Father and Son @ Pitchfork
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My dad wasn't supposed to enjoy this.
Pitchfork Music Festival is in its seventh glorious year, and this is the first of the five times I've been to the fest that I opted for some self-appointed parental guidance. I invited my dad, an attorney from South Jersey, to Chicago, to spend some time with him at a festival that wasn't too overwhelming and had a few indie rock acts -- main draw Vampire Weekend among them -- that he recognized and appreciated. I also thought it'd be interesting to receive a pure outsider's take on a music gathering that is based primarily around the critical currency of a popular web site's system of album ratings. My father doesn't care that Feist's last album did not get Best New Music'd; he likes "One Two Three Four" and wanted to check out her other stuff.
Interestingly, this year's Pitchfork lineup included nary a veteran act, save for Chavez and maybe Godspeed You! Black Emperor, that could draw in the older indie fans the way that Pavement, Yo La Tengo and Guided By Voices did in years past. In 2012, Pitchfork Fest is all about pimping the hottest new flavor of hip, an outlook that bestowed several raw acts with massive, curious crowds. I wanted to experience these buzz bands with someone who could offer an honest opinion on their sound and potential longevity, someone who had attended a James Taylor concert during the prior weekend, someone who raised me and taught me a lot about what I know about music today.
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But first, he has to watch the A$AP Mob prance around in the rain. "Bass! Bass! Bass!" Rocky is yelling, as his correctly titled "Bass" comes to a roaring close. The entire crowd is bouncing to the production and fueling Rocky's call-and-response tactics and goads of "Get yo' hands up!!" My dad has never appreciated rap music, outside of a few Will Smith songs and Young Jeezy's Obama-endorsing "My President" (both of my parents are diehard liberals). I had played him songs by more forward-thinking hip-hop artists like MF Doom and Cannibal Ox in the past, only to be met with ambivalence or disdain. But in the span of a few minutes, he has gone from looking shell-shocked at the profane, formless mess onstage to gleefully adopting the refrains and steadily understanding the sinewy sensationalism at the heart of the "LiveLoveA$AP" mixtape.
After the set ends and we're walking over to the Blue Stage to see Japandroids, I ask him how he actually felt about what he just saw. "It was fascinating," he says of A$AP Rocky's admittedly thrilling set. "I like energy in a crowd, and it was there from the beginning. It was ridiculous to the point of being fun."
And then he asked what time the set of the next scheduled rapper, Big K.R.I.T., started.
NEXT PAGE: Feist Inducted Into Dad's 'Hall of Shame'
Full disclosure: my dad had previously been at least familiar with a handful of the artists on the 2012 Pitchfork lineup. He had heard three songs from Grimes, two from Big K.R.I.T. and could even whistle Cults' "Go Outside" before setting foot in Chicago. That's because I burn him mix CD's -- which I affectionately dub "Dad Mixes" -- every three months or so, with an album's worth of tracks from artists I've been listening to lately. This practice began in high school, when I would fill his car stereo with Green Day and Less Than Jake tunes; in college, as my personal tastes morphed, I'd give him Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom songs. I appreciated having my father clued into some of the art I was passionate about, and he liked understanding my interests and being able to talk to me about them.
The mix CDs also came in handy when preparing for Pitchfork Fest -- he eyeballed the lineup, saw the name 'Dirty Projectors' and remembered the 2009 album I had made him with "Stillness Is The Move" as the lead track. Thus, he could look forward to at least one or two recognizable tracks from each artist; it was a strategy that paid off for bands like the DPs, whose mid-set instrumental meanderings frustrated both of us but who pulled it together for "Gun Has No Trigger" and "Stillness" on Friday night. But it also led to some heartbreak during Feist's headlining set on Friday night, when the beautiful songwriting force shrugged "1234" clean out of her set.
Feist's mesmerizing opening included a slow-motion, haunted house version of "Mushaboom," and a climactic one-two "Reminder" punch of "My Moon My Man" and "I Feel It All." The momentum did unravel a bit when the more thoughtful but at times drab "Metals" songs took center stage, but when the encore ended, my dad's crestfallenness surpassed my twinge of disappointment about the lack of consistency. "She knew the whole crowd wanted it," my dad said of "1234" while literally shaking his head. He had previously experienced this pain in 2008, when he and I saw Modest Mouse open for R.E.M. and they decided to forgo "Float On." For him, an artist ignoring the crowd's need to hear "the hit" was a sign of unawareness, and a deal-breaker. He declared that Feist now had a spot in his personal "hall of shame" as we headed toward the exit on Friday night, and while I didn't share the severity of his opinion, I did think that "1234" was the shot in the arm that the deflated second half of Feist's performance needed. I also feared that Cults wouldn't play "Go Outside" on Saturday afternoon, and that the hall of shame would be forced to grow.
