12 things I learned on my summer vacation (Pitchfork Music Festival edition)


What happens when the Internet’s most infamous music website hosts a festival and McNutt shows up? LEARNINGS.


1. Savages do “record collection rock” right. By “record collection rock,” I mean, “music that explicitly sounds like your record collection.” Granted, rock music is always intertextual, but some bands, like Savages, are much more so than others: it’s impossible to listen to their music and not immediately think “Joy Division Factory Records etc etc.” But the gripping, androgynous performance of vocalist Jehnny Beth and, in particular, the flailing drumming of Fay Milton add so many layers that complaining about any redundancy in the music just seems foolish.


2. …Trail of Dead know that Source Tags and Codes is what people came to see. Which is fine, because a) despite being overhyped, that record is still pretty great, and b) it allowed them to weave other songs (new and old) around those album cuts and make the case that they’re more than a one-album band. While I think their recorded material has been a mediocre argument towards that case, their live show? A rather good one. (Only regret: if the band had more time, the next song on their setlist was “Relative Ways,” dammit.)


3. The key to pulling off the “full album” nostalgia show is to look like you’re having fun. I read some negative review of The Breeders’ Last Splash set, which struck me as explicating the fundamental problem with the full-album show: no surprises, just the songs you expect, in the order you expect, sounding like you’d expect. But I liked the set in part because Last Splash holds up (obviously) but also because Kim, Kelly and the gang seemed like they were actually having fun. There were lots of laughs, inside jokes and general revelry on stage. It felt less like a festival set than a group of friends at a house party who decided to grab the instruments and play like the old days. (And yes, that’s a good thing, in this case.)


4. Killer Mike is one of the hardest working guys in rap. It’s pretty obvious that Mike’s speed on the mic isn’t matched by his feet. (He’s a big guy.) So it was rather impressive that he managed to not only rock the Green Stage with an intense, hyper-emotional solo set, but then immediately rush over to the Red stage to join El-P and perform nearly 45 minutes of material from their (quite good) collaboration, Run the Jewels. The man earned his paycheque on Sunday, for sure.


5. M.I.A.’s new material sounds very cool, but flounders live. The first time I saw M.I.A. four years ago, she was thrown into the pre-headliner slot at Coachella when Amy Winehouse cancelled and, despite her best efforts, wasn’t quite up to the task. She relied less on stage gimmicks at Pitchfork, proving how far she’s come as a performer, but her new material — harsh, abrasive, intriguing — has a sameness that made the show feel like one large drone (albeit with great dancing). When she ended the set with the 1-2 punch of “Paper Planes” and “Bad Girls,” it was a relief not because they were hits, but because they brought some variety to the table.

6. Even if I liked Joanna Newsom (which I don’t), a solo harpist is a poor fit for a penultimate slot on a festival’s Friday night.  This one sort of speaks for itself.


7. Solange knows how to host a dance party. Again, this one sort of speaks for itself, if you’ve spent any time at all with True. (Thankfully, playing to the crowd, Solange also busted out her Dirty Projectors cover.)


8. Do not mistake Bjork for some conjurer of cheap tricks. Midwest weather being what it is, each day at Pitchfork started with beautiful weather only to suddenly turn ugly as the headliner approached. Ominous black clouds began circling right before Bjork was to take the stage, but it wasn’t until the third song of her riveting set — “Thunderbolt” — that the lightning began, and ONLY after Bjork’s tesla coil tempted the gods. With 25 minutes left in the set, we were told that with extreme weather on the way the night was ending early. (The torrential rain started after we were nearing our hotel.) I would have been upset except that even a shortened Bjork set was a revelation: kinetic, tense, energetic (pun intended).


9. Yes, Belle and Sebastian is a headliner. I’ve now attended two festivals (Matador 21 and Pitchfork) with Belle and Sebastian at the top of the bill, and both times my initial reaction was, “Really?” Don’t get me wrong, I’m as big a fan of If You’re Feeling Sinister and The Boy With the Arab Strap as any upper-middle class white kid who grew up in the late 90s, but they’re the sort of records I’d put on for a quiet night in, not a big night out at a festival. (Two albums full of penultimate-band folk songs, not HEADLINER-band songs.) Welp, once again I was quite wrong. With the rain coming down, Stuart Murdoch and friends made those little folk songs groove and pop, and all around me everyone was dancing in the rain to what may have been the best set of the weekend. I’ll never doubt these Scots again.


10. Professional dancing impresses, but amateur dancing welcomes you to take part

There was plenty of dancing on-stage at Pitchfork, and as impressive as the more “professional” dancing was (Solange, M.I.A.), there was something super endearing about Bjork’s sporadically-choreographed backing choir, or the small army of kids Belle and Sebastian invited on-stage for “The Boy with the Arab Strap.” A festival is about collective experience, after all, and seeing dozens of people moving however they felt to the music was like a giant invitation to the crowd: we’re all here together, this music is great, move however you feel like. In both cases (especially Belle and Sebastian), the crowd took the cue and followed suit.


11. Irony or not, R. Kelly is a thing people enjoy. There was a lot of discussion online after R. Kelly’s festival-closing set at Pitchfork about how the majority of the crowd was there “ironically.” Yes, that may have been case for those people wearing homemade “pee on me” T-shirts, but, seriously, can we get over this whole irony/sincerity dichotomy? Anyone who’s actually paying attention to millennials and their musical tastes (and not just imposing 80s/90s scene-based terminology on them) should know that this generation has a particularly nuanced relationship with irony, its knowing winks and nods indicating not dismissal but a semi-self-aware enthusiasm and an embrace of the carnival of the absurd. And from his stock monologues about doing his “grown-ass man show” to having hundreds of balloon doves take to the sky during “I Believe I Can Fly,” R. Kelly’s show certainly was a carnival of absurdity. Kelly is clearly a problematic figure, but he seemed to win over the crowd with an astute understanding of his catalogue, performing shorter segments minor hits to pack as many in as possible but ensuring the biggest jams (“Ignition Remix, “Bump n’ Grind,” “Step in the Name of Love,” “Fly”) got the time they deserved. From where I was standing, there was no irony at all: just a big-ass crowd enjoying a grown-ass man’s R&B showcase.


12. Things you’ll probably only overhear from the crowd at Pitchfork when R. Kelly is headlining: “I don’t know how I’m going to grind without grinding on everyone.”


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