Pitchfork Music Festival @ Union Park 7.19.13
by Ben Stas (English/Journalism), published July 25th 2013
photos by Ben Stas
Another year of the Pitchfork Music Festival at Chicago’s Union Park is in the books, and once more the Internet’s most divisive media site delivered a pretty amazing weekend of music. Love or hate Pitchfork as an organization, there’s no denying that they know how to put on a festival. This year’s lineup was perhaps the most varied yet, drawing together acts from the world of indie rock, folk, pop, dance, hip-hop, R&B, punk and noise across three stages. It’s a festival cliché to say that they offer something for everyone, but Pitchfork manages to do just that while cultivating a friendly atmosphere and keeping the cost relatively low. It may not be the largest festival around, but it’s rightfully earning a reputation as one of the best.
Friday’s festivities kicked off in the late afternoon, with temperatures hovering in the 90s, and Frankie Rose’s set on the relatively secluded and shady Blue Stage was a natural first stop for many early arrivers. Rose and her band breezed through a set of lush songs drawn from her 2012 record Interstellar and a yet-to-be-announced new album, charming the afternoon crowd with amiable presence (and Rose’s pretty sweet Cure t-shirt).
I stuck around the Blue Stage to catch California hardcore band Trash Talk once Rose’s set had wrapped up. It took the band roughly 30 seconds to inspire a furious mosh pit, goaded on by vocalist Lee Spielman. Spielman appeared jet-lagged and possibly stoned, but that didn’t stop him from screaming his lungs out and repeatedly diving into the crowd anyway. Trash Talk delivered on the promise of no-frills hardcore – loud, chaotic and violent.
Not being in the mood to wear myself out on loud music quite yet (there would be plenty of time for that on Saturday), I abandoned the second half of Trash Talk’s set in favor of the CHIRP Record Fair. The two tents near the edge of the grounds combined tables from Chicago record stores and various independent labels and distributors into a vinyl lover’s dream come true. The sounds of Mac DeMarco covering “Cocaine” drifted over from the Green Stage, though I unfortunately didn’t hear the covers medley later in his set which reportedly included Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” Next, over at the Red Stage, Woods played a psychedelic set that blended folksy harmonica and acoustic guitar with effects-heavy electric jamming. It was a good set to get lost in on a hot afternoon.
Back at Green, Wire tore into a brilliant set of tight, sharp art-punk. Their set was heavier on new material from this year’s Change Becomes Us than some fans might have hoped, but as a live band they can seemingly make any song sound as vital as a cut from Pink Flag. Frontman Colin Newman maintained an austere demeanor as he intoned his typically obscure lyrics and cast shredding noise from his guitar. Recently inducted member Matt Simms added color as a second guitarist, dueling with Newman over the jittery rhythm section of Robert Grey and Graham Lewis. I had been cautiously anticipating this set, but Wire sounded totally in sync with one another and delivered a killer set that went above and beyond expectations.
Joanna Newsom, who was playing one of her few live shows in 2013 at Pitchfork, was up next on the Red Stage. She got some of the most enthusiastic cheers of the weekend after a short intro from Drag City’s Rian Murphy, and similarly rapturous approval as she struck the familiar first notes of songs like “Bridges and Balloons” and “In California.” Newsom’s quiet, delicate songs don’t seem like an obvious fit for a festival atmosphere, but she silenced the doubters with a set that was nothing short of breathtaking. She was alone with her harp and grand piano on stage, and it was impressive to see her keep a crowd so utterly enthralled with so little in the way of spectacle. Newsom’s set was one of the weekend’s purest displays of both raw talent and the bond between audience and performer. The huddled crowd broke the between-song silences with “we love you!” shouts and cheered excitedly for both new songs and old favorites, provoking a genuinely sweet smile from Newsom each and every time.
Friday’s big spectacle was a headlining set from Björk, which was sadly cut short by the encroaching thunderstorms. Prior to the lightning though, Björk quite literally conjured some of her own. Her setup included a giant Tesla coil suspended above the stage, as well as backing musicians and a costumed group of singers and dancers. Björk herself wore a shining outfit with a spiky, porcupine-esque headpiece, and led the ensemble through booming, percussive performances of Biophilia songs and older career highlights. The breakbeats and electronic stomps of “Crystalline” and “Army of Me” were among the set’s best moments, as was the powerfully sweeping “Jóga.” Even with an abrupt finish after just over an hour, Björk’s set felt like something special. Her dedication to crafting a memorable performance, rather than just playing another show, shined through every one of her 65 minutes on stage.
As she left the stage, Björk remarked that the incoming storm “wouldn’t be much in Iceland,” but frustrating as the call-off and evacuation of the grounds were in the moment, the subsequent downpour probably justified it. Thousands of people fighting their way through the gates as the heavens opened up would not have been a pretty sight. With that crisis averted, a mostly successful day one drew to a close.