On the scorching hot first day of Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival, there was one band that was able to inspire an audience clap-along without any prodding from the stage. That band was Britain’s Art Brut, who gave a sun-sick audience of about 15,000 people in Union Park a much-needed dose of melody and fun.
Art Brut lead singer Eddie Argos was certainly affected by the 99 degree heat, telling the largely college-aged crowd that the “sun has warped me” (his long-sleeved shirt likely didn’t help, either). But it didn’t stop him from using the microphone cord as a jump rope, or generating an audible laughter from the crowd by making airplane noises during “Moving to L.A.,” or claiming that his band’s songs are No. 1 in the fictional world of Narnia.
In its 45-minute set, Art Brut unveiled a new song, the anti-parent “Nag Nag Nag Nag,” and delivered a handful of other should-be anthems. Indeed, when the band took the stage with a riff on AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” it wasn’t irony; it was simply a statement of its aspirations.
Art Brut was the 16th act to perform on Saturday, the first day of the inaugural Pitchfork Music Fest. Some may recall that last year the indie-rock focused Web zine curated Chicago’s Intonation Music Festival, which has since handed the reigns over to Vice Records. Going it alone for the first time, Pitchfork put the emphasis pretty squarely on the indie rock. Most of the exceptions, such as Os Mutantes, Mr. Lif and CSS, were slated to perform on the second day of the event.
It’s no surprise, then, that Sunday’s performance sold out more than a week in advance. In fact, it wasn’t until early evening Saturday sets from Art Brut, Ted Leo + Pharmacists and the Futureheads that the first day of the Pitchfork fest really started to take off.
That’s not to say there weren’t highlights early in the day — garage rockers the Hot Machines and the My Morning Jacket-inspired Band Of Horses, among them — but a host of headphone-worthy acts (the almost danceable Chin Up Chin Up, the literate folk-pop of the Mountain Goats, the electronic warbles of Matmos and off-the-wall pop of Destroyer) are not necessarily the best ways to fight heat fatigue.
The day started with a nod to the Windy City, as local acts the Hot Machines and Chin Up Chin Up were the first two appear on the two main stages (artist times were staggered to ensure no overlap). The Hot Machines features singer Jered Gummere of another fine act, the Ponys, and the group’s easy-to-grasp choruses (“Nobody loves you!”), make it worth being sought-out by any garage rock aficionados.
Man Man brought some early eclectism, with a set of bohemian cabaret and a vocalist who’s part Tom Waits/part Oscar the Grouch. Band Of Horses put on an impressive display of dreamy Americana, which seems as if it is always on the verge of hitting some U2-like arena bombast. Songs such as “The Great Salt Lake” and “Funeral” never quite break out of their melancholy state, and it’s the tease that proves them irresistible.
John Darnielle’s Mountain Goats project impressed the literary heads in the crowd, as his lyrics are drenched in detail, right down to the cubic meters of the room he’s in. Yet it’s a bit too detached and self-referential to truly connect, and another wordy songsmith, Destroy’s Dan Bejar, fared much better. A principle in the New Pornographers, Bejar never lets the melody of a song dictate his train of thought, and instead leads a keyboardist on a romp through his mind.
The Walkmen, on the other hand, treat the keyboard as a mini-orchestra, and three or four different sounds will be squeezed out of it per song. It can provide a shrill counterpoint to the band’s guitar work, or simply create a haze of noise for vocalist Hamilton Leithauser to cut through, but always keeps the songs lively. The Walkmen preceded Brit-poppers the Futureheads, who continue to go under-appreciated. The band’s hurried guitar lines, and lyrics about staying in hotels or avoiding small talk, mirror today’s urban rush.
Few in the crowd hung out past 9 p.m. to watch the laid-back rock of David Berman’s Silver Jews, the last performance of the evening. Berman is a bandleader who possesses a fascinating sort of resignation about the world around him. It’s hard to tell whether he’s disgruntled, sarcastic or dead serious when makes such an observation as “Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed,” but that’s why his pithy lyrics almost always feel as though they’re something quite important.
There was an air of significance throughout the entire day’s proceedings, as bands such as the Silver Jews and the Futureheads patted the audience on the back for having good taste. As a Web site, Pitchfork isn’t afraid to champion an unknown artist, but the site is perhaps best known for its 0-10 rating system, where a 6.4 and a 7.8 can make a huge sale’s difference for a budding act. Those who make Pitchfork’s grade are held on a sort of pedestal on the site, which translated to a mission in this live setting.
