byMATTHEW M. F. MILLER
There is much to be learned while standing in one place for 10 hours straight. Undeterred by the needs of the physical body, standing tall against the waves of accidental beer showers, artists who can’t bother to start a set on time (here’s looking at you, Pusha T) and the throngs of über-indie kids racing each other to the peak-less apex of fandom mountain, the pulse of the festival enters your body and it becomes decidedly easy to distinguish artistry from artifice, good from great.
Because let’s be honest here – everything at Pitchfork 2014 was good, but only a few things were truly great and only two performances announced superstardom.
Here’s what I learned at Pitchfork 2014:
• Death Grips, post-breakup, somehow managed to be the most talked about band of the weekend without even having to show up. From the sizeable sampling of folks I spoke with, seemingly all parties were devastated by their absence. Even the official festival booklet contained a 2-page spread declaring “RIP Death Grips” on head stones. Hundred Waters, who took their place on the Red Stage, joked, “This is where we start playing Death Grips covers, right”, and then dove into a set featuring the festival’s best and only appearance by a flute.
• Beyonce is clairvoyant. Three years after she announced it, girls, or more appropriately, women, run the indie world. St. Vincent, Sharon Van Etten, Grimes, tUnE-yArDs, Speedy Ortiz, Perfect Pussy, Neneh Cherry, FKA twigs, Hundred Waters and SZA were in it to win it, and win it they did.
• Yellow sunglasses and top knots are everything to this crowd. Everything.
• Perfect Pussy’s drummer was the coolest guy at the festival, not only because his short shorts were as equally raw and revealing as the band’s music, but also because he just seemed to be hanging out undetected in the crowds all weekend, soaking up the ambience.
Playing their first-ever festival set after receiving a decent stage upgrade, the band started off understandably tentative but blossomed before an ever-growing, yet modest crowd. I heard several groups of festivalgoers question the band’s legitimacy due the mere fact they signed to Skrillex’s label (“they sold out!”) and several more complaining (again!) about Death Grips, but the ambient, infectious grooves of “Murmurs” and “Cavities” seemed to convert the small masses. And lead singer Nicole Miglis, against all odds, made the flute seem pretty badass.
Neneh Cherry with Rocketnumbernine
In her first stateside appearance since 1992, Cherry delivered a gritty, fun, upbeat set to a gathering crowd that didn’t return much of the energy she brought. It was too early in the day for this set, but her excellent vocal takes on the Robyn-less “Out Of The Black” and set closer “Buffalo Stance” got the crowd as rowdy as they would get until later in the evening.
Sharon Van Etten
During Cherry’s set, Van Etten took a beer from a fan in the front row and offered a congenial “Cheers!” to all gathered around the stage as she sound-checked for what would be a blistering, stark performance. Easily the dynamo set of the day, Van Etten roared through flawless, raw renditions of “Your Love Is Killing Me”, “Serpents” “Afraid Of Nothing” and “Taking Chances”. Van Etten, a charming presence, announced that earlier in the day she spent time at the Goose Island brewery helping to make her own kolsch, appropriately called SVE. I drank a pint (OK, maybe it was three …) and to nobody’s surprise, it was great, too.
Sun Kil Moon
It’s hard to deny the brilliance of Mark Kozelek’s studio output, but this set was a flat-out bummer. Kozelek complained, the sound was muffled and faint, the songs seemed to meander and arguably the largest crowd of his career, all anticipating an uproarious night of Giorgio Moroder and Beck, was at its listless peak. Not sure who gets the blame for this one, but it seems like organizers overestimated the audience’s desire for something so chill on the main stage. Highlights were “Carissa” and “Dogs”, which was also the only upbeat number and the only track that escalated Kozelek’s murmurs to a shout.
What SZA lacks in stage presence, dynamic live vocals and memorable songs, she makes up for with her excitement and bubbly personality. I overheard several groups saying she was “cute”, but an evening appearance seemed like a massive overreach.
Equal parts confusing and adorable, Moroder definitely brought the hits – and at least half of the crowd to its feet. It was basically a 74-year old with a MacBook pointing at the crowd while singing the lyrics to classic Donna Summer songs. Nostalgia seemed make this all OK for most, but it missed the mark big time for me.
Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks
Yes. Rock music lives and, judging from the average age at the Blue Stage, the young kids are crazy for Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks. Polished yet chaotic, every song feels like it’s about to fall apart in the most confident way. And let there be no doubt: “Little Fang” is one of the best songs of the year and, judging from the crowd’s ecstatic freak-out, its not premature to deem it an instant indie rock classic.
Capping off an uneven first day of programming, Beck delivered the hits – upbeat ones – and lots of them. Opening with a fuzzy rendition of “Devil’s Haircut” America’s favorite Scientologist tore through “Sexx Laws”, “Debra”, “Where It’s At” and “Loser.” For my money, “Blue Moon” off his latest album, Morning Phase stole the show. It wasn’t a revolutionary set and Beck is no longer the crazy showman of yore, but it was crowd pleasing and, seemingly, the first time that everyone was having a good time at the same time, together.
Check back later this week for the rest of the festival's recap.
image credit: global panorama