[Thanks to Sarah Cochran for most of these photos.]
The annual Pitchfork Music Festival has earned its place in Chicago in just a couple of years—no surprise given the far-reaching influence of the site that launched it, Pitchfork Media. This year's fest offered plenty of bands, from willfully obscure to nostalgia fodder. It also offered, as it has in years past, probably the best festival-going experience of the summer overall—mellow crowds of manageable size, easy access to all three stages, limited corporate intrusion, and a great setting, Union Park. A.V. Club staffers from around the country descended on the city to attend; here are their minute-by-minute observations.
FRIDAY JULY 18
6:05 pm, Sean: Perhaps it's merely a happy coincidence, but Mission Of Burma drummer Peter Prescott's outfit is perfectly color coordinated with his red and white drum set. More bands should do that. As my grandmother would say, it looks snappy, like you're really putting on a show.
6:10pm, Kyle: The same music snobs (like, uh, me) who turn up their noses at groups like REO Speedwagon, Styx, and a gaggle of shitty hair-metal bands for milking the nostalgia circuit mostly don't have a problem with the thoroughly nostalgic opening night of the Pitchfork Music Festival. Whereas hearing Speedwagon go through "Take It On The Run" for the 2,439,891st time is the wrong kind of nostalgia, watching legendary or semi-legendary bands from our scene play their seminal records start to finish is the right kind. What's the difference? Well, you can't buy a deep-fried Snickers on the Pitchfork fest grounds. The Chicago Tribune's M. David Nichols slammed this new phenomenon of playing albums start to finish, but I have to say I was thrilled by the possibility of seeing Public Enemy perform It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. I was almost as thrilled to watch Mission Of Burma tackle Vs—and mostly indifferent to Sebadoh playing Bubble And Scrape—though Signals, Calls And Marches has my favorite jams. Still, when Roger Miller began playing the opening notes to "Secrets," my heart skipped a beat. Just before the song, drummer Peter Prescott bellowed, "Welcome to the Burmadome!"
6:17pm, Kyle: Happily, I notice a row of teenage boys at the very front of Burma, singing along to every line of the songs. And the band doesn't even have a song in Guitar Hero or Rock Band!
6:30pm, Genevieve: My plan for tonight was to spend Mission Of Burma and Sebadoh's sets standing in line for beer and drinking a lot of said beer before Public Enemy, as my knowledge/appreciation of the first two bands' music is pretty infinitesimal, while my knowledge/appreciation of drinking beer is immense. But my perfunctory stop over at the Connector stage to catch a glimpse of Mission Of Burma ends up lasting the entire set. I don't believe I've heard a note of anything by the band prior to tonight, but I find the set to be engaging and good-natured; the members all seemed humbly surprised and tickled pink to be playing for such a receptive crowd. I don't know if it was mind-blowing enough to warrant a conversion to Mission Of Burma fanship, but I'll definitely be checking out Vs. in the near future.
6:31pm, Steven: Because I've never heard this incredibly important and historic Mission Of Burma album before, the main thing that interests me is the fortysomething guitarist's passing resemblance to Chris Noth of Law & Order and Sex & The City fame. MOB does sound pretty great, though, and the only way its performance could be improved is with the addition of a Jerry Orbach doppelganger, or possibly Cynthia Nixon.
6:35pm, Sean: In the middle of "Learn How," Prescott slips in the "All I wanted was a Pepsi!" lyric from Suicidal Tendencies' "Institutionalized." Smug, knowing laughter ripples through the smarty-pants record collector crowd.
6:48pm, Scott: Mission Of Burma's Roger Miller and Peter Prescott almost start into the wrong tune before Clint Conley stops them. After they play the right song, Conley notes that getting the order of one's own album wrong "takes a certain ability." This is still the strongest of the night's three full-album sets: Miller's guitar spews out jagged, articulate excitement, and Conley sings like a nastier Mick Jones.
6:57pm, Kyle: Mission Of Burma closes its set, once again providing a lesson in how to age gracefully in rock 'n' roll. For them, the night doesn't feel like a rote recitation of past glory, but a celebration of a band that's still vital, unlike what would follow the rest of the night. For Sebadoh and Public Enemy, it was painfully obvious that the glory days have long since passed. With Mission Of Burma, it felt like they hadn't ended. And that's goddamn inspiring.
7:17pm, Scott: "I don't know why the fuck we're playing after Mission Of Burma," Sebadoh's Lou Barlow says. Yep.
