfork crowd was bigger than almost every other crowd this weekend. I wanted to see Zach De La Rocha come out, but dad was already bringing me back to watch Todd Terje. 8.7
Run The Jewels Average: 7.6
TODD TERJE & THE OLSENS
DAD: Crowd-pleasing, danceable instrumental music with almost a Latin feel, complete with congas, xylophone and sax. Sort of a throwback to Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66, but with an electronic overlay. Really enjoyable! 9.0
SON: Todd Terje performing at the same time as Run The Jewels was the one deeply frustrating set conflict of the weekend for me… but then we got to the Todd Terje audience and it was clear that he was worth watching. "Strandbar" and "Delorean Dynamite" back-to-back naturally killed, but even the slower songs were gobbled up by the strangely devoted crowd, who shouted in Terje's face as it remained unshakably stoic. It's Album Time is a party record, and Terje's set was a party. 8.8
Todd Terje & The Olsens Average: 8.9, BEST FEST MUSIC
CHANCE THE RAPPER
DAD: He left the other acts in the dust with a truly dazzling array of horns, dancers, gospel singers and videos layered around rap. It was an outstanding fusion with creative melodies, some soul, some jazz, some gospel, and a performer not afraid to take a back seat for part of his show. Chance was high-energy, gracious, funny and even avoided the endless stream of profanity that hampers so many rap acts. The number with Kirk Franklin was a knockout. Only complaint: overuse of having the crowd go 'Ooh-woo!' That's gotta go. 9.5
SON: I even liked the 'Ooh-woo!'s'! Chance is truly operating on a level as a live performer that perhaps no other rapper can touch right now, except maybe Kanye -- and if you think that's hyperbole, you haven't seen Chance The Rapper live. Pitchfork bet big on an MC with a limited commercial track record, but the combination of Chance's Chicago homecoming, new Surf songs to perform and his debut stint as a festival headliner filled the performance with joy, grace and excitement. I didn't think Future Islands could be topped after Saturday, but then Chance The Rapper blew them away. Good-ass job, Chance. 9.9
Chance The Rapper Average: 9.7, BEST FEST MUSIC, NO. 1 ON YEAR-END LIST
RANDOM DAD OBSERVATION #6: "Nothing better than sharing three days of good music with your child. Try it, people!"
You said it, dad. I gave you a 10.0 rating last year, and you earned it again in 2015.