9:56 PM CDT, July 19, 2013
(Greg Kot is covering the Pearl Jam concert at Wrigley Field. Bob Gendron is on tap with coverage of day one of the Pitchfork Music Festival. Look for updates from Kot and Gendron throughout the weekend.)
3:30 p.m.: "Is it gross to swim in the lake?" asks singer and Brooklynite Frankie Rose. The festival isn't yet five minutes old but the opening artist's mind is understandably on the hot weather. Rose shrugs off the heat, however, and with her hair climbing all the way down her back, bathes her faint voice in dreamy echoes. The ex-Vivian Girls member's songs eschew muscle and embrace 80s synths. Satisfied early birds came to see her, she reminds the crowd that Phish and Pearl Jam are also playing concerts elsewhere tonight, and rewards the faithful with the brand-new "You Don't Need to Tell Me." Akin to Rose, it's pleasant but overly quaint, ideal stuff for standing still and contemplating what to see over the next few days.
3:50 p.m.: Daughn Gibson picks up a tambourine and channels the aura of David Lynch's "Lost Highway" in songs. Immediately noticeable due to a deep, molasses-rich baritone that conjures a mix of Glenn Danzig and Waylon Jennings, the vocalist prizes stories that exist on the fringes. His dysfunctional characters lurk under dimly lit neon signs, follow lovers into dingy bathrooms and hang out at the kind of corner bars allergic to windows. Backed by a multi-instrumentalist, drummer and sample machine, the former long-distance trucker causes words to linger over honky-tonk lines and minimalist vibes that stretch out into an imaginary vista. It's too serious to be a parody, and oddball enough to qualify as original. Noir in the bright afternoon? Why not?
4:29 p.m.: Minutes after triggering the day's first (and likely last) circle pit, Trash Talk front man Lee Spielman commands everyone to sit down. Those that disobey are chastised and given another chance. Speilman calls it "intermission" but has other plans. As the Sacramento hardcore band launches into the next song, he wants everyone to jump up and the mayhem to resume. The group does its part to encourage raucousness. Spielman jumps into the center of the pit, surfs atop fans' hands and barks into the faces of a few front-row patrons. Angry, fast and loud, the band's screaming screeds generally last between 35 and 50 seconds. Wearing jeans and donned in black, Trash Talk literally helps kick up clouds of dust that hover near the stage. Yet Speilman minds his manners, giving a shout-out to "old people" that rarely attend Trash Talk shows. "They make the world go around. They had us and [expletive]." Cant argue that. (BG)
4:42 p.m.: So much for Mac DeMarco potentially rivaling R. Kelly for shedding clothes. The lo-fi vocalist/guitarist, known for lewd actions in concert, appears quite tame, and apart from getting down on his knees for a brief moment, devotes most of his time to silliness and intentionally haphazard versions fare such as "Rock and Roll Nightclub" and "Freaking Out the Neighborhood." He and his mates perform crude, four-track-recorder songs that don't differ much from what one would expect bored kids play in basements across suburban America. Towards the end of the set, the group's amateurish drifting increases. A handful of covers--J.J. Cale's "Cocaine," BTO's "Taking Care of Business"--are started and quickly aborted as excuses to joke around and use cartoonish voices. DeMarco tries to be funny but he's primarily high-school slacker goofy, refusing to invest any real seriousness in his craft.
5:04 p.m.: Angel Olsen presents a conundrum. She possesses an arresting, high-and-lonesome voice capable of enchanting, haunting and disarming anything within earshot. Yet the Chicago-based singer/guitarist, recognizable with purple-streaked hair, keeps it largely under wraps. She is hushed, understated, subdued; her voice wants to break out but Olsen feels content to match the aura of the brushed percussion and spare bass. As a result, her yearning and lonesome confessionals fail to project to maximum effect, her wavering falsetto more a tease than a promise. Olsen deserves credit for daring to attempt such quietude in a festival setting; her wavering falsetto and personal lyrics, however, deserve better.
