Pitchfork festival review – jazz, psychedelia and humping clowns

Union Park, Chicago
Reflecting the way discerning listeners are becoming ever more eclectic, the festival laid on a bewildering variety of bands from Savages to Sun Ra Arkestra

The Pitchfork music festival may be the only destination festival in America to feature Brian Wilson and the Australian punk band Royal Headache performing on the same day. That kind of border-free programming has been the festival’s brand since 2006, the year it launched in Chicago, and mercifully, not much has changed.

This year’s installment lacked gimmicks like the year R Kelly staged a crossover set for fans that primarily knew him only through his Trapped in the Closet video saga. Nonetheless, Pitchfork ably reflects what keen music fans are listening to right now, whether by choice or by circumstance. As the fragmenting of the recording industry continues, moving from blockbuster artists to niche tastes, the festival dips its toes into as many genres as possible – jazz fusion to punk rock to psych-rock to classic hip-hop – with the expectation that the audience will be there to listen.

Royal Headache was well suited for the scorching heat in Union Park Saturday afternoon. The band plays roaring, meat-and-potatoes rock’n’roll with little pause, igniting one of the weekend’s only mosh pits and sustaining it for almost an hour. Earlier that day, the singer-songwriter Kevin Morby had leaned back – way back – and settled into a blissed-out state of mind thanks largely to Meg Duffy’s shimmering guitar. There were classic rock elements – from Nashville Skyline-era Bob Dylan to Pavement – but the music never achieved full throttle.

Unlike Savages. The British band made its Pitchfork debut three years ago and their return proved they are a band for the ages. The singer Jehnny Beth, wearing all black, strutted the stage in heels, in full command of every beat. “Do you want it louder? Do you want it faster? Do you want it dirtier?” she asked the crowd. The band delivered. The bassist Ayse Hassan and the drummer Fay Milton directed the fury, with the guitarist Gemma Thompson providing layers of fuzzed-heavy riffs. Beth ended up amid the crowd twice, her operatic voice nailing each syllable down with force. “Tell me I’m miserable now,” she sang, making a plea for pity into a dare. This band’s energy was relentless and somehow made everything in its wake feel insufficient.

The veteran of the weekend bill was Brian Wilson. Here was an expansive band tasked to perform, in its entirety, the seminal 1966 Beach Boys album Pet Sounds. That they did, despite sound problems that muted many of its intricacies. Wilson’s set drew the largest crowd of the weekend, but it was obvious that most young fans had a difficult time deciphering Wilson himself, who sat at a piano, sometimes sang off-key, and otherwise appeared uncomfortable. But counting on Wilson, who has lived with mental illness most of his life, to take center stage may be too much to expect, especially now that he is 74. Instead, for more familiar material like Good Vibrations, the audience and band commanded the vocals, along with the Beach Boy Al Jardine. Even the Chicago actor siblings John and Joan Cusack joined in on Sloop John B. As the music’s creator and studio architect, Wilson has already done his job. Performing song after song in unison became everyone else’s duty, and Wilson seemed content to observe.

Sufjan Stevens closed Saturday in a set that relied heavily on dance choreography, videos and grammar school theater props. His stage was soaked in bright colors, his set volume level booming. The nuances of his earlier music were sacrificed for the epic multimedia extravaganza. Stevens, a midwest native, first appeared onstage playing banjo, dressed in a neon jumpsuit and cap, and, borrowing a powerful image from Angels in America, fixed with super-sized outstretched wings on his back. By the end of Seven Swans, he had destroyed his banjo – for what? Well, maybe he knows. From there, his soft reedy voice sounded twee atop the resounding electronics. The set lacked the playful fun of his earlier incarnations and instead sounded labored and overstuffed. Maybe Stevens will circle back to minimalism in some future manifestation, but until then it’s the embellishments that rule and nothing else.

The gonzo set of the festival was from the Welsh band Super Furry Animals. Leader Gruff Rhys held cue cards to coax applause, munched on carrots for a sound effect and stuffed his head into a red helmet, transforming into a robot crooner. The band’s prankster spirit prevailed to useful effect except when it didn’t – most notably during the lamely repetitive dance track Big Bong. The Furries played ballads and strummy Britpop, but their heart didn’t seem really into what they were doing. Their energy mounted only at the very end, with a performance of The Man Don’t Give a Fuck, one of their earliest singles and a protest song that felt timelier than ever.

BJ the Chicago Kid’s moniker gives away his hometown roots, but his music is not so straightforward. He is ultimately an R&B singer known for guest spots on tracks by the likes of Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar. His own set strung together some of those familiar appearances but also allowed room for a demonstration of his impressive gospel vocals.

On the opposite stage, old school alt-rappers Digable Planets dipped into their early 1990s catalog. The music was melodic and upbeat, with an attempt to connect the dots to this year’s summer of racial strife. “With all the injustice in the world, what are you going to do?” asked Craig “Doodlebug” Irving in song. “Make noise.”

Marshall Allen (left) of the Sun Ra Arkestra: blurts and bleeps with ecstasy.
Marshall Allen (left) of the Sun Ra Arkestra: blurts and bleeps with ecstasy. Photograph: Steve Thorne/Redferns via Getty Images

Jazz was on order for Sunday and early arrivers were rewarded by a rare appearance by the Sun Ra Arkestra, a 12-member ensemble performing astral-minded big band swing in adherence to their namesake founder. The band still includes members who played with the late Sun Ra, including the leader and alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, who at age 92 played blurts and bleeps on his horn with the ecstasy of a man a third his age. The band, all of them bejeweled with capes and exotic headgear, played syncopated ensemble jazz plus dreamscapes, some with Sun Ra’s voice emanating above. While Allen played the EVI, a voice-controlled electronic device that spanned a wide octave range, saxophonist Knoel Scott, 59, added to the celestial spinning through cartwheels and tai chi.

The most anticipated set Sunday was by the rising contemporary jazz star Kamasi Washington, a composer and virtuoso tenor sax player who is featured prominently on Kendrick Lamar’s second album, To Pimp a Butterfly. Despite that pedigree, Washington never dominated his own set, but instead made it more about his impressive band, which mixes traditional jazz with fusion, straightforward funk and all points between. Halfway through, he introduced Rickey Washington, his father, on soprano sax. Together they played a nearly 15-minute version of the decades-old standard Cherokee.

This brings us to Norwegian singer Jenny Hval, whose music might be summed up as avant twee-goth. Singing slow, ethereal electro-pop without a single trace of human emotion, Hval was joined by two masked performers who smeared blue paint on their jumpsuits, tore them apart to reveal full clown regalia, and then mimed humping, among other awkward maneuverings. There was also an inflatable watermelon on the stage. The performance appeared to be conceived by a sixth-grade theater director bored with putting on Annie every year and dreaming of becoming Robert Wilson. When you are willfully upstaged by your own grinding clowns, it might be time to try something else.

Contributor

Mark Guarino

The GuardianTramp

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