Features | Festivals

Pitchfork Festival :: Saturday, 20 July 2013

By David M. Goldstein | 6 August 2013

Photo above: Ellie Pritts

I’ve been living in New York City for the past eleven years and have resigned myself to a simple fact: the hot dogs are no good there. The natives tend to wax rhapsodic over the “dirty water dogs” readily available from street vendors or Nathan’s on Coney Island, both of which are wildly overrated, and frankly sort of gross. The wieners at Lower East Side Kosher-style deli Katz’s are not without some good snap, but no one ever craves them. So it’s not like my wife and I needed an excuse to recently take a long weekend in Chicago; it’s a dynamic American city with breweries that don’t distribute in New York, and in the Publican, arguably our favorite restaurant in the country—a gluttonous tribute to the holy trinity of craft beer, pork, and oysters. But the quality and variety of the hot dogs in Chicago didn’t hurt. Also, the Pitchfork Festival was in town.

Actually, Chicago was in a couple of ways the music epicenter of North America the weekend of July 19th through 21st. In addition to Pitchfork, Pearl Jam were playing a soon to pass into legend show (three hour rain delay, thirty-plus songs, 2:30 AM end time) at Wrigley Field uptown, and erstwhile jamband Phish was also in the midst of a three night run. Doing a music and food weekend was a no-brainer, we could catch Pitchfork on a Saturday afternoon and then proceed to get drenched amongst hairy types at Phish on Sunday night, all while cramming our gullets with sports pepper and tomato enhanced Vienna Beef hot dogs.

And the first thing one notices about the Pitchfork Festival is its scale, or more specifically, lack thereof. Those anticipating a full-blown “Festival” along the lines of Bonnaroo or Coachella will be surprised as to how small it is. While Lollapalooza transpires at the considerably large and touristy Grant Park, Union Park is far more modest, with a public pool and clearly visible baseball diamonds. It was also a complete breeze to get to on public transit from the Loop neighborhood in which we were staying, with non-existent lines allowing concert goers to stroll right in with minimal stress. In addition to music on three stages, there was a large rock poster expo, vinyl fair, and several mobile food and beer vendors. Gven that it really took no more than five minutes to walk from one end of the park to the other, the effect was really more akin to a hipster carnival versus a festival proper.

Such levels of intimacy could be considered a virtue, though, and the festival organizers deserve credit for eliminating any sort of sound bleed between the three stage, and also seeing to it that the bands actually adhered to the posted times. My rapidly aging self appreciated the punctuality; structured so that when a band on the Red stage was finishing their final song, the Green stage band was already rearing to go and vice versa.

Prior engagements kept my party from arriving before a quarter to four on Saturday afternoon—unfortunate if only because Phosphorescent performed at 2:30, and Muchacho is amongst my favorite albums of the year. But the non-existent wait to get in provided us with very good sight lines for Savages’ 4:15 set. The latter are unquestionably 2013 hype darlings, and admittedly a little strange to see on a blue sky afternoon in 85 degree heat, especially how given I’m told their indoor stage show is to strobe lights. But a sunny afternoon be damned; Savages still dressed entirely in black and hit with the sleek precision of a cruise missile, burning through a dozen songs in just under forty minutes. Their recent Silence Yourself album suggests a far more, uh, savage take on the first two Echo & the Bunnymen records with a particularly volatile frontwoman in Jehnny Beth, a Siouxie Sioux disciple whose pinched howling can recall Rush’s Geddy Lee, of all people. Onstage their rhythm section is ridiculously tight, drummer Fay Milton clearly having studied at the Janet Weiss school of awesomeness by hitting the skins hard and holding her sticks ridiculously high above her head. And guitarist Gemma Thompson’s effects pedals would not appear to merely read “fuzz” and “flanger” like those of mere mortals, but rather more like “malevolent butcher dragging his boning knife through a steer” (the chorus of “Strife”) and “lost soul doomed to the third circle of hell” (“Waiting for a Sign”). The hype is warranted. Avoid Savages at your own peril.

But no rest for the weary, as seconds within the conclusion of Savages’ set, Swans were setting up onstage a mere thirty feet away. And really, Savages and Swans back to back? How cool is that: two black-clad “S” bands trafficking in two entirely different brands of unbridled aggression right around dinner time. The Pitchfork organizers deserve points for their cleverness here. At this point the heat was oppressive enough to the point where it made a fine approximation of the A/C-less East Village sweatboxes Michael Gira played in the ’80s (minus the purposely locked doors). Swans managed to get through three “songs” in a little under an hour, rewarding patient concert goers with the expected torrents of unison bashing after what seemed like a quiet eternity in opener “To Be Kind.” Our party experienced a combination of hunger pangs and heat stroke thirty minutes in, leaving Swans’ immediate vicinity for water and hot dogs. No matter, all thirty minutes of the “The Seer” was plenty audible out by the food vendors, creating the awesomely odd juxtaposition of listening to Gira moan about how he sees it all while chowing down on a “Chubby Weiner” loaded with tomatoes, relish, and celery salt. Worth noting: pedal steel player Christoph Hahn wore a very snazzy three-piece black suit while sporting the constant look of bemusement he always has, and the only times Gira addressed the crowd were to test the microphone and praise Savages.

Pictured: Dinner of Champions.

Nothing else that evening lived up to the visceral appeal of either Swans or Savages, nor could they be expected to. The “Buckingham/Nicks doomed to purgatory”-stylings of Low made for an appealing, drone-heavy come down over on the smaller Blue stage, and the seven minutes I caught of METZ was impressively heavy. Less enjoyable were the Breeders, who treated their Last Splash (1993) set like an extended sound check, rife with tuning issues and more loopy Kim Deal stage banter than any one person should have to endure. Given the placement of “Cannonball,” a friend commented that if they wanted to keep the crowds, they should have considered playing the album in reverse, which was funny. But I’d have settled for a touch more professionalism, so as not to draw unnecessary attention to the fact that for all of its crackerjack singles, Last Splash is at heart a period piece that gets a bit dire without the use of a skip button. We used the last third of the Breeders set to discover the wonders of the frozen key lime pie parfait being sold by Bang Bang. It was insanely good.

My wife claimed that I would know Solange’s songs when I heard them, which ended up being false. She played a competent, but faceless set of sunny R&B that suggested she might have made bank co-headlining shows with Dionne Farris had she been born fifteen years earlier. Despite playing essentially the exact same set they did in Brooklyn one week prior, headliners Belle & Sebastian were both warm and professional, playing a career spanning set that reminded folks just how many incredible pop songs they’ve written over the years, though it was pretty obvious that the girl that Stuart Murdoch brought onstage to do the spoken word part in “Dirty Dream #2” had clearly never heard the song before. The latter half of their set was slightly hamstrung by a steady drizzle, but by that time we’d already flown the coop with the purpose of grabbing a burger at nearby Au Cheval —an elevated take on the Big Mac that was indeed as good as advertised, especially when paired with a Zombie Dust Pale Ale from Three Floyds.

Provided the bands are interesting enough, I would not hesitate to attend the Pitchfork Festival next year. It’s incredibly accessible by mass transit, and small enough to even feel a bit relaxing, as evidenced by the scores of people who treated it like a picnic with blankets and their families. Plus the hot dogs kicked ass, and the bevy of Goose Island beer offerings were highly preferable to the usual Heineken and Stella swill that populates such events, irrespective of the fact that they technically sold-out to the Anheuser-Busch conglomerate three years ago. The middle of Chicago is a fine place for a low-key indie rock festival, and every one of you should see Savages live as soon as possible.