Review - Fleet Foxes, !!!, No Age, Vampire Weekend, Animal Collective, HEALTH, Les Savy Fav, Cut Copy at Pitchfork Fest '08
words by Ryan Ffrench
I was at the Lincoln Park Zoo the other day and this adorable little rabbit hopped into the lion’s cage, right up to the biggest lion mouth that I’ve ever seen, and stopped to tear up some grass with its little paws. I looked at everyone around me: it was like a whole Greek chorus of anticipatory faces silently willing the beast to just wake up and tear the little thing to shreds. A sense of communal desire, if you will.
It was like that early on Saturday afternoon. Except instead of hoping for meaningless and overly one-sided violence, thousands of ears at Pitchfork Festival were pleading for Fleet Foxes’ opulently gorgeous harmonies to work as well live as they do in the studio. And I really mean everyone: Pitchfork’s official interviews for the day cited bands as abrasive as Titus Andronicus and HEALTH, as diverse as !!! and The Hold Steady, and as huge as Animal Collective and Vampire Weekend, all declaring Fleet Foxes at the band to see this weekend. And it wasn’t just a hype thing: it was more like an awareness had filled the festival that these kids were going to really put on a show worth remembering. You know, without blogs and Pitchfork and all that online stuff.
Well, it happened. It took Robin Pecknold and co. about eight seconds to unambiguously prove that their harmonies aren’t just some clever studio trick. Opening with the a cappella “Sun Giant” intro, the four beatific voices (coming from behind four very not-beatific beards) came together to instantaneously hush a crowd which was, to that point, the largest for any single performance of the weekend. Turns out, the way to get harmonies this perfect is simple: get three guys in your band who can sing better than 99% of practicing lead singers to support a kid whose voice could bring a tear to even Dick Cheney’s eye. I don’t mean to speak in superlatives, but I’ve honestly never heard such perfect vocal unison as on one of their self-titled LP’s many standouts, the lovely “White Winter Hymnal”.
Pecknold sang with a sincerity bordering on vehemence throughout— a welcome dose of earnestness amongst the festival’s overload of ‘cool’. So this is what the late sixties were like, I kept thinking to myself: silly styles, serious music and a contagious sense of romanticized naturalism. In fact, one could be forgiven for feeling momentarily transported back to Woodstock 1969, dazed and confused amongst Ulster County’s similarly muddy fields, listening to Crosby, Stills & Nash or even The Band. This was somewhat intentional on behalf of Fleet Foxes, with Pecknold even performing a solo cover of Judee Sill’s 1971 folksy ballad “Crayon Angels”, before transitioning into the delicate “Oliver James”.
It was a set filled with numerous highlights and quiet moments of transcendence, but none was as powerful as their impassioned rendition of the very 1969 sounding “Mykonos”. In many ways, I think it stands now as the highlight of the entire festival. Because it wasn’t something to run and tell all your friends about, you know: it was something to experience and just enjoy.
“We’re the lowest-rated band with the higher slot in the bill,” announced !!! front man Nic Offer as he stood above an adoring crowd. “The people know what they want.”
It’s an astute way to summarize both his band and their Saturday afternoon performance— something like: who gives a shit, let’s just have fun. And fun they had.
And while they were at it, !!! did the seemingly impossible: they got a whole mid-day, heat-stroked, often-sober outdoor festival crowd dancing. They also got elderly men crowd surfing, a two-year-old sitting on his father’s shoulders screaming, and a conga line of people coated head-to-toe in mud from the other side of the festival to the very front row.
One of the great things about No Age’s aggressively DIY ethos is that it fosters a sense of spontaneity that’s sometimes lacking from ‘professional’ live shows. Instead of the customary “a little more in the left monitor—are the lights right?—someone tune my guitar for me” routine, a No Age show feels like something that could erupt anywhere, anytime: on a street corner, in a vegan grocery store, on a river bank, or of course, outside The Smell. There’s something youthful and mutinous about it, something anarchic in the fun way.
That is to say: this show was incredible. Their live sound leans more towards punk than atmospheric noise and, I think, brought back more than a few good memories for the surprisingly older crowd. “Boy Void” and “Every Artist Needs a Tragedy” were predictably intense, the latter sounding almost impossibly cacophonous to be coming from just two guys. But it was two standout tracks from Nouns, “Eraser” and “Teen Creeps”, that got the biggest reception from an increasingly riotous crowd. For me, however, the highlight was the minute-long assault of Weirdo Rippers’ anthemic “My Life’s Alright Without You”, which sounded like vintage Hüsker Dü by way of My Bloody Valentine.
