In recent years, outdoor summer festivals — long a tradition in the UK and Europe — have become a staple of the United States concert-going scene as well. One of the most anticipated is the Pitchfork Music Festival, a three-day event curated by the influential music news and reviews website Pitchfork Media.
This year's lineup — which featured a who's who of experimental, underground and influential bands — was no exception. Keegan Hamilton and Nick Lucchesi braved hot weather, suspect fashion choices and three days of nonstop music in Chicago last weekend, July 18 to 20. Here are excerpts from some of the highlights — but be sure to check out more great photos, exclusive interviews and other observations at A to Z, the Riverfront Times music blog.
Public Enemy, performing the entire It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back album: Twenty years ago Public Enemy released It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back. Back then it was a powerful, controversial, in-your-face, hard-hitting affront to the establishment. When the group performed the album in its entirety on Friday night, it was only a few of those things. As a whole, Public Enemy put on a helluva show. Backed by a full band (a huge difference when it comes to live hip-hop), the very talented DJ Lord, the fatigue-clad team of S1W, and, of course, the incomparable Flavor Flav, Chuck D made the normally reserved crowd get downright rowdy.
When the Bomb Squad and Hank Shocklee opened with a crazy dub/electronica DJ set that included the lyrics "Come let me roll with the spliff,'' the crowd duly responded by rockin' the ganj. And when PE dropped a funkin', fist-pumpin' rendition of "Fight The Power'' to shut things down, shirts were shed and asses were shook.
Now the but (and it's a big one): Nation just doesn't mean as much as it used to. A big part of the lack of gravitas is Flava Flav — it's tough to buy into a serious political message coming from a guy who starred in what is possibly the most mind-numbing, soul-crushing reality TV show in history. With the clock around his neck and all of his bling, he's always been a bit of a clown, but at one point he actually told the audience: ''I wanna thank y'all for making me number one in reality TV.'' Furthermore, in terms of being controversial and an affront to the establishment, the protest rhymes couldn't help but resonate as "been there, done that" with some concertgoers. When Chuck got the crowd doing the requisite ''Fuck George Bush'' chant, the person next to me cracked "He's really going out on a limb with that one." When you said, "Fuck George Bush" in 1988 it was a big deal, now it's what most twentysomethings utter each time they turn on CNN. — Keegan Hamilton
Vampire Weekend: Ezra Koenig, singer and guitarist for Vampire Weekend, didn't only hit all the high notes during the New York band's set Saturday night. He livened them up and stretched them out. Meanwhile, bassist Chris Baio shimmied and bended his knees, while playing the highest notes his instrument could muster. During the band's 5 p.m. set, the crowd predictably ate up everything the band served. Songs from its self-titled record dominated the set list, and the end of each song was greeted with — as cliche as it may sound — uproarious cheering from a central core of about 5,000 audience members near the stage. — Nick Lucchesi
Fleet Foxes: The sun wasn't out during Fleet Foxes' 3 p.m. set on Saturday, but the Seattle band still managed to warm my heart. (Awww.) Though its self-titled album is probably my favorite release of the year thus far, I wanted to reserve final judgment until I'd seen a live performance. And the set was complete vindication. With lead singer Robin Pecknold holding down the lead duties and the drummer, mandolin player and bassist providing the backup vocals, they managed to beautifully recreate the richly textured vocals that make their unique brand of folk so strikingly beautiful. Only guitarist Skye Skjelset didn't sing. Instead, at times he played his electric guitar with a violin bow.
Other than those stunning four-part harmonies, what struck me most about their live songs was the percussion. Drummer J. Tillman used everything from mallets to maracas to mix up the rhythm, and shakers and tambourines were perfectly placed by the rest of the band members. (KH)
The Hold Steady: Some Pitchfork bands seem out of place on the mammoth festival stage; they're better suited for a dingy club. Other bands fit perfectly on the grand stage. There are very few bands whose songs, attitude and delivery would suit any venue from a corner bar to a festival. The Hold Steady proved it was one of those bands. Four albums into its collective career, the band was right at home Saturday on Pitchfork's Aluminum Stage. "Let's build something this summer," said frontman Craig Finn, as the band exploded into "Constructive Summer," the first song on its recently released Stay Positive. "Hot Soft Light" followed; then the band launched into current single "Sequestered in Memphis." I won't get into an album review of Positive here, but given its seminal quality, I'd bet The Hold Steady could be performing the entire thing, start to finish, at a Pitchfork Music Festival years from now. (NL)
Ghostface Killah and Raekwon: The number of people crammed into a corner of Union Park to see Ghostface Killah and Raekwon on Sunday afternoon would make a fire marshal shudder. Figuratively, the Wu Tang members were spitting fire. Near the end, Ghostface told the crowd "Alright, we're gonna test y'all on this shit." They proceeded to rap "I smoke the mic like smokin' Joe Frazier" and the audience promptly responded with "The hellraiser, raisin' hell with the flavor." That continued for the the first three verses of the Wu-Tang classic "Protect Ya Neck." Satisfied, Ghost told the DJ to spin that shit and the duo dropped a filthy rendition of the song. (NL, KH)
Les Savy Fav: Before last weekend, I had never seen New York City art-punks Les Savy Fav. I'd only heard crazy, strange stories of a level of hedonism rivaled only by Roman orgies. They are all true. Exhibitionist lead singer (and part-time hair stylist and masseuse) Tim Harrington emerged onstage in a bright yellow jumpsuit with frilly blue shit dangling from it. He stripped off said jumpsuit, revealing shiny red tights with one leg cut away to reveal his junk. He put on a pair of latex gloves, then took them off, blew them up and threw them into the crowd.
He also produced a deerstalker hat and trenchcoat and put them on. "Why can't we do this every day?" he asked. "Why can't we wear a Sherlock costume with shiny underpants every day?" He entered the crowd, stepped into a Chicago Park District trash can and the crowd hoisted him up, where he finished the song. (KH)