When originally asked if I was “in” to cover the 9th annual Pitchfork Fest at Union Park in Chicago, Illinois, my response was a resounding ‘Yes’. I’m not sure if it was my intense, unruly attempt at a haiku that got me the spot, or maybe no one actually wanted to do it. But I made the cut.
LEAVING ON A JET PLANE
I left Thursday evening, packing one bag, as is my typical travel rule: travel light. I even dress lighter than usual: Flying Tiger Motorcycle t-shirt, sneakers, cut-off sweat-shorts, sunglasses. This is all from my Lebowski Collection. I never dress like this in public, because I’m not a bum. But god damn if it isn’t super comfortable. On the way to the airport, in the cab, I lose my wallet. It slips out of my super comfortable Lebowski shorts. Of course, I don’t realize this until I’m at the TSA door, primping for my pat down. The beautiful blonde cabdriver graciously brought it back to me. I graciously offered to buy her dinner in heaven and ran back into line. My plane departs at 8pm. It’s 7:40 at this time.
Once on the plane, I sit next to another beautiful blond girl. Am I on celluloid? Am I in a Hitchcock film? Hopefully all ends well for both of us. I’m not nervous on planes anymore. I tell myself, “If I’m going down, I’m taking this plane with me.” I downloaded an episode of Shameless. I always download an episode of Shameless when I go to Chicago. Seems fitting. And it gets me jazzed for hi-jinks. The plane leaps into the sky. The stewardess dims the lights. I have a granola bar, but need to maximize snack time, so I hold off. I compose another poem to occupy my time:
TAKING A PISS WHILE TRAVELING ON A BOEING 737 THAT’S FLYING 511 MPH AND EXPERIENCING MILD-TURBULENCE
Thank Christ there’s a handle.
Here comes the old girl. The stewardess hands me two minuscule bags of pretzels and one of peanuts. Then she brings me a screwdriver. Snack time commences.
Touchdown In The Land of the Delta Chicago Blues
Made it to CTA. Tickets please. Orange line to the Loop. I love Chicago at night. A rusty saxophone sings on a street corner. A man tries to scam me for money. The El barrels above, with all the timidity of an exploding volcano. Dinner at Vapiano, Italian pizza. Silliest restaurant ever. But they give you free gummy bears as you leave! #Winning. Find bed. Crash.
I wake up early and head out before the event. Pitchfork Fest is a fairly diverse crowd of bands. The city reflects such diversity and, likewise, needs to be experienced. I have coffee and a Belgian Waffle to die-for at The Bourgeois Pig in Lincoln Park, before traveling north to Simon’s Tavern. I love a good dive and this place rivals my beloved Club 34 in St. Louis. Simon’s Tavern has been open since 1934 and has been largely untouched by time, other than the modest jukebox on the wall. They have Schlitz on draft. I share my astonishment with the great bartender as he sets a pint down in front of me. I go to the jukebox and pick out a few tunes in the following order: In The City by The Jam, Shine a Light by Constantines & Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio by The Ramones (RIP Tommy). I head to Logan Hardware, the vinyl shop and vintage arcade. I’ve always imagined heaven as a kind of record store. But the free arcade machines in the back are just icing on the cake. I play Frogger, Dig-Dug, Joust. Games I played as a kid. Then I played Ms. Pac-Man. That’s my jam. I take the EL to Union Park. Now I’m ready for Pitchfork Fest.
3:50 | HUNDRED WATERS
Hundred Waters is privy to the time slot they are set with and make the most of it. Drenched in ethereal, underwater chorus and echo effects, singer Nicole Miglis has a siren call that simply captivates you. It’s an alt-rock, soft grind with some light techno nuances that sort of recall a slower, more foreboding CHVRCHES. Or a far better evolution of Evanescence. Punctuated with the occasional falsetto vocal lines and intriguing beats to put you off your clubbing frame of mind, Miglis eventually added flute to one of their songs to class up the joint.
4:15 | FACTORY FLOOR
It’s a little early in the day for this dark and banging type of techno. It simply does not lend itself to the happy-go-lucky sunny day. Luckily, Factory Floor leaves bodies on the floor, large groups of fans crowd surfing, swaying back and forth. I’ve never seen so much weed at a concert. An middle aged lady sat on a blanket next to me, lighting a spliff the size of a hog leg. God I love this city. The clash and din call to mind a Nazi Terminator taking control of the Matrix while his digital turntable starts skipping. They’re crushing Disneyland and mainlining german tech-metal. But it looks like these fans are into a proper daytime dance rave. Guitar and drummer work well together, while the digital maestro in the back thickens the din, leaving little to be reviewed here as the set becomes repetitive.
4:44 | NENEH CHERRY WITH ROCKETNUMBERNINE
With her slow and euphonic voice, and the trip-hop influenced Rocket No. 9 duo, Neneh Cherry is showcasing some new kinetic and soul-pleasing vibes that make your spine slither. “I’m addicted to you,” she sings, leaning down towards the crowd and pointing an accusatory finger.
London brother’s Ben and Tom Page (aka Rocket Number Nine) have been collaborating with Neneh Cherry for her latest album and the results seem to be working. It’s a dirtier groove laid bare beside her old catalogue of 80’s rap. She’s been in the music world for some time. Her father is legendary trumpeter Don Cherry. “I haven’t played in the US since 1992, she admits. “That’s how old I am.” The band plays “Out Of The Black,” a synth heavy tune, with jazz-influenced vocals that don’t back down. “We only have a few minutes left; time flies when you’re having a good time.” The end with her 80’s hit “Buffalo Stance” before giving it the new and improved Neneh Cherry experience.
