Pitchfork Music Festival: Waiting For Superman

By • Jul 23rd, 2009 • Category: Concert Reviews

Photo courtesy of Nate Lanthrum / Soundcheck Magazine

I never had wanted to attend a concert more than this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival.

After seeing hundreds of bands during the course of the past two decades, The Flaming Lips’ headlining spot at the Chicago festival was going to be unlike anything I had experienced. It would be louder. It would be more colorful. It would be – in the most literal sense – life-affirming.

Not that the theatric rockers were scheduled to unveil anything new on the swathe of urban greenery tucked on the city’s west side known as Union Park. (Although they did end up premiering two new songs.) The band’s live shows already were stuff of legends – hundreds of pounds of confetti, dozens of dancing extras donning animal costumes, fake blood, elaborate light shows, and front man Wayne Coyne conducting it all from overhead inside a human-sized hamster ball. It’s a scene that the city already witnessed only three years before, when the ensemble brought its psychedelic circus to town as part of Lollapalooza.

But this year – on this specific weekend in mid-July – all that mattered was hearing Coyne belt out the song “Do You Realize??” A gorgeous take on perspective, the three-and-a-half minute track is the cornerstone of the band’s masterful 2002 album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (not to mention the official song of the band’s native Oklahoma).

Even the most seasoned concert veteran, the most grizzled newsman, couldn’t have anticipated the days immediately leading up to the festival’s fourth installment. And if someone could have, any preparation would not have mattered.

Twenty-four hours before hometown Tortoise commenced the three-day event – taking the stage at 5 p.m. Friday followed by Yo La Tengo, The Jesus Lizard, and Built to Spill as part of the “Write the Night” evening of audience requests – I was sitting alongside my mother’s hospital bed. She was comatose, a few hours removed from having a surgeon carefully unpack her torso like a suitcase at the end of a lengthy vacation. Socks? Check. T-shirts? Got ’em. Now, where did I put those post cards? Oh yes, they’re stored tightly next to the uterus. And the souvenirs, they’re with the ovaries, behind the cervix. Let me just move this pesky lymph node, … there. Empty.

Several internal organs, and several dozen tumors lighter than when she had arrived that morning, my mother was resting with only the beat of her monitors breaking the silence of the recovery ward. The blips were coincidentally familiar to the experimental undertones in so many Flaming Lips songs, like the warbling vocals that kick off “Do You Realize??” And sitting bedside, I couldn’t help but have the lyrics to that song playing in my head.

“Do you realize / That everyone you know someday will die / And instead of saying all of your goodbyes / Let them know you realize that life goes fast / It’s hard to make the good things last / You realize the sun doesn’t go down / It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning ’round.”

Had it been part of a TV show, I would have mocked the musical director for playing such a schmaltzy, predictable tune during the emotional scene. But it wasn’t a TV show. It was my mom. And less than a week after her diagnosis, it became increasingly clear how badly I needed to attend this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival. Being there meant she had survived the surgery. Her cancer wouldn’t be cured in the next three days; that’s what the months of chemotherapy would be for. But seeing Coyne on that Sunday night would mean that I didn’t need to plan a funeral. It would mean I hadn’t spent the weekend with family sorting through papers. No, The Flaming Lips would mean that life was as normal as it could be. It would mean that living was great because, well, there was living to be done.

Cancer is a fact of life in my family. You go to catholic grade school, you like Mexican food, and you get cancer. That’s just what happens. That still doesn’t lessen its impact. Look, I know how Schindler’s List ends, too, but I get choked up every time Liam Neeson laments, “I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don’t know. If I’d just, … I could have got more.”

Everyone grieves – or fears – in his or her own way. And for me, it wasn’t booze or tears that were going to help through this weekend. It was music. It was always remembering why I was able to spend those few days trekking around that moderate Chicago park. So regardless of the crowd, or food prices, or how bad parking might have been, this was a weekend worth celebrating. Every last second of it – but none more so than those few minutes of “Do You Realize??” – would be a literal reminder of life.

I just had to make it to that Sunday night timeslot, the culmination of a 40-band bill, which included Yeasayer, Grizzly Bear, and Wavves.

