Pitchfork keeps activist spirit with great music

July 21, 2008


Though it's unlikely that most of the 17,000 fans who attended each day knew it, the Pitchfork Music Festival originated as a small concert held by a local grassroots group called Interchange formed to register voters before the last presidential election.

Through its remarkable growth, Pitchfork has retained that activist spirit: Over the course of the festival's fourth year at the West Side's Union Park, 70 volunteers registered more than 1,200 voters from 34 states and the District of Columbia. But the community spirit was there in other ways, too.

If you've spent any time at all in Chicago club land and you came to Pitchfork for even an hour, you probably saw 200 familiar faces working hard to make the concert happen: club bookers, sound technicians, bartenders, security workers, musicians and dedicated fans. Even as it has become the country's most significant annual showcase for the rock underground, the festival has continued to be a celebration of everything that makes the Chicago music scene great -- a stark contrast to the bigger, pricier, more corporate and often soulless Lollapalooza.

The second day of the fest kicked off Saturday amid a whole lot of mud and 98 percent humidity, but the first of the main-stage acts was anything but soggy. Titus Andronicus is a New Jersey band that played the most aggressive shoegazer psychedelia I've heard -- or the dreamiest hardcore punk, if you prefer. The sextet created a wall of sound with as many as four guitars at some points, while bushy-bearded vocalist Patrick Stickles climbed the stage scaffolding, jumped into the audience and waved an American Revolution-era banner.

"This is a really nice thing, all these likeminded individuals coming together. Community spirit is a nice thing," Stickles said, inserting a dramatic pause worthy of a group that takes its name from a Shakespearean play. "Just remember that Monday morning, when you're back in the real world, all this will make absolutely no difference. This is a song about that." The group then launched into "The Enemy is Everywhere."

Fleet Foxes, a Seattle quintet touring in support of the "baroque harmonic pop jams" on its self-titled Sub Pop debut, impressed in a different way, with the vast field full of fans falling pin-drop silent as the group rendered the extended a cappella passages of its songs complete with complex multi-part harmonies.

Also effective were two groups whose albums have not wowed me: the much-buzzed New York afro-pop/ college rock combo Vampire Weekend and the Brooklyn band the Hold Steady.

Vampire Weekend's Dockers and Top-Siders preppy costumes and lyrics about the yachting life on Cape Cod still seemed contrived -- it all just "feels so unnatural/ Peter Gabriel, too," as the group sings. But there was no denying the deft but powerful Soweto-by-way-of-Manhattan grooves from drummer Chris Tomson.

Similarly, the Hold Steady's indie reworking of blue-collar, shot-and-a-beer Everyman rock -- Bruce Springsteen scaled down for the Empty Bottle -- can feel pretentious on album. But singer-songwriter Craig Finn's rah-rah-rousing anthems were perfect fist-pumping fodder for the festival crowd.

Former Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker played here for the first time since the release of his strong 2006 solo album "Jarvis," and the skinny but suave singer showed that he's lost none of the swagger, wit and style he brought to the Britpop heyday of the early '90s.

The final day of the festival kicked off Sunday under a bright blue sky -- finally! -- with the Columbus, Ohio, trio Times New Viking. Underwhelming in the past, the lo-fi garage-pop group rose to the occasion with frenetic explosions of energy and melody delivered with a pervasive exuberance that made any technical ineptitude irrelevant.

Even more energetic were the Japanese noise/stoner-rock band Boris, which proudly pummeled the crowd with doubleneck guitar and hammered-gong excess, and the Brooklyn-based old-school punk band Les Savy Fav. Vocalist Tim Harrington rolled in the mud, hopped inside a garbage barrel that fans passed through the crowd and donned a one-piece flesh-colored body suit to lead a chant of, "This is my body/This is what it does/I try to make it better/But I know it's gonna bust!"

Mind you, all of the above was more effective for the fact that Harrington is a portly, bald, bearded and otherwise mild-mannered fellow who looks more like an economics professor than Iggy Pop.

As the festival began to wind down, veteran English space-rockers Spiritualized took the stage just as the orange glow of twilight began to fill the park. Jason Pierce and the band entranced a crowd nearing the saturation point with undulating waves of alternately beautiful and frighteningly dissonant gospel-tinged psychedelia.

Closing things out were the dated indie-rock guitar jams of Dinosaur Jr. and, one last highlight of a weekend that was full of them, the angular but irresistible grooves of the Austin, Texas, art-punk band Spoon, a sometimes inconsistent live band that delivered as powerfully as it ever has.