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Pitchfork Music Festival 2011

Although the Pitchfork Music Festival has lost some of its DIY scruff and has begun to succumb to the gilded charms of a few large brands (this year's vom-worthy AXE body spray tent complete with angel-winged models), the three-day festival in a small park in Chicago's West Loop still feels humane (free bottled water, affordable vegan meals) and remains the best value of any event on the summer festival circuit. Moreover, year after year, it manages to coax career-defining performances from both the newest on the scene (the unholy trinity of CSS, Spank Rock, and Diplo in 2006) and indie rock's stodgiest mainstays (M. Ward's flat-out raucous set in 2008) more consistently than any other large music event I know.

Despite the disappearance of some of the more wholesome attractions of past editions (gone is the Wheel o’ T-Shirts), this year's fest was no different than the previous five in terms of quality music and quantity of quality. Alongside the usual attractions of art galleries, a top-notch record fair, and more frozen kefir samples than you can shake a tiny spoon-shaped stick at, the real action went down all weekend long on Pitchfork's three awesome stages.



If you were in Union Park on Friday afternoon, you already know the reason I was busting ass clear across the festival grounds, all but ignoring a fellow IMPer at the press entrance and even bypassing Battles on the main stage as they locked into their killer motorik strut. And her name is Merrill… Miss Garbus if you're nasty. No matter the situation, tUnE-yArDs appear constantly in the throes of performance. Unlike some of the other notable dramatists in pop whose songs are a mere platform for physical interpretation and jamming on stage, tUnE-yArDs would not even exist without the physical and the jam coalescing in a glorious noise. Samplers sit alongside a xylophone of broken bottles and cans, and each is given equal share of tUnE-yArDs's attention, approaching the technology not with the consternation of your average electronic musician, but with punkish exuberance. Matched with Garbus's ukulele, Nate Brenner's bass, and two saxophones, the percussive yelps and knocky drums that make up the beat assimilate African dance. Meanwhile, the Pitchfork audience during the work-hours portion of the festival on Friday afternoon largely consisted of co-eds wearing face paint, cut-offs, Body Glove caps, and huge smiles -- a noticeable departure from the Odd Future acolytes many expected to dominate the weekend. Women who kill, indeed.


Of the small handful of hip-hop artists performing at Pitchfork this year, the least-known put on perhaps the most impressive set of the entire weekend. I tend to be unimpressed with rap music executed live, and I've long believed it's due to a combination of too much weed, an unnecessary devotion to the extended crew, and a heavy dependence on studio magic. Lately, though, I've concluded that rapping is just plain hard since so much of an MC's success requires charming the audience and balancing technical skill with ad lib and humor. Although Curren$y relies less on improvisation than many of his undie-hop peers, he more than compensates with natural allure and style to spare. The staid claims to 'true hip-hop' that punctuate most hip-hop shows were absent here, replaced by calls to "throw your jets in the air" over the lady DJ's near-psychadelic beats. Fascinatingly, I didn't even notice until well into the set that the New Orleanian rapper was actually rhyming a cappella on the second half of each song, capturing the mutant steel drum's spaced-out bounce on "Audio Dope II" with nothing but cadence. And, even though he was sporting a Michael Jordan Bulls jersey on stage, when he said "I ain't talkin' 'bout practice no mo'," Curren$y straight-up became Allen Iverson, slowing down the planetary whirl with that weird, stoned crossover of his.

James Blake

James Blake was inarguably one of the most anticipated performers of the weekend. He's the biggest breakout artist of 2011 so far, and he's largely credited with bringing dubstep to the mainstream, if only in the U.K. To me, though, he mostly sounds like the British Ray LaMontagne. Although his songs are pretty and likeable, they don't really resonate in the nerve centers where I usually judge this type of music: head (electronic), heart (R&B), ass (dub reggae). On stage, Blake complements his keys, knobs, and voice setup with a live drummer and guitarist, which pulses a bit more blood through the tunes than I had ever felt before. And, for the first time, I began to understand the sexuality of songs like his cover of Feist's "Limit to Your Love." But it's an unfamiliar urge, different from those I get from Maxwell, the xx, or Jesus & Mary Chain. It's more like an ache where my ovaries would be were I a girl: gendered but incomplete. Although the additional instruments fill out the sound a bit, the tunes still feel grave and virginal at their core. Hopefully these experiments with a live band will inform Blake's studio work in the future.

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