The last time I was in Chicago, it was to attend the Touch & Go 25th-anniversary celebration in 2006, which turned out to be the most well-organized and enjoyable festival experience I’ve ever had, thanks to its manageable size, history-making lineup (Scratch Acid! Big Black!), idyllic stage setup, and preponderance of freakishly clean Porta-Potties. The Pitchfork Festival last weekend was probably three times the size of T&G 25 and the weather a good 15 degrees warmer, so creature comforts weren’t nearly as prevalent (hence an unauspiciously higher Porta-Potty gross-out factor, especially by the third day), but the dizzying lineup made it come pretty damn close to that high-water mark.
The Don’t Look Back component of programming (co-sponsored by the All Tomorrow’s Parties promoters) kicked things off beautifully on Friday night, as three veteran acts each tackled a treasured album from their back catalog in its entirety. Mission of Burma took the Union Park stage precisely at 6 p.m. on Friday evening, ripping mercilessly through Vs., their 1982 debut. Despite guitarist Roger Miller’s frequent references to being “80 fucking years old,” they sounded phenomenal and not the least bit out of shape or underrehearsed. Sebadoh was up next, and though it was a thrill to hear my favorite record of theirs (1993’s Bubble and Scrape) played song-for-song, they were markedly more shambolic than their predecessors, and suffered from several weird bouts of self-consciousness and juvenile between-song banter (“What is this called? Pitchfuck? Why did they invite us?”).
Public Enemy, on the other hand, simply never disappoints, especially when they do something as utterly uplifting as covering 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back all the way through. It doesn’t matter how much Flavor Flav tries to sour their legacy with dumb-ass reality TV programming, they always sound awe-inspiringly heavy and unstoppably tight. When Flav was foolish enough to bring up his “#1 hit TV show,” he was met with resounding boos and Chuck quickly segued back into the work at hand. There’s something exceptionally electric and elegant about all the ceremony and ritual at their shows; whether it’s the S1Ws standing motionless at attention and periodically busting out into military-precise dance moves, or the way that Chuck and Flav circle one another perpetually, both stalking and stoking each other, a PE performance really isn’t something you can take your eyes off for an instant.
It’s stunning how powerful that record sounds, even 20 years after its conception. As if giving us all of It Takes A Nation of Millions…weren’t enough, they continued playing well past their 10 p.m. curfew, tossing out “Shut ‘Em Down,” “911 is a Joke,” “Can’t Truss It,” “Welcome to the Terrordome,” and the title track from the film He Got Game.
Friday alone nearly justified the cost of my plane ticket, but there was still much more to dig into on Saturday, including impressive turns from newcomers like New Jersey’s nihilistic noisemakers Titus Andronicus and a pride-swelling set by our own Fleet Foxes, who stunned the crowd into reverent silence during their a cappella passages. The Hold Steady were also a sight to behold, riding high on the warm reception their fourth record, Stay Positive, is widely receiving. Front man Craig Finn‘s wry humor and inexhaustible animation has always made him a compelling stage presence, but the Brooklyn band’s time on the festival circuit has essentially given them crowd-seducing superpowers, with Finn and mustachioed keyboardist Franz Nicolay projecting enough palpable affection for their fans that even those at the very back of the 17,000-person crowd could undoubtedly feel the love.
The free beer and familiar figures flowed freely in the VIP section all weekend, and the people-watching was hysterical. Bard-loving ingenue Julia Stiles wandered about, causing indie-rock-fanboy hearts to flutter and catty girls to make “new Winona Ryder” jokes; a gold lamé–enrobed King Khan took over the famous Ice Cream Man truck, handing out free popsicles while pretending to down bottles of prescription pills; and inimitable Les Savy Fav leader Tim Harrington offered up accurately priced $2 haircuts to foolhardy fans.
Sunday was the ideal day to visit the church of Spiritualized, who reminded everyone they’ve all but secured their status as Gen-X’s Pink Floyd, with mastermind Jason Pierce pleasing his unwashed congregation by pulling out Spacemen 3 songs along with material from the recently released Songs in A&E. It was such a rapturous and organic-sounding performance that closing headliners Spoon almost suffered by comparison, sounding competent but overcalculated.
Writing this on the flight home only makes my anticipation of ATP in September grow, especially since My Bloody Valentine founder (and festival curator) Kevin Shields decided that the long-anticipated MBV stateside reunion would take place on my birthday. It just doesn’t get much better than that.