STICK A FORK IN IT Pitchfork Music Festival

Flaming Lips, Black Lips and lots of just plain lippy bands makin’ the
nature scene in Chi-town.

 

BY BRIAN STAKER

 

When not too long ago, music
festivals were waning along with the so-called sagging health of the music
industry in general, 2009 has somehow emerged as one of the best years in
recent memory not only for music but the apex of a new resurgence in music
festivals. Just last year the price of gasoline and the tight economy were
forcing bands to re-evaluate their touring agendas. Big festivals featuring
bands traveling long distances to play often-truncated sets didn’t seem to make
a lot of sense anymore. 

 

But this year festivals are back,
and big-time! One of the must-see festivals this year was presented by Pitchfork,
which has in some people’s eyes become so much the arbiter of indie taste that Wired magazine even went so far as to
devote an article explaining the zine’s influence to its (one presumes)
clueless geek readers. Haters call it ‘Bitchfork’ if their faves get poor
reviews. 

 

The presentation of the festival,
last weekend in Chicago’s Union Park with its baseball diamonds and horseshoe
pits, feels like a day at the park, though not your ordinary one. It’s
unabashedly a Chicago festival, with local eats
like Chicago
brats, renowned Connie’s Pizza and ‘Cevapcici,’ a Balkan lamb sausage in red
pepper and eggplant sauce, and also area brews, as well as a few local acts
like the Bowerbirds. 

 

But Pitchfork is also a festival
that can stack up against any music event in the world, with the lineup this
year. Along with indie veterans from the ‘90s Yo La Tengo, Built to Spill and
Flaming Lips, relative newcomers like the Black Lips and the Thermals
performed. But also several bands making their first festival appearances after
only being in the spotlight for a year or so, like the Pains of Being Pure at
Heart and the Vivian Girls, had their first thrill of playing for arena-size
crowds, with attendance close to 20,000 for the three-day fest. Pains were
noisy yet hummable pop that reminded me of Teenage Fanclub, while Vivian Girls’
sound recalled both shoegazer and the Riot Grrl years. 

 

Other acts that made a notable
impression at this year’s festival included flower punks Black Lips, with their
anarchic antics toned town from including bodily fluids to simply smashing a
guitar, Pete Townshend-style, shards flying out into the front row. “Anybody
need a pickup?” Ian St. Pe quipped, and it would have been just a stunt, except
their music is inspired as well. I was ready to hate The Pains of Being Pure At
Heart for their name alone, but they won me over with their grinning overdriven
melodicism and catchy tunes. Montreal
act Plants & Animals kicked off Saturday with a vengeance, with tight
three-piece garage rock that ended with chants of “NPR,” who has given them
critical acclaim. It’s a strange world we live in.

 

A few acts seemed like critical
missteps for the festival, like the Marvel Comics villain-clad hip-hopper Doom,
and Beirut
sounded tight instrumentally but better suited for a chamber hall than an
oversized venue. 

 

As the culmination of three days
showcasing the diverse spectrum of indie music, the Flaming Lips as the
crescendo of the festival was utterly transcendent, full-on ‘trip’ mode, LEDs
on the backdrop behind them strobing, finally coalescing into a woman, legs
open, a door opens in the set and band members emerge from her pulsating
vagina. After a prolonged musical intro in which Wayne Coyne roamed into the
audience in the big plastic bubble, they started their set with “Race For the
Prize,” amidst explosions of confetti cannons and yellow and orange balloons
tossed around. 

 

Flaming Lips’ set was part of the
“Write the Night’ program where attendees voted on set lists by them, Built to
Spill, Yo La Tengo, Tortoise and Jesus Lizard. They did the usual suspects like
“She Don’t Use Jelly” and “Yoshimi” but also a few surprises like
“Mountainside,” from the album From A
Priest Driven Ambulance
, and “Bad Days” which they dedicated to Chicago
Sun-Times rock journalist Jim DeRogatis. The crowd sang along with many of
these, and they concluded on “Do You Realize,” recently made the state song of Oklahoma, and also the
signature for their peculiarly loveable brand of indie rock optimism, seemingly
a rare commodity out in the world beyond the festival, where the reverberations
drift out into a pale shadow of the din within.

 

At one point Wayne Coyne said, in
the hyperbole of the moment, “Pitchfork is the monitor” of everything cool in
the indie music world. With this he capped off a weekend of indie rock bliss
and elation. Being at a Flaming Lips show is the indie music equivalent of
being at Disneyland, and that seems to sum up
the entire festival, music for the joy of music again.

 


[A pair o’ Black Lips, pictured above, photo credit Brian
Staker
]

 

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