July 17th, 2012
Pitchfork Music Festival’s first day was rife with drama. The intermittent torrential downpours, laced with stifling humidity normally reserved for an August afternoon and capped off by the lingering consciousness of Friday the 13th — there were plenty of opportunities for attitudes to grow sour. Still, the festival kicked off and never seemed to sag, even with the crowded masses dashing for cover under the trees and the green grassy fields slowly turning a swampy brown.
For me, the day started with two showers: one at home in the bathroom and one on the way to the train. After locating a set of dry clothes and finally setting off, I arrived a bit late to the last half of Lower Dens’ set, finding a pulsing rhythm and a squall of noodling guitars. A bit shaken by the rain delay, the crowd didn’t seem entirely in sync with the group’s brand of hypnotic bass/drum motorik. Later that evening, Jana Hunter and company played an aftershow at the Empty Bottle where the crowd reception was much better — every drum hit throbbed, every bassline wobbled and everyone in the crowd was dancing.
Over on the Green Stage, the Olivia Tremor Control was giving the crowd their daily dose of indie rock nostalgia. OTC, known as one of the original acts to emerge from the fabled Elephant 6 collective, brought an army of strange sounds and overlapping melodies, all coming from a barrage of multi-instrumentalists. Their set marked the first of many where a fog of weed smoke seemed to stay put a few inches over the heads of the audience. It made sense: the band’s jammy experimental sound often felt like a Haight Street hangout shaken loose from the threads of time.
At about this time, the rainclouds started to creep back into view, though the festival crowd seemed not to care. As the first few drops fell, Tim Hecker took the stage in the back alcove that the Blue Stage called home. Soon, A$AP Rocky followed suit, only in the sweeping open-air arena of the Red Stage. As the light faded temporarily and the frequency of raindrops quickened, both acts sounded like opposite ends of the same apocalypse, whirling along with the weather of the end of days — Hecker with his calm, often disturbingly deconstructed ambient swells and A$AP with his unabashedly hedonistic hip hop. Like many of the acts to come, standing inbetween these stages made for an interesting combination of bass rumbles and stray flourishes.
When Japandroids took the Blue Stage, the rain was still falling but the wind was dying, which meant that the level of oppression set on the crowd by humidity increased exponentially. On top of stewing in our own juices, it seemed as though the sound check would never end — just the excruciating taunt of squawks and cranks from Brian King’s guitar. Finally, when the music did start, the crowd was treated to an unbelievable level of distorted joy coming from the stage speakers. Japandroids, it seems, has mastered the keen combination of Springsteen and Swervedriver, where not only does every tunnel lead out of New Jersey, but the speed limit is 100 mph and your engine emits the sound of an overdriven Fender.
At their worst, the Dirty Projectors pierced eardrums with their incessant harmonies, each of which were part of the fractured fever dreams of one David Longstreth, whose unmistakable crooning shrieked across the festival’s largest stretch of open space without any discretion whatsoever.
At their best, the band’s set at the Red Stage seemed to cull the sun from its place high in the sky to the horizon with every angelic harmony that flooded every crevice of the field ahead of them. That said, it took the Projectors’ strange pop sensibilities to transition the crowd from the thrill of the rough-around-the-edges acts of the daytime to the scene-setting sets that would come from the evening’s headliners, Projectors included.
I’ll risk a bit of honesty here and say that before the announcement of the festival line up, I hadn’t heard of Purity Ring. Soon, though, I learned much about the Canadian duo — about their upcoming album out on 4AD, about their fast track on the internet hype machine, about their twisted but effective electronic sensibilities. Their live set closing out the festival’s first night didn’t fall short in the realms of eye and ear candy with Megan James prowling about onstage and Corin Roddick pounding about on sound-producing teardrop lanterns. Both members moved around on stage generating unnaturally warped sounds that kept the audience guessing, much to their delight.
This was all in contrast to the show that Feist was putting on at the Green Stage, which was definitely more classical and pop-driven. The simultaneous final sets had an interesting effect on the crowd, which split into two distinct factions and gave the impression of two separate events going on. The crowd at the Green Stage was comprised of an older crowd, many of which were entranced by Feist’s trembling, bare-it-all ballads, while those wedged into the Blue Stage’s alcove were much younger and much more stoned, excited by the notion of Purity Ring’s mystical clusterfuck of post-dubstep, post-witchhouse, post-whatever bass-and-voice-modulator extravaganza. By choosing a stage, it seemed you were unavoidably choosing a side — or, if you were as intrigued with it all as I was, you were skirted the edges of both crowds observing the old guard and the young guns each boosting themselves into the indescribable planes of joy that can only be summoned by a good live set of music.
See coverage of Day Two here.
See coverage of Day Three here.