Features | Festivals

And Pitchfork Brought Us Together 2: Day 1

By Mark Abraham, Conrad Amenta, Chet Betz, Peter Hepburn, Dom Sinacola, & Edgar White | 1 August 2006

Previously on “And Pitchfork Brought Us Together”: Pt.1: Days -5 to -1

And now:

Day 1

Mark: Chet and I spent the morning yelling at Dom to hurry up, even though it turned out that we thought the thing started an hour earlier than it actually did, and Dom was right, and whatever, Dom! We missed most of Hot Whatever-the-fuck!

Chet: We knew we were going to miss part of the performance from Hot Chip, wait, no, Secret Machines…oh ok, neither of those, actually a band of Ponys left-overs called Hot Machines. I was just glad we were going to catch Chin Up Chin Up; a moderate fan of their debut, I was eager to see how they were going to pull off the machine-like drums at the end of that album’s title track (answer being, differently and not quite as awesomely). My enthusiasm had been tapered a bit by the press release Dom had shown me earlier that morning, the one that had come with their new album and that had suddenly made me not want to hear their new album that I had so wanted to hear before reading their new album’s press release, which, amongst other whimsical feats of flowery indie PR-speak, posited that Chin Up Chin Up’s music consists of “broken barstools and post-pubescent heartache,” a claim that somehow manages to be both meaningless and misleading while also reading more like a recipe for a French Revolution barricade.

Mark: “Post-pubescent” meaning, like, everything after 17 and before 89?

Conrad: I was working inexorably toward my fellow writers, whom I had never met and had only their chat room avatars with which to guess their appearances. The only thing left to do was find three or four CMGers among thousands based on.their speech and how it compared to their writing? The night before the festival I had dropped a single piece of information to Mark and Dom for the purposes of helping them identify me: that I would be wearing a maroon t-shirt. For my part, I had Chad Vangaalen’s t-shirt design committed to memory.

Mark: Spot-the-Conrad was the funnest game ever! Between Dom and Chet (who either are fucking color blind or…I dunno…straighter than a post) arguing with me about what maroon was and the huge number of hilarious characters wearing actual maroon t-shirts we found ourselves with a smorgasborg of between-song entertainment. “Hey — is that dude with the rattail Conrad?” “Hey — is that dude with the mullet Conrad?” “Hey — is that dude with a full suit and headphones and a peek of maroon underneath Conrad?” Up until that point, the only picture of Conrad we had seen was his avatar, in which he is covering his face with his hands, or a statues hands, or something. I think I catalogued 27 potential Conrads; I was only right about one. Which we wouldn’t find that out until later, despite Dom’s attempts to attract Potential Conrad #16’s attention by puffing out his CMG-adorned chest. Or, at least, “admirable” attempts to puff.

Dom: After only twenty minutes at the first stage, I’d already met up with ten or so people I knew, some from Indianapolis and some from the city. Wasn’t planned, and I’m not a popular guy. Without much effort, our little group had ballooned into an entourage. Chin Up Chin Up’s set was unimaginative, but they peppered in some newbies, sans the almighty Deck-ster, and fit in snugly with the nascent happiness of the post-lunch glow. I think it was after a crystal-clear “Virginia Don’t Drown” that we moved, inching a staggering amoeba of tall-ies and fatties, skinnies and shorties, over blankets and through squirt-gun mist toward the Aluminum Stage for Man Man. We encountered a new kind of energy. The kind you could smell. The kind you could taste after you smelled. The kind you could chew, gargle, swallow.

Mark: I didn’t think anything could impress me more than Les Savy Fav’s appearance at Intonation the previous year. Man Man came excrutiatingly close.

Dom: It was only later that I realized I had been hitting myself. Sunday, I would beat my breast in self-deprecation at having never truly appreciated the fever that was Mission of Burma, but Saturday, during Man Man, I was exorcising rhythm, flagellating my sternum until primordial noises came out. To no avail; I couldn’t match ‘em; I became jealous of their facial hair, of the mini-Carnivale they’d crafted in the front rows just by tossing handfuls of colored feathers into the shiny air. Later, backup singers, two Pegs to Honus Honus’ Al Bundy, wavered onto stage, hips jutting to the side, tempering the band’s squeals with some boozy harmony. Does “harmony” work? Close enough. I can’t remember if I was chanting or not.

Mark: There were feathers and bells and metal bowls filled with water and flashes of light and five guys in battlepaint. I fell off the escalator they constructed into a glorious land of kitsch where everything was made of Crème Soda and Paul Rudd was my personal servant. It was glorious and sad at the same time; surely nothing at the festival would top this, and we were only like an eighth in.

