Pitchfork Music Festival 2014 – Day 2

by Ben Stas (Journalism/English), published July 31st 2014

photos by Ben Stas

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Day two of Pitchfork Fest started with perhaps the most energetic 1 p.m. set I’ve ever seen at the fest, courtesy of Chicago natives Twin Peaks. The local flair surely contributed to the crowd’s early afternoon enthusiasm, but the band’s hooky garage pop is plenty of fun no matter where you’re hearing it. Singer/guitarist Cadien James was restricted by a wheelchair and cast, but still managed to out-shred some of the days higher billed bands. Elsewhere, a guitar was smashed and tossed piecemeal into the crowd for reasons that weren’t entirely clear. Whoever was holding the neck aloft in the pit for the remainder of the set didn’t begrudge a bit of aimless destruction.

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One of the day’s more under-the-radar sets was a relatively rare appearance from Circulatory System on the Blue Stage. The Will Cullen Hart-fronted band consists of several other former Olivia Tremor Control members, minus the late Bill Doss. Circulatory’s set wasn’t quite Tremor Control Mach II, but there were certainly flashes of that band’s Technicolor psych-pop in the textured, exploratory songs conjured up by Hart, his five compatriots and the myriad of strings, guitars, clarinets and percussion instruments on stage. That set turned out to be a fitting segue into Wild Beasts across the field, who delivered lush, delicate art-pop that sounded surprisingly full-bodied from the main stage.

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Cloud Nothings’ set immediately following on the opposite stage was a complete reversal of those soothing vibes, plunging the crowd into a frantic set of distortion-soaked ragers. Frontman Dylan Baldi, sporting a pretty intense mountain man beard, let the rough edged vocals he employed more heavily on this year’s Here and Nowhere Else scream throughout a set that pulled equally from that record and 2012’s Attack on Memory. The band’s leaner trio lineup for the new record and tour has transformed them into a different beast on stage, committed to playing these songs fast and mean. The set-closing “Wasted Days” brought out some Chicago friends to throw some extra noise into the mix, and saw the band operating at their most intensely unhinged.

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What should’ve been a short recovery time between the Clouds and Clipse co-founder Pusha T turned into an obnoxious delay that cut the rapper’s set time in half. He neither explained nor apologized upon taking the stage, but delivered a hits-packed abbreviated set that was tight enough to forgive his transgression. Highlights from Pusha’s solid debut solo effort My Name is My Name were juxtaposed with his strongest guest verses of the last few years, including Future’s planet-conquering “Move That Dope” (which received a highly entertaining a capella intro). Had he only been allotted a 25 minute set in the first place, it would’ve been perfect.

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After a short but fairly agreeable helping of Tune-Yards’ Afrobeat-tinged pop, I watched Danny Brown play the better of Saturday’s two major hip-hop sets. (and not just because he was on time). Brown has personality to spare, from his green-tinged hair and leather jacket to his truly outstanding laugh, and he’s got the live show down to a science.  Between “Break It,” “Dip,” “Smokin & Drinkin,” “Lie4” and the rest of his relentlessly energetic set, there wasn’t a weak point to be found. The crowd was slightly smaller and more timid in its call and responses than one might’ve hoped, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying on Danny’s part.

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St. Vincent’s Annie Clark took the Red Stage following Danny’s set with the attitude of a conquering hero, greeted with what might’ve been the single loudest cheer of the entire weekend, and subsequently delivered one of its best sets. One of Clark’s early shows on the Digital Witness tour in Boston this February left something to be desired with its sometimes overtly scripted vibe, but she’s clearly worked out the kinks after a few months on the road. The balance between persona and personality felt more natural this time around, and the songs simply sounded more alive. The setlist was heavy on this year’s self-titled record, but reached all the way back to Marry Me for a show-stopping “Your Lips are Red.” Clark thrashed her guitar and her body across the stage and smashed her head into Matt Johnson’s kick drum (requiring a post-set icing according to Twitter) before grabbing a different instrument and spinning the song’s beautifully subdued conclusion. It was spellbinding.

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St. Vincent was an exceptionally tough act to follow after that finale, but the legendary Neutral Milk Hotel was the right band to make a go at it. Frontman Jeff Mangum (who I can only hope caught up with Dylan Baldi at some point to talk beard curation) took the stage alone with “I Will Bury You in Time,” with the band’s standard anti-photo and video policy extending even to the side-stage screens. The rest of the band joined in for “Holland 1945” and the crowd absolutely lost it. Yes, people moshed to “Holland 1945,” and it was wonderful. The set barreled onward with the weekend’s loudest sing-alongs, encompassing the majority of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea alongside On Avery Island’s highlights and the occasional obscurity (a particularly stirring “Little Birds”). 

The slightly constricted festival set time left less room for adorable Julian Koster stage banter, but he and the rest of the band sounded just as on-point outdoors as they did at this winter’s theater shows. I said it in January and I’ll say it again now: look no further than the psych-folk stomp of Aeroplane’s untitled instrumental for proof that NMH can captivate even when Mangum doesn’t open his mouth. Still, the set’s most striking moment came with a concluding run through “Oh Comely,” the majority of which saw Mangum on stage alone once more. There was something legitimately magical about thousands of voices intoning the song’s “know all your enemies / we know who our enemies are” climax at the same time. Mangum commented on not knowing whether to expect that kind of response at one point toward the end of the set, but with the evening demonstrating how much this band means to so many people, it’s hard to believe he would’ve expected anything less.

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