It was hot, yeah, sure. But that didn't necessarily take away from day one of Pitchfork, other than that you had to pick your spots better—and make sure you were in the shade when you did it. Steve Gunn's set on the smaller Blue Stage was a nice respite from the heat in that it was easygoing and wispy, not necessarily cool, but dark enough to put just the right kind of breeze in the air. The croak in Gunn's vocals—and the eventual addition of sideman extraordinaire Jim Elkington on pedal steel—wrapped around the psych-touched meandering guitars perfectly as the songs pushed out from the stage. It's a sound better contained at a venue like the Bottle (where he played last night), but still a perfectly pleasant midday set.
But I was waiting for Chvrches, who were one of my cage-match choices
of the weekend. The Scottish electro-pop three-piece cut through the humidity as the small-framed Lauren Mayberry skipped her taut vocals over the crowd as dusk settled in. It was the right formula for an early evening set because it loaded on the thumping synths and rejuvenated a crowd that had become a little too accustomed to dead-standing heat and guitar rock. Flanked by her two black-clad bandmates, Mayberry hunched over and bellowed out her ethereal vocals in a straight-up black-metal pose: hunched over and with her hair in her face. And there was just the right amount of fog blowing in from the side stage, because Chvrches deserves a fog machine, no doubt about it.
While the threat of rain put a literal dark cloud over Pitchfork's opening night, it couldn't have turned out to be a lovelier introduction to the festival. Mac DeMarco and Panda Bear, possibly affected by the raging heat, went into the evening with a pair of laid-back sets, but that was actually a perfect way to ease into the weekend. Nothing like finding a perfect grassy oasis while watching storm clouds pass by to the tune of "Boys Latin."
Chvrches picked things up with their upbeat electro sound just in time for everyone's makeup to drip down their faces like a Jackson Pollock painting. And, yes, Wilco closed out the night with a tame attempt to promote their new album (Star Wars, secretly dropped online Thursday night
), but who could even care about any of this knowing that Nick Viall, one of two finalists on the current season of The Bachelorette
, was skulking around the park with not a friend (nor a fiancée) in sight!
I prepared for the worst on day one, sporting a raincoat with no real plan and getting treated to sun and an afternoon filled with performances that exceeded my expectations. Well, except Ryley Walker, whose lovely, engaging set is what I looked forward to all these months. His early appearance was a highlight, though I enjoyed a lot I otherwise wasn't sure I'd be able to stand. Panda Bear, for instance, played with more heart and fire in the first few minutes he was onstage than his entire rambling show several Pitchforks ago. By the time Chvrches launched into their potent electronic pop I was plenty enthused just to be taking it in while watching the faraway clouds slowly turn magenta. And seeing Wilco close out the night reminded me that in general I need to spend more time listening to Wilco (among other things). I felt energized by the end of the night, which is odd, as I felt a little old and out of place during chunks of the day. Like, what was with everyone sitting and standing on gigantic carpet squares? I realize they were probably freebies, but since when was standing on the grass not good enough?
When I walked up to a friend of mine during Wilco's set, he said, "Snoozefest!" I'm not sure I agree with him, but that's definitely how I'd characterize the crowd, who responded to half a day of performances with what amounted to a collective shrug. Granted, there wasn't much to write home about. Mac DeMarco played like a rubber duck squeaking out of a toy radio. Chvrches sounded like the kind of band that spells their name with a "v."
There were highlights. ILoveMakonnen shouted-out people's moms, who don't get enough shout-outs. Iceage had the kind of roped-in energy that young, exciting postpunk bands were once known for. And Wilco might have been low-energy for a festival headliner, but it made me curious to hear their album on a pair of headphones.
But none of it mattered, because the crowd was unbearably flat. If people love these bands, they have a funny way of showing it, barely creating anything resembling a stir. Maybe it's because the Pitchfork Music Festival seems more and more like an affair where the music is secondary to the hang, a beer-soaked outdoor meet-up soundtracked by live bands, rather than anything remotely resembling a spectacle.
If you have been following Ryley Walker for a while, you already know that he is a moving target. While he is still playing songs from his last LP, Primrose Green
(disclosure: I wrote that record's liner notes), the band of jazz and folk-rock musicians rose up like a tsunami behind him, and Walker absorbed their energy and transmuted it into a roaring, swinging storm.
Pity poor Jessica Pratt. Her meticulous rainy-day folk songs already clashed with the Blue Stage's sauna-like vibe, but when ILoveMakonnen's beats came crashing in from across the park midset, her vibe was dispelled like Tokyo residents scattering beneath one of Godzilla's stomping feet. But singer-guitarist Steve Gunn, who followed her on the same stage, heeded her example well. Gunn's rhythm section pushed the bass up to near-dub dimensions, creating an elastic launching surface for the swooping, spiraling interplay that transpired when local steel guitarist Jim Elkington joined them for a transcendent version of "Way Out Weather."
Everyone showed up to Pitchfork today saying, "Let's do this! There's so much beer! Woooooo!" But soulful songstresses Natalie Prass and Jessica Pratt were all like, "No, shhhh, lie down, maybe take a nap or something." Indeed, the mood was noticeably relaxed early in the day. Plus, it was hotter than hell. (My colleague Kevin Warwick noted that a cold beer wasn't likely to stay cold for long.) People weren't quite ready to turn up. And then ILoveMakonnen took the stage. Nobody really turned up, but they tried. The Atlanta rapper is a little too soulful, a little too Drake-ish to really incite a riot. Vic Mensa and A$AP Ferg will take care of that later.
Steve Gunn fit the relaxed vibe. He sounded extremely pleasant on the shady Blue Stage while Mac DeMarco did whatever the hell it is he does on the sun-beaten Red Stage. For a guy standing all alone onstage, Noah "Panda Bear" Lennox mustered more sound than just about everyone. The crowd virtually decompressed during his set; everyone was lulled into danceable sedation by the groove. Coupled with some trippy visuals on the big-screen monitor, it was a midday set that begged for a headlining treatment. Hometown heroes Wilco took the stage after Forever 21 mainstays Chvrches and started a perfectly enjoyable set by playing their new album, Star Wars
, front to back. The crowd was clearly antsy for some tracks from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
—you know, that album with the Marina Towers on the cover?—but they were few and far between. I left about halfway through in search of a cold shower and a colder beverage.
I met Nick from The Bachelorette
. My brother-in-law reminded me I said that if I ever saw him in person I'd punch him in the face for being such a puss
, but instead I ran up to him, asked for a picture, and told him, "This is the best thing that's ever happened to me." I blame the heat.