Public Enemy: Pitchfork Music Festival

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

Photo courtesy of Nate Lanthrum / Soundcheck Magazine

By now, you know how the story goes – you win some, you lose some.

That was the case during the first night of the third annual Pitchfork Music Festival at Chicago’s Union Park. Coordinated with All Tomorrow’s Parties and Don’t Look Back, the series has become a staple of the event’s opening day, and features three bands performing one of their classic albums front to back. This year showcased post-punks Mission of Burma playing Vs., Sebadoh embarking on the 17-song Bubble and Scrape, and hip-hop Godfathers Public Enemy reminding everyone that It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

Conceptually, the album-only performance is defined by its parameters. And staying within those confinements is its novelty, but also the toughest obstacle to overcome. One has to wonder whether fans’ enjoyment and the artists’ presumed preparation is proportionate, or whether all the work that goes into these restrictions go unnoticed. It’s a question that lingers at this brand of concert, which saw Liz Phair, Built to Spill, Ash, Smoking Popes, and Mogwai all schedule complete-LP gigs in 2008.

One major shortcoming with this type of concert is that it’s a victim to the record’s track listing. What works as an album’s first song might not translate well to a captivating live opener, the same way an LP’s somber closer could have trouble as an encore. Live sets are built for momentum, with the crowd’s ebb and flow factored in. However, a classic recording might just be a collection of great singles without the same care given to order.

Another hang-up might be the band’s familiarity with its own material. In many instances, songs disappear once finished in the studio, working their way out of a band’s concert rotation that sticks to more accessible tunes. This year’s Don’t Look Back segment featured 26-, 20- and 15-year-old albums, not exactly things that would have their entireties fresh in the mind of the performers. In fact, all three acts on that Friday either mislabeled a song, inverted a track or two, or mispronounced the album’s name, with Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav calling his record “It Takes a Nation of A Million To Hold Us Back” on several occasions.

But the biggest leap of faith taken when performing an LP in order is the inherent predictability. Fans know exactly what songs to expect and what order to expect them, removing all mystery and spontaneity from the show. That’s what makes seeing a band live a unique experience compared to listening with headphones, the differences between the recordings and the stage. Asking a band to recreate the atmosphere of an album eliminates one of the vary reasons for seeing a show, while at the same time serving as a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

Yet, coincidentally, that is exactly why Public Enemy’s set lost its steam – it didn’t stick to those guidelines.

Marking the 20th anniversary of the monumental Nation, Chuck D, Flav and crew barreled through the 16-song statement. For much of Friday, there was chatter among the crowd and a sense that Mission of Burma and Sebadoh were acts everyone had to sit through in order to get to P.E. There was a feeling of excitement, and the anticipation all but boiled over when The Bomb Squad hopped about the stage, warming it up for the headliners. This was going to be a night to watch the reality-TV regular, Flav, remind everyone why he’s historically vital, how his comic relief was needed to offset D’s militant rhymes, and how Public Enemy’s message booms as true today as it did during the first Bush Administration.

And it was – for a while.

From Chuck D’s opening line “Bass, how long can you go?” on the first full song, “Bring the Noise”, the crowd hung on the vocalists’ every message, on Flav’s every “yeah, boy,” on every high-pitched shriek with an almost-entranced loyalty. It was a time to raise a fist to the sky and jump around with an awareness and social urgency unlike the night’s two other politically-leaning rockers.

But when the final notes of the closer “Party For Your Right to Fight” rung out, the band didn’t stop. Public Enemy wrapped Nation and launched into a handful of other songs. The problem, however, was that nobody was expecting it. Normally there’s an understanding of when and how a set will end, and concert-goers can keep a little in their tanks to rock out and exhaust their energy during what they know to be the final song. And that’s what everyone at Union Park thought they had done, being familiar when the album ended gave them the chance to ration their liveliness in a way that they had nothing left by its end. So when Chuck D started up another track when his slot should have been over, the crowd was left to stare defeated at the legendary performer, as if they had been tricked into giving it all they had, mislead en route to fatigue.

The level of excitement was noticeably less during the bonus tunes, and the mass exodus from the park during Flav’s farewell speech about unity served as a final reminder that fans only want surprises when they’re expecting them. The unknown is only appealing when it’s advertised as being such. We want full disclosure, even if it’s something as small as promising 16 songs but playing more.

But that’s how it goes. You win some; you lose some – occasionally during the same set

Soundcheck Magazine, July 2008

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