Chet: Dazed, Mark moved his upped body around, and if I could have seen behind his huge sunglasses, I bet there’d have been saucers. I looked over at Dom, who was also moving to Man Man, lost in their rowdiness. I don’t know what I was doing or how I looked, my senses too utterly summoned and funneled into this fucking SHOW put on by wild-men, but I now imagine it something like so: as Man Man bring the second act of their seamless, undulating, crashing sound-play to a close with a barrage of whitey-tribal percussion, Chet lifts his arm to wipe away the sweat off his soul, shudders and grins out bliss, his knees locked into a rock, his head trying to peck away the thick air on his face, his tongue licking off the anticipation. When the set cools down into a denouement of bare sing-alongs, thousands of heads swaying in tandem out of unsolicited accord, Chet mutters to his imaginary Watson, “those wheezy, whirly Man Man albums are good, but Man Man fucking out their music on stage is something that makes so much more sense, the performance’s appeal and voice as immediate and unchecked and present as a 4/4 beat laced with killer breaks.” Man Man = new live gods.

Mark: Chet was playing it cool, but I could tell he was dancing.in his head! Edgar, on the other hand, was sitting on the ground claiming he was “hot.”

Edgar: I don’t like Man Man.

Peter: I arrived late, victim once again of a poor sense of direction, only to see the last song of Man Man’s set while positioning myself for the soft-rock that is Band of Horses. Ben Bridwell’s vocal range is certainly nothing to be taken for granted, but luckily it was still early and the gods of sound quality were smiling upon us. The band played a solid if not terribly memorable set; better than most, but certainly not brilliant. Sorta like the band as a whole, come to think of it.

Chet: I don’t like Band of Horses. I flew solo on over to the tucked away and overflowingly chic Biz3 tent where all the more fringe performers fringed it out for a generally more enthusiastic, more tightly knit, more dying-of-combined-body-heat crowd. I sweated with strangers, and when our sweaty limbs inevitably touched, we didn’t care. I’d left behind the itinerary (whose schedule Pitchfork impressively managed to make gospel), so when I watched a group remarkably similar to Spank Rock, I assumed said group was Spank Rock. Except where was MC Spank Rock? The emcee doing all the work was a woman, and for a moment I imagined that Woman, desecrated object of so many Spank Rock raps, had been unleashed in this karmic Biz scene, born out of the microphone and consuming MC Spank Rock from his reckless mouth backwards in a poetically grotesque, Miike sort of vengeance. Now she rapped in his place, and I was digging it. Ten minutes later, after rejoining my comrades, I found out that the group was called Flosstradamus, and I was a little sad. Then we went back to the tent, as would become regular practice for me that Saturday.

Dom: About then-ish was when I heard Karl’s voice in my head, prodding me toward the Biz3 Tent and the Chicago Underground Duo. Mark, Peter, and Chet seemed to hear the same. The tent was sweltering, crushing, small, crowded, and had free pamphlets. I told Mark that the dude front and center on stage was Ray Manzarek, and in the back of my head I thought the drummer was the one in the Chili Peppers, and I was so stupidly wrong that teetering on tippy-toes just to catch a glimpse of something gave me the chance to solely concentrate on balance, not my own embarrassing lack of critic cred. I saw the top of Mazurek’s head, the muted bell of his instrument, and could hear his eerie squelches as if from some subterranean hideout. It came off unnervingly erotic.

Mark: Chad Taylor is a beast to watch live — of course, I could only watch because of my height. While the tent was consistently interesting, if not always awesome, it’s major flaw was how packed and hard to see it was, which was fine for djs, but not so much for the jazz and experimental acts. Peter disappeared early, and eventually we remaining three marched off to find water and food and — hey! It’s potential Conrad #16!

Conrad: I admit that, between my random sweeps through crowds of people who might actually have been Mark and Dom, there was some concern that Day One acts Art Brut and Destroyer might actually start off our meeting on the wrong foot. Would I be able to resist the urge to mockingly “da-dee-da-bu-da-bu-daaaaaaa” my way through a Bejarian chorus? Would Art Brut translate their knowing wink well to fellow critics who have their own knowing winks? I mean, this isn’t just a music festival, it’s the Pitchfork Music Festival: everyone there is, at least theoretically, of the (increasingly) few who have yet to lose their faith in the ongoing exercise of rating their top ten bass lines as performed by New York bands from 1972-1976. Arguments should have been on the breeze. Like many negatively charged ions, I simply assumed we’d shake hands, share some cigarettes, and then, eventually, one of us would call Rubies an “unfortunately titled” album and there’d be an explosion. As it turns out, Dom, Mark, and Chet are each as reasonable as my expectations were paranoid; my maroon shirt worked, the chasm that separated Jens Lekman appreciation from disgust thankfully unacknowledged.

