By K. Tighe
The sweet Chicago sky. All photos by K. Tighe.
When the folks at Pitchfork decided to add an extra day to this year's festivities, I doubt anyone suspected this. As the lineup for the July 13 kick-off evening was announced, jaws across the blogosphere dropped. In collaboration with All Tomorrow's Parties/Don't Look Back, Pitchfork Music Festival was packed with ringers: Slint, GZA, and Sonic Youth all performing their most important albums in their entirety on the same soil, in Chicago's beautiful Union Park.
As I walked through the press gate of the festival an hour before the first band was set to begin, a lingering air of "Holy shit, are we really going to see this tonight?" hovered above the crowd. The lawn in front of the Connector Stage was full with people chomping at the bit to see Slint open the event. Across the park, the Sears Tower loomed large behind the Aluminum Stage, where crowds were already busy defending prime spots for later performances from GZA and Sonic Youth.
Knowing it would be awhile before any rock began to ensue, I decided to explore the community that had sprouted for the weekend.
It seems that the only presidential candidate with guts enough to rock the vote -- or should we say Barack the vote? -- was Illinois Senator Barack Obama. Sure, there might be a little hometown heroism explaining his booth, located directly across from a satellite Whole Foods Market doling out bento boxes to hungry, hungry hipsters. Volunteers were busy spreading the Obama love, signing people up to vote, and selling some kick-ass Obama '08 merchandise.
A conversation about Barack always makes me feel warm and fuzzy -- as does shopping for records, so I high-tailed it over to the WLUW Record Fair. A bit overwhelming, the record fair is one of the largest structures on the grounds. It's no Amoeba, but the fair does offer a pretty good selection of new and used vinyl, and a great way to kill time between sets. Adjacent to the vinyl-junkie fix, is the Department Clothing and Crafts fair. A bunch of Chicago crafters set up booths selling various handmade wares. Festival-goers were snatching up jewelry, iPod-holders, and obligatory mini-buttons. I noticed that someone had figured out how to make fruit bowls out of melted records, which left me pretty hot and bothered for a second.
Next, it was time to head over to the Connector Stage to hear Slint play their 1991 album **Spiderland** live. Slint seems like an unusual choice to kick off such a festival: the minimalist Louisville rock band packs a lot of punch, but it's the low-key kind. No danger of the Kool-Aid man bursting through a wall at any point during their set. In addition, the idea of hearing the highly influential **Spiderland** in stark daylight is a bit confusing. Most people in the crowd are probably accustomed to crouching in the fetal position in the corner of a dark room, breaking the pose only to flip the record. When singer-guitarist Brian McMahan took the stage in wraparound sunglasses, some preconceptions were shattered. When the band played the Great American Music Hall last year, they set a pretty high precedent for themselves.
Slint glints like crazy, opening the Pitchfork fest.
As they took the stage on July 13, people cheered like crazy, and the guy in front of me almost had a heart attack. The set was very casual, and the crowd went into hysterics during every break between songs. By the time McMahan began howling, "I miss you," at the end of “Good Morning Captain,” it became clear why **Spiderland** has remained a critic's darling for so many years -- a powerful, beautiful album that hasn't lost one iota of its luster. Today, it positively glimmered under the Chicago sun.
As Slint's set ended, everyone headed over to the Aluminum Stage, where festival MC Damon Locks of the Eternals was busy explaining his job to an impatient crowd. "One of my jobs this year is to introduce your favorite artists,” he said. “Right now, I get to introduce on of MY favorite artists, but before I do that I wanna say one thing: Wu-Tang."
The audience erupted appropriately.
Locks smiled, and continued. "I'm gonna say that one more time: Wu-Tang." In perfect unison, the crowd let out a thundering "WU-TANG" that could probably be heard all the way downtown in Chicago's Loop.
The GZA took the stage and started barking demands: "Keep them Ws up in the air, and turn that shit the fuck up." And everyone complied.
The sea of white hands forming Wu-Ws was ironic, but it's all I could do to keep my own hand down. GZA explained that he is missing a Wu-Tang show in Amsterdam to perform tonight, and that he is expecting a lot out of his audience. Everyone was all too eager to deliver. As GZA and his crew start busting through Liquid Swords, the crowd began to write, the marijuana smoke started to rise, and I couldn't see a fucking thing. Finally, I decided to suck it up and head backstage, where at least I should get a decent view of someone's ass.
The VIP area was packed tight with photographers, hipster chicks trying to keep time, and artists performing later this weekend and curious about the hype, but I finally found a spot hugging the stage, and parked it for the rest of the set. This turned out to be a great idea, as the performers play for the VIPs just as much as they play to the audience. As the sun began to set, the intelligent lighting rig and fog machines were fired up, and GZA really started to work it, providing more than enough evidence that the Wu-Tang Clan indeed, ain't nothin' to fuck wit. The audience was busy proving something of its own. When it came to feverishly shrieking "Wu-Tang" over and over again, Pitchfork folks ain't nothin' to fuck wit, either.
After GZA was done, I decided to explore this backstage area a bit. The free bar was conveniently hidden behind a grove of trees, but once found, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that they are doling out Goose Island beer by the pint-full. I've developed a fondness for this local Chicago brew, and am ecstatic that the festival organizers are really as local-oriented as they claim to be. I heard Tim Tuten -- co-owner of Chicago dive the Hideout -- on stage warning about the perils of a middle-aged riot. The masses flanking the stage seemed to have a sense of humor about their gray hairs and laughed it up with Tuten.
It is, after all, pretty funny that a festival notorious for promoting young, up-and-coming bands is hosting vintage rockers Sonic Youth. Tuten announced the band with plenty of pomp, but a good five-minute delay occurred before any musician took the stage. An air of fear abounded -- murmurings about being duped -- but really, people, it was five minutes.
When Kim Gordon prances out in modilicious white, there is an audible sigh of relief. The performance of Daydream Nation is, quite simply, a schizophrenic blitz. The stage lights seizing and video projections whirling take a backseat to the sweeping realization that Sonic Youth still fucking wail. They wrap the night up with an encore: "Incinerate" from Rather Ripped -- and some new creations with Mark Ibold from Pavement on bass.
All in all, Pitchfork’s first installment was no opening act: hopefully the festival didn't blow its load by firing off three outstanding performances in such rapid succession. This isn't to say I think the weekend will be a bust, but the rest of the lineup has some serious shit to live up to. I'm looking forward to Thurston Moore performing with Yoko Ono on Saturday night, July 14; Baltimore's premier spaz Dan Deacon; and what's sure to be an insane performance by Jamie Lidell.