On the weekend of July 18-20, I flew down to Chicago, IL with two fellow WHUS DJs to attend the Pitchfork Music Festival; a rather small fest that has been drawing large underground/indie acts, as well as larger, more mainstream acts for about eight years. This year, the headliners for the three days were Beck, Neutral Milk Hotel and Kendrick Lamar, a diverse but apt group of musicians that definitely drew in the crowds.
For this feature, I’m going to go through my Top 10 favorite sets I saw at the festival with hopes that I introduce readers to great, new artists as well as persuading some people to see some of these artists in concert.
(ALL PICTURES FROM OTHER SOURCES! I DIDN’T TAKE ANY OF THESE! THE WORDS ARE MINE THOUGH!)
In all honesty, I knew that Beck’s set was going to be my favorite of the weekend months before the festival took place. Beck might be my all-time favorite musician and I’ve wanted to see him live since high school, so finally getting the opportunity to see a musical idol of sorts definitely overrides the excitement and anticipation of seeing a buzz band that I’ve been listening to for about three or four months. It was a no brainer to put him at #1.
He opened with “Devil’s Haircut,” the very song that got me into Beck in the first place. In the beginning there were some sound issues so I honestly couldn’t even tell what song was going on at the moment, but once the vocals got cleaned up and the chorus hit, I was ecstatic. I got a VIP pass for the festival through my radio promo job in NYC, so I used it to my advantage to get a good spot for the show, which was in a side stage area and gave me a pretty good view of the action. Thankfully, I stood next to some people that liked Beck a decent amount and weren’t in the VIP for appearance’s sake. We were jumping around and appropriately cheering whenever a badass moment rose up, which was often.
Beck’s set was heavy on the rock and party atmosphere, which was sustained even on the slower, more delicate tracks off of Sea Change and Morning Phase. There were around seven people in his backing band and it was clear that they had a great camaraderie onstage. They blasted through almost all the singles like “Girl,” “Blue Moon” and even “Loser,” and included a few medium-cuts off of albums like The Information and Modern Guilt.
There was a jarring moment of clashing emotion about seven or eight songs into the performance, when Beck performed the only Sea Change cut of the evening, “Lost Cause.” To give some context, Sea Change is Beck’s saddest and most sincere album in his catalog and came as a result of a messy breakup with his significant other of nine years. This album coming from Beck was a total curveball based on his previous material, especially since it followed Midnite Vultures, a sex-fueled excursion in extravagance and absolutely outrageous situations. I’m grateful that “Lost Cause” was the only cut off of Sea Change he performed, since I would have probably been reduced to a blubbering mess on the floor. He instead followed this tour de force by crashing right into his biggest hit, “Loser,” which quickly turned my welled up sadness and awe into manic, slacker-rapping glee. I had no trouble reciting every single line from that stupid song, causing the people next to me to look over and say things like “what?” or “ok.”
The rest of the set went over perfectly – he laid out a section to perform songs from his new album Morning Phase, which is said to be the spiritual successor to Sea Change but is mostly just another slow, acoustic album from Beck. The songs are good, but it is nowhere close to being my favorite Beck album. After this cluster, he broke into the Guero singles, “Girl” and “E-Pro,” which ended with a cacophony of noise that caused Beck to put caution tape all over the stage, which is the way they transitioned into their encore set.
Beck and the boys came back onstage and asked the audience if there were any laws that they wanted broken tonight. Thankfully, the audience was smart enough to know that this was a set-up for their great song “Sexx Laws,” off of Midnite Vultures, which then transitioned into the equally-as-great song off the same album, “Debra.” After that they jammed on “Where It’s At” until they were finally pulled offstage by the sound crew, which I thought was pretty cool. All in all, I left feeling giddy and didn’t feel like I had been standing for seven hours.
Of course after concerts there are always little nags that people think of afterwards, since we are all stupid, pessimistic people. Thoughts like wishing that he played more cuts off of “X” album (for me it was Odelay); or that it was a fairly canned performance, yielding an almost identical set list from other shows he played on the same tour; or wishing that I stood at the front of the stage to get the best possible view. All these nags are moot, though, because I basically crossed my #1 musical fan off my concert bucket list and I couldn’t be happier.
