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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Pitchfork Music Festival @ Union Park, Chicago

July 17-19, 2009

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For those at the Pitchfork Music Festival tired of being blindsided by logo-splattered beach balls, Fucked Up’s Saturday afternoon performance was a welcome catharsis. Pink Eyes, the Canadian hardcore band’s bald, burly singer, viciously intercepted any ball that crossed his path, shoving it into his face with his meaty paws and tearing it apart with his teeth. Between lyrics, he spit pieces of plastic at the crowd.

As Pink Eyes fashioned one of his sacrifices into a hat on the festival’s main stage, The Antlers nurtured a set of ambient, whimpering folk for a quiet, attentive audience at a side stage. With a lineup that juggled the king-making independent music site’s dueling affinities for dulcet folk rock and avant-garde shock rock, the weekend was filled with similar contrasts. Saturday concluded, for instance, with simultaneous performances from somber Brooklyn favorites The National and nihilistic garage-rockers The Black Lips. The National were regal as ever playing for what might have been the largest audience of their career—singer Matt Berninger even suited up for the occasion. The Black Lips, meanwhile, incited a reckless mosh pit, obliterating a guitar just one song into their set.

It was Baltimore spazz-rockers Ponytail that gave the weekend’s most transgressive performance, though, thanks to the off-putting stage presence of squawking, undulating singer Molly Siegel, who resembles and dresses like an adolescent and dances as if she suffers from a severe developmental disorder. As she convulsed to the band’s screechy riffs, she’d flash a comatose grin and roll her eyes into the back of her head. The crowd roared with approval, while those who found her act tasteless flocked to the main stage and the safety of Final Fantasy violinist Owen Pallett’s sedate, baroque pop.

Playing what may have been their final show after a schism split the group into two units, Los Angeles art punks The Mae Shi (or what’s left of them) never addressed the band’s tenuous situation at their Sunday show, performing nonchalantly, as if the festival’s expansive main stage was just another basement venue. The New York dance-pop synth-and-drum duo Matt and Kim, on the other hand, carried themselves as if their Saturday evening set was the culmination of their whole career. After bounding on-stage to Jay-Z’s triumphant “Brooklyn Go Hard,” the all-smiles power couple spoke of their days playing small loft shows in Chicago, beamed that the Pitchfork crowd was one of the biggest they’ve ever played for and boasted that they only put two names on their guest list: Oprah and Barack Obama.

Though the weekend was a celebration of new music—Best New Music, if you will—the festival did allow itself one night of nostalgia. Friday night hosted four bands whose cachet predates Pitchfork, all of which played sets determined by advance audience vote. Tortoise’s shifty, instrumental post-rock—which was warmer, lusher and less mechanical than it sometimes comes across on record—gave way to an eclectic showing from Yo La Tengo, who balanced their doe-eyed ballads with imaginatively sloppy swatches of feedback. The band’s sparse, melancholic “Autumn Sweater” made for a fitting accompaniment to such a brisk, overcast evening.

Reunited noise-rockers The Jesus Lizard pleased the old faithful but didn’t appear to win many young fans with their full-throttle set, but headliners Built to Spill did a much better job bridging the generational gap, spinning heady, note-perfect jams out of heart-melting pop tunes. As frontman Doug Martsch sang song after song about crushed hopes and fragile love, a lone rain cloud singled in on the stage, dousing it with sheets of drizzle while most of the audience remained dry. It’s easy to imagine that rain cloud following Martsch around at every tour stop.