5:58 p.m.: Following up on a few concise chiming, jangling folk-rock tunes that welcome rootsy harmonica solos and high-stepping progressions, Woods announce it has time for one last song. The Brooklyn folk-rock band makes it count, building up a drone that lasts for more than 10 minutes. Phish might be a few miles away, but it isn't the only jam band in town tonight.
6:21 p.m.: Mikal Cronin seems to have taken to heart to the messages of his songs that relish uncertainty and question confidence. The Bay Area guitarist/singer transcended such problems on his recent record, the power-pop delight "MCII," but looks shaky and unsure in the live environment. He doesn't hurt for hooks or wordless refrains, and surf-splotched and fuzz-drenched distortion add bubblegum catchiness to self-doubting sprints such as "Am I Wrong." Cronin's backing trio acts competent but never takes charge. Laidback in a tie-dye shirt, Cronin himself looks for guidance, indicated by pauses between songs and a few soft starts that indicate more woodshedding may be in order.
6:50 p.m.: The race is on. Spurred by two drumsticks furiously clicked together, Wire chases imaginary prey with pulse-quickening rhythms, industrial interjections and serrated guitar riffs. Able to turn on a dime, the long-running English veterans move from nimble, flexible maneuvers to producing tornadoes of thick noise that strive to obliterate anything in their way. The set doubles as a lesson to many of the younger artists that have played the festival in years past as well as those that will in the coming days: This, kids, is how it should be done. Wire outlays an incredibly diverse array of music, tones and textures, all carefully considered and played with utmost precision. The band manages to also achieve the seemingly impossible: Make their instruments and vocals actually sound good in an open setting renowned for poor balances and weak amplification. Vocalist/guitarist Colin Newman looks at each song like a math professor analyzes a complex equation. Tremendous focus, creative purpose and fact-of-the-matter diligence define even his snarls and yelps. Art-punk dance twists, trash-compactor gurgling and processed effects loom in the foreground. Wire emerges as subversive anti-authoritarians, their moodiness and structures adhering to the same modernist architecture.
7:29: Joanna Newsom's classically inspired, string-driven folk demands quiet. The singer/harpist has performed in the past with bands and orchestras, but here, at her first local appearance in years, she's going the solo route, armed with a gold harp, grand piano and a whimsical, love-it-or-hate-it voice. Nothing about Newsom's personality is polarizing; she's snow-white pure, polite and almost cloyingly cute. But her fanciful syllabic inflections and mercurial vocal flights -- occasionally reminiscent of a grammar school teacher speaking baby talk to students or a mewing kitten reacting to a petting -- often dominate her blend of lullabies, hymns and epic-length fairy tales. She's also, by default, not exciting to watch. Unlike, say, Diamanda Galas -- another classically trained contemporary -- Newsom lacks edginess, physicality, fierce boldness or any hint of danger. Too bad a bubble bath isn't an option in the park.
9:06 p.m.: Nebulas, phobias, galaxies: As heat lightning flashes overhead, Bjork drops mad science in songs referencing topics ranging from stars to faraway universes. Are we sure this is a concert and not a creationism class? With the eccentric Icelandic performer, one can never be sure. Adorned in a headdress that looks as if she's wearing porcupine quills around the entire circumference of her head, and shimmying in gold foil-like garb, she gives everyone a reason to stare. Unfortunately most of the crowd can't see her up-close. She's utilizing the projection screens for thematic images and abstract graphics; rarely does she and her large, robed female choir appear, and when they do, they're filmed from a distance. A drummer is the only other live musician charged with coloring her weirdness. Bjork's choir generates smooth vocal swells and occasionally brings church into the mix, and the best moments find her playing off their refrains with quirky sing-speak vocals. Yet her experiment of pairing choral charts with stripped beats, bristling electronics, organ dirges and psychedelic ambience comes across as awkward, mismatched and, at times, mindlessly repetitive. Her upbeat, dance-stimulating fare is sorely missed; "Cosmogony," "Moon" and "Crystalline" don't stand up to her prior material. Even worse, the set comes to an early close at 9:27 due to the approaching storm and the organizers' mandatory order for her to leave the stage.
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