That would be a journey in itself, one done without the all-access perks of media credentials. Once it became clear that attending the festival was likely, it felt strange to go as anything but a regular music fan, not privileged member of the press corps. So I ditched media access, and once I was in the park each day, I didn’t cash in on the bonuses. (Yes, I still used the passes to get in free each afternoon, but tickets were sold out.) I avoided the cleaner, more private bathrooms. Steered clear of the free water and food offered in the reserved area. Heck, I didn’t even hop over to the wi-fi tent to check e-mail. I was going to be just a regular dude, just one face in the crowd; it felt more appreciative that way. It’s not as though I was any sort of a martyr; there were 49,000 others doing the exact same thing. It’s hardly a sacrifice to stand adjacent to the Chicago skyline in 70-degree weather and listen to music. There are many people worse off – specifically one lying in a hospital bed 20 miles away – and I was making damn sure to appreciate that.

This isn’t to give the impression that Pitchfork offered blanketed access to the media. After all, the taste-making Web site began as a news provider. Although the company has grown in its 14 years to become a TV outlet, book publisher, film partner, and now – obviously – festival promoter, it is fundamentally a music news source, and it has a great financial stake in being such. So those running the weekend segregate pass-toting patrons with extreme prejudice. A yellow-coded press pass will gain you entrance. A green photo indicator will do the same but also will allow cameras. With a blue VIP pass, you can go here; with a green crew pass, you can go there. A red artist pass gets you almost anywhere in the park, but the purple all-access credentials guarantee as much.

The event’s organizers must take some sadistic pleasure in breaking up the crowd into hipster versions of street gangs, identified by the color of their laminate. Although, a turf war between festival-goers likely would include more people picked last in gym class kickball than anyone with real street cred. That’s not to say it wouldn’t be funny to watch a few hundred people in skinny jeans and bad mustaches engaged in fisticuffs with one another, but it wouldn’t quite get the Chicago Police Department up in arms, either.

Pitchfork – properly Pitchfork Media – has come a long way since founder Ryan Schreiber launched the company after high school in 1995 from his Minnesota digs. The once-pudgy, awkward music fan has grown into a beacon of all things cool. By the time he relocated his company to Chicago in 1999, the Internet’s role in contemporary music was being redefined; print media was at the start of its current downward spiral. The now-33-year-old has been on the cusp of the digital media boom for more than a decade. Times are changing, and consumers are growing more tolerant of the blurring lines between journalism and entertainment. It explains how a guy whose Web site that once ran a viral video of a monkey drinking its own urine as the review of Jet’s album Shine On was listed by Time as one of the magazine’s finalist for this year’s 100 most influential people.

As the record industry crumbles much like traditional print media, Schreiber and his now-Brooklyn-based company are there to sweep up the pieces and rebuild something that today’s youth can latch onto. And at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, it became increasingly clear that the company’s audience had expanded beyond the chin-stroking elitist who helped skyrocket the site’s fame on the World Wide Web.

I remember walking into Radiohead’s historic Grant Park concert in 2001. It was the first rock performance that Chicago officials had approved at the lakeside setting, and it was one that would set the bar for future events on the picturesque grounds. The band’s experimental Kid A had just been released, no doubt securing the title as the weirdest album to debut atop the Billboard charts. As I walked through the gate, I had to dodge a Frisbee delivered from a shirtless guy wearing a hemp necklace. “Sorry brah,” he said as he picked up his disc and turned back toward his friends to yell out to them. “Dude, you almost whacked that guy. Careful, man, gotta watch where you’re tossin’ this shit.” I’ll never forget those words. It was the moment when I realized Thom Yorke and Co. had become a destination. Their music had been critically and commercially successful for years, but that encounter at the entrance solidified that people were attending Radiohead concerts the way people in Los Angeles went to Lakers games: they just wanted to be there.

The Pitchfork Music Festival is the same way now. As far as concert prices go, the $35 tickets are the steal of the summer circuit and helped draw in a variety of patrons this summer. From families with infant children to couples well past retirement, the festival drew from every demographic in ways previous years hadn’t. It’s why the weekend sold out – not just the Sunday show for The Flaming Lips headliners – in such rapid time. This festival, because of it’s loyalty to the fans – providing a variety of music from rock to instrumentals to dance to hip hop – and it’s reputation, remained recession-proof. And although it didn’t sport as many big names as recent years, with only the Lips and possibly Built to Spill being worthy of their nightcap time slots, the festival was bigger in 2009. From selling a few thousand more tickets to upping the number of vendors and local independent creators, this year’s fest felt like a battle not to outgrow the counter-culture aesthetic that so much of the company’s character is built upon.

