Pitchfork Music Festival Day 2: Life-changing moments with Yoko Ono, Cat Power, Dan Deacon, Battles, Girl Talk...


By K. Tighe

chan sml.bmp
The power of Cat Power. All photos by K. Tighe.

To kick-off the Pitchfork festivities on Saturday, July 14, I decided to check in with some Bay Area denizens.

I'd been hearing excited murmurings about cheap subscriptions to Ready Made magazine, so I headed over to see how the Berkeley publication was faring in the Chicago heat. The corner booth was swarmed with people eager for a turn at custom-designing their own organic T-shirts. Mike Senese, the magazine's product and online manager, made the trip out from California to organize a crew of local volunteers. This was Ready Made's second year at Pitchfork, and Senese explained that they've decided to offer festival-goers the chance to get a year's subscription for only $5. It's a huge hit. According to Senese, the booth has been constantly busy between the T-shirt making and subscription-peddling -- he's barely had time to see any of the bands.

readymademike sml.bmp
Ready Made's Mike Senese spreads the T-shirt-making word.

Next I checked in with Cory Brown, founder of Emeryville’s Absolutely Kosher Records. Brown and his two little nephews were busy doling out T-shirts and albums to ecstatic festival-goers, but he managed to find a few minutes to tell me that all of the AK bands -- across the board -- are selling really well. At the fest for a third year, the AK was now joined by hoards of other small imprints from coast to coast in the WLUW Record Fair tent.

absolutely kosher sml.bmp
Absolutely Kosher honcho Cory Brown chillin' with chillen.

Later I headed over to the FlatStock Poster Convention on the other side of the park to check in with Terrance Ryan, a.k.a., Lil Tuffy, San Francisco's premier rock poster artist. Tuffy told me he was doing well, selling many posters, and having fun. A quick look around at the other vendors -- who are all extraordinary -- solidifies in my mind that SF does it better: Lil Tuffy's prints were one of the highpoints of the convention for me.

liltuffy sml.bmp
Lil Tuffy peddles his posters.

Finally it's time to take in some music. I head over to the Aluminum Stage, where Grizzly Bear is about 10 minutes into their set. Having been underwhelmed by the band in the past, I wasn't really expecting much from their mid-afternoon slot. With a sweeping, ethereal momentum that seemed to sprout out of some deep flirtation with rock opera, the Brooklyn quartet positively thrived in the festival environment. The drummer seemed to be working on about 13 internal metronomes, anchoring a set list largely pulled from their 2006 album, Yellow House. A flourish of delicate melodies were layered over the driving rhythm, and the whole thing sounded like an experiment in wrangling chaos. The end result was so charged, I'm surprised the band didn't collapse after the final song. I suspect they at least had to go bury their feet in the earth of Union Park to ground themselves after such a stellar showing.

The sassy genre-spanning spastics Battles christened the cooling weather with an unabashedly raucous shit storm. Pulsing with hipster smugness, the New York prog-electro-funk-metal-kitchen-sink group pounded through an unsurprisingly mind-melting set to an audience that just couldn't get enough. Sewn into the fabric of Battles' success is their ability to produce sound that seems to shed irony. Indeed, the festival crowd was coated with a heavy gloss of the stuff, igniting a theme of "Fuck being cool -- let's just dance!" for the duration of the evening.

Which brings us to the Balance Stage. Every festival has a bastard stage -- one that is shoved off in a corner somewhere and composed of leftover elements from the larger stages' rigs. At this year's Pitchfork, this neglected stage was ground zero for the weekend's most memorable acts. It all began with Brighton trio Fujiya and Miyagi….

Scratch that, it all began about 20 minutes before, when it became apparent that the space allotted for the audience of the Balance Stage was entirely too small. A growing crowd found themselves caught between a fence and a funnel cake -- an area barely 30 feet wide and about half a block long was fashioned between the fenced-in basketball court and a row of food vendors. It was clear that festival organizers had assumed that the acts booked for this tiny stage would draw people in the hundreds, not the thousands. Big oversight. Huge.

Let's get back to Fujiya and Miyagi. After a considerable amount of feedback, and some extreme volume issues, the Brighton trio opened their set with several fan favorites including “Collarbone,” a track that soared in popularity after it was burned onto the soundtrack of a Jaguar commercial. The music -- which lies somewhere between Krautrock and early ‘90s electronica -- triggered dance reactions in about 95 percent of the crowd, making the limited space that much more unbearable. Next up was New York's Professor Murder, followed by Brooklyn noise-rockers Oxford Collapse. Both bands kept the party going, but it wasn't until Baltimore's Dan Deacon took the stage that things really started to heat up.

dandeacon sml.bmp
Mob rock with Dan Deacon.

Being the Charm City rabble-rouser that he is, Deacon wasn't content to buy into the gap between performer and crowd, and as the latter’s numbers edged into the thousands, Deacon set up shop off the stage -- and was quickly swarmed by anxious fans. As you can imagine, a performer suddenly nixing conventional ideas like, oh, playing somewhere that won't give the sound technicians heart palpitations, was an instant crowd-pleaser.

