Pitchfork Music Festival
Union Park, Chicago, July 16–18
by Matt Slaybaugh

If you read my wrap-up last year, then you already know what I’m looking for at events like Pitchfork: surprises. There’s always someone who comes seemingly out of nowhere and shocks the crowd. And as in the past, this year’s best moments had little to do with the headliners.

Girls, for instance, were an incredible sensual experience, but if you’d asked me an hour before they played, I’d have told you I wasn’t all that curious. Their performance moved from delicate and laidback to the ear-shredding fuzz they brought to “Big Bad Mean Motherfucker.” Singer Christopher Owens’ Michael Jackson–style sparkly socks seemed to say it all, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of guitarist John Anderson in his trademark Catwoman t-shirt, shimmying to the beat as he played. They were perfectly suited for the festival setting as it turns out, and I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that they made a few hundred new fans over the weekend.

Since I’ve returned to Columbus, about a dozen people have asked me about Sleigh Bells. What can I say? They do live up to the hype, if you’re into that sort of thing. In fact, if anyone at the fest was into that sort of thing, there was no shortage of acts to tickle their fancy by being more concerned about whipping the fans into a frenzy than displaying their musical acumen, whether it was present (Lightning Bolt) or not (Sleigh Bells). Some kind of reaction to the collapse of the album-sales economy, I suppose.

Among those acts, Robyn was a stand-out, which was probably a surprise to no one but me. It’s nice to see a diva who’s earned her rep the old-fashioned way: by working it non-stop. Free Energy pushed large, classic-rock gestures into indie pop service. Delorean and Big Boi had no agenda beyond good times. Titus Andronicus, no slouches for angry songwriting, sent singer Patrick Stickles diving over the barrier, leading the slamdancers in a rousing chorus of “You will always be a loser!” And LCD Soundsystem’s ironic, detached content didn’t keep James Murphy’s gobs of followers from getting lost in the euphoric beats. But leave it to Diplo, with Major Lazer, to serve up something so audacious that it was, I’m sure, the high point of the festival for many. Check out the photos, since words fail to convey the multi-culti, sexual chaos that drove the crowd absolutely nuts for an hour on Sunday night.

The biggest surprise of the weekend, though, may have been the festival’s eclectic mix of styles. There were plenty of lo-fi and folksy songwriters to hear, but Korg and Roland synths made a stunning number of appearances, and there were at least two keytars on display. Meanwhile, Local Natives brought out an unusual Talking Heads cover (“Warning Sign”) and a Freddie Mercury mustache, and came off like the Dave Matthews Band of this generation, all of which pleased the legion of fans they brought with them. The weekend made room for everything from the inscrutable Liars, to several sets of buzz-band beach-rock, to the purple-melodies of Dam-Funk, and everything in between, including Gary, Indiana’s Freddie Gibbs.

Holy shit, GI’s pride, indeed. Long story short, he showed Raekwon the door. He was stuck over on the B-stage just after the now-legendary Panda Bear started, surrounded by snotty little white kids, but Freddie just said “fuck it” and went all out. He wasn’t a minute into his set before the crowd realized they were seeing a real live, truly talented hardcore MC and responded with appropriate gusto, eventually demanding the only encore of the festival. Unforgettable.

And then... Pavement. Weirdly joyous, still pissed off, still sloppy, it’s hard to imagine what a more fitting ending for the weekend might have been. The independent music map has long been showing signs of sprawl, suburban and otherwise, and it’s strange to think that El-P, Robyn and Pavement belong on the same page, much less in the same festival, on the same stage. But here we are. Surprise.