7:18pm, Nathan: Sebadoh's shambling, rambling set—Bubble & Scrape performed front to back—was distinguished by the sheer quantity of Lou Barlow's onstage banter. There are stand-up comedians who talk less during their sets. Would it kill the guys to maybe put on a suit and tie? People paid good money to see professionals put on a tightly rehearsed show, not a bunch of slackazoids with shaggy hair.
7:19pm, Steven: I last saw Sebadoh in 1999 at First Avenue in Minneapolis. I remember standing very still in a room with other still, serious, young men while Lou Barlow sang a song called "Love Is Stronger Than The Truth." I stopped listening to Sebadoh soon after.
7:25pm, Sean: Backstage in the line for free Chipotle burritos, Spoon's Britt Daniel uses the old "Just wanted to say hi—not trying to cut the line!" trick on me to cut the line. He tells the Chipotle rep how he used to be a stockholder in the company, but sold it when it dropped below 80 points. "Oh, but we just closed at 89!" she says. "No, I'm pretty sure you closed at 72," he says, as they play an uncomfortable round of "respectfully disagree." Then he pulls out his Blackberry to check. This is perhaps the least rock 'n' roll thing I have ever witnessed.
7:31pm, David: After finishing "Soul And Fire," consummate showman Lou Barlow sheepishly announces, "All right, track two." Instead, there's just silence onstage due to an unannounced delay. Jason Loewenstein, Lou, and Eric Gaffney of Sebadoh all trade instruments. Barlow smooths another holdup over by making small talk: "Yeah, we switch around a lot." Whoops! Barlow tuned to the wrong song, but attempts to charm the crowd with a one-liner: "We're the same Old-adoh."
7:32pm, Scott: In the first instance of weird stage banter that'll only get worse between solid, if unexciting, renditions of Bubble & Scrape's songs, Barlow fills up an instrument-switching delay by belting out the chorus of Tom Petty's "The Waiting," ending with an unpleasant shriek. "That's my vocal range, motherfucker!" he says, in a failed attempt to laugh off the awkwardness.
7:37pm, Steven: So, Sebadoh is doing Bubble & Scrape because it was the last record Eric Gaffney played on, right? Nope, still not a good enough reason to not do Bakesale instead. And I'm not just saying that because I'm a shameless Bob Fay apologist.
7:45pm, Sean: A guy trying to meet up with his friend over cell phone says, "Just look for the only black person here." Now, now… Let's not resort to easy stereotypes. There are plenty of black people here. It's just that most of them are in Flavor Flav's entourage.
8pm, Genevieve: Two beers later, I've set up shop in front of the mixing board for the Aluminum stage, where Public Enemy is set to play It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back in its entirety. It's a good spot, dead center and not too far back; but as the crowd fills in, it's looking less and less likely that I'll be able to reclaim it after another trip to the beer line. Happily, Kyle magically appears with a free 312 he smuggled out of the VIP area for me. (We're not all VIPs in The A.V. Club; I have to pay for much of my food and drink throughout the weekend, though Kyle is a champ about sneaking beers.)
8:15pm, Steven: Lou Barlow looks perturbed that most of Sebadoh's audience has left to get a good spot for Public Enemy. "I'm not going to stop playing," he mutters. First J. Mascis ignores his songs, now this.
8:20pm, Genevieve: The Bomb Squad, which is warming up the crowd prior to PE's set, promises mad bass and delivers; I can feel my cheeks vibrating, as well as my beer-filled bladder. Meanwhile, the guy in front of me is freaking out because his earplug is stuck in his ear. His friend attempts to extract it with a set of keys, an endeavor that would surely otherwise hold my attention were PE not finally taking the stage.
8:32pm, Kyle: Public Enemy is scheduled to begin at 8:30, but here's Flavor Flav and entourage strolling idly down neighboring Randolph Street, which is closed to traffic.
8:40pm, Scott: After an ominously throbbing warm-up heavy on dub-inspired bass attacks, The Bomb Squad takes off. So is this a transition or an awkward mini-soundcheck before Public Enemy begins? Momentary suspension of grooves and awe…
8:40pm, Genevieve: I thought Chuck D was rapping into two mics at the same time during "Bring The Noise" because it looked cool; turns out it's because Flava Flav, who misses the opening number, has his mic—at least if I'm understanding their onstage bickering correctly. An inauspicious beginning. Even more troubling is the fact that I have to bail shortly after Flav arrives in order to run for the bathroom. As I weave through a solid mass that reaches halfway back to the porta-potty lineup, I kiss my chances of reclaiming my awesome spot goodbye.
