An Agit Writer at the Pitchfork Festival
by Michael P. O’Shaughnessy

There are a few rules to keep in mind while attending large, multi-stage music festivals. Rule #1: Decide on the bands you want to see beforehand, because you will not see them all. Rule #2: The bands you did not see will have invariably played the best sets of their existence.

Despite the anticipation surrounding the Pitchfork Festival’s Friday night staple show, “Don’t Look Back” (during which “classic” bands perform whole “classic” albums), this unfortunate Agit staffer was unable to obtain passage to the Union Park side of Chicago. Word of mouth has it that Public Enemy, Sebadoh and Mission of Burma were amazing, of course (see rule #2).

The three stages set up in Chicago’s Union Park allowed the 2008 Pitchfork Music Festival to schedule a variety of acts with only slightly overlapping set times throughout the day. This made it possible to see nearly every band, but also impossible to hear any band well, unless they were extremely loud or you were within 50 yards of the stage. Intersecting the three stages were beer and food tents and an art-fare style, handmade wares tent including merchandise from the various represented labels. Navigating this betwixt stage area was akin to existing in an American Apparel ad, bodysuit clad hipstresses with Jackie O sunglasses led floppy Mohawked scenesters in tennis garb about like puppies. Nearer to the stages people became sweatier, muddier because of the rain residuals, and fervently attentive to the acts. Saturday night, !!! inspired a swarming mass of bodies to grind against each other orgiastically. Touring second drummer Paul Quattrone (of Modey Lemon) smashed out caveman blast funk beats propelling wiry vocalist Nic Offer into a crazed, yelping, sex dance. A short walk away, but miles stylistically from !!!, Atlas Sound (Deerhunter singer Bradford Cox) blanketed the crowd in warm, doughy synthesizer rainbows as the sun went down. Jarvis Cocker, the clear highlight of the festival, worked out mostly new material on the audience. Undeniably charismatic, Jarvis had enough energy coursing through him to make a teenaged Mick Jagger look like a whiny child. The man is 45 and worked like an electromagnet on nearly every female at the festival, not to mention all the unabashedly fawning men bobbing their heads during his single “Black Magic.” He closed the set with a cover of “Face It” by the obscure Chicago house group Master C & J, and advised the crowd to “drop your E’s now.” Following Jarvis, unfortunately, Animal Collective was left to serenade the crowd as it trickled out. Their echo-laden choral folk came across exactly as they do through the stereo, harmonically dynamic and saccharine, but lacking in the depth and energy of the previous acts.

Another perk of large music festivals is the chance to catch more intimate club shows of smaller bands that might have been scheduled too early in the festival day (re: rule #1). Jay Reatard and King Khan and the Shrines played a show around the corner from the festival, Saturday night, in a much smaller venue. King Kahn boogied through a 45-minute set, essentially a reworking of the Stones’ “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” fronted by Cee-Lo. Party jams without a doubt, but not altogether groundbreaking. Jay Reatard, on the other hand, came across as an untamed beast. Like Cliff Burton’s overboard little brother, the Lost Sounds alum treads a line so satisfyingly tight between sugar garage and plain old thrash and ends up on the mind-blowing side of both. His guitar evidently got too hot to hold and he passed it off to a Hawaiian shirt clad fan who plunked at the strings while Jay screeched the last few lines of a song in to the mic and disappeared offstage.

Saturday’s late night excitement had a direct effect on our ability to catch early starters Times New Viking, Boris and Health. As per rule #2, hearsay deemed all three fantastic. Ghostface Killah and Chef Raekwon did their best to stir up a fuss with the large, yet flatfooted crowd. Despite having by far the most interesting solo Wu-Tang work, they chose medleys. The collective Wu-Tang verses Ghostface and Raekwon handled, glued together with poorly mixed Uzi sound effects, does not a banging show make. Scheduling changes allotted Ghostface some extra time, with which he fleshed out a few cuts from Fishscale and the Pretty Toney Album. This seemed to bring the crowd back to life just as the two offered a cuddly goodbye to Chicago and jumped in a limo. Spiritualized, possibly the only band that can fuse synapse melding gospel music with utterly misanthropic psychedelic grooves, turned every head in Union Park the other direction. There was not a nook in the area that the band did not fill with sound. In a crowd of tens of thousands, their bass alone can close your eyes and make every other soul fade away, while the vocal harmonies course through your veins and the guitar renders your every sin meaningless. Brain breaking. Dinosaur Jr. cranked through the three good songs from their new reunion album to placate the under-12 set, then dug into their deep catalog to satiate their graying diehards. “Feel the Pain,” “Out There” and “The Wagon” were about the only post-Lou Barlow songs they bothered to play, then J, Lou and Murph burned through “Forget the Swan” and “Freak Scene.” They encored with “Sludgefeast,” J pointing the guitar at the audience, the headstock like a machine gun mowing down the crowd surfers and the sweaty masses. Spoon played an innocuous ditty pop set, pulling Bradford Cox onstage for a song, but it was not enough to keep the attention of the crowds mulling around the beer tents, using up left over tickets to end the night.