Review: Rock and LOLz at Pitchfork 2010

It has now been three days since the 2010 Pitchfork Music Festival wrapped up, and I’m still feeling it. My skin is flaking off, leaving behind a pinkish-red nasty burn, my muscles are sore from standing for hours upon hours, and my urine is still golden due to dehydration. Every year Pitchfork is a physical challenge, and I should know this since I have been going every year since before it was called Pitchfork Music Festival, but it never ceases to surprise me.

But anyway, it was hot, it was humid, blah blah blah. I guess I could reiterate what all the reviews I’ve read thus far have said about the weather, but the fact of the matter is that it really isn’t important. So rather than trying to give you a broad overview of the weekend that will provide you with no useful information, I am going to discuss a few acts and events that I saw this weekend that caught my attention.

First off, I want to give a disclaimer that I MISSED The Tallest Man on Earth due to insane traffic and the most unbelievably long will call line I have ever seen. I was incredibly bummed but I heard that he killed it. I guess that could have been expected.

One of the things that Pitchfork does very well as a festival is that they always try to change it up from year to year. This year there were two notable changes: One, no more Goose Island beer to be served (it was replaced by Heineken, which is fine, but the festival is in Chicago, not Amsterdam). Two, there was a comedy stage. Bummer on the beer, but I was really excited about the comedy stage. I thought it was a great idea, since three straight days of music can be tolling on the ears (more on that later). Not to mention the comedians they had lined up were fantastic. So on Friday, I posted up at the Balance Stage for some serious lolz. The first comedian I saw was Hannibal Burress, who is currently a writer for SNL. He was very funny, but it was a little hard to hear him over the noise from the other music stages and slightly uncomfortable standing in the sun with hundreds of people and watching comedy.

For the next comedian, Daily Show correspondent and writer Wyatt Cenac, I decided to shift positions so I was closer and able to sit down. While this fixed the problem I had with hearing the comedy, it was clear that Wyatt wasn’t able to establish himself as well as he could have in a club. He seemed distracted, and with reason as there was a constant roar of noise coming at him from not only the main stages but also the street. He was funny, but uncomfortable. Many of the laughs that the comedians received almost seemed forced – like the audience was laughing at the potential and circumstances of the jokes rather than the delivery.

I decided to stick around for Michael Showalter, a comedian that I have idolized since the first time I caught an episode Stella, rather than give up on the comedy and go see Broken Social Scene. Showalter had a large and eager crowd waiting for him, expecting perhaps that a more experienced comedian could handle the distractions better. He started his set by commenting on the difficulties of performing at a music festival, recalling one time when he did a spring break show and just DJ’ed instead of performing comedy. After the acknowledgment, he proceeded with his comedy routine but had to stop after about five minutes. He seemed like he was forgetting his jokes, and his flow was broken by sirens on the street and Broken Social Scene’s epic jams on the main stage. He paused, thought for a moment, and the shifted gears.

He started talking about how horrible the situation was for comedy, and how the audience deserved better out of him. He did a lot of crowd work, improvising as he went. Luckily for the audience, Showalter is very talented at improvising and still pulled off a very funny show, but it was clear that he was just drowning up there. He stopped his set short, joking that he was going to go backstage and drink himself to death.

I can’t say I was disappointed in Showalter’s performance, but I will say that I was disappointed with the results of the comedy stage experiment. It really is a great idea, and I hope Pitchfork can find a way to make it work in years to come, but this year it failed.

Although the comedy situation left me slightly disillusioned, the music delivered as always. I don’t really have the time or energy to talk about every band I saw over the weekend, so here are the top three acts that I saw:

Number three: Free Energy. This was one of those shows where you can just tell that the band is having the time of their lives. After just about every song, they were thanking the audience and talking about how awesome it was to be there. This is something I have always appreciated in a band. Whereas Modest Mouse, seasoned veterans of the festival scene, will get up there and hardly give mention to the fact that they are playing in front of thousands of people, these young, unpretentious bands give you something to relate to. They seem slightly overwhelmed, but cannot stop smiling. They let you know just how great it is to be able to write and play music that other people will enjoy.

Oh yeah, and Free Energy’s music is awesome. Straight-up rock and roll is the perfect way to start the second day of a festival. Free Energy brought it, hitting every wailing solo marching perfectly in (and only in) 4/4 time. Dudes just write simple songs with simple lyrics about hanging out and girl trouble. I mean, it’s the basic formula, and when executed, it’s easy to see why it has been relied upon over the years. Free Energy rocks.

