Pitchfork Music Festival 2014 – Day 1
by Ben Stas (Journalism/English), published July 29th 2014
photos by Ben Stas
Another year, another glorious Chicago weekend with the Pitchfork Music Festival. Now approaching its 10th anniversary, Pitchfork continues to perfect its formula and remain a standout in the increasingly crowded summer festival field.
The lineup offers something for just about anyone – and that’s not just a platitude. Hip-hop, indie rock, R&B, noise punk, vintage shoegaze, post-metal, minimal techno and numerous genres beyond were well-represented across this year’s 40+ artists. Plus, it’s all laid out in such a way that the spread doesn’t feel overwhelming – it’s remarkably easy to catch nearly every set you could want to see throughout the weekend. The 2014 edition was yet further proof of the festival’s expert curation, solid organization and inherent charm.
Friday afternoon’s schedule was robbed of its opening punch with a last-minute Death Grips cancellation, but a more low-key kickoff was ultimately not such a bad thing. Rising dream pop crew Hundred Waters were relocated from the back corner Blue Stage to the main field Red Stage, and handled the transition gracefully. Airy vocals and flute solos floated around bass thumps that offered the sort of additional presence they needed for an outdoor set. Their mesmerizing Schubas after-show with Majical Cloudz on Sunday night ultimately proved to be their better performance of the weekend, but they filled the role of festival opener admirably on Friday afternoon.
Industrial-tinged U.K. trio Factory Floor played the weekend’s first Blue Stage set next, crafting an aggressive but strangely entrancing brand of post-DFA dance-rock. Drummer Gabriel Gurnsey, modular synth manipulator Dominic Butler and guitarist/vocalist Nik Colk spent the duration of their set focused intently on one another, locked into a groove and transmitting some vague sense of impending doom without having to say much of anything. The crowd seemed content to party through the apocalypse though, sending the first crowd-surfers of the weekend careening toward the photo pit.
The afternoon turned eerie with U.K. dark ambient producer The Haxan Cloak. Taking an unassuming side-stage position opposite drummer Alvin Lee Ryan, Bobby Krlic immediately set to work unleashing earth-rattling, Sunn O)))-level waves of bass on a surprisingly attentive crowd at the Blue Stage. The live percussion element was unexpected, but added a welcome punch and human touch to the proceedings. Krlic’s brand of unsettling sonic terror is surely more suited for a dark indoor space than a sunny afternoon, but on the merits of atmosphere and sheer volume, the set worked. Fog machines, which would be more omnipresent this weekend than any Pitchfork prior, also helped.
The always-charming Sharon Van Etten was wrapping up what sounded like a great set at the Red Stage during the wait for what ultimately turned out to be a somewhat disappointing Sun Kil Moon set on Green. Mark Kozelek’s shape-shifting folk project took the form of a quartet with a drummer, guitarist and keyboardist for Pitchfork, and started off strong with a stirring “Hey You Bastards I’m Still Here” (from Kozelek’s recent collaborative album with Desertshore). Things started to turn problematic as the reverb on Koz’s vocals was ramped up between songs to the point where he was nearly incomprehensible. The wrenching “Dogs” was salvaged by a raw, distortion-heavy arrangement, but the band was nearly drowned out by a talkative crowd elsewhere. Those looking to make some sense of things and find a deeper meaning were left somewhat adrift.
Over at Blue, Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks demonstrated a better handle on their material than their slightly undercooked, prematurely-ended Boston show back in April. Animal Collective co-leader Avey’s trademark yelping vocals were in fine form, as was Ponytail drummer Jeremy Hyman’s percussive attack and ex-Dirty Projector Angel Deeradorian’s vocal and synth contributions. The trio’s psychedelic trips sounded lively and unhinged in just the right ways. Too bad they didn’t bring the plastic skulls with them though.
I caught only glimpses of Giorgio Moroder’s sub-headlining DJ set, but the Italian disco pioneer seemed to gather a sizeable crowd with a mix of vintage dance cuts and present-day fare (rumor has it that “Fancy” was played with all traces of Iggy Azealia excised, to everyone’s apparent delight).
Beck took the main stage to the tune of a noisy “Devil’s Haircut” to open his headlining set, and kept an enthused crowd wrapped around his finger for the following 80 minutes. Security refused pit access to all but the first 50 photographers, but my spot in line turned into a much more fun spot in the crowd. With the help of an ace six-piece backing band, Beck delivered essentially everything you could ask for with this kind of set. We sang along to “Loser,” we danced to the zany “Get Real Paid,” we gazed dreamily into the night sky during “Lost Cause.” Even the down-tempo Morning Phase numbers felt well-placed.
The main set concluded with a thoroughly kickass “E-Pro,” complete with band members thrashing guitars and crashing into one another as Beck roped off the front of the stage with crime scene tape. For good measure, the band returned for a pitch-perfect encore of “Sexx Laws,” the unimpeachably perfect “Debra” and readymade singalong “Where It’s At.” I can’t deny that it’s my inner Beck fanboy speaking, but it was the most fun set I saw all weekend.
Because it seemed like a thing to do, I packed up following Beck’s set and booked it to the nearby Bottom Lounge to catch the weekend’s first official aftershow with Deafheaven and Perfect Pussy. Local quartet Pink Frost were midway through an opening set when I arrived, sounding a good deal more straightforwardly rock and roll than the rest of the bill. A bit of an odd fit, but a solid set.
New York noise punk group Perfect Pussy were on next, tearing into an impressive and utterly ferocious set. It’s tempting to write off a band with that name and a blog-hype train a mile long, but seeing them live is an absolute necessity before jumping to conclusions. Vocalist Meredith Graves was as commanding a presence as I saw all weekend, howling with intense conviction from center stage while her bandmates conjured a storm of screeching chaos around her. A moshpit that easily rivaled Deafheaven’s raged before the band, and they earned it.
The packed house greeted California’s metal-gazing Deafheaven with a hero’s welcome as midnight rolled around, and turned into a sea of thrashing and crowdsurfing bodies at the sound of Dan Tracy’s gatecrashing “Dream House” drums. The band performed the entirety of last year’s still-stunning Sunbather, as they have on the rest of their summer tour thus far, but took a break between the title track and “Vertigo” to debut their first new song since the album’s release. “From the Kettle Unto the Coil” exhibited the typical Deafheaven flourishes with what felt like a particularly adventurous song structure, and it sounded fantastic.
The energy stayed remarkably high for a room full of people who’d ostensibly already spent their day outdoors watching music. The majority of George Clarke’s lyrics were screamed back to him with frantic urgency, and he found plenty of support upon diving into the crowd on multiple occasions. The band delivers nothing but powerful performances and this one was no different. A satisfying late-night conclusion to day one.