Now get ready to read some accounts that pale in comparison to this one.
2. Hundred Waters
This Pitchfork fest was impressive, because my all-time favorite performer closed the first day of the fest and my favorite new band opened the first day. Hundred Waters are an electronic quartet from Gainesville, FL and broke out onto the scene in 2012 with their self-titled debut album, which was oddly enough released on Skrillex’s record label OWSLA. Their debut hooked me in effortlessly by weaving an ambiance I had never heard before on record, combining organic textures like strings, percussion, and flute with futuristic and atmospheric electronics, tempting music journalists to bring out the dreaded “folktronica” term. Another plus were the lead vocals of Nicole Miglis, whose voice carries an air mystery or something otherworldly, like anything she spouts could be translated to some mythical fairy tale. The album was one of my favorites of 2012 and I still listen to it pretty regularly now.
Hundred Waters’ newest album, The Moon Rang Like A Bell, is shaping up to be my favorite album of the year so far, since the band took this formula of great songwriting and unorthodox electronics they worked with on their first album and amplified it to insane heights. At first I didn’t like it as much as the first one, but after repeated listens, the songs are now forever etched into my brain.
The first time I saw this band was in a church at SXSW in Austin, TX, before their second album came out. They were the second band out of seven to perform that night and I am grateful for that, since by the fifth or sixth performance I was ready to take a nap. Something about pews, man. Their performance included mostly cuts off of their self-titled album, but also teased a few new songs that interested me greatly. After spending a lot of time with the new one, I was ready to hear all of the songs fleshed out in a live setting.
They did not disappoint at all. The band basically played straight through the first half of the record, starting with the acapella cut “Show Me Love” and ending with “Innocent.” They played some songs off of the first record after that, but then got back into The Moon Rang… material that began with “Down From The Rafters” and included a flute solo from Miglis, which added to the already-blissful atmosphere of the afternoon. This comatose atmosphere combined with the rib-rattling bass that was employed in certain moments of the set really made the set stand out among the other artists that I saw that weekend. They also teased the crowd by saying they could do some Death Grips covers, in lieu of the band breaking up and cancelling their festival appearance.
Now I was excited for Kelela’s performance, but I wasn’t prepared for it to be one of my all-time favorites for the weekend. Kelela is a Nigerian-born RnB/pop singer that has worked her way into being a go-to singer for instrumentals created by the US/UK grime revival movement, sparked by labels Night Slugs and Fade To Mind. Her debut mixtape, Cut 4 Me, was one of my favorites of last year, mostly because of the beats, but Kelela’s great singing definitely was a plus as well.
Her set was pretty minimal, in that it was just Kelela and her DJ on stage. What wasn’t minimal, though, was her sense of stage presence. She talked to the crowd often, was visually amazed by the amount of applause she received on songs, and just looked like she was in a good mood. Not accomplishing the feat of having stage presence was the downfall of many bands I had been excited for that weekend, which unfortunately happened more often than I would have liked.
But anyways, her set was awesome. She only has about 15 songs out right now and she blazed through the ones that had the highest energy, like “Enemy,” “Bank Head,” “Melba’s Call” and “Floor Show.” One thing that I really enjoyed about the set was that her vocals were being fed through her DJ’s mixer, which allowed him to mix and warp her vocals to put them into the beat, giving the performance a improvisational element to it. She was an absolute treat to watch, so definitely check her out when you get the chance.
I finally saw a metal band that I really enjoy! Deafheaven is a shoegaze-influenced American black metal group that has caused as much controversy in their genre as acclaim for their debut album Sunbather, which came out last year and was on many people’s end of the year lists. The controversy came from black metal purists, who say that the positive lyrical content, the almost uplifting and euphoric chord progressions of the guitars and the overall unorthodox approach to black metal should be discounted and not be considered “real kvlt black metal.”
