Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Half-assed Pitchfork Write-up, Part II

Continued from Part I.

One does not take the recommendations of a French punk in high heels lightly, and so I floated back to the red stage for Swans as soon as Savages had packed it in.  Until seeing them play the Melt! Festival outside Berlin a couple summers ago, I knew of them only vaguely as that late 80s goth band a bit artier and far less camp than Sisters of Mercy (an assumption I would later learn didn't even begin to do them justice).  After seeing the tectonic black magic they stirred up live, though, I was an immediate convert, making them one of the few groups I'd go out of my way to see more than once.  What I remember blindsiding me and my two Finnish companions, who (so I thought) were even less familiar with them than I, at Melt! was the uniquely visceral nature of their sound: it had the bludgeoning power of death metal but the deceptively sparse arrangements of a modernist string quartet.  Not that they were exactly minimalist - they enlisted the services of two drummers and three guitarists at any given moment and were fond of tubular bells - but their tightly wound, hypnotic attack had a way of sneaking up on you and forcing you to respond, rather than offering itself upfront for dismissal as a type of music you simply don't care for.

The approach was nearly identical in Chicago.  It's a solid strategy, not least of all for a band that, after a fifteen year hiatus, needed to capture the attention of greener ears, to supplement a fanbase that is both aging and probably pretty modest to begin with (they are no, say, Breeders, who were busy setting up at the main stage).  For said greener ears it's therefore hard to discern whether their current sound is the way they've always been, or whether they're simply leaner and meaner now that the stakes are higher on moving bodies (especially since moving units, in the age of Spotify, is next to impossible).  Lydia Lunch claims the latter, and manages to disparage my generation's tunnel vision when she does so.  So too did Swans frontman/mastermind Michael Gira (all silver mane and crow's feet these days, like Nick Cave and Jeff Bridges' love child), albeit a bit more benignly, via a mid-set comment about our "tight britches" paired with a rhyme that the day's first joint wiped from my short-term memory.  And let's be honest: the Pitchfork Music Festival is basically Easy Target Central, whether your pleasure is the plaid dude behind me extolling NPR's manifold virtues ("It keeps my mind sharp on long drives") or the suppler yields of "Urban Outfitters assistant managers" offering generous rump cuts to the Windy City's hungry eyes.

By the end of Swans I found myself once again alone, and so took the opportunity to buy beer, sweet potato fries, and an inexcusably bullshit hot dog.  As I took my meal under a grove of trees where many others were doing the same, I thought back to riding the CTA bus to get to the festival earlier that day.  Specifically, I thought of the kid overheard on the phone reporting his ETA and firmly instructing his friends to "not take the thizz yet."  He endeared himself to me in that moment on a few levels.  First, he couldn't have been any older than nineteen, and was very possibly younger, thus absolving him of any trespasses he might make against public dignity in my moral universe.  (To put things in perspective, I'm of the immovable position that no inquiry into whether George Zimmerman was technically acting in self-defense could advance past the simple fact of Trayvon Martin's age.)  Second, he made no attempt to euphemize his and his cohort's upcoming ingestion of controlled substances.  Did he think "thizz" was code enough?  Did he judge the double baker's dozen that boarded at North Ave. with him to be just old and out-of-touch enough not to know raver slang?  Or had he simply persuaded himself he wouldn't be judged?  Although the safest conjecture would've been none of the above, that he was a white North Shore suburbanite blissfully ignorant of the big city's don'ts and be carefuls, my more democratic impulses much preferred to think that he looked around himself and decided that he was among friends.  Looking around Union Park at the walking talking signifiers for the music snob taste community, I figured that if I were ever to feel that way, it would be here.

Kim Deal, I think.
In that way the Breeders, the day's second-to-headlining main stage act, was Pitchfork in quintessence.  Their meat-and-potatoes indie rock isn't Great Rock 101 the way, say, Pixies is, and rather than applying old tricks to new tunes the way, say, Swans did, they were playing a classic album in its entirety.  In short, I doubt the kids came to see Kim Deal: this set was for devotees of the 90s and all its treasures.  Not that this audience was in short supply, if the enormous crowd worshiping the hems of her mom jeans were any indication.  They just averaged more towards house-buying/baby-making age, their youthful follies behind them, settling into a midtempo groove - kind of like the Breeders, actually, who I like but don't love.

You'll have to excuse Andy Stott but Farmville is serious business.
In stark contrast was Andy Stott, a Manchester producer playing over at the low stakes blue stage (where Low had been overlapped with the Breeders in what can only be presumed to be contractual passive aggression).  This region of the festival was generally reserved for hip-hop and techno acts as part of the Pitchfork empire's backhanded attempts at diversification, but other than a description solicited from the couple behind me ("kind of really chill downtempo kind of thing"), I had no idea what to expect, although judging by the demonstrably teenaged crowd around me, it was meant to be danceable.  The decidedly undanceable tidal waves of bass and agonized screaming that greeted us were therefore a happy surprise, most of all because I could imagine it was hardly so happy for anyone else.  Eventually he settled into serviceable but rote deep house - throbbing 4/4, anonymous chanteuses - but for a brief, blissful, blitzed-out moment I was able to imagine that this super-hip club headliner was as antisocial as I was.

Great Scot, it's Stuart Murdoch!
My shortlived schadenfreude was but a palate-cleanser for the all-inclusive togetherness I would feel at the final act of the day, indie-pop elder statesmen Belle & Sebastian.  Having "discovered" them in college, I was a late convert to their deceptively straightlaced, distinctively Glaswegian style of AM pop, which had peaked critically sometime between the late 90s and my junior year of high school.  This theoretically made me doubly abstracted from what was designed as music for disaffected youth: not only was I already a few years past the age dramatized, but this Dylan-by-way-of-Lee-Hazlewood stuff was already a nostalgia trip to begin with.  But somehow that's pretty much the opposite of the almost overwhelming affect that overcame me when the familiar chords of "Boy with the Arab Strap" greeted the floodlit night sky.  Blame it on the booze, the weed, or the generous good vibes.  Or maybe blame it on Stuart Murdoch's way with a sheepishly sardonic lyric, which goes from Donald Fagen at inception to Nico at delivery (although his years of showmanship have rendered him more of a Jarvis Cocker these days, and that's no criticism).  For my money Belle & Sebastian's are among the relatively few rock lyrics I bother paying any attention, and "Judy and the Dream of Horses" is one of the best epitaphs of lost innocence I've yet to hear, which is to say nothing of that elegantly elementary strummed acoustic that ushers in Murdoch's lisped lament and the Burt Bacharach horns that pay it off.  Most remarkable of all, however, was the active involvement of an attendant constituency visibly too young to have been contemporary even with Dear Catastrophe Waitress.  Murdoch pulled a large group, wisely mostly female, onstage near the end, and though one did feel inspired to strip down to her bra, remarkably (mercifully) none felt inspired to twerk.  Like the enormous crowd at ground level before them, they looked nothing other than caught up in the unironic joy of it all, some of them even close to tears, maybe even yours truly included, but that's just between you and me, okay?

Occasionally my mind wandered to that kid on the Ashland bus.  Surely the ecstasy had taken its intended effect by now.  Whatever I was feeling, I could only imagine he and his cohort were feeling it times ten.  Assuming they were at Belle & Sebastian, that is, and not at the blue stage, where another Glaswegian, Rustie, was playing.  Come to think of it, that's probably exactly where they were.  Fucking kids these days don't know how good they have it.

*Photos once again courtesy Pitchfork Media.

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