Music Features

Pitchfork Music Festival

This is going to sound counter-intuitive. This is going to sound like shoddy reporting, like a cop-out, like the Cliff's notes, "what does it all mean?" abridged version of the 900-page novel. It's going to sound that way because it is that way (what the hell do you expect from an amateur music critic sent head-first into the Pitchfork press pit with a point-and-shoot camera and a $30 digital voice recorder? Christ, you're lucky to have anything more than "WOO PITCHFORK ROCKS!" and a picture of me giving a thumbs-up sign. If you want a real feature, you know where to go, so quit hassling me. Fuck.), but it's also completely true. The real glory of the Pitchfork Music Festival had nothing to do with the music.

As I was saying, it's counter-intuitive. I thought it might have had to do with the press badge around my neck, but the feeling would just be exacerbated without any of the special privileges. Without that badge, you would have to claw your way to the front of any of the three stages, no matter how small the act, or plant your ass there as soon as the gates opened. We aren't talking about Justin Timberlake, here. These aren't bands you're used to seeing outside a cramped venue, where even at the upstairs bar, you're still closer to the stage than you could probably muster at a festival. And it's weird. And it's impersonal. And even the really huge acts - Malkmus, the New Pornographers - play for an hour, tops. When you're packed into a dusty field with thousands of other people on a relentlessly sunny weekend, it feels a lot more like summer camp than anything else.

It's not entirely kosher of me to call the musical aspect of a music festival a letdown, but it's hard to deny that the music isn't what made the experience. To help me illustrate, I will tell you a tale of a man. A hero, really. A hero named Gregg Gillis, whom you may know as Girl Talk. Anybody who knows me also knows that my love for Girl Talk knows no bounds. His is the only (relatively) new record that I think is worth a spot on a top ten list. His is the poster I display so proudly on my bathroom wall. Clearly, sharing a hometown with him is fate's way of telling me that we could live a happy life together. If I still had textbooks, I would write "Mrs. Talk" in the margins. So you can imagine that 8:30 on Saturday night was an exciting time for me. Me and hundreds of other people who crowded the tiny side stage on the very edge of Union Park. But nobody could hear him. Scheduled during the same time time slot as Yoko Ono, who took the main stage, Girl Talk had to work with a much less powerful sound system, despite the enormous crowd. Everyone wanted so badly to hear it, that they sang every familiar sample and danced harder and louder than I've ever seen any disinterested hipster dance. We were drunk on enthusiasm. And beer. When the beach balls and balloons started shooting out of the (barely visible) stage, we'd long forgiven any technical difficulties. As a friend of mine so aptly put it, "The only thing that brings people together apart from Girl Talk is beach balls."

I'll say it again. The real glory of the Pitchfork Music Festival had nothing to do with the music. Girl Talk's sound fiasco was one of only a very few hurdles over the weekend, but the theme carried over to just about every other act. The festival wasn't fun because of the bands. It was fun because of the crowd, the energy, and - I do hate to say this - the scene. For me, getting my first taste of the press pit, the problem was the clamouring photogs, the heckling first-row fans ("I hope you have that thing off the 'auto' setting!"), and the drunken assholes with VIP passes who refused to move out of the way for journalists trying to do their jobs. Out in the crowd, the problem was distance and brevity, the nearby conversations from people who weren't paying attention and the quest for cramming in as many bands as possible into one day.

Still, you're itching to know about the musical standouts, and there definitely were a few worth mentioning, despite the haste and absurdity and impersonality of it all. Fujiya & Miyagi had a quiet intensity that really impressed me; they put on a tight show that was well worth skipping Battles for, I think.

Clipse had by far the most enthusiastic audience, which I noticed was almost entirely white. Maybe this isn't exactly the fanbase that Clipse had in mind when they put out Hell Hath No Fury, but let nobody doubt it ever again: white kids sure love their hip hop.

The New Pornographers gave the best encore I have ever heard, perhaps because this was a decidedly encore-less festival. When they clambered back onto the stage after all the lights had gone out and everybody had started to file out, the crowd went absolutely ballistic. "Let's not fuck around," Carl Newman says, pouring into Slow Descent into Alcoholism. That's the kind of exciting moment we all cross our fingers for when seeing a favourite band. But what else can you say about a stream of up-and-coming indie rockers playing their biggest crowd-pleasers straight off the album? Strict time constraints leave little room for showing off (although Of Montreal's costumes were seriously amazing).

The real glory of the Pitchfork Music Festival was the brilliant orchestration of it all, something I hope not too many people took for granted. At the press conference on Friday afternoon, Ryan Schreiber (of I-started-Pitchfork-Magazine-out-of-my-basement fame) sauntered out in his aviators, half a cigarette falling out of his mouth, and recited for us the weekend's mantra: It's All For the Fans. This is the kind of promise that nobody really makes good on, charging astronomical amounts for basic necessities while refusing re-entry or outside food and drink. Security being what it is these days, the latter is difficult to circumvent, but the Pitchfork organizers weren't kidding about making this a fan-focused event. Odourless port-a-potties, water fountains and hand-washing stations lined the grounds. Food vendors sold cheap, vegan-friendly meals and $1 water bottles. If you've ever been to an outdoor music festival and found yourself wishing for a nice helping of pad thai or vegetable curry instead of hot dogs and funnel cake (not that there was any shortage of junk), then this was your haven. Somebody's sole job was to walk around the park handing out paper fans. We are nothing if not broke, meat-spurning, easily overheated pansies. These guys really had us pegged.

Among the other non-musical diversions was one of the most extensive DIY craft fairs I have ever witnessed. If you've ever been to Renegade or anything Etsy-sponsored, you know how kid-in-a-candy-store these can be. There were enough wrist warmers and knitted cozies to make your thickly bespectacled head spin. On the other side of the tent, just about every small (and some not so small) record label and record store under the sun hocked their wares, which happened to include a lot of freebies and promos. I snagged a pin of each Sleater-Kinney girl at the SubPop booth, like they were trading cards. My favourite goodies, though, in keeping with the crafty theme, were in the button-making booth - cluttered with ancient children's books and magazines to cut up to your heart's content - and the ReadyMade tent, which offered $5 year-long subscriptions. Pretty sweet, if you ask me.

The truth of the matter is that these things tend to be a lot more about the scene than the music, which is natural in some respects. Purists gripe about the culture and "look" overpowering the actual music, but it's nothing new, certainly nothing coined by Pitchfork readers. If you want a more satisfying experience from your favourite band, you'll see them on tour - these festivals mark the beginning of intense jetsetting for many groups. And the rest? Well, yeah, it's a hipster utopia. But admit it, you kind of are one. And three days of forty bands, even when you're just getting a little taste of each, is well worth it. Factor in an extremely low price tag (Fifteen bucks per day? Yeah, you'd probably spend at least that much on hair products and second-hand skinny jeans), you'd be stupid not to take part. The gas or airfare to Chicago will still amount to less than if you'd paid to see each band individually. It's not like you're doing anything else with your time, anyway.