Deacon owned up, taking charge of the uncomfortable situation right then and there. First, he did a little crowd control by demanding that everyone move forward, "Come up close, we won't get squished, we're strong." Then, he decided to initiate an on-the-spot sound check by piping, "Who let the dogs out?" through his self-made sound machine, and barking out hilarious orders, "Rock some of this bass -- get these crisp snare, that would be killer," before announcing with no shortage of ceremony that the sound-check was over.

Next, Deacon instructed that the crowd was to say the words, "Sears Tower Future Pyramid," with one long breath allotted for every syllable, and that there was to be no cheating, "Like those bastards in Milwaukee." The audience complied, and by the last breath, the party was in full effect. Photographers were scrambling on stage, in the photo pit, and even on top of the PA system to find an impossible sightline, but Deacon was buried in his crowd. Mashing pop, hip-hop, noise, and break beat, the man from Mobtown had his audience in hysterics, contorting wildly, dancing like children, and altogether abandoning their cool.

As Deacon's set wound down, the sun began to set, but the audience wasn't going anywhere. In fact, people started to spill in from other areas of the park, climbing trees, standing on trucks, scaling fences, anything just to get a view of Girl Talk, the brainchild of Pittsburgh’s Gregg Gillis. A man with a dream, the sample-happy Gillis is all about making Top 40 music tolerable, because hey, if all those brain-dead frat clones get to dance to "My Humps," why shouldn't the indie-rockers be able to indulge? The obvious answer is because Top 40 music is generally in no danger of showing sign of originality, and it more often than not sucks.

But Gillis asks the big question, “What if the Black Eyed Peas didn't suck?” Or, “What if we didn't care that they suck?” This is where Girl Talk excels: making bad music fun to dance to. And the party began. The bastard stage quickly turned into a wild block party, with Girl Talk throwing out mainstream mash-ups from beneath an enormous inflatable spider on stage. It didn't take long before the fire marshals shut the whole thing down, but in the half hour Gillis managed to keep it going, he secured his spot as one of the unexpected high points of the weekend.

While the Balance Stage debacle was unraveling, other noteworthy acts were doing their own things: Mastadon's 6 o’clock set could be heard for miles, and unsuspecting audience members suddenly found themselves head-banging, moshing, and generally giving in to their rising blood temperatures. As expected, the reigning gods of new metal churned out powerful riffs that easily stole the title of heaviest band to ever play a Pitchfork stage.

cat power 1 small.bmp
Chan Marshall, a.k.a., Cat Power, gets down with her Dirty Delta Blues Band.

Later, on the opposite end of the sonic spectrum, Chan Marshall took the stage as Cat Power, playing with the Dirty Delta Blues band. With delicate cooing that can easily be described as more Dusty than Delta, Marshall crooned a firm "fuck you" to the legions of press speculating on whether or not she'd walk off, break down, or just not show. After Cat Power's first-rate set, it was time for Saturday's headliner.

Now, I've never subscribed to the whole "witch broke up the Beatles" school of thought -- a sentiment that has less to do with the whole Ono/Lennon saga and more to do with my belief that all bands, regardless of how revolutionary they are, organically have an end. Musicians have to be responsible and aware enough to know when to pull the plug -- are you listening Mick Jagger? -- or risk devaluing their entire catalogs. I'll say it: I'm glad the Beatles split. Anyone? Hello? Bueller?

Apologies in advance for the horrific play on words, but there's no other way to say it; Ono OWNED the audience. The 74-year-old provocateur shattered nay-sayers with a set that conjured both her eccentric pre-Lennon pursuits and the explosive noise of the Plastic Ono Band. If any one of the 17,000 onlookers had any doubts left that Ono could hold her own as an innovative, irreverent sonic force, they quickly dissolved during the middle of the set when Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore joined the lady of the hour for a deconstructed version of Ono's improvisational classic, “Mulberry.”

All of the shrieking, spattering, and twisting of sounds one comes to expect from a Yoko Ono show ensued three-fold, and when the last resonations gave way to a stunned silence, followed by an eruption of approving applause, Yoko felt like she had some explaining to do. Delicately, she told us of how the ideas for the pieces were conceived: "They were bombing in Hiroshima, and Tokyo was burning, so this noise is really very, very appropriate."

Whoa, Yoko Ono.

By the time the sun went down, Ms. Ono was leading her flashlight-wielding crowd in a chorus of "war is over if you want it." It's unlikely that any person came to Union Park that day expecting to be part of something so much bigger than themselves -- thousands of tiny lights, illuminating the faces of young people who had just been ripped from the concert environment with a surreal recollection of the greater order of things. The refrain, "war is over if you want it" went on for the better part of 10 minutes, and the shell-shocked sea of faces, numbly repeating the words over and over again, was a scorching affirmation of what great music is capable of shaking loose in a listener. Historic doesn't begin to cover it -- it's the moment that will linger in the memories of everyone in attendance, one that could never accurately be described to those who didn't feel it.