Saturday, July 19, 2008

Pitchfork Music Festival with A Hawk and a Hacksaw, Elf Power, The Hold Steady and Jarvis Cocker; July 19, 2008; Union Park, Chicago

I’ve never been able to stomach Pitchfork’s role as a hipper-than-thou tastemaker, but they still know how to throw a heck of a music festival. Where other three days fest like Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits overwhelm you with stages and bands, Pitchfork prefers to keep it small. Just three stages host a line-up to make an indie music geek wet himself, all within easy walking distance of each other. In fact, if you didn’t feel the need to be especially close, you could spread your blanket between the two main stages and stay there all day, only moving to fetch food or beer (both surprisingly reasonable in price). Of late, I’ve been avoiding festivals, giving away my ticket to Lollapalooza and just flat skipping Pitchfork last year. But this year had something I just couldn’t pass up, Jarvis Cocker.

Long part of a list of UK bands that were huge at home but never made it in the States, Pulp enjoyed a tiny bit of popularity with the song “Common People.” A tale of a rich girl slumming it with the narrator begging him to show her what it is like to live like a commoner, it is instantly addictive and a near perfect pop song (yet somehow William Shatner managed to better it with his over the top version). Several albums later Pulp quietly disbanded, leaving their larger than life lead singer to pursue a solo career. Jarvis was released in 2005, yet for some reason I haven’t bought it yet. Despite not knowing any of the songs in his too-short set (it was perhaps foolish to expect a Pulp song), I still enjoyed every perfectly Jarvis moment. That oh-so-distinctive sigh punctuated many a song, and his lanky frame was in constant motion. I’m usually not a fan of the singer who doesn’t play, but in this case I couldn’t have asked any more from him. Now maybe I will finally go get that record.

Jarvis wasn’t the only appealing name on the bill, the Hold Steady also made a pretty good case for buying the one day ticket. Returning to the festival where I had first made their acquaintance three years ago, the band found themselves playing later in the day to a much bigger crowd. The recently released Stay Positive is more of what the band does best- giant choruses over E Street rock riffs. Lead singer Craig Finn still only half-heartedly strums the guitar and only half-attempts to sing, but there’s a reason for that. You don’t really need to do much when you have Tad Kubler beside you turning out sweet riffs and massive hooks. And in respect to the latter observation, Finn would only be able to spit out half as many words per note if he actually sang. His wordy, rambling diatribes are actually a large part of the Hold Steady’s charm, the interwoven characters travel from song to song and record to record. I’d been spoiled in the past by being close during their shows, within range of Finn’s spit as he repeats lines and again and again off mike, and being further back seemed to take something away from the show.

Earlier in the day I’d wandered from band to band unable to get very interested in any of them. Jay Reatard had been talked up as the act to see, but after he screamed at me for three songs of nonsense, I decided to bail. Over to Hawk and a Hacksaw had played the Terrace the night before, and their claim to fame is that their leader Jeremy Barnes was the drummer for Neutral Milk Hotel. While I find their percussive, gypsy influenced music interesting, I found myself wishing again that they had more songs with words. In fact, nothing really even moved me until we saw Elf Power. Part of the Elephant 6 collective, they made catchy pop which had me smiling and bouncing up and down. I couldn’t get interested in tonight’s headliner Animal Collective and was happy to just wander around the park with them as background music. It was a pleasant day outside with just enough good music to keep me interested and entertained. As far as festivals go, this may be the only one I’ll keep attending.

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