Welcome to Heave’s coverage of the 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival, in Chicago, Illinois! We will be bringing you photos and set coverage all weekend long, and right into Monday morning, just to help start your week off on the right foot. But, that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves, no? We’ll have multiple writers on the scene for Saturday and Sunday, but for Friday’s coverage, features editor Dominick Mayer rode solo.
(Editor’s note: Due to technological limitations beyond our control, we won’t be able to get headliner photos this weekend. Sorry, folks.)
Lower Dens (Red Stage, 3:30)
Because of the light, mild maelstrom that hit Union Park as press and crowd alike arrived on the scene earlier in the afternoon, stages were shut down, barring the end of the inclement weather. Because of this, Baltimore art-rockers Lower Dens took the stage almost 20 minutes late. This hardly stopped or even slowed them, though, nor did the sudden appearance of heat and heavy humidity in the rain’s absence. For the second year (after EMA’s excellent fest-opening set last year), those who failed to show up to Union Park early missed a thoroughly strong set. Lower Dens’ brand of expansive, sometimes distorted rock fuses some of the elements of last year’s Pitchfork-engulfing chillwave boom, but also brings a force of purpose that many of those bands lacked. Vocalist Jana Hunter was often drowned out by the sometimes psych-influenced, almost always louder instrumentation (which approached everything from new wave to shoegaze at varied points during the set), which is a shame; her vocals range from coos to throaty lows, and left the early crowd wanting more.
Willis Earl Beal (Blue Stage, 4:15)
Unlike the main stages, which eventually caught up on lost time, the Blue Stage (hidden away in an always pleasing grove of trees away from the main field) ran 20-25 minutes behind all day. The wait was worth it, however, for the absolutely scorching set that Willis Earl Beal put on. Beal, a Chicago native who was recently signed to XL after becoming something of a cult hero in Albuquerque, NM, brings a wild man’s spirit to his rambling songs, which have been classified by many as anti-folk but also owe a debt to gospel and the more abrasive ends of blues as well. Live, Beal is reminiscent of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, singing an escalating series of wrenching ballads that emerge as poetic in their raw power as he shrouds himself in a shawl/cape. By a few minutes into the set Beal was chugging liberally from a bottle of Jack Daniel’s while bending his body at sometimes sexual, more frequently unhinged degrees. Buoyed by consistently off-kilter instrumentals (his guitar is always plucked just a little too hard, in a good way), his songs left a scorched path in their wake. Miles Raymer, of the Chicago Reader, Tweeted that Beal could easily run his own cult within a few years with this kind of performance. Sign me up.
A$AP Rocky (Red Stage, 5:30)
(Editor’s note: No A$AP pictures, because the photo pit was closed after three songs, before he even actually came out.)
The beginning of A$AP’s set didn’t feel like his, so much as a disorienting burst of pure energy in every direction. Chicago MCs LEP Bogus Boys came out to join him on the first few tracks. After that, though, the “Purple Swag” rapper and YouTube wunderkind came out to a crowd that was now once again being rained on. That hardly stopped the party; with stage dives and A$AP’s frequent efforts to keep things moving, he tore into a set that was definitely energetic, if a little bit unremarkable. (Personal addendum: If Pitchfork wanted to capitalize on the recent glut of internet-famous rappers, where’s the Based God?) The same trouble with A$AP’s recorded material reared its head during his set: he doesn’t have that much to talk about. I had the same issue with Curren$y’s set last year, but it was more pronounced with Pitchfork’s 2012 update of a weed-friendly rapper with a lot of buzz behind him. It’s not that “Brand New Guy” or the aforementioned “Purple Swag” don’t bang; there was a small but vocal contingent of the crowd that was clearly in attendance just for him. It’s that, stripped aside, this was a serviceable but pretty forgettable hip-hop set, marred not only by his devotion to drifting in and out of rapping over piped-in verses, but to getting the crowd to throw him more weed. (Of note, for those who fear the vibe of Pitchfork changing in terms of the crowd: A fistfight broke out during the set.) A$AP isn’t done exploding yet, and when LongLiveA$AP drops at the end of summer, it may well push him to the next level, whatever that might be. As an MC, though, he might not be ready just yet.