8:41pm, Steven: Is that Professor Griff in the house? Isn't this only the 19th anniversary of the whole "Jews are responsible for the majority of the wickedness in the world" flap? I predict PE skips that classic cut.
8:50pm, Kyle: PE performs with a live band and DJ Lord filling in for the retired Terminator X, but "Bring The Noise" sounds off. Chuck D's vocals are significantly quieter than Flavor Flav's. From my vantage point, I can't see Flav anywhere, but his voice comes through perfectly—too perfectly, actually. Chuck D keeps switching microphones to find a better one, but nothing works. When the song finally ends, Chuck is frustrated. "Where the fuck is Flavor Flav?" he asks the crowd. Turns out Flav wasn't even on stage.
8:52pm, David: A really stoned white dude in blue plaid shorts knowingly remarks, "Everyone up there is dancing." During Public Enemy's set, a burly-looking man proudly says to his friend, "I played the shit out of this cassette."
8:55pm, Kyle: In the hands of PE 2008, It Takes A Nation Of Millions sounds dispiritingly sluggish. I have absolute faith that Chuck D can still bring it, but it's not happening right now. Even worse: Flav raps over a vocal backing track, so listeners are treated to his recorded voice and his live voice. Chuck D has one too, though it doesn't seem constant like Flav's. And despite Flav's passionate declarations that PE doesn't lip-synch, it sure sounds like he is. Standing where we are, we can hear the stage-monitor mix and the PA mix; when Flav is actually rapping, you can hear his voice through the monitors and the PA. When he isn't, it's noticeably quieter. I could be—and I really hope that—I'm mistaken, but it doesn't look that way. Man, what I would do to be able to see PE on the Fear Of A Black Planet tour right now.
8:58pm, Nathan: Chuck D is definitely looking like somebody's pot-bellied 48-year-old dad, but hot damn does he bring it as a live performer. Public Enemy's set was nothing less than transcendent, at once ear-shattering, nostalgic, futuristic, passionate, engaged, and gloriously theatrical. You know you're getting old when the SW1s are doing military gyrations in full camouflage regalia and all you can think is, "God, they must be shvitzing like crazy up there…" Does the fact that Flavor Flav remains an electric performer and the greatest hypeman in history make his tragic descent into TV über-hackdom more or less sad? Chuck D clearly has powerfully conflicted feelings about Flavor Flav's second career as a national embarrassment. He's undoubtedly grateful for all the publicity and exposure but he also obviously wishes it was for some something a little more noble and dignified—like getting caught running a tri-state child pornography ring. When Flavor Flav pimps his unspeakably awful new show, Under One Roof, a smattering of boos breaks out. An indignant Flav objects that the audience should be calling their wives "boo" instead of booing him, which is a joke so terrible it's probably pilfered from an upcoming Under One Roof teleplay. You can cut the irony with a steak knife when Public Enemy raps about the mindless tyranny of television, especially when it's Mr. Surreal Life, Strange Love, Flavor of Love, Under One Roof doing the indicting.
9:06pm, David: "You're writing something?" An observant woman asks. "I'll tell you a story." This drunken woman then proceeds to explain at great length that, as an artist, she can see that Pitchfork's ideals are good, and she was only here to see Public Enemy, but she almost left out of embarrassment at Public Enemy playing to a crowd of The Man (a.k.a. white people). Then she decided to stay anyway.
9:08pm, Kyle: Flavor Flav has had a shockingly successful career as reality-show clown, and you have to wonder how Chuck D feels about that. Not only is Flav probably more famous than Chuck, but it's for the lowest form of television. "1988 was way before the TV show!" Chuck says during a break in the songs. "I know all y'all like, 'He does records too?'" A few minutes later, the group plays "She Watch Channel Zero?!", where Flav raps "Why you watching that garbage? It's garbage baby!" Sean O'Neal says to me, "I'm pretty sure all irony is lost on Flavor Flav."
9:15pm, Genevieve: Here's a tip for all you smaller-framed festival-goers who wish to move to the front of the crowd, but lack the physical mass to shove people out of your way: Find a person with a large, official-looking camera, and follow him or her right up to the front of the stage. Leaving my carefully staked-out spot turns out to be a good idea, as I'm soon standing close enough to pick out the second hand on Flav's clock. Though I have to exert a good amount of energy avoiding getting crushed during the remainder of the show, there's a crazy energy up here that I definitely wasn't getting from the cross-armed, head-bobbing hoards I was previously surrounded by. However, it starts to ebb a bit around 10, as an amped-up Flav drags out the set past curfew, offering up a drum solo and a few rambling speeches despite Chuck D's very obvious hints to wrap it up.