That is the dilemma that P4k faces as it grows. With each new endeavor, it runs the risk of alienating its base by becoming a larger corporate entity. Even by launching the festival in 2006, the Web site became a competitor and no longer solely a supporter of such events as Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and Glastonbury. By staking a claim in the festival market, the site’s editors are faced with conflict-of-interest question about whether they should feature news stories and coverage of these other festivals. What once seemed like a no-brainer – of course a music-based Web site would send photographers and writers to such worldwide events – now falls into a murky area. Coverage of those events could diminish the returns for the company’s own concert.

But all good things get bigger, even if it means just plopping down a few more portable bathroom stalls.

“I just saw a guy piss himself,” my friend Josh said to me after waiting in one of the numerous bathroom queues. “Right there in line. He just couldn’t hold it, I guess. It’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Sure enough, as the baroque pop of Beirut began to echo through the park Saturday night, an embarrassed 20-something slinked down on the curb, hoping his pants would dry promptly. Although, given the general population of the festival, it’s the one place that the public mishap might have been intentional. Who’d have thought that Adam Sandler might have been onto something, musing that “you ain’t cool unless you pee your pants,” in Billy Madison. Maybe this guy was the coolest person since Miles Davis. Maybe next year, urine will replace buffalo plaid, monochromatic sunglasses, and retro NBA jerseys as the fashion choice of the antimainstream movement.

That is the general Pitchfork stereotype: people starving for identity. Maybe the guy in the bathroom line hadn’t seen anyone drenched in urine and wanted to be a trendsetter. It’s a horde made up of individuals, just like everyone else. It’s the only place where a girl wearing a plastic garbage bag during Friday evening’s performances might have been doing so to avoid the forecast showers, or she might have just dressed like that on a daily basis.

Who knows? Who cares?

Because the most important thing, the reason for those almost 50,000 people crammed onto the softball diamonds that make up Union Park, was the music. That’s why I was there, and not just for any melody – for The Flaming Lips. I was there to weasel my way to the front row like I would do as a teen sneaking into punk shows. I wanted – needed – to hear Coyne ask whether I realized “we’re floating in space,” and I could give him a resounding, “Yes!”

The Pitchfork Music Festival never forgets that it is all about the music. Unlike Lollapalooza, which takes place less than three weeks afterward at the neighboring Grant Park, you can’t miss the music. Whereas Lolla packs a weekend’s worth of peripheral tents – videogames, merchants, artists, massages, etc. – P4k promoters make it impossible not to hear, and in most cases see, the three stages from anywhere in the vicinity.

Which is why this year’s festival packed so many memorable moments.

Traditionally, the Friday set has been part of the All Tomorrow’s Parties series, which finds the first night’s performers riffling through one of their classic albums in its entirety. It’s an idea better in theory than practice. Although the P4k setting has featured acts such as Public Enemy performing It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Sonic Youth rocking Daydream Nation, it’s a series that features as many filler tracks as memorable songs. Remember much of last year when Sebadoh dragged out the 17-song epic, Bubble and Scrape? Yeah, me neither.

This year, promoters learned from the crowd’s occasional boredom and tweaked the opening night’s arrangement to a “Write the Night” series. It would give the ticket-buying public a chance to select the set for Built to Spill, Tortoise, The Jesus Lizard, and Yo La Tengo. It no doubt livened up the performances, but it also served as a barometer for the acts to see which songs fans cared about most. And while The Flaming Lips weren’t part of Friday’s festivities, the band vowed to follow the same format during their Sunday evening gig.

Had I bought my ticket, I would have voted for “Do You Realize??” – twice, if I could find a way to punch multiple tickets. In years past, it would have been shooting any indie credibility in the foot. Rushing to a computer to gleefully X the box for a song featured in a Land Rover commercial isn’t exactly the stuff that hipster dreams are made of. But I didn’t care, and after the week my family went through, I just wanted to remember how great it was to be there. And I wanted to see 49,000 other people realizing the same thing. For my vote, there’s no better way to do that than hearing the Oklahoma ensemble play its biggest song.