The smugness was present in an early introduction for Chin Up Chin Up, as young attendees were urged to “go back to high school in September and let the other kids know what [music] is right.” Thankfully, Art Brut’s Argos could slice through the pretension, offering jabs at the Velvet Underground and those who frequent art galleries. And his advice for youngsters was more inspiring: “Just do something interesting.”
If all the media hype that’s followed Pitchfork is to be believed, the publication is a barometer and a forecaster of everything that’s hip in music. Applying that assumption to the second day of the bash, the future of indie rock is going to look a lot like its past. On a day loaded with plenty of worthwhile music, it was the well-aged punk of Mission Of Burma, the reunited Brazilian psychedelia of Os Mutantes, and indie stalwarts Spoon and Yo La Tengo that carried the show.
Pitchfork may be considered a chronicle of the cutting-edge by some, but many of its championed artists couldn’t match the intensity of the already-established indie stars. In the end, it was the reunited Os Mutantes who brought the Pitchfork fest to a close, ending the heated affair with a flurry of rhythm and mesmerizing harmonies — all while leading the crowd in a jumping-jacks session.
Sunday’s line-up was slightly stronger and more eclectic than that of Saturday’s, as it featured some main stage hip-hop from Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif, notable rock newcomers Tapes ‘N Tapes and the aforementioned Os Mutantes.
A side stage, curated by Pitchfork’s publicity company Biz3, often leaned toward the more experimental. On Sunday, it was highlighted by Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche (each performed separate solo sets), and Brazilian pop act CSS. The punky electronica-laced rock of the latter deserved a slot on the main stage. The group’s excitement was infectious, and every song performed Sunday came built with a chorus that begged to be shouted from the dance floor.
The main stage could have used a bit of CSS’ youthful exuberance, as one of the day’s most exhilarating young acts, Tapes ‘N Tapes, performed first at 1 p.m. The band took the stage after having a friend mock its status as the toast of the Internet’s blogger community, but there’s plenty to like in the group’s songs. With a bit of the loud/soft dynamic of the Pixies, Tapes ‘N Tapes bounce easily from an acoustic gallop to composure-breaking choruses.
Later on, the National were just as compelling, with a singer in Matt Berninger whose body language alone captures the subtitles of late-night heartache. He takes what starts out as slight guitar notes on a cathartic journey, as evidenced on songs such as “All the Wine” and newcomer “Start a War.” On a lighter note, Swedish pop singer Jens Lekman entertained with his Jonathan Richman-like songs, and Devendra Banhart’s airy folk songs brought out the hippie contingent, but it was little more than timid jam band fare.
If there was a failing on the part of organizers, it was a lack of some local independent hip-hop. It’s hard to quibble with two days of adventurous music in the sun, but the only rapppers at the fest came courtesy of indie label Definitive Jux, who brought Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif and Cage to the fest. Aesop and Mr. Lif were clearly the stars, and brought pointed character sketches and political attacks to the main stage.
Yo La Tengo displayed a wide range of pop atmospheres, and Spoon brought out some new tracks to punch-up its set of jagged guitars and keyboard flourishes. “Don’t Make Me a Target” and “Rhythm and Soul” continued to refine the band’s penchant for ’70s soul that it explored on last year’s terrific “Gimme Fiction” (Merge).
Mission of Burma and Os Mutantes, however, made the most lasting impression of the day. Burma mixed material from its two recent reunion albums with its early ’80s anthems (“This Is Not a Photograph,” “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver”), and proved it hasn’t lost a step. Its rough-around-the-edges guitars are as forceful as ever.
Long credited with creating a community for fans of indie and experimental music, it was Os Mutantes who crafted the most communal set of the two days. The massive 10-piece band brought a wild mix of percussion, prog-rock, outer-space bass lines and uplifting jazz, marked by the expansive guitar work of Sergio Dias and the exquisite voice of pop singer Zelia Duncan (filling in for co-founder Rita Lee). While many in the sun-drenched crowd headed for the gates to avoid long lines at the nearest subway stop, the group’s zany mix of genres and dance-party shenanigans stopped just as many on the sidewalks outside the grounds.
Hosting the event was Hideout co-owner Tim Tuten, who introduced nearly every band with ideological messages about the power of music. It was mostly hippie idealism, but it did serve to illustrate the community Pitchfork has helped bring together.
Urging everyone to go back to school in September and start a band, Tuten told the youngsters not to worry about being good or mastering an instrument. “You’re going to suck in a way that we enjoy,” he yelled to a flurry of cheers. Without guessing at which bands at the Pitchfork Music Festival he could have been referring to, the remark underscored the outsider, non-mainstream art that the past two days successfully celebrated.