Yesterday marked the first day of 2011's Pitchfork Music Festival, the Chicago fest that's now in it's sixth year of running. When the Friday shows first started, they were usually dominated by big-name bands doing something special, such as Public Enemy playing It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back or the Flaming Lips participating in the "Write the Night" special. Last year, the fest began taking the logical step of making Friday just another day of the festival, though they had comedians playing their third stage. This year, it was all music, with a lineup including Thurston Moore, Guided by Voices, James Blake, and of course Animal Collective. There was a comedian there-- Community's Abed, Danny Pudi-- but unfortunately I was not there to make meta-commentary on the festival.
Despite heat index warnings prior to the festival, the weather was actually very nice and only once or twice did it get uncomfortably warm, which meant that my viewing experience was not influenced by which stages had better shade, as in years past. So, while Gatekeeper began playing ten minutes earlier than Erika M. Anderson, I decided to forego it in favor of the Past Life Martyred Saints creator. EMA's first post-Gowns record is brooding and intense, and decidedly wrong for 3:30 in the afternoon. The band played well, but the crowd struggled to get into anything, even her biggest song, "California," which closed her set with dueling violins.
In one of the most painful decisions of the festival, I decided to split my time equally between the complex rhythmic ballast of Battles and tUnE-yArDs' Afrobeat groove. The trio in Battles are professionals of the highest caliber, meaning their live renderings of their album tracks are undeniable, but their use of pre-recorded vocal samples due to the absence of vocalists rung a little hollow, especially on Mirrored standout, "Atlas."
tUnE-yArDs, on the other hand, were impressive. Frontwoman Merrill Garbus has perfected her intense, world music-influenced method of singing, and the joyousness of her perfomance, as well as her band's, had them as the most crowd-pleasing act of the night. If you were to judge merely by crowd reaction, Friday's winner was clearly tUnE-yArDs.
New Orleans rapper Curren$y took the side-stage after Tune-Yards and was immediately a charismatic force. After the audience wildly applauded his first song, Shante Franklin laughed that if the crowd was going to applaud like it was the end of his set every time, he might just leave. He called out an excited girl on her boyfriend's shoulders and when talking about drugs, he stopped himself; "I see some little ones here. Just say no, little ones." Several times, Curren$y allowed the beat to drop out completely, rolling a cappella and keeping time in a display of quality musicianship.
Bob Pollard of Guided By Voices was setting up on the main stage shortly after Curren$y's set was wrapping up, drawing an excited reaction from the crowd. He proceeded to bang through a set of almost nothing but classics, including Bee Thousand standouts like "Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory," "Gold Star For Robot Boy," and "Tractor Rape Chain." With the evening beginning to cool, the crowd was into it, and GbV ended up like some sort of bizarro-world arena rockers.
Back at the side-stage, James Blake had two obstacles to overcome: the fact that the deep silences of the songs on his debut album might have a hard time translating live, and the volume of Neko Case's main stage set. The two problems unfortunately mixed together, as some moments on tracks like "I Never Learnt to Share" were swallowed up by the Canadian singer/songwriter's powerful voice. But on more lush tracks, like the sample-driven "CMYK", everything clicked.
To close out the night, Animal Collective decorated the stage with gigantic leis, sheet-draped cones of light, and some other stage setup. Watching from afar, it was hard to see the actual musicians at their instruments at times. Their set was heavy on tribal rhythms and vocally had far less emphasis on the harmonies that have become synonymous with AnCo. There were times that their set would devolve into random noise for up to five minutes at a time before coming out the other end with another song. When they did play songs, however, the crowd was engaged and the band was engaging, jumping around the stage with fervor.
Next up: Day Two.