But maybe the most appealing aspect of underground scenes like LA’s Smell or Baltimore’s Wham City is the sense of community engendered by their localized, collective natures. It’s a tendency almost entirely forgotten in today’s the-internet-is-my-home-town cultural framework, but it’s much missed— and somehow these bands manage to bring it on tour with them (and not just because No Age brought Abe Vigoda on stage for an almost-unintelligible cover song to close their show). Everyone in the crowd felt somehow connected in a way that just doesn’t happen with other hot, sticky, thirsty festival audiences— as if all were invited and all were friends. We even managed to get about twenty people to stick around afterwards to scrounge through the mud looking for my girlfriend’s lost shoe. Imagine that at a Vampire Weekend show.
“Did you just see Vampire Weekend?”
“Yeah, I kinda felt… obligated? The hype… you know.”
“Likewise. I met up with a few friends there. Wanted to see if there are as good as everyone seems to think.”
“And were they?”
“I guess we mostly talked about how good they’re supposed to be.”
“We were talking about how good Graceland is.”
“The songs sounded pretty good though.”
“Yeah, they sounded good enough.”
“That song about …”
“…grammar and stuff?”
There’s always something a bit strange and distancing about watching your favorite band perform in front of thousands of people (many of whom clearly have no idea who they are), but when that band plays avant-garde psych folk with a penchant for wringing abstract beauty from the conventionally unpalatable, it’s almost too much. I mean, we’re talking about a summer festival headlining slot here; where’s Kanye or the Red Hot Chili Peppers? I suppose the fact that Pitchfork can get every single person in attendance listening to an Animal Collective live show is as much a testament to their taste-making authority as it is to the festival’s overall greatness.
Strange or not, Animal Collective was as powerfully evocative and gorgeous as ever. The set was characteristically exploratory and dense, rarely stopping for even a brief pause between songs, and often reinterpreting their basic outlines with sonic embellishments and extended jams. “Fireworks”, for instance, warped itself into a lengthy segue of unreleased (or at least unrecognizable) melodies before falling back into a sparse meditation on the song’s distinctive delay-heavy percussion and ethereal yelps. It was a nice moment, made nicer when someone in the crowd set off a few fireworks of their own, special thanks to the lax security checks at the gate.
Even to the uninitiated (and this was almost everyone around me, judging by their nonplussed commentary), I can’t help but imagine the show was in some way a compelling experience. There’s just something about both Avey Tare and Panda Bear’s haunting and otherworldly vocals that sounds even more haunting and otherworldly in a live setting. It’s not really music that you can ignore— and in that sense, I suppose they’re the perfect band to headline a big and influential festival. And on Saturday night, Animal Collective felt bigger and more influential in every way. Kind of like Pitchfork, I guess. Aww, they’re growing up together.
The buzz surrounding LA’s Smell scene has been somewhat hyperbolic of late, and after No Age’s way loud Balance Stage set on Saturday night (accompanied with rumors of a frenzied follow-up show in a flooded basement), there was a building sense of expectation amongst both fans and naysayers alike that HEALTH were going to do something previously inconceivable to the good people of Chicago’s ear drums.
Well, it turns out that the festival operates under some pretty strict noise guidelines, owing to Union Park’s mostly residential locale; but if things ever seemed a little on the quiet side this weekend, it most definitely was not during HEALTH’s forty five minute set.
Their interpretation of the noise rock aesthetic tends more towards visceral discord and spasmodic aggression rather than atmospheric stoicism— that is to say, their performance did not cater to those hoping to spend the show moodily gazing into their shoes. (Speaking of, was anyone else disappointed that P4KF didn’t wrangle My Bloody Valentine to perform Loveless for their “All Tomorrow’s Parties” series?) Combining a Boredoms-esque intensity and a flair for chaos reminiscent of Black Dice or Wolf Eyes with wails, moans and a tribal percussion backbone that sounded like the scarier parts of Drum’s Not Dead, HEALTH’s set was an all out assault of the avant-garde. Sure, it’s probably the type of thing more suited to a grimy DIY club (and its coked-up clientele) than to a sun-kissed Chicago afternoon, but something about the incongruence of it all was totally engaging, and, ultimately, more than enough to justify all the hype.
Les Savy Fav
Things I saw Tim Harrington do this weekend:
Give $2 haircuts to crowd members brave/stupid enough to overlook his, uh, stylistic eccentricities.
Give very professional (but suspiciously sexual) looking full body massages in the middle of Union Park.
Very seriously instruct the Sears Tower to “come closer”.
Sing the majority of “The Sweat Descends” from inside of a deflated beach ball.
Impersonate Oscar the Grouch wearing a Sherlock Holmes costume.
Cover himself in mud then triumphantly finger paint the letters ‘LSF’ on his oft-visible belly.
Go head to head with King Khan and Nic Offer for the most outrageous (and underdressed) front man award at Pitchfork and come out way, way on top.
They were late by well over an hour. They were only allowed to play four songs. But for all in attendance, this was by far and away the best time of the entire weekend. Fuck Spoon.