Mark: Conrad said something grandiose and nervous about critics and tensions and I said, “dude! That shade of maroon looks wicked on you!”

Conrad: My colleagues headed off for food. I stayed, because hearing Tyondai Braxton, and more specifically History That Has No Effect‘s (2002) “The Violent Light Through Falling Shards” live was one of this year’s festival’s primary appeals. I’ve read the descriptions as rapt as any Battles fan: Braxton sitting amid a semi-circle of pedals and samplers, looping the sound of his voice and polyglot guitar squalls into something tangible yet unpredictable. Online reviews describe it as something remarkable and unique, a tech-nerd’s dream to hold hands with privileged, “difficult music.” And, had the performance taken place in what must be its usual context of small, concrete-walled clubs or rented rec rooms, I might have echoed those sentiments or felt a part of the same inside club of connoisseurs. As it turns out, I was at an outdoor music festival, under the sun, with a plastic cup of beer turning to dough in my hand. I made it through two songs, taking with me only the irony that the inherent excess, the pure accessibility and fun of a music festival, can make each of Braxton’s knob twiddles and subsequent shrieks seem antisocial and fully insular. On the same day as Man Man’s celebratory set, the unrequited love the crowd poured over Band of Horses, and Ted Leo’s complete loss of and then renewal of faith in his music, Tyondai Braxton seemed out of his element, confrontational and, most unfortunately, unable to capture the imagination of the crowd.

Dom: While Mark and Chet headed back to the tent for the rest of Tyondai Braxton, I sat in a copse of trees next to a trio of girls insulting Chicago. They were from Philadelphia. I eavesdropped and found they thought my darling metropolis was nothing more than a concrete jungle of frowns, scowls, and unhappy twitches in between. This was after only spending an afternoon in Wicker Park, which is a concrete jungle of solemn mannerisms and suffocating fashion, but I made no attempt to argue because I was standing all antsy, hearing my favorite “European Oils” from a distance and wishing Mark and Chet would hurry up. But, even a Park’s distance away from the Connector Stage, I could already make out something tired in Bejar’s “la dah dah’s.”

Chet: Braxton proved mighty effective at giving me some elbow room in the Biz. However caustic he might have been, though, his knob fiddling, gothic clangs, and mistake percussion came together somewhat hauntingly on his last couple numbers; he was showing us pre-natal glimpses of actual songs, all the black and gray static finally purposeful when revealing ideas with life to them. As Mark and I headed back to meet Dom, a cat dressed smartly in white pointed at my CMG VanGaalen shirt. “Love that fucking mag, man.” I smiled, trying to be genuine and probably just coming off smarmy, “yeah? Cool. I write for it. Chet Betz. That’s Mark Abraham over there.” The cat nodded, “you guys are the best, hands down.” Then, like any good CMG fan might do, he got critical: “sometimes you’re full of shit. Maybe talk about the music more, less allusions to philosophers.” In my mind, “oh, I quite agree, it’s as Plato once said..” But I really did appreciate that cat, especially when he reiterated how we were the best and how our podcasts kick ass, which, yeah, they sort of do. Thanking him, Mark and I walked back to scoop up Dom off his ass, myself satisfied that someone out there thought the Glow was the philosophically masturbatory best and that that same someone was the kind of person who was totally non-plussed about meeting writers from the philosophically masturbatory best. Only at Pitchfork Fest could such a meeting take place.

Mark: Heh — we’re a “fucking mag!” Anyway, we worked our way to-the-left-of-the-sound-booth (our preferred position) and settled in for the remainder of Destroyer. I probably shouldn’t be talking about Bejar, since I’m the staff member who likes him the least (which is still to say “likes him,” because, well, I love City of Daughters [1998]), but I have to say I was mostly disappointed that he played essentially the exact set he played in Toronto four or five months ago. So while his music lilted lovingly across the baseball fields embracing all who stood slowly wafting to his pristine melodies, all a titter in the afternoon breeze, I kept getting déjà vu; I’d been there and done that. Which is exactly how I feel about each album he releases, which is why I only really like City of Daughters, the first one I heard. That said, I was sort of hoping the set wouldn’t end, since we were fast approaching Mark’s personal catch-22.

Chet: Let’s go watch Spank Rock!

Mark: I don’t really like Spank Rock…

Chet: How can you not like those beats? Plus, would you rather watch Art Brut?