Well, that’s all fine and good, but you can’t deny a great album when you hear one. Sure, there are wretched/screamed vocals, which I can get behind in this case, but the instrumentals are, like I said, just euphoric. They have the ability to lift people up and take control. It’s a magical feeling, really.
The band absolutely ruled the stage and delivered an absolutely pummeling performance to the giant crowd of mystified onlookers. The lead singer crowd surfed a bit, along with slamming his chest with emotion and getting in people’s faces. It was one of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen, and they even performed new material that was damn fine. Even if you’re not into metal, I’d recommend you check these guys out.
5. FKA Twigs
FKA Twigs was probably in my Top 3 most anticipated shows of the festival and she really did not disappoint in the slightest. All of the cloudy, druggy instrumentals were performed real time with minimally canned backing tracks popping up occasionally. It was her, Twigs, surrounded by three dudes with two MIDI drum pads, giving the music a movement associated with it. Usually you see electronic musicians fiddling with knobs or their laptops, but with drum pads, you SEE the sound being transmitted through the electronic device and out the speakers. Just that added bit of realism really amplifies a performance, in my eyes.
But onto the star of the show, Twigs. She performed mostly new material off of her upcoming debut full-length, LP1, which was a little hard to get into at first, since no one knew the music, but it was a good sign of things to come. When she did delve into her older material, the crowd went nuts. And when I say, “went nuts,” I mean that more smoke than usual was emitted into the air from the onlookers. Her singing was on point and she had planned choreography for each song, showing her preparedness for touring the new album.
Overall, the songs were slow, druggy, dripping with eroticized romanticism, and I couldn’t have been happier. I was passing up seeing St. Vincent during this show, but I’ll get to her later. I got to see the lovely Twigs in her prime, so that’s all that matters.
The indie pop princess Grimes last performed at Pitchfork back in 2012, a few months after her debut album Visions came out. She had a sizeable crowd then, but now two years later, she was definitely the bonafide princess of the fest, yielding a huge crowd that breached into the next stage over. She was even carted to the stage in a Prius with her dancers, if that gives you any indication of her status at the festival.
Grimes played a few new cuts, which included her Rihanna-denied, dubstep drop utilizing track “Go” which I didn’t really care for on first listen, but when she played it live I couldn’t contain my excitement and unabashed hype. Her singing was a little on the fence at times, but those instrumentals that I obsessed over for about a year (Oblivion, Be A Body, Genesis) definitely made me look past that and into the deep, glowing eyes of sweet, sweet pop bliss.
I think this is the artist that the majority of attendees to the fest missed, which is a damn shame. I honestly was going to miss him as well if I didn’t stop by at his stage after Twin Peaks. Ka is a NYC-based rapper who has been around since the late 90s in the group Natural Elements. He made is comeback in 2008 by supplying a guest verse on GZA’s album Pro Tools. He since has put out three solo albums, his latest being The Night’s Gambit, put out in 2013.
He’s got a subtle, poetic flow and raps over classic-sounding beats with lyrical content about his upbringing in a difficult part of NYC, along with other social commentary issues. His set was a lot like Kelela’s in that it was just him and his DJ, and he really ruled the stage with stage presence. He explained the meaning behind some of the lyrics in his songs, engaged the audience, and really acted like a man that has been around the block and has seen it all. Each word had meaning and he emphasized by hand movements and overall stance. If you’re into MF Doom, Roc Marciano & Billy Woods, definitely check this guy out.
8. Perfect Pussy
Along with Hundred Waters, Perfect Pussy is the only band I’ve seen on this list before Pitchfork fest. Again like Hundred Waters, it was at SXSW. With Perfect Pussy, they performed at NPR Music’s showcase at Stubb’s, which is a huge, outdoor stage that was bigger than the stage they performed on at Pitchfork. I was also closer to the action this time around so I felt the energy they emitted a bit clearer. Perfect Pussy are a Syracuse-based noise rock outfit known for their extremely loud, hectic sound with lead singer Meredith Graves’ shouted, emotional vocals drowned out underneath the din.
