My Saturday started off with Voxtrot, whose eager guitar-pop riled the early-afternoon audience but nonetheless struck me as unremarkable. Grizzly Bear were a better match for my mood, and the newly installed video screens on the side of each main stage afforded some great close-ups of Chris Taylor (also known, by Krista, as the Nordic Demon, owing to his diminutive build and severe blond brow) crouching to blow into a flute. But since I’d seen the band less than a month before, the delicate interludes and keening harmonies seemed lost amid the teeming park, and the set bore few surprises, so I wandered off halfway through.
In fact, by the time I was ready to bite into my annual Wishbone black-bean cake (with mango salsa; $5), the day felt like a bust so far. This was partially my fault. I insisted on sticking through Fujiya & Miyagi’s set, in case the sound improved, and thereby missed Battles, whose druggy, alien post-rock I’ve slowly been coming around to. I later heard that the band kicked all kinds of ass and so they’re probably my biggest regret. The prospect of some blanket time in the back of the park with friends also meant that I missed most of Iron & Wine‘s set, which ordinarily wouldn’t have have been a big deal, except that what I did see (Sam Beam leading a band on some hazy, expansive jams) made me a lot more interested in his new album than if he’d merely recorded another 40 minutes of fragile, honey-voiced folk songs.
Fortunately, Clipse made up for it. I like the dark, bare-bones Hell Hath No Fury but would probably like it more if I were actually in the habit of giving my whole attention over to full-length albums (as it is, hip-hop’s too distracting to put on while reading). Still, it wasn’t just my familiarity with the material that gave the Virginia rap duo’s set a leg up on GZA’s the night before. For one, fewer people on stage gave the performance more focus: each rapper was integral, not just some grunting hanger-on. The sound was better, too, so I could thrill in that floating harp glissando on “Ride Around Shining.” But more than anything, Clipse brimmed with charisma, from their infectiously energetic rapping to the way they soaked up the audience’s affection. I wondered what they made of the fact that what must surely have been their biggest crowd in a while was a sea of (mostly) white faces, all shouting along.
When I returned on Sunday, my luck continued. Junior Boys, boasting a live drummer and a newly svelte Jeremy Greenspan, had perhaps the crispest sound of the festival, even if it was strange to hear their frosty, often claustrophobic synth-pop beneath sunny summer skies. Then again, it lent a measure of appropriateness to their usual closer, “Under the Sun.” And it didn’t stop me from all-out dancing for the first time all weekend, nor the dude obviously on some sort of hallucinogenic drug next to me from dreamily reaching out to the verdant, full-leaved trees in the distance.
By contrast, I can think of few bands better suited to playing a warm Sunday at 4 PM than the Sea and Cake, especially since their new record, Everybody, harkens back to the more vibrant, organic feel of their early material. Indeed, new songs like “Exact to Me” came alive with the bright, meticulous interplay between Sam Prekop and Archer Prewitt’s guitars, and I listened to my friend Leah shout, “They’ve still got it!” throughout much of the set. They also revisited old favorites like “Jacking the Ball” and “The Argument,” which still sounded sweet, even though John McEntire now sports a ballcap to hide his bald spot and Eric Claridge, with his goatee, shoulder-length hair, and wide girth, looked like he’d be more comfortable in a suburban meat-and-potatoes blues-rock group than in the breezy, sun-dappled band on stage.
I spent a lot of time on Sunday hanging out with assorted Pitchfork writers, bloggers, and critics backstage. I have to admit, I sort of felt like a charlatan, since the occasional singles blurbs I write don’t really compare to a position as the reviews editor at VIBE, and I’m afraid I even misled Mark Richardson (who’s an extraordinarily nice guy, by the way) as to the extent of my role at Stylus (currently, not much of one).
Still, I’m happy to have met a couple of scribes I admire, like Maura Johnston and Tom Breihan, and didn’t really mind that I was missing part of Stephen Malkmus‘s set as a result until I strolled down to the Aluminum stage and heard the closing strains of “Trigger Cut.” Malkmus was performing Pavement songs, with Bob Nastanovich on drums! I later heard that he’d opened with “Heaven is a Truck,” which I wish I’d seen, but the acoustic raggedness also sapped the songs of some of their original potency. I’m not sure I agree with Miles Raymer (whose tenure as the Chicago Reader‘s chief music critic I can’t quite get over, having first met him as a drop-out punk who hung out at a smoke-filled late-night coffee shop in Kalamazoo ten years ago) that Malkmus “sounded monumentally indifferent,” but I like his zing that the lanky songwriter has “gone from actually playing groundbreaking indie rock to merely representing the idea that playing groundbreaking indie rock was once possible.” It was a nostalgia show, that’s for sure.
I tried to watch Of Montreal for a while, but the VIP riser off the side of the stage, while affording good glimpses of the band in all its slapdash costumed decadence, faced the back of the speakers (I don’t know how anyone could’ve found this satisfying), and I’d lost the opportunity to stake out a decent spot out in front, so I waited around for the Field and then called it a day. Of the four top-billed acts on Saturday and Sunday, I didn’t watch any of Cat Power or De La Soul, and I headed out each night amid the ululations of Yoko Ono and the rousing songcraft of the New Pornographers, respectively. But I’m fine with that. Even though the swarming crowds and weak sound made this year’s festival less gratifying than its predecessors, I still saw a handful of great performances, and I have a feeling things will get better in 2008.