Another year, another Pitchfork Music Festival. But whereas I met the former two installments with unreserved enthusiasm, this year’s festival was marked by growing pains that rendered it occasionally disappointing. The main issue was the Balance stage, which replaced the tent set-up of past years as a smaller third space beyond the main stages. At first, I welcomed the news that the tent had been done away with, as its sightlines were fairly poor unless you were up close. This year, however, even if you could see just fine, the sound wasn’t always optimal. I’m guessing there were a couple of factors at work here. One, the tent, for all its problems, may have been able to contain sound in a way the open-air stage couldn’t. Two, the actual sound system was simply not equipped to deal with the larger crowd this year (the entire weekend was sold out). I’m not sure whether the speakers were small out of budgetary restrictions or out of concern for bleed into the rest of the park, but if you happened to be standing anywhere behind the sound booth, everything was extremely distant.
For instance, I’d been looking forward to capping off my Saturday by dancing to Girl Talk, but from where I stood, all I could hear was various disgruntled crowd members yelling “Turn it up!” I joined the riot for a minute but soon understood it wasn’t going to get any better, so I glumly left for the night. (Actually, I ended up at my friend Becky’s karaoke birthday party, where I talked to an old high-school crush and sang “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” in half-falsetto.) In a couple of other cases, there were extenuating circumstances. Earlier on Saturday, Fujiya & Miyagi‘s excellent take on krautrock as pop miniatures was unfortunately tinny, but I’m guessing that electronic drums and constantly whispered vocals aren’t always the easiest mix in a live setting. (Backstage, Matthew Perpetua suggested that the band isn’t much more dynamic in clubs, either. Ah well, it’s still great headphone material.) And on Sunday, Brightblack Morning Light took a good half-hour to set up, and after ten minutes, their wispy, nature-worshipping psychedelia didn’t seem worth the wait. The best performance I saw on the Balance stage, then, was The Field, who threw a bone to the Pitchfork audience by mixing a few bars of Annie’s “Heartbeat” into his dreamy glacial trance. Of course, it helped that I wriggled my way to within 20 feet of Axel Willner’s laptop.
But let’s back up. I arrived at Union Park on Friday night a little before Slint were due to go on but opted to camp out for a good spot in front of the other stage instead. I’d seen Slint on their reunion tour in 2005, and even though I do admire Spiderland, I learned then that they’re a pretty static live band, and so I didn’t feel as though I was missing much. Not being all that familiar with GZA‘s Liquid Swords (apart from “4th Chamber”), I couldn’t fully appreciate the first act I caught, but I was also bothered by a mix that buried RZA’s beats below the barking of hype men and by my suspicion that GZA didn’t really want to be there. (It was hard not to be made uncomfortable by the tepid crowd response, especially after GZA announced that he’d blown off a Wu-Tang show in Amsterdam to perform at the festival; for all the hip-hop fans in Pitchfork’s sphere, though, I’m guessing that most audience members were simply waiting for Sonic Youth.) I agree with Greg Kot that Cappadonna’s fierce rhymes upstaged GZA, anyway
Sonic Youth were my favorite band when I was a senior in high school, and they’re my favorite band today (though there were a few intervening contenders). That fact, plus the knowledge that they’re capable of a truly transcendent live set (cf. Metro, 2002) meant that Friday’s performance of Daydream Nation in its entirety held a great deal of promise. Though it’s with some reluctance, Daydream Nation is also my favorite Sonic Youth album: while on any given day, I might prefer Sister or Washing Machine or even Rather Ripped, the sheer ambition and scope of Daydream creates a sense of masterpiece that’s tough to ignore.
The show itself wasn’t perfect. Kim sounded tentative on “The Sprawl,” and Thurston improvised some guitar skronk over what Matthew Stearns1 calls the “cowbell section” of “Eric’s Trip.” I know some fans reveled in the spontaneity, but I couldn’t shake the thought that the band didn’t know, or could no longer reproduce the parts, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I would’ve preferred a note-for-note rendition. But still: I got serious chills during “Cross the Breeze,” which I’ve always loved for the way it seamlessly moves from that pretty chorus-laden guitar intro to pummeling speed-metal to a moody, darting backdrop for Kim to chant over. And I got all revved up during “Hey Joni,” which means more to me now that I’m kind of in love with Joni Mitchell lately, and you know, I’m not that much of a purist that Lee can’t shout out whatever years he wants at the end. (Lee was also, as usual, totally friendly on stage, a welcome contrast to the studied Gordon-Moore aloofness.) Before the band went on, some kid asked my friend Renee and I if this was our first time seeing Sonic Youth. I quickly calculated and said, “No, sixth.” Renee grinned and said, “More than that. I’m old.” We figured him for about 20. He spent most of the next hour bopping around and high-fiving his friends. Good for him.
1Stearns wrote the 33 1/3 book on Daydream Nation, and while he gets some decent interview material from Lee and Steve, the majority of the book is annoyingly hyperbolic, full of gushing purple prose. And when he drops that act to do a track-by-track critique, his lyrical exegeses are tenuously drawn. Not recommended.