Number two: Major Lazer. Okay, so I’m going to do the best I can to try and describe what happened on the stage while I stood and waited for Big Boi. First, there was the Diplo set up in the back manning the turntables/Macbook, then there was Switch, a man who without a doubt puts the hype in hype man, sporting an insane bleached blonde mohawk and no shirt. Then there were two booty dancers, participating in the kind of filth that you have to stop yourself from wondering what their parents think of their chosen career paths. So that’s fine and all and can be expected from an act like Major Lazer. But then came the Chinese dragons. That’s right, two large, dancing Chinese dragons on either side of the stage. About a third of the way through the set, the dragons were dismissed and replaced by two ballerina dancers who combined traditional ballet with some form of hip-hop. This included at one point moon-walking on their tippy-toes.

Setting aside the obvious “what the fuck?” invoked by such a spectacle, the reasons for incorporating the two acts are less than obvious. Switch and Diplo maintained the “why not?” attitude, making the selections seem spontaneous and random. They called on stage whomever the felt, whenever they felt like it (including initially reluctant but eventually raunchy VIP audience members). There was no rhyme or reason to any of it. There was no evidence of Chinese influence in the tunes being spun, nor any nod to traditional dance styles like ballet. It was simply an onslaught of randomness. And then came the sex.

The last part of the set started with Switch screaming what seemed to be the mantra of the Major Lazer set. And I quote, “We got an ambulance outside, we got a fire truck outside, but we don’t got the police. Whatever happens at Pitchfork, stays at Pitchfork. We gonna get drunk, we gonna smoke weed and get high, but most importantly, (begins humping the air) we gonna have sex and somebody’s gonna get pregnant!” At this, Switch and the booty dancers traded swigs from a bottle of Hennessy, and out came a ladder. After rolling around on the ground dry humping each other, the ladder was set up and Switch climbed to the top while one of the booty dancers laid spread eagle on the ground beneath him. Switch removed his pants, leaving his undergarments on, and grabbed his crotch. Then he leaped off the top of the ladder into the wide-open crotch of the booty dancer and humped her excessively. Then he laid on the ground while the booty dancer climbed the ladder and jumped on him. More humping. And the humping continued. At one point it appeared a cameraman had gotten on stage and was being humped. The set reached a crescendo at the end when all of  the cast members joined the stage for one last song, humping and dancing and drinking Hennessy.

The music was good, but irrelevant. Major Lazer put on a show, and it was extremely entertaining. The crowd was captivated and into it and nobody left early to get a good spot for Big Boi (who killed it, by the way). They were a pleasant surprise to me, since I had absolutely no intention of watching them. They blew my mind.

Number one: Titus Andronicus. This band kicks so much ass live, it’s not even funny, and they have built a reputation for doing so. As I waited amongst the sweaty fans for them to begin their set, I heard countless accounts of people who saw them in Detroit, or Austin, or Trenton, and every single one was filled with nothing but excitement and praise. When they finally took the stage, all regard for one’s physical well-being was lost. The swarm took me much closer to the stage than I had ever intended to be, a distance I hadn’t watched a punk show from in years, and I couldn’t have been happier. The camaraderie, the screaming in each other’s faces, the brotherly love that one feels for a stranger just based on the fact that he loves the same band you do, these are all things that Titus Andronicus embodies in their music. The sweat, the pain, the things that a jaded concertgoer like myself has forgotten since he was sixteen. This was what Titus Andronicus was.

They opened with the first track off their newest album, The Monitor, and didn’t slow down until the last note. Lead singer/guitar player Patrick Stickles poured himself into the microphone, with his veins bulging from his forehead and sweat dripping off his giant beard. He conducted the crowd in the many chants and sing-a-longs that the band has become known for. He even joined the crowd for the end of the song “Titus Andronicus,” crowd surfing and holding the mic to the screaming mouths of impassioned fans. In between each song, much needed water was passed back from the bouncers in the front to hydrate the crowd. Every sip taken after each song was sweat out by the end of the next, but nobody seemed to mind. Towards the end of the set, Titus broke out in their classic Chuck Berry-esque jam “The Enemy is Everywhere,” inviting members of the tour mates Halleluiah the Hills out to hit organ, trumpet and cello solos. There was no build up for the set, and no coming down, just straight rock right through to the end. It wasn’t too much, it was just right. They were without a doubt the most exciting band at Pitchfork this year.

One final event that I feel earned a mention here is Flatstock, the poster market that has been a part of Pitchfork since I started attending six years ago. I have spent way too much money at this event every year, and with good reason. Some of the best poster artists from around the country make the trek to the festival every year, and all of them are great. Seriously, if you’ve never been to Pitchfork and are thinking about going next year, block out a decent amount of time to check out the posters. This year’s highlight for me was Daniel Danger. He makes very dark and haunting posters with sharp lines and almost exclusively nighttime colors. His posters glow blue and green from behind black, silhouetted landscapes, creating an apocalyptic feel in images as basic as a neighborhood block. Check out his stuff, he’s great.

Well, that just about does it for my Pitchfork input. It really is one of the most well run festivals in the country, and if you’ve never been I suggest checking it out next year. This year was another one in a long line of satisfying Pitchfork trips for me. See you there next year.


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