25 July 2007

Pitchfork Report

I'm a few days behind here, but it's about time for me to give my two cents about my short stay at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park in Chicago. I didn't get to go beginning to end like I did last year, but what I caught was fun. I ate well and got a little sun. Dollar for dollar, this is always one of the greatest bargains in music festivals. My five hours there were well worth the price of admission.

I rode the Metra train to Union Station and walked ten blocks west. Before I got to Chicago, I spent an hour talking to Brian, a nut job who had some convoluted story about taking a cab to get to the Northbrook train station in order to catch another train downtown to get to Elmwood Park to see his girlfriend. I now know every bit of his personal history, and I feel dumber for it.

I got a little hungry on the walk over, and I stopped at a restaurant in Greek Town to get some cheese sticks, an authentic Greek delicacy. (On a side note, Artopolis is a great restaurant in the area that is well worth checking out.) I picked up my tickets at will call, and ran full speed ahead to the side stage to see Powerhouse Sound perform.

The Powerhouse Sound album has two faces. The new release was a double album with a European version and a U.S. version on two disks. The stateside incarnation was performing in the first slot at Pitchfork Festival. There is also a European version of Powerhouse Sound that obviously did not play today.

Multi-reedist Ken Vandermark is the band leader for both incarnations of the band, including today's Chicago-based group. Nate McBride plays electronic bass. The guitar/drums in the band are played by two members of Chicago jazzbo heavy-hitters Tortoise. Jeff Parker manned the guitar and John Herndon played the drum kit.

The set was a definite showcase for Vandermark, who I would guess may have been playing for much of the crowd for the first time. Powerhouse Sound has a very high energy dynamic that hopefully will regroup for another album or show in the future. It was great to see these kind of crowds give this kind of reaction to these outstanding performers. The energy of the crowd trumps the could-care-less vibe that permeated some of the Empty Bottle shows in the past. Hopefully the show turns more people on to the undiscovered treasure that is the community of Chicago improvisers.

Next, I went to explore the fantastic dining options available at the festival. Pitchfork always has magnificent options for the vegetarian and vegan community. I had organic lentils served with onions, tomatoes and Indian spices on a bed of rice from Bombay Station. I also enjoyed a watermelon lemonade from the Southern outpost Wishbone, as well as vegan soy chocolate chip "ice cream" from Chicago Soy Dairy Temptation.

There were other options as well, from hummus, tabouli and spicy seitan at Big Bite catering, the vegetarian pad Thai at Star of Siam, and the veggie quesadillas and roasted corn at the Goose Island booth served along with their summer beer offerings at another tent. There was even a Chipotle there. You could eat five vegetarian meals at the event and not repeat anything once.

After my lunch, I caught a bit of the Califone set. Califone rose from the ashes of the band Red Red Meat. The band offers a beautiful take on American folk music, with a bluegrass root coming through on the diverse array of songs they play. The band played an absolutely amazing set with Wilco on a previous tour, and they seem poised to make a major breakthrough at some unknown future date.

Next, I went back to the side stage to catch the William Parker Quartet. If Powerhouse Sound was all about explosive energy, William Parker's outfit was about understatement and restraint. The band is led by Parker, a bass player who has recorded with many of the titans of free jazz. He plays alongside Lewis Barnes on trumpet, Rob Brown on alto sax and Hamid Drake on the drums. The set was good, though hardly the best I've seen the quartet perform. The sound quality was poor at best, with a 10 minute blast of unexplained feedback that apparently plagued the stage all weekend. Really, though, after Hamid Drake's solo that mimics an assault on the senses, all was forgiven.

The next band was Voxtrot. A couple of their songs (particularly "Kid Gloves") get tons of play on Sirius. The show was nothing special. I preferred the studio product to its live counterpart.

The underwhelming Voxtrot set gave me some time to check out the goods for sale in the market and at Flatstock. The market contained many craft products as well as a pile of independent music in any format imaginable. Flatstock was an on-site concert poster gallery that has tons of great artwork by a variety of artists.

Grizzly Bear played next, and they were excellent. The lead singer was playing this crazy dulcimer instrument that gave the songs a fairy tale quality. The Brooklyn band played a strong set that explains what all the buzz they have created is all about. This band is definitely worth checking out. The Girl Talk remix of the song "Knife" gives two Pitchfork sweethearts a chance to share talents, and it is also a great starting point to check the band out.

The slow drone of the band Beach House could have bored me to tears. It was a dark, depressing, morose soundtrack that was closer to ambient electronic minimalism than the typical singer/instrumentalist duo puts out. This duo was about as exciting as any part of the Tour de France or statistics class.

There was no way Beach House could compete when the band following them was Battles. Guitarist/laptop master/vocalist (if that is the right term for his indistinguishably processed vocals) Tyondai Braxton played at last year's Pitchfork Festival. The other members of the group (John Stanier on drums, Ian Williams on guitar and keyboards, and Dave Konopka on guitar and bass) make this outfit one of math rock's most formidable units, and their live show is all energy. This show was great, and if this band is within 400 miles of you, drive there and check it out. (Also, as a free taste, check out the YouTube clip of their video "Atlas", a clip which may be the best video of the year by a mile and a half.)

I also saw Fujiya and Miyagi, the trio who released one of my favorite dance tracks of the year in "Collarbone". I thought these guys were more electronic than analog, but they actually play infectious dance music live, and it's sure to get the floor moving.

In addition, I saw the beginning of the Iron and Wine set. It was too bad I had to leave early to go to dinner. Their music (truly they are soloist Sam Beam who sometimes plays alongside other musicians) is a soothing folk-tinged rock that runs the gamut from country to folk to prison songs performed with beautiful emotion, taking a few stops between that break up the sweet emotion evoked in the last ballad.

I also wanted to (but didn't get a chance to) see Clipse and Girl Talk to see what all the hype was about. I might have liked to have seen the Lightbox Orchestra at the beginning of day three.I might also have killed somebody to get a chance to see the GZA do "Liquid Swords" alongside Sonic Youth's full rendition of "Daydream Nation". But my five hours at the fest were well worth it, those things considered. Luckily I escaped before headliner Yoko Ono went on. All in all, the show was great,and I'll be there with bells on for next year's Fork. All of my photographs are in the Picasa link below.

Last Trip

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