Japandroids (Blue Stage, 6:15)
I’ve heard few bands garner more effusive praise for their live show in the past few years than Vancouver-based duo Japandroids. Their brand of furious, punk-y hi-fi-lo-fi has led to two of the best albums in recent years, 2009’s Post-Nothing and this year’s more matured Celebration Rock. With a lot of buzzing distortion and the feel of two friends playing for their lives in an echoing basement, Japandroids have developed a huge following for their impeccable ability to channel the sounds of youth into bursts of yelped, warp-speed rock. Their Pitchfork set, at its best moments, captured precisely this, launching right into “Adrenaline Nightshift” and imploring (without request) the crowd to lose their shit and sing along, which they did gladly. The setlist was heavy on Celebration Rock material; understandable, given that they’ve been touring heavily behind Post-Nothing for years now. That said, “Wet Hair” and “Young Hearts Start Fire” still appeared, the latter closing the set and losing just a bit of steam due to guitarist Brian King and drummer David Prowse running on empty by that point. King, in particular, shredded his voice by halfway through the set. While admirable, it also took just a little bit of the manic early energy out of the equation.
Feist (Green Stage, 8:20)
A lot of people were confused, when Pitchfork’s lineup for this year dropped, as to how Feist could possibly sustain a headlining set. Despite a healthy amount of acclaim for last year’s Metals, the songstress best known for the ubiquitous, chirpy “1234” didn’t seem like the likeliest candidate for a marquee set. However, she did her damndest Friday night to overcome not only this perception but an unfortunate slot right after Dirty Projectors, whose oddball vocal harmonies made Feist’s frequent reliance on them feel a bit redundant, before she ever had a chance to get going. Also working against her was what might be the sparsest crowd for a Friday night headliner in all the years Pitchfork has hosted the festival. She survived (if I wouldn’t go so far as “thrived”), in large part because of the portion of the crowd that was absolutely eating her set up.
Without digging into that overly chirpy single at any point, Leslie Feist held down the stage, in a set vaguely reminiscent of Fleet Foxes’ performance on the same stage last summer. Both more rambunctious than one might expect and exactly as measured as her albums would suggest, her set moved through 15 songs, the majority of which brought a level of feedback and showmanship that showed off her underrated chops as a guitarist. On “Circle Married The Line,” she burst into a bit of swaggering talk-singing; “swagger” is an apt buzzword, as her return for a brief encore at the set’s end saw her full-on strutting like a peacock. Despite this, though, and even with the energy she brought to songs like “I Feel It All,” it was hard (if not impossible) to shake the feeling that you were watching a solid set of singer-songwriter rock, with all the chirping vocals and roots in folk music that the term implies, and nothing more. Feist was far bigger and brassier than expected, and kudos to her for answering the challenge. Still, though, this was a bit anticlimactic as headlining sets go.
-The food is considerably stepped up this year, with Big Star joining the likes of Abbey Pub and Goose Island. That said, I will be missing Star of Siam’s pot stickers as the weekend goes on.
-I know people talking over sets is a problem at virtually every festival, but yesterday was out of hand even by that standard. Even during Dirty Projectors, which came the closest of anything I caught yesterday to entrancing the crowd, blatantly audible conversations were still held throughout.
-Related: You may have noticed that, despite my mentions, I didn’t write up the Dirty Projectors set. That’s because I missed the first half of it, as I had to grab dinner sooner or later. That said, the bit I saw (which was heavy on material from their just-released Swing Lo Magellan) finally got me over the hump of understanding their appeal. I’ve long found them interminably forced in their artsy take on vocal-heavy pop on record, but live, all their strange vocal harmonies take on entirely new life.
-Tomorrow, Heave writer Marissa Morales will be joining me to continue our coverage. Remember also to follow me on Twitter at @HEAVEdom, as I’ll be posting live updates all weekend long.
Coming tomorrow: The lo-fi return continues with Cloud Nothings, Wild Flag brings out the riot grrls, Sleigh Bells tries to atone for their self-admitted mediocre set two years ago and Godspeed You! Black Emperor fills Union Park with massive tones and enlightenment.