Review of day two at Pitchfork Music Festival

Greg Kot

11:23 PM CDT, July 20, 2013


Here's Day 2 of the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park. The park was none the worse for wear with Friday's rain and it was cooler yet sunny early although the rain did come again for the headliners. But on Saturday, the bands played on. Greg Kot (GK) and Bob Gendron (BG) take you through Saturday's lineup.

1:25 p.m.: Vancouver punk quartet White Lung seemed like a good way to wake up the audience at the crack of 1 p.m., but the band never quite comes off robot mode. The desultory audience is only mildly responsive, and the musicians stalk off stage as if rushing to catch a cab on Ashland Avenue. Not an auspicious start. Fortunately, I'm able to wonder over in time to catch the last part of KEN Mode's set, and the Canadian metal heads deliver the early-afternoon hangover cure. With a guitar set on the "locust invasion" setting, this is a good, old-fashioned pummeling. (GK)

1:31 p.m.: A rare moment of subtlety occurs during KEN Mode's blunt-force assault of a set. Vocalist/guitarist Jesse Matthewson whispers into the microphone as his mates dial down the volume. Then, boom! The hardcore metal trio resumes its litany of strangulating vocals, scraping grind and testosterone-rich heaviness. It's one way to start a long day. Anyone who's hungover is now no longer. Rife with dissatisfaction and anger, KEN Mode lives up to its acronym: Kill Everything Now. Lyrics are incomprehensible, save for a few repeated refrains ("It don't matter anymore," "Religion is a cancer") that underline the band's attitude. Matthewson barks into the mic while bending his knees and thrusting his shoulders forward. He's a wrestler ready to attack any opponent daring to take him on. Who knew Canadians were so torqued? Suffice it to say at the Winnipeg threesome comes from the opposite side of the tracks than where fellow hometown native and polite Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews grew up. (BG)

1:52 p.m.: Pissed Jeans front man Matt Korvette engages in a shoving match with guitarist Bradley Fry as each member tries to claim the same space and mug for the crowd. For the Pennsylvania noise-rock band, the playfulness is part of a wildly humorous, enjoyably off-the-cuff performance in which nothing is sacred. This is the band with which you want to go to a bar and have a few rounds. Korvette cleverly lampoons a festival corporate sponsor, VIP privilege, social media addiction, inflated rock-star egos and headliners that demand huge chunks of money to go onstage and play. His devious antics are reminiscent of those of legendary Jesus Lizard singer David Yow, but while the latter opted for nudity, dementedness and physical contact with the audience, Korvette channels his inner freak with crazy-legs dance moves, bored poses and self-deprecating diva vogueing. At one point,he unconsciously rubs his hands all over his chest, rips his shirt and calls for a new tank top. Yet it's a huge mistake to think Pissed Jeans a joke. The quartet brings the rock via swerving, spindly, thudding, trashy fare choked with industrial pollution, sinister howls and sludge-crusted riffs. No song titles are announced, and it's not even clear if Korvette knows the plan without consulting his drummer. The singer doesn't miss a beat or a chance to offer comedic relief. "Take all of my faults and twist them in your head until I look like a sweet and thoughtful man," he instructs on the bruising "Romanticize Me," one of several tunes addressing the bummers of getting older, becoming increasingly unattractive and recognizing the realities of being confined to office-cubicle work. Those reasons are as good as any get weird, silly and loud. Yow would be proud. (BG)

2:02 p.m.: Julia Holter tries to be as delicate as possible, as if to distance herself as much as she can from the antics of Pissed Jeans, which is playing simultaneously. While the banter and aggression of Pissed Jeans makes me miss The Jesus Lizard's David Yow even more, Holter provides a welcome contrast. She delivers a sweet and sour mix of billowy chord progressions and string and saxophone atmospherics with her quintet. Songs don't end so much as drift off, swallowed by the Ashland Avenue traffic behind her. On one piece, she does a scat-like vocal over skittering sax, then adds bell-like progressions on her keyboard. It's rhythmic yet light, as if she's dancing on a pond. (GK)

2:44 p.m.: Phosphorescent provides the ideal soundtrack for fans sprawled out on blankets, zoned out and soaking in the sun. The six-piece band operates at two speeds--mellow, and even mellower--while pursuing chilled-out folk rock and country-tinged Americana. Missing in action are the horn arrangements that supply the group's recent record with a cantina vibe. Two pianos serve as admirable substitutes, but the lazy clip-clop of "Terror in the Canyons (The Wounded Master)" and spacey desert atmosphere on "Song for Zula" cry out for headphone listening. Leader Matthew Houck puts a bit of voltage into "Ride On/Right On" with a hiccuped vocal and catchy hook, yet the band dials the tempo back to lazy and hazy before any momentum can be sustained. Wrong decision. (BG)