10:01pm, Kyle: There's a strict 10pm curfew, but because PE started late and spent a lot of time talking between songs, the group is way behind its intended plan: to play a medley of hits after the album was finished. A "medley" sounds like a terrible idea, but when PE launches into a fiery version of "Welcome To The Terrordome," it sounds undeniably badass. The crowd goes ballistic. After that comes "Shut Em Down" from Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black, then "He Got Game," from the soundtrack of the same name. "911 Is A Joke" follows, then "Harder Than You Think," a surprisingly good song from last year's How Do You Sell Soul To A Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul?. "Can't Truss It," "Yo! Bum Rush The Show," then "Fight The Power" ends the night. Goddamn, why couldn't the PE that played that last 36 minutes have played all night?
10:10pm, Scott: Chuck D brings a little kid on stage and introduces him as Flavor Flav's godson, explaining that he's going to do some sort of "magic." Instead, he just looks really uncomfortable, up on the huge screen beside the stage, as Chuck instructs him to "touch your godfather's clock."
11:15pm, David: Overheard on the subway in a thick southern accent: "There were blonde girls rapping along in their white V-neck T-shirts not a day over 20. Not old enough to drink. I tell you, it was a vision. What are they doing here? Alright, yeah, we're gonna go hit the strip club and stretch our legs."
SATURDAY JULY 19
1:13pm, Steven: Titus Andronicus plays the grinding "My Time Outside The Womb," my favorite song off The Airing Of Grievances. A good band with the potential to be great, TA needs to figure out what to do with the three—sometimes four!—guitarists on stage. Step No. 1 to greatness: Listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd's Second Helping.
1:50pm, Steven: Each Jay Reatard song sounds exactly like that last, and he's melting my brain a little more each minute. Which, in turn, makes me dumber and makes me love him even more.
2:13pm, David: Les Savy Fav's Tim Harrington is spotted making his way through the crowd in a neon green shirt with matching neon green socks. He's holding a mysterious grocery bag full of who-knows-what.
2:18pm, Kyle: A guy passes me wearing a tan corduroy kilt. At last someone has tapped into that culturally minded hipster demographic! That said, irony is a popular fashion choice: Later, I see a guy wearing blue-green preppie short shorts, a pink T-shirt, fanny pack, glasses with Blue Blocker clip-on shades, and a cheesy thin mustache.
2:27pm, Kyle: Today's weird tattoo: A woman has "I ♥ FUGAZI" on top of her left foot.
2:30pm, Genevieve: Being the possessor of one of the worst senses of direction ever, I panic a bit during the El ride to Union park, unsure which stop I'm supposed to get off at despite having checked several times. Turns out I needn't have worried; the mass of headbands, keffiyehs, and irony that flooded off the Green line at the Ashland stop was all the indication I needed.
2:42pm, Scott: Picking up where last year's Grizzly Bear set left off, Caribou mastermind Dan Snaith breaks out a recorder solo. Though the sound gets washed out a bit in the outdoor setting, it's clear the live-band version of Caribou is actually playing a pretty fun set, with bonus points for instrument-switching. Snaith jumps around between guitar, glockenspiel, and a second drumkit. Caribou's moods and atmospherics compete with a bass-heavy mix and a bunch of goddamn 312 Beer beach balls floating through the crowd.
3pm, Scott: A morning rain, and subsequent sun, threaten to turn the festival into a whore's bath of mud and stagnant humidity. It's the perfect setting for the unwashed hippie harmonies of Fleet Foxes. It's still really weird to see so many people crowding in for this band, but they're getting strong word-of-mouth, and they've got a sonic balance that's rare here: A delicate, diffuse sound that actually travels well across a big open field.
3pm, Kyle: I'm determined to give Fleet Foxes a shot because everyone's freaking out about them, even though Sean O'Neal's review of their new record could not have made it sound more like something I'd hate. They open with "Sun Giant," from their new self-titled album. While I'm impressed by their vocal harmonies, I'm still kinda bored. The rise of indie-rock easy-listening music annoys me: Easy listening, whether it's Dan Fogelberg or Midlake, is easy listening. Time to head over to Fuck Buttons.
3:07pm, Steven: I like Fleet Foxes, but their impeccable multi-part harmonies and meticulous finger picking on a variety of stringed instruments don't go well with sore knees and sweat-stained pits.
