Matt Wilson Formulates Your Opinions About Music: Pitchfork Festival Retrospecticus

This week, since there weren’t really any albums coming out I felt compelled to review (none I could stream, anyway), I figured I’d take a look back at the shows I saw weekend before last at the Pitchfork Music Festival here in my newly adopted home city of Chicago.

FRIDAY

The first set I saw on the sweltering first day of the festival, fresh from ditching work a couple hours early, was former Def Jux label head El-P, who started out a little rough — the first song, “Smithereens (Stop Crying)” was fuzzy from sound problems that plagued the festival all weekend.

My great view of the artist the guy behind me called “ELP.”

El Producto recovered nicely, however, when he went into probably the best song from his solo debut Fantastic Damage, “Deep Space 9mm.” The crowd really got more involved at that point and the show took off from there, even weathering an extended instrumental jam where El-P worked a drum machine (it was pretty awesome, in fact).

Up next were dance-punk-noise rockers Liars, who seemed to be aiming to live up to the “noise” portion of their genre more than any other. They were screechy and headache-inducing, so I headed over to the comedy stage to sit under some shade and catch a bit of Hannibal Buress‘ set. Like all the comedians who performed Friday — the only day, thankfully, Pitchfork opted to have a comedy stage — Buress had to compete with the loud band on the other side of the park, but he made the best of it, telling jokes about his Brooklyn neighborhood and the handlebar-mustachioed dudes that live there.

I left Buress’ set early to catch Robyn‘s 50 minutes or so of jamming on stage A, and it was pure, fun dance-pop bliss from the get-go.

My less-great view of a great singer who opted to wear leather shoulder pads in 95 degree heat.

From her opening song, “Fembot” (a song I am now in love with), Robyn had the audience eating right out of her hand. She blew through a string of hits and had an seemingly infinite supply of energy, despite the heat and her insistence that she had just gotten off the plane from Sweden. She closed “Dancing on My Own,” the first single off her new album Body Talk Pt. 1, with the classic “making out with myself” gag.

Back across the park, Michael Showalter, a comedian I will always love dearly because of his involvement in “The State” and “Stella,” was bombing miserably. I came over to the stage about 15 minutes into his disastrous set, just as he was finishing up some ill-advised DJing and launching into vanilla jokes about soccer. Right around the time someone in the audience suggested he do Doug from “The State” it was totally clear the show was off the rails and he pulled the plug on it. Even so, he got in some jokes that made me laugh, so it wasn’t a total loss.

Because Showalter’s set was voluntarily cut short, I got to catch the tail end of Broken Social Scene’s set, which was impressive as always. I didn’t much care for their last record, but they still put on a damn good show.

Modest Mouse closed out the night with a setlist full of deep cuts that appealed (mostly) to the Pitchfork audience. They played “Dramamine,” “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes,” and “Gravity Rides Everything,” but only one song from their most recent album (guitarist Johnny Marr was nowhere to be found, by the way) and no “Float On” whatsoever. Most of the crowd didn’t seem to care, but one girl behind me did shout, “Just play the damn song so I can go home!”

Issac Brock seemed pretty surly, as if that’s any surprise. The only real stage banter was a silly story about biting into a glow stick. The playing was sloppy at times, but it was ultimately a satisfying show for people who prefer the band’s rough edges. And I do.

SATURDAY

Pitchfork’s second day was seemingly hotter than the first, so I opted to miss out on Free Energy’s 1 p.m. set and showed up instead just in time to see Raekwon take the stage a little after 4.

Not my Wu symbol, but I did throw a few up.

The sound problems that wounded El-P’s set nearly murdered Raekwon’s as the first 20 minutes or so simply consisted of the DJ trying to get his equipment to work right, yelling something to the crowd about whether they bought Enter the Wu-Tang, then going back to fiddling. Eventually The Chef was able to come out and do some Wu-Tang classic like “C.R.E.A.M.” and even “Triumph,” as well as some songs off of his newest, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II, but sound mishaps seeped into a few songs, urging Raekwon to ask the crowd to raise their hands if “this is pissin’ you off. It’s pissin’ me off.”

The set rebounded right at the end, though, when Raekwon brought out a group of four kids who did breakdancing for the last three songs or so. Those kids were awesome, and they seemed to bring an energy to the stage that had been lacking somewhat. The finish was very strong.

Up next was The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. I’ve never been a huge fan — I don’t hate them, I’ve just never paid them much attention. It sounded good enough.

Wolf Parade took the stage next, and the Montreal rockers kept things going nicely for their full near-hour set. They played lots of high-energy songs from all three of their albums (“Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts” from their debut sounds extra good live), trading off vocals between guitarist Dan Boeckner and keyboard player Spencer Krug, who really was hammering away on those keys. The only low point was their overlong closer, “Kissing the Beehive,” which is a great, epic album track but probably too much for a festival set.

Animal Collective member Panda Bear was up next, and his unfocused, meandering set was the snooze of the festival. I love Animal Collective’s records, and Panda Bear’s solo album wasn’t bad, but they are just not acts worth seeing live.

Everyone was jolted awake pretty quickly, though, when LCD Soundsystem came on next and opened up huge with “Us V. Them.”

Not pictured: Giant disco ball.

It was an amazing show. As good as when I saw Daft Punk play at Lollapalooza in 2007 right after an LCD set. Not only was everyone singing along to the chorus of “All My Friends,” an industrious group had brought sparklers along to hold up as the song crescendoed. Throughout the set, everyone was dancing. It was impossible not to.

And then James Murphy and crew finished out the set with “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” perhaps an odd choice as a closer at a Chicago festival, but it was undeniable, especially once Murphy broke out into “Empire State of Mind” before bringing it all to the big finish.

Man.

SUNDAY

I didn’t have tickets for this day, and it’s probably for the best because a quick but heavy rain shower followed by blistering heat made it humid just to even stay in my apartment. I watched some of the shows online, though, and St. Vincent seemed to do pretty well to have so many downtempo songs in her catalog. Major Lazer was nuts. And Big Boi killed it. He brought out those breakdancing kids again, did a bunch of old OutKast songs (only his verses), rocked his new material and asked the women in the audience to show their boobs.

I’m almost sorry I didn’t brave the heat for that. Almost.

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