2:52 p.m.: Parquet Courts piles songs together like bumper cars, with barely a pause between. The quartet explores the balance of exhilaration and anxiety on their excellent "Light Up Gold" album, and then amplifies it. The guitar interplay reaches Television-like levels of twisting, turning ballet, the tones spiraling and crashing in a give-and-take of melody and dissonance. It's a thrilling set, and sure to be one of the festival's highlights. (GK)

3:29 p.m.: ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of the Dead seizes the opportunity to premier a handful of songs it is currently recording for a new album. Stripped-down and straight-ahead, they harken back to the collective's fiery early material. If any artist here deserves an award for preservation, it's the Austin crew. Overcoming myriad lineup changes, impossible hype and an ill-advised flirtation with prog, the quartet displays why it's still around nearly 20 years after its genesis and playing at a cutting-edge fest, to boot. A rock band is nothing without a hard-hitting drummer, and the Trail of the Dead have not one but two in the fold, as members switch between guitar and the trap kit. Desperation and intensity remain hallmarks, and while the lyrics occasionally conjure the density of a preachy narrative found in a heavy-handed graphic novel, concentrating on the rhythms is all the reward one needs. (BG)

3:58 p.m.: From the state that produced Limp Bizkit and cookie-monster death-metal vocals comes Florida-based Merchandise, whose pretender sound is equally forgettable. Clad in a long-sleeved leopard-print button-down shirt, vocalist/guitarist Carson Cox does his best Morrissey impression, complete with a badly rendered faux British accent. His cohorts also time-warped in from the 1980s, with the immobile bassist looking like he's trying out for a Psychedelic Furs reunion. Ironically, Merchandise represents much of what Pissed Jeans railed against hours earlier. The group's swimmy, bland cross between dream- and synth-pop is notable only for how well it would fit in as background music to a "Risky Business" remake. It takes the quartet a full two minutes to tune for one song, and when the latter finally arrives, it's clear that if you know the Cure or Smiths, you've heard it all--in superior renditions--before. (BG)

4:45 p.m.: During "Hit Me," Savages drummer Fay Milton bashes her cymbal repeatedly, hitting it so hard that it appears she has some kind of vendetta against it. The British quartet brings that same intensity to every song it performs, a severe, black-clad purpose that translates as presence, drama without resorting to theatrical cliches. That's a rare quality in any band, let alone one so relatively young -- the foursome played its first gig in January 2012 and only a few weeks ago released its first studio album. But the puzzle pieces of greatness are already evident and coming together, as this performance demonstrates: the singer Jehnny Beth's twitchy severity and biting phrasing; Gemma Thompson's poltergeist-like guitar, darting in and out of songs, reshaping itself with each note; Ayse Hassan's menacing, frequently overwhelming bass lines; Milton's bruising mastery of rhythm. The band leaves the stage not on a triumphant note of celebration, but with the disturbing psychodrama of "Hit Me" and the seething "Husbands." (GK)

5:03 p.m.: Metz singer/guitarist Alex Edkins looks like he's about to faint. The Toronto trio is barely 15 minutes into its set but all three members appear as if they've just emerged from a sauna. They're determined to prove no other artist at the festival gives everything up more than they do. Before the performance comes to a screeching end with an extended version of "Wet Blanket" a half hour later, Metz throws down with a furious intensity and blistering in-the-red energy that rivals any act in Pitchfork Festival's nine-year history. Edkins yelps, shouts and hollers akin to a man battling Tourette's. The trio's turbulent blend of noise, punk and late 80s underground Chicago rock matches Edkins' electroshock vocals. Metz's stamina and aggression are equaled by its musicianship. For all the spastic tendencies, amp-humming feedback and over-caffeinated tempos, this is an incredibly tight and assertive band. Drummer Hayden Menzies coaxes more out of three basic drums than most of his peers do a set thrice as large; his power and pace recall peak-era Dave Grohl while the concussive tone conjures Shellac's Todd Trainer. The drum skins literally sound as if they're about to snap from the abuse. The thrust and anxiety of "Can't  Understand," "Wasted," "Headache" and "Rats" all mirror their titles. Reproducing the effect of going hands-up on a roller coaster taking hairpin turns at obscene speeds, taking a second to catch your breath and then doing it all over again, Metz challenges you to even blink. What a rush. (BG)

5:50 p.m.: "I see it all!" Michael Gira of Swans declares, and his band encompasses myriad styles and tonalities from across the world to make good on the claim. Gira's first version of Swans, on the no-wave '80s New York underground scene, was among the most punishing bands ever. His current incarnation of the group can be no less foreboding, but with exotic rhythms and voicings adding strange new colors. With arms shaking as if possessed, Gira dances to dirty street funk that morphs into free jazz. The band then builds a storm cloud of percussion that grows black and thicker with each minute, finally resolving a gigantic guitar chords that crash like waves against a rocky shoreline. Gira hardly seems like a indie legend resting on his past accomplishments. He still packs a wallop. (GK)