Usually seeing a band perform really amplifies emotions of the band’s songs, since you see it displayed through the musician’s faces and body movement. This is especially the case in Perfect Pussy. The bassist is known for breaking and throwing his bass (he threw his bass off a bridge in Austin) and Graves is known to give great, emotional performances as well. During “Interference Fits,” Graves started crying, causing her makeup to run, leaving black streaks on her face during the rest of the set. This caused more people the start throwing flowers onto the stage, which made her smile. The juxtaposition of the streaked face and genuine smile really put that performance over the others – it’s legitimate feelings they have towards this music. The system hasn’t broken them yet. I also talked to them after the show and they are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. This band is awesome, seriously.
9. Twin Peaks
Twin Peaks was another act that I wasn’t expecting to be as good as they turned out to be. They’re a Chicago-based garage/power pop rock outfit and are good friends with fellow Chicago groups The Orwells and Smith Westerns. On record, their music is fine: pretty simple, raucous rock n roll with billowing, youthful energy. I should have known that that energy would have been amazing in real life, because it really was. They blazed through a set of gripping rock tunes and included a member shredding from a wheelchair. Previously, he’d been working on crutches and an athletic boot, but after having the cast on for far too long, doctors finally concluded that it would be best to keep the shredding to a wheelchair. There was a smashed guitar being hurled into the audience involved, massive guitar solos being ripped open, and a ton of great group vocals that got the crowd so hyped up. Check them out for sure!
10. The Range
The Range is a Providence-based electronic musician/DJ that specializes in looped electronic music with cut up soul and hip-hop samples. It’s more about the building vibe rather than the drop to this style of music, which is what I’m super into. His set was just cuts off of his newest album, Nonfiction, and a few newer ones off various EPs. At first I thought it would just be a laid back set, but I was getting super into it and I could tell that The Range was as well. He was singing along to himself with his samples and got a huge grin whenever the crowd reacted positively to a change in tempo, bass, or sample. It was a really cool concert and recommend that you all check out this dude!
Other performances that were great but didn’t give full attention to:
No doubt almost everyone’s favorite set of the festival – St. Vincent is modern rock music’s most important individual. Her blistering riffs and forward thinking songwriting is the most original thing coming out right now. She ruled the stage, shredding to her heart’s content and employing her robotic dance moves with her band mates. I opted to skip her performance since I had already seen her at SXSW just four months earlier. I also really wanted to catch FKA Twigs, which turned out to be a fantastic set. I would have loved to see St. Vincent, but it just was not meant to be.
Despite being about 40 minutes late, his set felt fiery and intense all the way at the back of the festival. He had a full backing band supplying instrumentals, which isn’t something many rappers can claim they have. His spirit was alive that night, which is so refreshing to see in large-scale performers like him, who I’m sure has done the gauntlet of festival appearances already this year. Wish I could have seen him, but I was busy buying records and getting free food. Sorry Kendrick! You’re great!
I wish I could have seen DJ Spinn and the Teklife crew, but I was seeing Grimes at the time. According to pictures and friend testimonials, Spinn had the entire Teklife/Treated crew up on stage with him, which included a team of dancers, rappers, DJs and various friends, all celebrating the rise of Chicago footwork music in the mainstream underground electronic scene. I didn’t hear too much about a tribute for the late DJ Rashad, DJ Spinn’s partner in musical crime, but I’m sure that he was on the minds and hearts of everyone there at that stage.
These shoegaze greats reunited to do ye olde festival circuit, but who cares? Almost no one in this new generation of shoegaze fans have seen Slowdive live, so it was understandable that the crowd for the amazing band was gigantic. I only caught a few songs, but unfortunately due to slight dehydration and my desire to get a good spot for Grimes, I left the set early and didn’t really pay attention to it when I was there. Although, they played all their classics, which included a ton of material from Souvlaki, the album I know of theirs the most. I heard “When The Sun Hits” as I walked away and I wanted to run back, but I had to go and revitalize myself. Love the band and I’m dying for another opportunity to see them.