But for all the strides that the Friday criteria made this year, the Saturday sets provided more bang for the buck. Up from four bands to 18, the fest’s second day didn’t feature an act that drew upon years of loyalty the way Built to Spill had the night before. However, there were moments that were close. Much like Animal Collective – which headlined Day No. 2 last year before garnering breakout notoriety – New York’s The National packed a ruckus set to cap the second night. The brooding rockers were one of their borough’s many representatives. Yeasayer, Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Matt & Kim, The Antlers, Grizzly Bear, and Vivian Girls all also call Brooklyn home. The Walkmen, Pharoahe Monch, and Cymbals Eat Guitars reside not far off in NYC, too.

Chicago might have been where Pitchfork made its name, but Brooklyn is where it sets up shop today, and the East Coast bias felt more like ESPN’s coverage of a Red Sox-Yankees series than a rock show. Whether it was Grizzly Bear swooning its way through this year’s highly lauded Vecktamist or Monch controlling the crowd with his throwback, retro-soul raps, the Second City turned into The Big Apple for a chunk of the three days.

Yet, it also turned into Atlanta when rock ‘n’ tumblers Black Lips boozed their way through a vicious set of Nuggets-era tunes. It was France, during M83’s blistering set of dance-savvy tunes that left the crowd yearning for a European open-air rave. It was Portland, Ore., when The Thermals time-warped back to the mid-1990s by covering Sonic Youth, The Breeders and Green Day’s “Basket Case.” It was … well … whatever planet Ponytail members secretly live on when the bizarre, noise pop foursome turned the auxiliary B Stage into a series of yelps and howls.

The P4k Music Festival even was Southern California, during Wavves’ haphazard Saturday set. After singer Nathan William’s high-profile meltdown and subsequent cancellation of his European tour, the 22-year-old performer garnered as much attention for his music as he did for his potential collapse. As a musician, Williams is amateurish, at best. The self-taught songwriter drenches his fuzzy, psychedelic tunes in off-kilter distortion and immeasurable amounts of haze. He’s this year’s darling, the one or two artists each year that Pitchfork takes under the Web site’s wings and shepherds along to cult stardom. Sometimes it works to great acclaim – Fleet Foxes, Girl Talk – and other years, the quest to be the first to tout a performer leaves the site looking foolish for doting. Williams is shaping up to be the latter. Complete with a broken wrist, the singer embarked on a quick, lackluster set that wasn’t apparent he even had his right arm in a sling. (Not because he’s that good of a guitarist, but because he already was that bad of one.)

It was a low point for minimalist, acoustic-driven rock at the festival. But for the purists in attendance, Scottish heart-breakers Frightened Rabbit and Fleet Foxes labelmates Blitzen Trapper were there Sunday to remind everyone why those guitars are so damn intimate.

Yet by Sunday, none of that mattered. Not for me, anyway. I was there for one reason. This was what everything had led up to. All the hand wringing in the hospital paid off, and being at Union Park on Sunday meant that I could escape the pressures of the past week for a few hours and let The Flaming Lips remind me about what is worth cherishing.

At age 16, I could sneak to the front row of rock clubs and not get noticed. I was much skinnier then, and a gangly teenager wasn’t going to impose much trouble to those behind him. That’s hardly the case today, as my 6-foot, 5-inch frame has filled out in adulthood, and I was certain to leave a few smaller folks in my shadow while I jockeyed my way down to the security railing. Biting the proverbial bullet – or in this case, tucking away the photo-pit pass – I found a path down to the front row. People had been camped out all afternoon. Their backpacks were chained to the guardrail. They brought books, playing cards, demo CDs of their bands, and anything else that could help them pass the hours that they had planned to wait for their rock messiah, Wayne Coyne.