Mark: Well, I mean, theoretically I like Art Brut, but why does the punchline sound so sucky?

Chet: Spank Rock’s punchline sounds awesome!

Mark: You’re right. I like the sound of Spank Rock, just politically I don’t want to support Spank Rock.

Chet: So, basically you’d like Art Brut more if you didn’t have to listen to them and Spank Rock more if you didn’t have to think about them?

Mark: Spank Rock’s set was plagued with technical issues, which I felt bad about, but better about because I like Spank Rock way more when I can’t hear what he is saying. Which was better than Ted Leo, who was having trouble saying anything.

Dom: I think Ted Leo’s set is best told as a Christopher Alexander one-act play:

A Conversation Between Dom and Christopher Concerning the Pitchfork Festival Performance of Ted Leo, Pantomimed by Ted Leo

A play featuring no sudden and improbable semi-celebrity murders by Christopher Alexander

[CURTAIN RISES on a black stage. We hear the sound of a telephone ring. A SPOTLIGHT hits CHRISTOPHER, STAGE FAR RIGHT lying in bed. The telephone is next to him; he answers it.]

CHRISTOPHER: Hnggg?

DOM: Yo, dudebro, it’s Dom. [A spotlight hits DOM, STAGE FAR LEFT talking into his cellphone. He’s wearing his Cokemachineglow staff t-shirt. There is a long pause.] Buddy, ya there?

CHRISTOPHER: [Groggy.] Yeah. Jesus. What time is it?

DOM: Uh, it’s like 7 in the evening.

CHRISTOPHER: Oh. [He looks surprised.] Damn.

DOM: Well, listen, how’s your weekend? I’m here with everyone from the Glow and we’re all having a great time in Chicago rocking out to Man Man and The Silver Jews. What are you up to?

CHRISTOPHER: Me? Uh … [He looks down at the empty six pack of beer on the floor.] … you know, this and that.

DOM: Man, you should’ve seen Ted Leo today! [A spotlight hits TED LEO, STAGE CENTER with a mic stand and guitar.] It was, like, the strangest thing I’ve ever seen. He started off kind of not into it [TED LEO plays guitar with a disinterested look.] and then, like, declares that he’s lost all faith in his music and the things he believed in.

TED LEO: I’ve lost faith in my music and the things I believed in.

DOM: But then as the set progresses he said that he seemed to have it restored in Lansing, Michigan, of all places.

TED LEO: I had it restored in Lansing, Michigan, of all places. [He smiles and plays guitar with his typical vigor.]

DOM: Then during “Ballad of a Sin Eater,” he bashed his own head in with the microphone, [TED LEO does this.] and there was blood pouring down his head, leaving a big crater size scar. [TED LEO pulls out a red sharpie, draws a circle on his forehead and fills it in angrily.]

TED LEO: Ouch.

CHRISTOPHER: Ouch.

DOM: Yeah, so listen, the guys and I are thinking you should do that as a really brief and simple one-act play for our Pitchfork write up. [A beat.] Well, brief and simple by our standards, I mean.

CHRISTOPHER: Um, I don’t know, I don’t know if I can come up with anything funny. [The spotlight on TED LEO goes dark.]

DOM: Well, we’ll figure it out. God, why is Ted Leo so great?

CHRISTOPHER: Because he’s from New Jersey!

[The spotlights go out and the stage is dark. THE CURTAIN FALLS.]

Mark: From blood to sampled body fluids, Chet and I wandered back to the tent for the end of Matmos. I sort of wondered why Drew Daniels didn’t just do his Soft Pink Truth stuff, which seemed more funky for a hot and tired evening crowd, but my fears of more highly technical but ultimately fit-for-a-comfortable-indoor-venue music were dispelled. Matmos + one deftly wove dance-ready beats with interesting textures and sounds to create hypnotic grooves. Daniels has one of those set-ups that makes gear-junkies like myself swoon. At one point, he was inserting slap bass flourishes in on his synth; I was imagining Slave jamming with the Master Musicians of Jajouka; some dude next to me was sucking breath sharply between his teeth on time with the beat; people who would rather watch this than the Walkmen are my homies.

