There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical and critical of the music festival industrial complex. (Yes I am calling it that.) All of the overpriced tickets and corporate branding are pretty gross, not to mention the way festivals put musicians who could otherwise play smaller venues onto these enormous stages, turning each performance into a large inaccessible spectacle rather than something individuals can engage with directly. Even when all of the negative aspects of large music festivals are considered, Pitchfork Music Festival is still an annual tradition that I am always pretty excited about. Mostly, this is because the line-up is always exceptional. At least for the three years I have been attending, the festival has continuously been a guaranteed way to see 40+ sets in three days by artists that are incredibly worthwhile, or at least engaging from a critical standpoint. I am also a fan of the books tent (with readings throughout the weekend) and the record fair (which this year featured tables by Don Giovanni, Feeding Tube, Merge, Polyvinyl, and many more, including local record shops). Plus, P4k Fest is also a nice annual excuse to visit Chicago. (Other highlights from this year’s trip: searching for zine-making inspiration at Quimby’s; vegan diner food at Chicago Diner; the Daniel Clowes exhibit at MCA.) While a lot of the coverage of this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival has focused on the headliners (Bjork and R Kelly), we focused on the earlier sets to find the most interesting and noteworthy moments.
A lot of times, when bands don’t talk much between their sets, I think they are apathetic idiots with nothing interesting to say. (A lot of times that is the case.) But Savages challenge that idea entirely. There is something powerful with the way this band purposefully uses the moments of silence between each song – only to be expected from a band with a record titled Silence Yourself. The title of Savages’ record is a challenge that they are not kidding about. There is too much noise in this world. Silence yourselves.
It’s as if these silent pauses are singer Jehnny Beth’s way of screaming, “listen to what I am about to say” or “this next song is really, really important.” At least, that certainly seemed to be the case at Pitchfork Festival; where the vastness of the festival stage only made her silence seem more piercing. The expansive sea of thousands watching only made her aggressively blank stare back at them seem more confrontational. Pulsing her mic and stomping across the stage, Beth howled, “The world's a dead sorry hole / and I'm cold, and I'm cold” on the song “Shut Up.”
“This song is called ‘Fuckers’,” was the first thing I heard her say on stage. Over a muted minimal bass line and no drums, just littled echoes of guitar noises, Beth hunched around her mic, holding is with both hands, demanding, “Don’t let the fuckers get you down / don’t let the fuckers get you down.” Later, the only other words she uttered were before “She Will”. “This one’s for the ladies,” Beth said to introduce the song, a commanding moment of the set for which she walked to the front of the stage and recited the opening lines with barely any instrumentation.
This was my first time seeing Savages play and I was overwhelming struck by the sense of intention that drives their performance -- there seems to be purpose in not just every word but also every drum beat, guitar or bass riff, every step and every shout and every pulse of a fist in the air. This was 100% the highlight of my weekend.
Killer Mike, both solo and with el-p as "Run the Jewels," was also a clear highlight of the festival. Unlike other groups who have played Union Park on Chicago’s Near West Side, he remained both free of meaningful controversy and aware of his environment, and the temperature of his host city’s neighborhoods. The songs boomed in the heat, dirty and insistent as Atlanta hip hop should be, and the MC & his Brooklyn counterpart flowed smoothly and powerfully through empathetic, energetic sets that lacked not one bit of context. On “Reagan,” he raps, “They declared the war on drugs like a war on terror
/ But it really did was let the police terrorize whoever
/ But mostly black boys, but they would call us ‘niggers’
/ And lay us on our belly, while they fingers on they triggers.”
Chicago, like most major cities, knows police terror well—here and elsewhere, settlements for police brutality, police torture, and police killings are just the cost of doing business. And while Ronald Reagan began the “War on Drugs,” the hometown president has done nothing to abate it. The prisons in Illinois and elsewhere house more prisoners per capita than any country in the world, and many, many millions of them serve for non-violent drug offenses, sentenced to a life of hardship even after release by the policies of the last 4 Presidents.
The set was intensely personal throughout, as Killer Mike recalled his roots as a community organizer that drew him to music in the first place. “I challenge you to do simple things,” he said to the crowd. “Like get to know your neighbor, and have sympathy and empathy for other people. If you do those things, Chicago turns around, this country turns around, this world turns around."
Almost in tears, he addressed the crowd near his final song: “truly this is church, and rap music is my religion.” When he raps on “Untitled,” “I don’t trust the church or the government,” I can’t presume he means that he doesn’t trust religion in the abstract, only that exclusionary institutions poison any chance for obtaining self-actualization and social change. The crowd sustained Killer Mike, and Killer Mike moved the crowd—“This is what church is supposed to look like,” he said, looking out at the crowd of thousands. His set closed to loud cheers.