Of course, Cults did play "Go Outside," and a lot of other shimmering surf-pop songs that sounded more coherent live than on their 2011 self-titled debut. The sun had just peaked out after another sudden downpour over Union Park, and as I re-applied my sunblock, my dad swayed in time with Madeline Follin's vocal hooks. "They have almost a '60s sound," he gushed, later asserting that, out of all the smaller bands he saw at the festival, he thought Cults have the potential to build a mainstream fan base. After all, as much as Cults have the "Pitchfork buzz band" halo above them, they do have an easily identified knack for writing accessible ditties that could someday elbow their way onto the radio. With a few more albums' worth of solid shows and fine-tuned material, a song like "Go Outside" could be a harbinger of widespread respect. I think my dad just convinced me that Cults are the next big thing.
On the same Dad Mix CD as "Go Outside" is "Rill Rill," Sleigh Bells' best song and the ultimate red herring for someone who has only heard that one track before seeing Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller live. In front of a wall of onstage amplifiers and flanked by two too-cool-for-school guitarists, a leather-clad Krauss led the Saturday crowd in firestarters like "Kids" and "Crown on the Ground." The set was typically energetic but included way too much posturing. My dad, expecting a more mellow, Funkadelic-sampling oeuvre based on "Rill Rill," couldn't stand the noise-pop intensity. "She had fire," he said of Krauss as we moseyed over to see the last three songs of ScHoolboy Q, "but, wow, that made me feel middle-aged."
Admittedly, my dad is making snap judgments on the discography of sonically innovative artists based on a few songs they played one afternoon at a Chicago music festival. But that's sort of what everyone does when discovering a group via their live show, and especially at a festival setting, when a group's best and latest material is condensed out of necessity. There was no Pitchfork Festival when my dad was my age, but there weren't any major annual festivals at all, really; this is his first time soaking in the wonders of 40-minute set times and multiple stages, and he's enjoying the chase involved with hearing as many musical moments as possible without exhausting himself physically. Mid-way through the Dirty Projectors' set, for instance, we decide to bolt to the Blue Stage to check out production auteur (and personal favorite) Clams Casino for 10 minutes. Standing in the back of the crowd, the rush of "Illest Alive" is seismic, and neither of us have any idea how to dance to Clams Casino, so we each bob our heads awkwardly. "I wish we had checked out more of him," my dad says wistfully as we high-tail it back over to the main stage area to catch "Stillness Is The Move."
Two other hip-hop-centric male electronic artists, Flying Lotus and AraabMUZIK, delivered a pair of the most breathless performances of the weekend, as expected. FlyLo -- who has another great new album, "Until The Quiet Comes," coming out in October -- dropped re-workings of songs like Erykah Badu's "The Healer" and Tyler, The Creator's "Yonkers" in between his more abstract shards of original tracks. "It's nice stuff to sit back and listen to," my dad noted. "It's a little too relaxed for the crowd, though -- they want to jump up and down." And just like that, Flying Lotus pumped the Beastie Boys' "Intergalactic," and the Saturday afternoon crowd received the explosion it was longing for. "THIS is what they want!" my father said proudly. The next day, AraabMUZIK gave everyone what they wanted: breakneck beats piled on top of each other, his magical hands pouncing upon the drum machine and slicing vocal samples down to their smallest characters. The set inspired some neck-thrashing and limb-wobbling, and when Chicago native Chief Keef came out for a surprise performance of "I Don't Like" with Lil Reese, the performance ended on a bombastic, strangely perfect note.
My dad connected more with the immediacy of AraabMUZIK's show, but I held a unique affection for Flying Lotus, simply for unveiling his collection of starry material without hungrily searching for the biggest bass drop. I meant to tell my father that, but he was already headed to the merch tent.