3:30pm, Genevieve: Fleet Foxes strike me as better suited for background music for Sunday-morning chores than an outdoor festival. It's all very pleasant, and I'm a sucker for a nice vocal harmony, but I can't imagine standing in a sweaty, smelly cluster of people to see it performed up close. However, from where I'm sitting, propped up against the fence with a cold beverage and plenty of room to stretch out, it's downright enjoyable. The lower end of the sound is pretty muddy this far back, but the vocals sound just as bright and sunny as ever, and indeed, the rain clouds that have been looming since I arrived start to break up a bit.
3:37pm, Kyle: Behold, the post-modern band, in the form of Fuck Buttons: a couple shitty, cheap keyboards, laptops, effects pedals, a share drum, and a toy cassette recorder with a microphone. The group opens with an exceedingly long song built on three notes that builds and builds and builds…to nothing. This becomes a recurring theme with Fuck Buttons: sounds that sound like they're going somewhere, but ultimately don't. There's little craft in what they do; really, Fuck Buttons just look like they're fucking around onstage in front of a rapt audience. Time to go elsewhere.
3:45pm, Scott: This year, the festival has wisely moved its "Balance Stage" from last year's small street spot to a bigger space across the park. This allows a lot more people to crowd in for acts like Fuck Buttons. The British duo's in the middle of smacking some drums and making some inhuman squawks into a microphone. Someone inevitably comments that it "sounds like a parrot." The music itself is still even more frustrating and conflicted as The A.V. Club may have led you to believe, though seeing the process behind it makes it a little easier to admire.
4:05pm, Genevieve: Thoroughly relaxed after Fleet Foxes, I manage to summon the wherewithal to join the cluster of humanity awaiting Dizzee Rascal. I don't know if it's the juxtaposition of the unrelenting mellowness of Fleet Foxes, or the free beer that magically appears (again, courtesy of Kyle) just as the set begins, but this is the first performance that I've been legitimately pumped about right out of the gate. Though he seems displeased with the sound at first and starts the opening number over, Dizzee is bringing it, and my head-bobbing quickly turns to ass-shaking. The girl in front of me is doing the Lawnmower and the Cabbage Patch, seemingly only half-ironically.
4:05pm, Sean: Signs o' the backlash: Even though today it feels like the festival has been moved to just inside a cow's anus, I spy several concertgoers turning down offers of free fans once they realize they say "Vampire Weekend" on them.
4:30pm, Steven: I buy an impossible-to-find Paul Duncan record at the record swap tent and make myself promise not to leave before The Hold Steady's 7 p.m. performance. Union Park was officially declared a third world country 10 minutes ago, and I've been here for four hours, two hours past my ideal length for a live music experience. Jesus Christ, I feel old. Did this used to be fun?
5:01pm, Kyle: The Vampire Weekend bubble has burst, and now we can all truly assess the group's musical abilities without deafening hype or backlash to the backlash. In the sober light of morning, the band isn't anything special. The songs don't sound especially clever or catchy, and the overall sound is thin. Maybe that's the soundman's problem, but Vampire Weekend isn't exciting on stage, either.
5:15pm, Genevieve: I've avoided Vampire Weekend until now for whatever reason—I'm not adamantly hype-averse or anything, but I've never felt the inclination to see what all the fuss is about—and I can't say I regret that now. Fifteen minutes into the band's set I realize I'm not even sure how many songs it's played; it's all blending together into an never-ending jaunty rhythm that seems pretty anemic after the Dizzee Rascal's driving set. Kyle, Andy, and I decide to bail, splintering off on our own endeavors. There's not much on the schedule that interests me before !!! goes on around 6, so I make my way over to the shopping area, where I buy some vinyl. (Okay, so it's actually a ring made out of a melted shard of a record, but seeing as I don't even own a turntable, this seemed like a better way for me to go.) On my way there, I overhear a guy asking, "Is this ska?" in response to the muffled up-down-up-down beat of Vampire Weekend that's wafting over the park.
5:22pm, Nathan: Overheard—"Keep on rocking! I love The Jonas Brothers!" Vampire Weekend are disconcertingly upbeat. A drinking game seems to have broken out amongst the crowd where cynical souls took a swig every time the lead singer said "positive." That would explain the ubiquity of shiny silver flasks and the deeply wasted. What is this, a fucking Matisyahu concert? Vampire Weekend are all about handsome young people playing catchy songs for drunken people. That's what pop music is all about. But is it what Pitchfork is all about? The drummer's Phish tee-shirt: ironic or not? I'm guessing no.
