Pitchfork Music Festival

By • Jul 23rd, 2008 • Category: Concert Reviews
Photo courtesy of Nate Lanthrum / Soundcheck Magazine

Photo courtesy of Nate Lanthrum / Soundcheck Magazine

With each endeavor – books, Internet TV, festivals – Pitchfork Media taks a cautious step toward hypocrisy.

For Pitchfork, staying only a Web site would be a disservice. It would deprive readers of a way to discover music that otherwise might fly under their radars, and bands would lose a major avenue to be heard in this saturated MySpace world. But becoming too large, too multifaceted, would send the counter-culture company down the same corporate road as … gasp! … MTV and Rolling Stone. When those outlets launched, they focused only on music with a goal to be venues for hard-to-hear acts. But after a few missteps, something became lost in translation. They now are more identifiable with celebrity gossip than the artists whom they set out to help, and outlets that started with the best intentions have become mockeries of themselves.

Therein lies the problem when an anti-establishment ethos is so ingrained in a product. Any diversification is a calculated risk that puts critics on their haunches, waiting to shout “sell-out!” at the first error in judgment.

The Pitchfork Music Festival is the most enterprising leap for the taste-making company. Everything must be weighed against the expectations of those attending. If tickets get too pricey, if advertisers don’t identify with a certain sect, even if security is too strict, patrons might fall back on the cliché scenester criticism that it “just ain’t what it used to be”, and pack up their messenger bags and leave for more elitist pastures. Everything about the fest has to carry a same damn-the-man spirit while embracing the responsibility of, in fact, being the authority.

But what sets P4k apart from other festivals – Leeds, Coachella, etc. – is the very real chance that a bad year could hurt the company’s day-to-day operations. If Glastonbury books a band that fails to deliver a good set, the Scottish promoters will take the loss and do better next time. If Reading and Pukkelpop have down years, they can blame release schedules or booking agents for weak tours.

Not Pitchfork. Not a company whose business is quality control. Whereas other festivals pop their heads out once a year like a Converse All-Star wearing Punxsutawney Phil, the Web site puts its credibility on the line during its festival, and a band that doesn’t meet that promised potential hurts the Web site 365 days a year. Getting a slot at Lollapalooza means a group has a powerful booking agent. Playing Pitchfork implies that the company has a vested interest in the music and has given the artist that coveted rating of approval.

It’s this required eye for detail that makes Pitchfork Music Festival the friendliest – and best – summer music event in Chicago, and one of the best worldwide. It’s a stark contrast to Lollapalooza, the gala on the other side of town looming two weeks away. That monstrous event digs its heels into Grant Park, the recognizable landmark in the heart of the city. P4k, however, sets up shop on the west side in the Union Park area, with plenty of street parking, which could fit on one-third of the Lolla campus. At only $30 a day, compared to $80, the cost is about that same ratio smaller. The line up is much of the same, Pitchfork’s 40 acts on three stages to more than 130 performances on eight stages on the downtown roster.

The music wasn’t too shabby either.

The 2008 festival July 18-20 ran the gauntlet from buzz bands that exceeded all the pre-show hype (like Fleet Foxes, who at one time during their set acknowledged the “elephant in the room” and thanked the Web site for “facilitating the existence” of their band) to ones that left concert-goers questioning what all the fuss was about (like Fuck Buttons). It was a schedule that saw no problem with having songwriter M. Ward perform on the North end of the park at the same time Wu-Tang Clan members Ghostface and Raekwon threw down on its South side. There was headliner Spoon’s remarkable set that featured a full horn section and a guest appearance from Deerhunter/Atlas Sound vocalist Bradford Cox, ex-Pulp front man Jarvis Cocker’s prancing, Spiritualized’s glad-to-be-alive Jason Pierce’s crescendo after crescendo, Caribou’s shoegazing rhythms, Bon Iver’s near-whispering performance, Cut Copy’s enthusiastic set only out-danced by Chk Chk Chk and a clan of mud-covered fans who crawled from the rainy muck, a shredding Dinosaur Jr. and a thrashing Boris.

There also was the Don’t Look Back segment that featured Mission of Burma, Sebadoh, and Public Enemy running through their classic albums front-to-back.

But for all the greatness at the third annual festival, there were times when even the hippest of hipsters were left scratching their perfectly molded faux-hawks. Although day No. 2 headliner Animal Collective certainly had its legion of fans up-close-and-personal, the noisy onslaught barely translated beyond the first few rows and left many heading for the gates to get a head start on Sunday. After last year’s eye-opening Of Montreal performance, this year’s Elephant 6 representatives, Elf Power and The Apples in Stereo, both sounded uninspired and bored by their psychedelic pop tunes. During the WASPy Vampire Weekend set, the band’s unassuming attitude let the crowd seemingly forget the foursome was playing; would-be fans became more interested in tossing around beach balls, hacky sacks, and Frisbees. In contrast, the über-aggressive Les Savy Fav shock-shock-shocked it’s way through a near-naked assault that looked dreadfully rehearsed.

Yet, throughout the weekend, the thousands in attendance had a general sense that this was where they wanted to be. Despite a few underwhelming slots and Sunday’s near-90 degree temperatures, this Pitchfork Music Festival was the biggest, most successful, and best to date. Which bodes well for next years, assuming that, of course, they’re careful when scooting another dangerous inch toward reality TV programming.

Soundcheck Magazine, July 2008

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