Chet: So I guess that makes me one of Mark’s homies. Sorta. I did keep checking to see if the Walkmen were playing “The Rat” or “Thinking of a Dream I Had,” two songs which absolutely killed last time I saw the band live. But everyone seemed pretty disinterested that day, including Leithauser whenever he wasn’t screaming his jugular out of joint. Hence, me standing beside Mark at the Biz3 tent, arms folded like everyone else, head nodding ever so slightly like everyone else, too cool for school like everyone else. It wasn’t really about image, though, or being aesthetisexual and disgustingly urbane: “hey, yeah, we’re watching Matmos. We’re watching them live. Matmos live. We are the first people to think of doing this. Dig?” The music was just that compelling; I soon forgot about Walkmen and missed “The Rat” and didn’t care. Because I was listening to what sounded like the muted death throes of elephants expertly fractioned off into little slots between subversive microhouse beats. The guy standing directly in front of me had short-trimmed dirty brown hair, but coming off the nape of his neck was a long wisp of natural blond that looked like it had been grafted onto his head after being jacked from Farrah Fawcett. In your regular day-to-day, I might find such a thing icky. Soundtracked live by Matmos, I thought dude’s hair was the fucking bee’s knees.

Dom: Peter and I stood to-the-left-of-the-sound-booth and awkwardly watched the Walkmen. It was awkward, Peter, right? I mean, we’re fans, but they just kinda blew it.

Peter: Yeah. Blew.

Dom: Right.

Mark: I actually thought they weren’t horrible, and I don’t even like them. But since we all agree that the Walkmen were tired, let’s talk pragmatics. Maybe they weren’t hydrating properly? It’s a fucking hot festival, y’all. I sweat a lot; I know the pain, so it’s shorts, flip flops, as little as possible. By the time Futureheads were about to head on my one-inch soak coat from earlier in the day had dried out, and I could stop piling on shitloads of sunscreen. The Walkmen were all in jeans and long sleeve shirts — no wonder they were tired.

Peter: Mark clearly went to a different festival than the rest of us. The only acceptable garb for the weekend was a CMG t-shirt and a bad-ass scowl. Like so. The general understanding of heat-stroke and hydration seemed pretty good among the crowd. Sure, there were a handful of black-suited hipsters and girls with piercings wearing sweaters, but for the most part people were doing okay and drinking their reasonably-priced water.

Mark: The shirts Peter made were awesome, but apparently American Apparel believes that an extra-large is meant for pygmies, and my glorious bright-yellow shirt didn’t fit, so I couldn’t join in the t-shirt wearing fun. Speaking of “yellow,” all the hydrating I had been doing required a bathroom trip sometime during the Futureheads’ set. The porto-johns have big lines, and making your way through the crowd requires a lot of sure-footing. On this particular trip, though… Look — I’ve never really put too much stock in the inspirational power of my ass until now. Walking through the crowd, and suddenly I’m fucking goosed. I turn around, and two friends are staring determinately at the ground, stifling giggles, and pretending not to notice me. I chuckle, direct a “thanks” at ‘em, and turn around to walk again.

Peter: While Mark was busy being sexually harassed, the Futureheads played a set that seemed to betray a deep misgiving about their recent News & Tributes. While they did play some new material, it was the songs off the eponymous debut that both they and the audience seemed most excited about. Everybody knew it was coming, but “Hounds of Love” was still great, and closing out the set with “Man Ray” — still their best song to date — was an excellent way to get the crowd rolling before Silver Jews took the stage across the ballpark.

Mark: Fifteen minutes later, when I wander back, I notice something curious has happened. These two friends, having been joined by several others, have formed a sort of corridor, or, I guess more accurately, a gauntlet. Silent until an unaware victim wanders into their trap, those seated suddenly cheer and each slap the interloper’s ass like some indie-hazing ceremony. The inaugural tap on my own posterior may have been polite and nobody may have owned up to it, but my ass has created an institution, a community project that will invest in the asses of many: embarrassed, pissed off, or arms raised and hooting with joy, people’s reactions to the ass gauntlet are as clear an indication as any of temperament, and all the suckers who try to avoid the thing altogether become Festival pariahs. Sorry y’all; your hips hurt too much.

Dom: Hey, guys, wanna beat the rush and go get drunk at a party?

Mark and Chet: Uh, yeah!

Dom, Mark, and Chet: Hey, Peter, wanna beat the rush and go get drunk at a party?

Peter: No. I love the Silver Jews, and I’m going to do the responsible thing by watching their set so that someone can write about it when we cover the festival.

Chet: Then we threw some bottles at Pete and rode off on our bicycles, ringing the bells and cackling like the bad apples we are.

Edgar: Guys? Where’d you go?

Scott: CMG wants you to know that Peter did indeed stay and watch the Silver Jews intending on writing them up. Unfortunately his computer is broken, and…

Edgar: Hmph. I stayed and watched them. I could write about the—

Scott: Oh…hi…Edgar. Yeah…um…that’s okay. You’ve already put a lot of work in this…um…bye!

Next on “And Pitchfork Brought Us Together”: Pt. 3: Day 2