5:33pm, David: Looks like Tim Harrington's mysterious bag was filled with haircut supplies: He's giving $2 haircuts to all takers. Already deeply into cutting a fan's hair, Harrington tells a story that goes nowhere about how he got home from work late last night and his wife wants him to clean out the gutters. "He better not touch my beard," one guy worriedly says aloud. Harrington's got hand sanitizer, electric-razor accessories, and a comb waiting on an upside-down UPS box at his makeshift station. "I'm gonna protect that part like it's an endangered species," Harrington tells a laughing client. He wraps up another haircut, saying, "It looks just like your old haircut, but this one's handsome." Also, for 50 cents, he offers to trim the guy's armpits and tweeze his stray nipple hairs. The customer happily complies. "This might be a crew cut tomorrow," Harrington tells a guy whose hair is being butchered. "Don't be scared," he says while shaving the back of his head with a crude stencil fashioned out of a cardboard beer case. None of these are things you want to hear or experience from a barber, but it's a pretty great spectator sport.
5:45pm, Scott: In a festival heavy on chin-scratching tweaks and variations, it's a blast to bounce along to Elf Power's refreshingly straightforward set, part power-pop and part psychedelia. Even when it's experimenting, Elf Power takes much greater pleasure in solid, simple melodies, and that quickly spreads through the Balance Stage crowd.
6pm, Genevieve: I was planning on checking out a little of !!!'s set before setting up in front of the Hold Steady stage, but seeing the cluster of eager fans rushing the stage the minute Vampire Weekend exits it makes me think I should claim a spot now. It turns out to be a good move. By the time Kyle finds me (with, amazingly, another beer!), the crowd's already packed pretty tight, and I have a decent enough view of the monitors broadcasting !!!'s set. I have yet to see !!! in all its glory—I only caught a few songs from way far back in the crowd at Lollapalooza last year—which I actually regret; it seems like the kind of frenzied dance spectacle I tend to enjoy. However, The Hold Steady takes precedence, as it guarantees not only a killer show but music that doesn't grate on me after a few songs (as !!! often does).
6:24pm, Scott: A friend describes !!!, perfectly, as "an evil Go! Team."
6:33pm, Nathan: The lead singer of !!! moves like a spastic Mick Jagger and looks like the HR guy from your office or Nick Swardson's roller-skating prostitute from Reno 911, and not just because of the too-tight, somehow obscene short shorts. Ah, so that's what happened to the singer from Skunk Anansie: She's now the back-up singer for !!! The band sounds like a bubblegum LCD Soundsystem—good time dance music for white people with a ginormous band and crazy-positive energy.
6:42pm, Scott: Half-American, half-African group Extra Golden crafts a groove from multiple threads of warm, wiry guitar. Except for some extra fuzz on Alex Minoff's guitar, there's little to mark it as a self-conscious indie-rock-meets-world-music project. Instead, Minoff and fellow American Ian Eagleson have a great feel for balancing their sensibilities with that of drummer Onyango Wuod Omari and guitarist Opiyo Bilongo. As they jam through "Ilando Gima Onge," Vampire Weekend tunes like "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" sound like pleasant dabblings in comparison.
6:45pm, David: !!!'s Nic Offer sneers, "We're the lowest-rated band playing the highest spot on the bill. I guess the kid's know something the critics don't."
6:45pm, Genevieve: A group of four people who have clearly been rolling in the mud puddles that have formed near the porta-potties make their way toward the front of the stage. I guess that's one way to make your way through the crowd—and get ringworm.
7:08pm, Steven: The sun is out, sexy hippie girls are dancing in the mud directly in front of me, and The Hold Steady is playing "Sequestered In Memphis" for a ridiculously large and adoring crowd. All is right in the world.
7:11pm, Josh: Just to get him riled up during The Hold Steady's set, I text Steven Hyden: "guitar solo blah blah blah."
7:15pm, Genevieve: The Hold Steady is, predictably, killing it in what ends up being my favorite performance of the weekend. This is the first crowd that seems almost entirely devoid of pretense, and the only time during the festival I feel like I can sing and jump around without being judged by some dude in gold pants and a fanny pack—though the thick clouds of marijuana smoke billowing over my head probably help in that as well. As I struggle through my beery, smoky haze to keep up with the frequent handclap breakdowns that range from good ol' fourth notes to syncopated confusion, it occurs to me that, for a band that courts such a presumably intoxicated audience, The Hold Steady demands some pretty difficult clap-alongs. During a manic sixteenth-note clap-down, my brand-new melted-vinyl ring breaks. There's a metaphor to be made here, I'm sure, but I'm just pissed I wasted five bucks. However, I quickly recover when Craig Finn introduces "Navy Sheets," my favorite song from Stay Positive.
