Saturday, July 19, 2008

Pitchfork Festival, July 18 and 19, 2008

There have been changes to this fourth installment of the Pitchfork Music Festival. More food stands! More Porta-a-Potties! The Balance Stage, for somewhat lesser known acts (but a few are pretty known), has been moved, for safety reasons.

But the most important change was that the organizers upgraded the sound system, after being plagued with problems last year. This was evident when the first band, Mission Of Burma, took the stage on Friday night.

Mission Of Burma has to be loud. And man, were they ever on Friday night! The sound system was clearly upgraded.

The band played the entirety of its sole pre-reunion album Vs. (plus a few other songs at the top of the set -- it's a short album!). I'm a big fan of Burma, but I'm not an expert on the band's back catalog. In college, I played "That's When I Reach For My Revolver" and "Academy Fight Song", and I used to see Roger Miller solo back in day, and he'd do an old Burma tune or two (such as "This Is Not A Photograph"). I know Burma's albums in retrospect, unlike the band's two post-reunion albums, which I could live with from day one, and which I really dig.

The point I'm making is that I came into this set loving the band but not having memorized the material. The big highlight for me was "Einstein's Day", a song that Tommy Keene did a great cover of on his Isolation Party album. But there were no lowlights. Ever since Miller, Peter Prescott and Clint Conley have comeback, they sound great.

Prescott is such the anchor with a controlled fury to his drumming. Conley plays with a lot of melody, yet still manages to sound heavy. And Miller is one of my all-time favorite guitarists. He isn't a master of technique, but he gets sounds and noises and emotions and ideas out of his six string.

I just love hearing them play together. While I may not know Vs. by heart, but I know great post-punk music when I hear it, and the Burma was great.

I didn't pay much attention to Sebadoh, and the music from Bubble And Scrape didn't give me much reason to. It just doesn't do anything for me.

The main event was Public Enemy. Hank and Keith Shocklee, the amazing production team know as The Bomb Squad, did a DJ set that had some of the deepest bass I've ever heard. Or felt. My chest was reverberating from the deep bass sounds.

Eventually, the DJ came out (Terminator X is retired; now it's DJ Loud), a band played along, a ragtag group of S1Ws took the stage, and then the audience was treated to the hip-hop classic It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. As PE kicked into "Bring the Noise", it was so great, Chuck D.'s booming voice negotiating his percussive rhymes. But Flavor Flav was sampled -- what the fuck was going on?

It turns out that he was late. The reality TV star apologized and then they kicked into "Don't Believe the Hype" and all was well. Flav isn't the constant crazy dancer that he used to be, but he's still crazy. Chuck D. is still commanding, and the beats and grooves still sound fresh and demanded dancing.

Chuck D. noted how doing a full album is not Public Enemy's style, especially since some of the songs had never been performed live before. I couldn't tell you which ones, as everything sounded, for the most part, really good. Combined with the energy of everyone on stage (even Chuck, who moved around a bit) and a crowd that was totally into it, this was about as good a hip-hip set as I have ever seen, even if the S1W's weren't as good as back in the day.

It's just amazing how many great songs there are on Millions, from "She Watch Channel Zero" to "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" to the fantastic "Rebel Without a Pause" and more. I would have been pleased with just that.

But PE played a handful of other songs from throughout the group's career, including "Public Enemy Number One" and "Fight the Power" (a great set closer). In spots, the band was a help, especially the extra kick of real drums. I think Flav, despite words to the contrary, did some lip syncing, but Chuck D. was simply on. And from their banter to the way they moved around on stage, you could tell the two principles were having a blast. A great night.

Saturday, there was some rain to deal with. But I saw some more great stuff. Jay Reatard was a fury. He leads a true power trio, playing with total abandon. This was garage rock as old school metal, in some respects. The Cramps, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Didjits and other fury mongers came to mind. More than a dozen songs in 30 minutes. I don't know if it could have gone any longer.

Fleet Foxes showed that the harmonies on the band's debut album were not studio sweetened. The band opened with a capella harmonies that dazzled. From there, the band played a good portion of the debut album. I was impressed by how well everything was pulled off. Not much deviation from the album. But hearing the songs live and breathe was wonderful. I also detected something I hadn't thought while listening to the album -- some of the songs have the sophistication of Judee Sill in the melodies.

The band also had a nice low key stage demeanor, bantering with fans up front. I especially liked it when they considered themselves on one of the large video screens on the grounds.

!!! didn't impress me the first two songs of the band's set. The third song, however, had the just the right rock-funk groove. Everyone locked in and I was hooked. I loved the interplay between the bass and the drummer (or at times, drummers) and how the dorky lead singer, in the too short shorts, was somehow a dipwad and cool at the same time, and how a couple songs went about seven or eight minutes and were too short. It was the right set at the right time.

The Hold Steady then took the stage. Craig Finn and company played the first fest. Now, about three times as many people were watching. The set was tight and confident, with great lead guitar work throughout. The Hold Steady are simply a terrific rock and roll band, and the renditions of songs off the new Stay Positive album showed that it stands up as well as any in its catalog. Can't go wrong with Thin Lizzy homages, right?

My night concluded with a set from Jarvis Cocker of Pulp. He's still tall and skinny, with lots of odd stage moves. He played some of the best songs off of his first solo album (such as "Fat Children" and "Black Magic") with some non-LP material. One song was a bit of a blues number, while others had the usual bits of glam or dramatic '60s-styled pop. A couple songs didn't quite work, but overall, he was very compelling.

Two days down -- one to go.


Anonymous said...

Maybe if they would have PAID the sound company last year...they wouldnt have had any problems. But, thats the way the promoters of Pitchfork roll. Not to mention the fact that there was nothing worng with the "sound system" last year, the problem was the engineers...well, the "I think I am an engineer" morons anyway. (with the exception of the guy who did Yoko's mix <- he was the only one that knew his stuff)

mlb said...

Good running into you at the fest. I regret not getting up as close as you did for PE. The people back where we were were too cool to move to the music which just seemed bizarre. I agree with your opinions overall-- except for Jay Reatard. Wasn't a fan. I love M. Ward and seeing him live only made me love him more. And Spiritualized was mind blowingly good-- such a bummer they schedule them opposite Bon Iver.

See you at Lolla?