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[Photos] Pitchfork Music Fest – Chicago, IL

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Pitchfork Music Fest once again scores high marks on lineup diversity and festival-goer comfort. With Pitchfork, details are critical – tossing bottled water to folks at the front of the stage (the hottest location on any festival grounds), free sunblock, easily navigable routes between stages, and affordable food and drink. What Pitchfork really got right this year, however, was balancing the stages between the breakthrough newcomers (Mac DeMarco, Metz) and legacy acts (Bjork, Swans, Yo La Tengo). It’s still one of the best festivals in America, including its more than fair ticket price.

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Mac DeMarco kicked off the weekend in the best way by being the best dude. I heard for months about how amazing his show, particularly the 15-minute multi cover song medley coda, at Bloomington’s Russian Recording was. We thundergunned it through the gates to catch Mac’s afternoon set, and it did not disappoint. Though hearing bangers like “Ode to Viceroy” echo about Union Park and down the city streets was a treat, it was the covers that kept folks chatting. Some loved it, some hated it, but a polarizing performance is always preferred to a safe one. For me, his approach to “Cocaine” was perfect.

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Sometime over the past two years, Woods went from the friendly, free-wheeling, weed smokin’ hippie folk commune that could to a formidable rock band. Their latest, Bend Beyond, ups the tempo and demonstrates a gusto not only unheard on previous records, but perfect for a larger outdoor show. And enough folks seemed to know the lyrics to “Cali in a Cup” to really cultivate the communal summer vibes. Woods are a mean deal these days, and good on ’em. They seem to only get better.

While I didn’t get any photos of Angel Olsen because I couldn’t find the pit for the Blue Stage, I can assure you I was there and it was awesome. I had concerns that, due to the quiet nature of her grainy, vintage, pre-rock and roll style folk, her sound would get lost in the festival shuffle. However, Angel plugged in this time, assembled a trio (for a while she played only acoustic with Cairo Gang’s Emmitt Kelly), and added an unusual ferocity to her set considering how haunting 2012’s Half Way Home is.

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Wire had just played the evening before in Louisville, and offered the identical set. Not that I’m complaining. Wire remain one of the few legacy acts who’ve consistently innovated, and they proved such by sticking to playing mostly new material from the excellent Change Becomes Us and Red Barked Tree (and a couple of new unreleased songs). However, Wire still summoned the best of their classic ’77-’79 “trifecta” with blistering and terse renditions of songs like “On Returning” and “Map Reference.” Considering the energy and urgency Colin Newman demonstrated this evening, I won’t even clown on him about the iPad.

Bjork did not allow any photography, which was OK. That gave all of us a break to just enjoy the show, which packed visuals that made total sense for Bjork (high frame-rate flower blossoming, deep sea explorations, moon phases). The queen of pop offered up a great cross-catalog set of songs, with a number of surprises from Post and Homogenic (“Army of Me” and “The Hunter” respectively). Of course Bjork and her choir were the ones who summoned the storm that cut the evening short by about 20 minutes (and Pitchfork timed that perfectly for everyone to get out without cutting the night too short, by the way). She commented “in my country, this would be no big deal.” Well, sure, but also Chicago is light on the volcanism and brutal, unbridled nature front.

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Kicking off day two was a band I hadn’t seen in ten years, And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. In a plaid shirt and jeans, I felt I was the most overdressed person at the festival in the 90 degree weather, but Trail of Dead’s all black plus cowboy boots get-up showed some much needed solidarity. The band knows where their bread is buttered, so they stuck with a number of selections from their beloved Source Tags and Codes (though I also loved Worlds Apart) . More importantly, they injected a much needed punk snarl in the festival lineup that day. Only really Metz could fuck with it.

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Speaking of Metz, where were you guys? The Blue Stage on Saturday afternoon offered up the most lively crowd of the weekend, and also the sparsest. At the same time, my Twitter feed was packed with people bored with Savages. Sorry about you, then. Metz summoned some nasty old school post-hardcore that, being in Louisville, I appreciate greatly at a Pitchfork-style festival. While I only had a cursory familiarity with the band’s recorded material (interestingly on Sub Pop), I’m a convert after that dose of unadulterated basement brutality.

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Of course, nothing was more brutal than Swans. Their the kings of nightmares, and that they could still horrify at 6:30 p.m. was nothing short of miraculous. Also, they only played four songs, each about 20 minutes long. “Seer” was cathartic. This guy knows. Swans don’t change up their set for festival crowds. You go down the rabbit hole with Gira and company. You’re in this thing. So thanks Michael for bringing some much needed sunshine to the Red Stage.

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I stand by my minority opinion that The Breeders are cooler than The Pixies, so I was never broken up about Kim Deal leaving the band. Her songs were the best, and besides, this leaves more time for her to get with sister Kelley and perform an album that was extremely formative for me in its entirety – Last Splash. In many ways, this was the opposite of Friday’s highlight Wire. The Breeders did play on nostalgia and basked in the adoration. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, and honestly, The Breeders exude more of a place than Wire did. Last Splash was recreated very faithfully, even the pre-Internet modem sounds “Cannonball” so masterfully nailed. If I wasn’t toting around a pricy camera, I would’ve gone for the crowd surf during “Divine Hammer.”

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Mac DeMarco watching The Breeders seconds before he gat a fat high five from me.

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This is the first time I had caught Low since they discovered caffeine in the mid-aughts with The Great Destroyer. The legendary Duluth trio stuck closely to their latest release The Invisible Way, an album I’m not particularly endeared to, and didn’t pull any hijinx like I was hoping from their drone troll earlier this year in Minneapolis, but ending on a cover of Rhianna’s “Stay” was a nice touch.

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Belle and Sebastian closed out a Saturday saturated in punk and noise leaning acts in full twee regalia. The Glasgow collective truly swept across classics (“Get Me Away From Here I’m Dying” “I’m a Cuckoo”), fan favorites (“Seeing Other People” “Legal Man”), and rarer cuts (entering the stage with the instrumental “Judy is a Dick Slap”). The band had a full string section on hand and a large backdrop of stark photography that’s become the band’s visual staple for almost 20 years. While not as exhilarating as Bjork the night before, the sweeping review of B&S’ catalog brought back some nice memories. And who doesn’t love nostalgia?