Photo courtesy of Amy Simpson / Soundcheck Magazine

Photo courtesy of Amy Simpson / Soundcheck Magazine

The Lips have a reputation as some of the most accessible people in big-budget rock ‘n’ roll. For a quarter-century, the now-48-year-old Coyne has made a habit of setting up the band’s elaborate stage arrangements himself, testing his own equipment, and mingling among the fans before hopping back on stage when it is time to perform. It’s why his band reaps such fanaticism. Next to me was a father who drove his 9-year-old son to see the youngster’s second Lips gig. There were fans from Ohio, Seattle, Montreal, and Texas all counting down the seconds to when Coyne, multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd, bassist Michael Ivins, and drummer Kliph Scurlock would emerge from a giant, neon portal onstage.

And when the lights went dim and Drozd began to churn out the first few notes to opener “Race for the Prize”, everyone’s – including mine – wildest hopes were realized.

With randomly selected concert-goers flanking the layout – men stage right dressed as frogs, women stage left as scantily clad snow foxes – Coyne climbed into his recognizable, clear-plastic ball and began to walk on the crowd’s outstretched hands. The lucky two-dozen on stage bopped and jived, shimmied and wiggled while Coyne’s soft tenor belted out the first of the 80-minute set. If anything, the dancers proved that no matter how hip a person claims to be, put them on stage in a mini-skirt and they turn into Girls Gone Wild-esque spring breakers. They might as well have been on a bar top in Cancun doing shots of Jägermeister while frat boys ogled their every move, if it weren’t for the giant, fluffy animal heads and space boots.

But this was what I came to see. This was what it all came down to, and when several dozen inflatable orange balloons were unleashed into the crowd with a few gigantic bursts of confetti, I remembered why I ventured to the front row.

It wasn’t for the dancers, or even for that 9-year-old bobbing his head next to me. It was for me, for my mom. It was to hear one song, an affirmation of all that is good about life sung by one of the most expansive and progressive bands of the past 25 years. This set was to be why life in Chicago on this specific weekend in July was important, and I was not going to forget that.

As per their word, the Lips performed a “Write the Night” set. They dug out deep cuts “Bad Days” and “Enthusiasm For Life (Defeats Internal, Existential Fear)”. They played the grooving rocker “Mountainside”, the scene-setting “Fight Test”, and their innuendo-laden breakthrough hit “She Don’t Use Jelly”. There was the second most requested tune by the night’s audience, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part 1”. Breaking from the requests, the foursome debuted a pair of new songs, and as the 10 p.m. curfew neared, the chances of hearing the song I needed grew slim.

“We have time for two more,” Coyne said before singing “Jelly”, which meant my white-knuckle grip on the fence grew even tighter. I had calculated their catalog and figured the finale to be either “Waiting For Superman (It’s Getting Heavy)” – the gorgeous high-point of the band’s 1997’s epic The Soft Bulletin – or “Do You Realize??”

It couldn’t be both, and I began to quickly rationalize how my night would be if the group launched into anything other than the song I had been hoping for. If it were “Superman”, I told myself, then I could just reappropriate the meaning to apply to Coyne. He could be Superman for the evening. He could be that emotional defense I needed to put the past few days behind me. At least, that’s what ran through my head in the split second before that final song.

“Please help me welcome,” a woman’s voice came over the loud speakers. I had heard this voice before. I had seen enough concert footage to know what this meant. “The cool, the crazy, the fabulous Flaming Lips.”

And with that, the band launched into the only song I cared about hearing all weekend. For the first time since my mom entered the hospital, I began to cry. “Do you realize / that happiness, makes you cry?” Coyne sang, At that moment, I certainly did. I must have looked ridiculous, a grown man standing at the foot of costume-clad dancers, showered in confetti, dodging oversized balloons, with tears rolling down my cheeks.

I didn’t care. I made it. She made it. And the 49,000 other people who were feeling the same musical euphoria as I was had made it, too. This was what I wanted to hear, and I wasn’t the only one. In fact, there were enough others who wanted to hear “Do You Realize??” that night that it was the most requested song of the “Write the Night” forum. So much for hipsters shunning the mainstream, huh?

There’s nothing better than knowing that a person you love is safe. But a Flaming Lips show – the moment when the paper shreds begin to sprinkle down and the lights are flickering off the bellowing cloud of neon smoke – might come in second.

And that’s something I hadn’t realized, but I do now.

Soundcheck Magazine, July 23, 2009

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