EL-P / RUN THE JEWELS
Killer Mike paused long enough before joining El-P on the next stage as “Run The Jewels” to change his Jordans and retweet a bunch of fan love, and, presumably, smoke a joint. During “Run The Jewels,” el-p, whose solo offerings energized the crowd, followed up a cutting and richly deserved indictment of the modern American media landscape by providing his own answer: “Smoke weed.” Puffs dotted the mass of fans.
The rappers styles meshed well, with el-P’s more rapid-fire delivery providing a nice counterpoint to the more deliberate stylings of Killer Mike. (Mike. Can I call you Mike?) Run the Jewels spent a lot of their set hawking their eponymous beer, too, which was developed jointly with local brewery Goose Island and fittingly designed to taste like weed. The beer was for sale at the festival through the weekend. It was delicious, and the schilling wasn’t obnoxious at all—the pair just seemed thrilled to have a beer named after them.
And as their set ended, they turned to Chicago, addressing the violence and misery that are episodic of neoliberal policies here and elsewhere that decimate social support systems like public schools and mental health clinics. 23 people were shot in the city the weekend of Pitchfork festival, and Killer Mike ended with a call to stop the violence: “Take care of each other … . Support Ameena Matthews. Support the Interrupters.” Let’s hope some in attendance listened.
My appreciation for Solange Knowles has been on the rise lately. "I have not gone to sleep, because all I can think about is what can be done," she tweeted earlier this month, urging her followers to rally for justice for Trayvon Martin. "The message sent across the world will not be accepted...by me." She also tweeted encouraging her fans to take action. "I really urge everyone today to demand that the Dept of Justice proceed w/ a Federal Civil Rights case against Zimmerman w/a FAIR Jury!" she wrote. "I urge you to write an email or letter to The Department of Justice demanding a civil rights case.....Email: firstname.lastname@example.org."
Her set didn’t address her recent activism, but regardless, this was the context on my mind when Solange took the stage at Pitchfork Festival on Saturday, early evening. “Can we all turn our phones off and lose it together for this next song?” she asked mid-set, before delving into her much-loved single “Losing You.” (For which Solange and her backing band brought out some dance moves quite similar to the ones in their excellent music video.) Solange’s set was made up of songs from 2009’s Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams and 2012’s True EP, plus a cover of the Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness is the Move.” The crowd danced and sang along throughout, and Solange seemed legitimately ecstatic to be there. It was refreshing. She smiled the whole way through, and I think most of the crowd did too. The whole set exuded a sort of relentless positivity and upbeat energy that I think the entire world could use more of right now. Thank U Solange.
… AND YOU WILL KNOW US BY THE TRAIL OF DEAD
Conrad Keely, singer and guitarist for Austin’s …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, took the stage Saturday wearing a Pussy Riot shirt. Though they’re not in a Siberian work camp, the band knows a thing about exile. After receiving indie’s holiest of holies, a perfect rating from the festival’s namesake, the band saw its next offering panned by the same site, in dramatic fashion. The band acknowledged this with humor prior to launching into, “Will You Smile Again,” of that album, World’s Apart. The crowd went nuts.
In some ways, Trail of Dead’s show reminded me of an event 12 months ago, when Cloud Nothings treated the same stage to another epic, melancholic set, albeit given to a bigger audience and in the pouring rain. In some ways, too, Saturday’s set reminded me of another event on the same field, an even that happened 10 months prior, when thousands rallied and marched against in support of the Chicago Teachers Union, then on strike for things as basic as having textbooks available on the first day of class and school support staff like guidance counselors.
It’s not exactly a stretch. It’s not as if the modern labor movement is any stranger to melancholy... as organizer, journalist, and Pitchfork Attendee Micah Uetricht wrote about the status quo: “picture labor flat on its back on, say, a stainless steel emergency room operating table, its heartbeat heard only occasionally and faintly....” Plenty of downer energy to go around. The CTU’s strike last year, though, was the opposite, winning concessions from the city on many important metrics that dictate the quality of life for workers, students, and families. The metrics that matter are not always numbers—scores on tests or webzine reviews or the results of possibly non-existent studies about a longer school day—but the lived experience of those involved.
Both the strike—which flooded streets, corners, and train cars with supporters, and the set, which ebbed and swelled, shrieks punctuating the guitars when they weren’t distorted and thunderous drums when they were, propulsive rhythms changing time and intensity—energized and moved those in attendance. Trail of Dead got a 2 or a 4 or whatever on that one record, and a 10 on the other, but Saturday’s crowd mostly didn’t care. They were stoked for every song; stoked to be seeing a band that seemed to be stoked, too.
Down with numbers… up the people.