7:30, Josh: Atlas Sound's Bradford Cox—you know, that super-skinny guy who lots of people think is music's next great hope?—starts his set by saying, "I have no idea what the fuck I'm gonna do." Still, he's about half-awesome, twiddling knobs and strumming his acoustic into weird little sheets of pop noise. Imagine how great he'll be when he knows what the fuck he's gonna do!
8:35pm, Sean: God knows I love him (though obviously not as much as the legion of aging, bookish groupies squealing in the front row), but Jarvis Cocker's new material hasn't impressed me much, either on record or live. "Fat Children" aside, he seems to be stuck in "Sylvia" mode, rewriting the same overblown, mid-tempo ballad over and over. I write in my notebook, "A little more Pulp, a little less pap," then hold my bon mot aloft in triumph.
8:37pm, Nathan: Jarvis Cocker—sexy motherfucker. If Lou Barlow is all about quantity when it comes to banter, then Cocker is all about quality. His extended riff about getting the Cliffs Notes take on Chicago from Wikipedia was all charming and shit. Jarvis doesn't perform a single Pulp song, yet I can't imagine anyone going home remotely dissatisfied—it was probably the best performance of the festival. All protest songs should extensively use the word "cunt." Jarvis pronounced Barack Obama's name in a most beguiling way.
9pm, Scott: The moment Jarvis Cocker wraps up his encore, Animal Collective's stage bubbles up with whooshing and gurgling noises. The whole mood of things suddenly flips around, cooled off and re-energized in crowd favorite "Peacebone" and the Panda Bear solo song "Comfy In Nautica," to name just a couple. Also, the light display is actually kinda cool.
9:45pm, Andy: It's been the case for a while now, but Animal Collective has once again become a different band—the kind of band ideally suited for nightcap headliner slots at big outdoor festivals. Their sound was loud and searching, the stage was laced with hyperbright LED lights, and footage of the trio nattering away on the nearby screens did well to shed more mystery on exactly how they go about making songs like that. By an uncertain count, their set seemed to include three new songs. (Newness in Animal Collective world is complicated; take it here to mean not just as-yet-unreleased, but also not-yet-documented by the legions who tape their shows and pore over web videos of recent sets to try to keep up.) Avey Tare is getting evermore sweet and melodic, Panda Bear's voice is getting richer (plus he drummed a fair amount), and the Geologist still rocks a headlamp like no other.
1:52pm, Sean: It's criminal that The Dirty Projectors, a band that I could easily listen to for hours, was relegated to this 30-minute tease of a set. It's even worse that "Imagine It" was plagued by sound problems, with the vocals going missing entirely for the first half of the song. But right now I'm mostly pissed at Boris, who are making sure their chugga-chuggas are in working order, and thus nearly drowning out this already somewhat abbreviated version of "Rise Above." More proof that not every band is right for outdoor festivals.
2:25pm, Sean: Les Savy Fav's Tim Harrington continues to be the life of the party, wandering around post-interview with a wireless mic clipped to a clump of his chest hair. Could somebody please give this guy a reality show already? For Christ's sake, we've given Bret Michaels three.
3pm, Scott: At any festival, a few bands will excite the hell out of an enthusiastic niche and leave others to wonder what the fuck the appeal is. This year, Health is the poster child for those bands. Its noise-grinding precision actually takes on a lot more dimension live: Here, the monstrously awesome drumming is actually a lot scarier than the relentlessly chewed-up bursts of guitar and mice feedback. That said, Health sounds 10 times as cool in a small, dark club with bad sound.
3pm, Genevieve: As I present my backpack for a search at the festival gates, I wonder if security has pretty much given up at this point, or if they even cared that much to begin with: Right on top of my bag is a small makeup case that practically screams "Drugs are inside me!"—not that I would try to sneak drugs into a festival, much less in something so obvious. But the security lady doesn't even pretend to notice it, nor does she open any of the seven other pockets that could potentially be hiding something. Apparently as long as you're not trying to get out of buying all your food and drinks at the festival, you're free to smuggle in whatever you like.
3:15pm, Genevieve: The Balance stage seems to be running behind schedule, as Health is still playing, even though King Khan & The Shrines are set to go on now. However, as Kyle has once again shared the treasures of the VIP section with me—this time bringing me out a burrito, score!—and I have an oh-so-refreshing watermelon lemonade to wash it down with, I'm more than happy to spread out my blanket and have a little picnic. (That watermelon lemonade was my biggest festival vice this year; I probably spent more on that stuff than I did on beer.)