NEXT PAGE: Dancing Like a Couple of Funky White Goons
While we were grabbing lunch waiting for the back-to-back shows of Real Estate and Kendrick Lamar to begin on Sunday, I asked my dad what he thought of the crowd at Pitchfork Music Festival. He shrugged his shoulders and said that everyone seemed pretty normal to him -- the crowd was mostly white, and there were a few patches of rowdiness and pot smokers, but for the most part Pitchfork drew the kind of audience that you would see at any youthful gathering in a major city. Indeed, I found this year's attendees just as docile as my father did, and maybe a little younger than in years past. My favorite part of Pitchfork Fest is still the highly ironic, hipster-approved t-shirts sprinkled across the crowd, which this year included a Hanson t-shirt, a Rick Santorum campaign shirt that I can only assume was worn ironically, and my personal favorite, a black tee that read "Who The Fuck Is Lady Gaga," worn by a twenty-something girl making her way out of the Kendrick Lamar crowd. Little did she know that Lady Gaga was a pop artist whose "Fame Monster" album received a 7.8 on Pitchfork.com in 2010. Oh, and Gaga was also someone who was watching Lamar's sun-stroked Sunday afternoon set, twirling around on the side of the stage as the Compton rapper delivered "The Recipe."
Lady Gaga Spotted at Kendrick Lamar's Set -- More Pics Here
After the initial rush of A$AP's set on Friday, my dad was interested to check out more of this hip-hop stuff. Big K.R.I.T., who admirably delved into country-fried mixtape fare like "Sookie Now" and "Just Touched Down," delivered more thoughtful wordplay on Friday afternoon, and while K.R.I.T. is an extremely charismatic performer who worked his ass off to get the crowd to sing along to his anthems, the man simply could not extract the same level of participation as the A$AP Mob. Similarly, Kendrick Lamar tossed out bullet-time flows on "Rigamortus" and "A.D.H.D." while gripping up the audience with ferocious TDE chants. By the time his set ended with the live debut of his new song "Swimming Pools (Drank)" and then "Cartoons and Cereal," my dad was starting to understand the chemistry of a hip-hop show: each rapper, he concluded, was tasked with unfurling their intricate rhymes while making sure their onlookers were engaged for every single second of the show. Big K.R.I.T. and Kendrick Lamar both had more polished material than A$AP, he argued, but neither contained the natural magnetism of the "Peso" rapper. However, he did get a kick out of singing along to Lamar's filthy "P&P" hook, "I'm going through something in life/But pussy and Patron make you feel all right." And I enjoyed being highly embarrassed standing next to my father for that hook.
But to be clear, Pitchfork Music Festival was more than an expensive sociological experiment for my father -- he came to see some tightly produced alternative acts, and was handed that honor on several occasions. Despite being physically exhausted from a full day of standing in the heat, he gamely grooved to the unadulterated pop stylings of Grimes, who, for my money, gave the best performance of the weekend on Saturday night. Recognizing the opening synth plunks of "Vanessa" -- another song I had put on a mix CD for him last year -- he hummed along to the melody while I irrationally gyrated in place. And while he agreed with me that most of Real Estate's songs sound identical, he got lost in their blissed-out guitar strums on Sunday afternoon, like he did a few hours later when Beach House emitted equally soothing sounds across the Union Park field. "You don't have to be in-your-face to work," he confided to me.
And then there was Vampire Weekend, a band that had not played a show in months before their Sunday headlining set and was apparently on the cusp of releasing some new material ("After this show, we're gonna go back and finish our next album," frontman Ezra Koenig informed the crowd). The fussy indie giants rightfully have their detractors, but my dad and I are not among them, and were more than game for what amounted to the most downright fun hour-plus of the weekend. Sneaking in a sumptuous new song after ripping off "Holiday," "Cousins" and "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa," the VW boys had Union Park in the palm of their hands; for my dad -- who later told me that he enjoyed watching a solid artist that wasn't yelling the word "fuck" every four seconds -- it was an exclamation point on the weekend.
But Vampire Weekend wasn't his favorite artist of the weekend. That honor belonged to Hot Chip, the equally stylized London outfit who headlined the Red Stage on Saturday night. By the time we had finished watching a solid Chromatics set on the Blue Stage, it was a little after 7:30, and my dad wanted to sit down for a bit before we were to head over and see Grimes an hour later. So we parked ourselves in the far reaches of the Hot Chip crowd, and witnessed a group that was absolutely in the zone: starting with the thumping repetition of "Over and Over" and continuing with the epic percussion of "I Feel Better," Hot Chip had entered a rarified area of dance-rock I didn't think they could find in such a short amount of time. By the time "Ready For The Floor" had morphed into a carefully constructed cover of Foreigner's "I Want To Know What Love Is," my dad had stood up -- tired knees be damned! -- and started dancing alongside me, in the back of the Pitchfork crowd, like a couple of funky white goons.
And in that moment, all of the subtext and buzzworthiness of the weekend boiled down to a father and son sharing a delicious groove as the sun set over Chicago.