6:21 p.m.: From one nostalgic trip to another. Fresh from leaving the Pixies, which have strictly performed songs from their heyday for nearly a decade running, Kim Deal leads the Breeders through the entirety of "Last Splash," the album that gave her "other" group its 15 minutes of fame. Along with her sister, Kelley, Deal is reunited with the original lineup that made the 20-year-old record. But few sparks fly. Trading in nostalgia--especially in the form of focusing on a single LP released before many people in the crowd even entered junior high--is always a roll of the dice, and while some coasting can be anticipated, bands at least need to act like they care. The Breeders demonstrate scant evidence that they're here for anything more than an easy paycheck. Sure, the droopy bass-line intro to "Cannonball" and Hawaiian slide-guitar accents to "No Aloha" retain their appeal. But the band sounds disengaged and detached, and whimsical nooks and crannies on the record fail to translate. Other tunes ("Roi," "Do You Love Me Now") haven't aged well. During large portions of the set, the Breeders sleepwalk. Dead air and mindless banter between several songs prolong the agony. What a waste. (BG)
6:53 p.m.: Low's Mimi Parker sings a stirring version of the band's hymn "Holy Ghost," a song that was also recently covered by soul-gospel great Mavis Staples. It's appropriate because there's a subtle gospel vibe in the Duluth, Minn., trio's set, with Steve Garrington setting aside his bass to play a lot of keyboards. But the biggest surprise is a duet on Rihanna's "Stay." After a false start, Parker and her husband, guitarist Alan Sparhawk, nail the song, swapping verses with Garrington's piano as the primary accompaniment. Lovely stuff. (GK)
7:54 p.m.: It's been a big Chicago week for the Knowles family, with Beyonce headlining the United Center a few days ago and her younger sister Solange getting a prime sunset slot on the middle day of Pitchfork. She makes the most of the occasion, a smiling presence who sets a festive tone with her tie-dye outfit and a bevy of orange and yellow beachballs. She calls for an "old-school grind fest," though her music has a lighter touch than that. Nonetheless, she leads an energetic dance party during her midtempo (and relatively melancholy) hit "Losing You." With a slip of a voice and a breezy way with a groove, Solange puts subtlety at the forefront with a bumping six-piece band. (GK)
7:59 p.m.: Andy Stott aims for the subconscious. Separating himself from the herd of deejays that opt for overload and volume, the British electronic composer plays it cool. Save for a brief dalliance with jungle rhythms, Stott refrains from harshness or any hues that interrupt his weaving together of slow, soulful female vocals and low-slung bass frequencies. A few surprises add intrigue. Warped dialog from a male that could've been lifted from a horror film contrasts the generally peaceful, persuasive hypnotism. Stott threads dubstep beats and layers vocals, valuing gradual progression of a long sequence rather than individual tracks. His finest sonic sculptures make it seem as if phantom elements are involved. Electronic tones and samples emerge and dissolve in surreal fashion. What he can't do is make the visual experience exciting. There's nothing to see. He hovers over his computer and boards, rarely even changing position, and almost begging fans to close their eyes and imagine. (BG)
9:07 p.m.: Break out the glo-sticks. Scottish deejay Rustie seizes the darkness and gives the crowd a rave atmosphere with bright, shockwave blasts of electronic pulses and manipulated beats that sound put through a series of filters. He specializes in rubbery time-delay phase tricks and video-game effects borrowed from Atari 64. For those already enjoying the steady rain, the music is another excuse to dance and ignore what anyone might think around them. Interjections of burping grime and hip-hop samples contribute needed swagger, as in places, the set sags. Short passages incorporating 70s disco hints at better things to come, but Rustie elects to fall back on the traditional rise/fall structures present in most EDM. A decent if inconsistent ending by the alternative to headliners Belle and Sebastian. (BG)
9:33 p.m.: For the second straight night, dicey weather cuts into the vibe during the night's headlining slot. On Friday, Bjork was ordered to cut short her set as a major storm headed toward Union Park. Tonight, a steady rain accompanies about half of Belle & Sebastian's set. But the Scottish band and its fans soldier on, with Stuart Murdoch playing the affable front man in his white jeans and new-found penchant for putting a little wiggle in his wispy folk-pop tunes. The 11-piece band includes a string section, but the orchestral touches merely underline Murdoch's geniality. He sits like a lounge singer on the lip of the stage to sing "Piazza, New York Catcher," a typically subversive ditty. And "The Boy with the Arab Strap" becomes a big, bouyant sing-along in the rain. (GK)