5:20 | THE HAXAN CLOAK
This, again, is a type of claustrophobia industrial melee. Of walking through all nine circles of hell and never finding a place to rest. I do love the occasional drone metal band, but I usually enjoy hearing them put out more wattage, more firepower, typically as an extention of stoner metal. But I was unimpressed by this limited endeavor; the songs are nightmarish. Not to mean that they are bad, or poorly composed. But they are downright frightening. This is theme music for serial murderers who get away with it. And maybe that’s why they’re so damn good. The back lights flash and pulse. The spectacle is mildly intimidating. Thank god there’s still some daylight out.
5:34 | SHARON VAN ETTEN
While Haxan Cloak drudged on, there were fans camping out for good spots to see Van Etten up close and personal. Sharon is a massive talent. A sweetheart indie songwriter, with a jangly Fender Jaguar and a full backing band behind her. “Every time the sun comes up, I’m in trouble, she sings from a new song. Hard to imagine that this thankful and magnetic singer would be in any kind of trouble. She goes to great lengths to introduce and thank her band, as well as thank the band they just ended their tour with, before thanking the audience. There’s not a mean bone in her body, which translates her to music well: it’s nice rock. Heartfelt and hopeful, at times whimsical and subdued, this indie kid has got a lot of good streaks left in her.
6:19 | SZA
SZA, aka Solana Rowe, brings her brand of drowsy, ethereal RnB and cloud rap with a sultry smile on stage. It’s the type of voice that recalls a Corrine Bailey Rae, or Lana Del Ray. But without a smaller venue to encapsulate such a large sound, SZA loses some of her allure, making it more difficult to keep fans interested in seeing what she has to offer. I’m only able to catch a two or three songs before moving on to the next great group. But, as SZA is technically a St. Louisan, she will be on my list to see again when she comes through. Definitely worth listening.
6:37 | SUN KIL MOON
Mark Kozelek’s songwriting flare takes a decidedly southwestern feel to craft his stories. Akin to an acoustic folk version of The Nationals, SKM feature a languid yet balanced set. The songs start off with Mark Kozelek’s classical guitar, strummed in a spanish style with his fingers. He’s very adept at this style of playing. It requires careful consideration, placement and fluidity. Which seems to be how Kozelek also focuses on his songwriting as well. Profound and layering lyrics that indulge in details at every turn. Before you know it, he has you hooked, while making it all seem so effortless, with devastatingly true storytelling and melancholy recollections of his family life, turning so much pain into beautiful sounds.
7:20 | AVEY TARE’S SLASHER FLICKS
Kiddo punk rock for the Urban Outfitter crowd. And yet, there’s something here, beneath the endless saccharine hooks, that really call for your attention. Maybe it’s the creativity, the uniqueness, the silliness. Being the side project of Animal Collective’s Dave “Avey Tare” Portner, I can only surmise that whatever wires and lines are getting crisscrossed in that man’s head, he’s finding a way to play it out all on stage. Whatever it is, it’s working for the band in spades. It’s a psychedelic and groovy rollercoaster of a band that seems as disorienting as a funhouse mirror. But that’s ok, because those are quite fun. The crowd loves every minute of their set and seems less interested in departing for Giorgio Moroder. But there is more to see.
7:30 | GIORGIO MORODER
Giorgio Moroder used his set to DJ some of his classic collaborations work as a producer with a big screen light show straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The crowd goes hangs on every beat and classic hook: Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away,” Donna Summer’s “On The Radio” and, more recently, Daft’s Punk’s “Giorgio by Moroder.” He was a giant in his day, helping to pioneer disco and dance music and influencing several generations of musicians.
8:35 | BECK
The way Beck rails on the guitar as he plays the “Devils’ Haircut” riff, you would think that that riff would define him. But there is so much Beck to love. I first listened to Beck in early high school, much like many of us did. “Mellow Gold” was an album that would have a lasting effect on me, in terms of it’s poetry, it’s unpredictability, and it’s star singer; the first of the freak-folkies, but who could also get funky when the time called for it. Flash-forward twenty years and Beck is larger than life now. Or at least much larger than he ever thought he would be, recording junk store songs on an 8-track in a basement.
The crowd is thick as thieves in heavy cream. One humongous, multi-headed siamese twin. They given up on the poster selling FlatStock and the gift booths surrounding the perimeter. Here was the act they all came for. Beck, adorned in a trademark black Amish hat and coat, moved all over the stage. He recently played St. Louis the past week, and I have to admit, I wish I would have caught him at The Pageant. While this is an amazing experience, seeing him in St. Louis would have been much more intimate, a much easier show to take part in. Here, I feel like a middle child, shoving siblings for more elbow room, constantly vying for more resources. I’m close at first and am able to grab a good vantage point for a few hits. But waves of crowds pour in from all sides and I’m caught in a current that sweeps me back out farther. However, the large screens next to each stage allow me to pick-up what I’m missing. I, like many others, are waiting for Beck to roll through all his greatest hits of yesteryear. “One Foot In The Grave.” “MTV Makes Me Want To Smoke Crack.” His recent album, “Morning Phase” gets a proper treatment. It makes me think maybe Beck isn’t the best sort of festival act to be had. His new material, though exceptional, is really quite low-key and passive, which really isn’t how anybody likes to see him. I did get to hear a stirring, active rendition of his original hit, “Loser,” which I surprised to learn that I still know all of the lyrics to. I was quite proud of myself.