3:25pm, Andy: The tambourine player had no trouble keeping time, which wouldn't have proven noteworthy if not for the fact that he was floating on top of the crowd after stage-diving just to the left of the maraca player. The throng in front of the stage went nuts, definitely then and pretty much the whole time as King Khan & The Shrines leaned into grooves swiped from old soul and R&B.; It was a time-stamped sound but positively active—the kind of horn-heated funk you sometimes hear at parties and leave wondering "Why don't I seriously collect that stuff with, like, all the time and money I otherwise waste on things like eating?"
3:51pm, Scott: In full view of the crowd, Les Savy Fav's Tim Harrington prepares his first stage costume of the day: Some kind of yellow reptile-suit over sparkly red one-legged pants. As he strips right back down again during set opener "The Equestrians," he'll occasionally remember to put the mic near his face.
4pm, Genevieve: I really want to like King Khan's set, but festival fatigue combined with a pretty wretched hangover combined with the pounding of Health earlier is rendering the spectacle a little too physically painful. I'm forced to bail out a few songs in, and retreat to the grassy area between the Aluminum and Connecter stages, where I spend the majority of the remainder of the day lying in the sun and listening to Les Savy Fav and Dodos. Les Savy Fav is exhausting—in a good way—even from afar. There's no way I could handle being in the middle of that in my current state, but I am a little jealous of the manic crowd up front, which Tim Harrington is making frequent forays into. At one point, he jumps into a garbage bin in the middle of the audience and has the crowd hoist him up, trash and all.
4:01pm, Scott: "This is dream-making sauce," Harrington proclaims as he spits water into the crowd.
4:13pm, David: "Why can't we just buy this city? Why can't we just buy this gear? Why can't we wear a Sherlock [Holmes] costume with shiny armpits?" Harrington wonders aloud between songs while donning said costume and a Deerstalker hat. What, no pipe?
5:15pm, Genevieve: Strangest tattoo sighting of the festival, at the Dodos show: A guy with the Land Rover logo on his back for some reason. Sadly, he gets away before I can take a picture or ask him, "wait, what?"
6:33pm, Scott: People can't seem to decide whether to stream in or out of Ghostface and Raekwon's overcrowded set. It seems some enjoy the medleys and frequent "Wu! Tang!" chants, and others were hoping for a more coherent display of Ghostface's menacing ability to carry a full song and a story. Bonus: A woman trying to find her friend via cell phone amid this animated, "W"flashing crowd says, "Put your hand in the air, stupid bitch."
6:35pm, Sean: As Ghostface and Raekwon are taking requests from the crowd, someone calls out for "Kilo." "Y'all like that drug shit, don't you?" Ghostface says. Unfortunately, the DJ apparently didn't bring the record along. "We don't got 'Kilo.' What's up with that shit?" Indeed, what is up with that shit?
6:43pm, Nathan: Ghostface closes out a pretty good, if not great, set with Raekwon by mumbling something about the importance of keeping hip-hop culture alive and volunteering that he and Raekwon would be signing T-shirts in the back "for a small fee." Awesome! Did anyone take him up on his offer? How much was said fee? Incidentally, the cornerstones of hip-hop are now apparently rapping, DJing, graffiti, breakdancing, and charging white people a small fee for autographs. Overheard after Ghostface asked the audience to give themselves a round of applause for being true, die-hard hip-hop heads: "I'm not going to clap because I really don't deserve to."
7:15pm, Josh: Spiritualized is the Pitchfork Fest highlight for me; Jason Spaceman, who hasn't played Chicago in what seems like ages, looks healthier than ever. (His latest record, Songs In A&E; has lots of death on it, and he nearly died in 2005, so that's a surprise.) Accompanied by a pair of gospel backing singers (in addition to his regular band), he delivers one of the loudest sets of the festival, crashing through new stuff as well as a crushing "Come Together." I'm told the next day that Julia Stiles was standing behind me for the whole set.
8:03pm, Nathan: Dinosaur Jr—Is it just me or is J. Mascis a dead ringer for Larry Norman or the lost Winter Brother? A mosh pit broke out during the set, accompanied by some very retro crowd surfing. I was so nostalgic for 1994 I started to pine for the halcyon days when The Contract With America brought order and unity to a divided nation.
9:06pm, Josh: Text-message to Keith, "I don't think any of us are staying for Spoon!" We are, indeed, old and tired.
[Most photos taken by Sarah Cochran]