Pitchfork fest makes a more perfect Union Park

July 20, 2009


Though some concertgoers complained that Union Park seemed much more crowded than usual, that the lines for the Porta-Potties were way too long and the sound was much too quiet, the fifth annual Pitchfork Music Festival overall was once again as great as an outdoor festival experience can be.

Chief promoter Mike Reed reported that the cap on attendance wasn't raised to make up for fewer corporate sponsors this year -- as in the past, the concert sold out at 18,300 per day, he said -- and there were more amenities than ever.

"I think what's happening is that, thanks to the cooler weather, people are just staying here longer, sticking around where in the past they might have said, 'I've seen the band I came for, and it's just too hot -- let's go,' " Reed said Sunday morning, the third straight day of moderate springlike temperatures and overcast skies.

In addition to seeing a few well-established favorites, anyone who did stay through all of the three-day festival doubtlessly was rewarded with a few wonderful artistic surprises and some unforgettable live music experiences. After the powerful homecoming of reunited noise-rockers the Jesus Lizard on Friday night, my own list of high points started with F---d Up and Ponytail on Saturday.

Art-punk provocateurs from Toronto, the members of F---ed Up are led by bald, bearded, beer-bellied singer Pink Eyes, aka Damian Abraham, a possessed front man nearly in the same league as the Jesus Lizard's David Yow. Abraham spent most of the set in the field with the fans or standing atop the crowd barriers, barking out his vocals in between grabbing any beach ball that came his way and tearing it apart with his teeth.

Meanwhile, the three guitarists and killer rhythm section churned out a gleefully energetic and melodic brand of hardcore punk.

Yoko meets the narwhal

A lot less angry but just as hyperactive, Ponytail front woman Molly Siegal dressed for the occasion in pink jeans and a phosphorescent green Michael Jackson T-shirt. She looked like she was having epileptic seizures as she pogoed nonstop and her eyes rolled to the back of her head while she sang nonsensical yelps, bleats and squeals.

Think of Yoko Ono and Bjork dueting on "Rock Lobster" by the B-52's, evoking the noises of the stingray and the narwhal, and you're still only halfway there. Yet while Siegal demanded the spotlight, guitarists Ken Seeno and Dustin Wong and drummer Jeremy Hyman created an undeniably melodic backdrop, intertwining repetitive riffs and decorating the rhythms with all manner of cool synthesized or affected noises.

Other treats on day two included the lush waves of shoegazer guitar and wispy pop harmonies delivered by the Pains of Being Pure at Heart; the delicate folkie strings and gorgeous vocals of Beth Tacular and Bower Birds; Yeasayer's modern psychedelic mix of electronic and acoustic rhythms, folk-rock harmonies, free-form jazz excursions and world percussion, and the straightforward, hard-grooving assault of steady beats, rapid-fire rhymes and inventive backing tracks from arty hip-hopper and "masked super-villain" Doom, otherwise known as Daniel Dumile.

Lips up to their own challenge

Anticipation built all day Sunday for the Flaming Lips, who spent hours preparing their psychedelic assault. But there was plenty more great music before the finale.

My third-day highlights included the Mae Shi, an experimental combo from Los Angeles that mixed punk, noise-rock, indie-pop, hip-hop and dance music with Christian-themed lyrics, and two bands led by talented singer-songwriters.

Scott Hutchison and the Scottish quartet Frightened Rabbit, masters of the heartbreak anthem, and Eric Earley and Blitzen Trapper, a folk-rock/alternative country band from Portland, entranced the crowd even during their quietest moments, far outshining the penultimate act, the slippery Brooklyn "freak-folk" band Grizzly Bear.

Finally, it was the Lips' moment. The band had flip-flopped on whether it would reprise the "Write the Night" concept to close the fest, ultimately agreeing to honor "some" requests. This longtime Lips fan -- and, full disclosure, author of a biography on the band -- was eager for anything different from the tried and true tricks of the last decade: the costumed dancers, confetti showers, giant balloons, bandleader Wayne Coyne's roll through the crowd in a "space bubble" and the rest.

In the end, the Lips kept all of those gimmicks, and they played many of the songs that have become staples of every show. But they rose above what has been in danger of becoming a Vegas-on-acid shtick in part because the festival setting called for the visual overkill, but even more because they challenged themselves musically onstage, playing two brand new songs and digging way beyond deep for several rarities they've almost never performed live, including the 1995 song "Bad Days" and the studio outtake "Enthusiasm For Life (Defeats Internal, Existential Fear)."