Review: The 2009 Pitchfork Music Festival


I was most excited about Friday night’s “Write the Night” lineup of Tortoise, Yo La Tengo, The Jesus Lizard and Built To Spill where each band culled their setlist from fan-submitted requests.  I assumed that with bands like those – bands who have well-established catalogues and die-hard fans – it was sure to be a night of deep cuts, under-appreciated classics and undeniable fan-favorites.  I figured the crowds would have to be excited, engaged and soaking up every note/word.  Right?

Not quite.  On the whole, fans seemed largely apathetic to a sizable portion of the selections played.  A few die-hards would yell at the beginning of songs, but for the most part the crowd seemed to be there just for the sake of being at Day 1 of a three-day music fest.

Friday night began with one of my all-time favorite bands: Tortoise.  Their records, EPs and shows recordings seem to remain incredibly consistent in my diverse, spastic listening rotation.  As a long-time-staple-turned-elder-statesmen of the Chicago music scene, the Pitchfork Music Festival would provide fertile grounds for Tortoise to explore their vast catalogue.  Right?  The band would surely be greeted by an enthusiastic crowd of folks, familiar with the material and longing for [insert obscure song here] off of [insert obscure, out-of-print EP here] – the one they thought they’d never see live.  Right??


Not quite.  It was more like the background for a Hipster Cocktail Hour and seemed to be lost on nearly everyone in attendance.  There were pockets of people honestly, thoroughly engaged in Tortoise’s subtlety shifting, geniusly-melodic soundscapes, but most folks appeared confused and bored if they were even paying attention at all.  Jim DeRogatis of the Chicago Sun-Times called them “absolutely narcotic on stage” in a festival preview article and then referred to their “sleepy grooves and repetitive minimalist melodies” in his blog review of Day 1.  I find myself baffled by all of this.  Is Tortoise really just that misunderstood by pretty much the entire music-listening public?

In a strange way it perfectly complimented and perpetuated the band’s 15-year-long career of existing in a vacuum and flying genuinely under the radar – a true diamond in the rough of an over-saturated, under-talented music industry.  Their set was dense, melodic, and drew mostly from Millions Now Living Will Never Die and TNT – classic Tortoise records.  The highlight was Djed, the lengthy centerpiece of MNLWND, but few seemed to care or notice.  Personally, I loved every minute of it.  Tortoise plays so rarely that I try to jump on every opportunity to see them I can get.  I guess the Empty Bottle provides an ideal setting for Tortoise after all – 300 rabid fanatics hanging on every note, every shift, every rhythm.

Yo La Tengo was up next – another band I was quite eager to see but wasn’t sure how the crowd would react.  Folks seemed a bit more engaged and attentive, but once again it was far from the warm reception you’d expect for a band like YLT in a requests setting.  The only other time I’d seen such a thing, was an all-requests set in a small theater as part of the group’s Freewheeling Tour of 2007.  The band’s drone-drenched-in-texture sound was beautifully executed, but the large outdoor setting seemed to prevent the music from really reaching many people.  Perhaps, like Tortoise, this is a band best seen in its own headlining environment with actual fans.


As the Yo La Tengo set was winding down, a buzz was brewing across the park at the other main stage where The Jesus Lizard was finishing setting up.  People were waiting, chatting, seemingly excited.  Could it be…actual enthusiasm from this crowd?  As David Yow barreled out of the gate, leaping into the audience moments into the first tune, the answer became a resounding “yes”.  People were PUMPED about the band’s second show in over a decade.  I was shamelessly ignorant to the Lizard going into Pitchfork.  They are a name I’ve always seen around, but for some reason had never crossed my ears.  I loved the loud, gritty, riff-heavy songs and exploding snare blasts, but I was captivated by frontman David Yow.  He stage-dove often and when on stage ran around like a lunatic bent on destruction, all while never missing a cue or lyric.  HT contributor Benji Feldheim will provide more detailed thoughts on this set, but I left thinking “this is a band I need to check out” like a good newb.


Friday’s headliner was Built To Spill – another band with a long career rich in records, EPs and tours and another band I should have been more familiar with going into the festival.  I’d been urged by friends on numerous occasions to listen to Built to Spill, and had dug what I’d heard, but never really dove deeper.

I loved their set.  From the Crazy Horse/Dinosaur Jr guitar riffs to the passionate vocals with interesting vocal melodies, I dug everything about their set, songs and sound.  I found myself staring at a vibrant, original rock band; one with blistering guitars, catchy hooks and a wealth of solid material.  The crowd still didn’t seem fully engaged, but for the first time all evening they appeared to be paying attention to the music, making it easier and more enjoyable for me to do so.  Built to Spill is another band I will be listening to much more of down the line.


Unable to attend Saturday’s festivities, I was damn excited to catch Blitzen Trapper mid-day on Sunday.  Furr was one of my favorite records of 2008, and they killed the only other time I’d been able to see them.  I was especially pumped to see them again since having investigated the great pre-Furr releases Wild Mountain Nation and Field Rexx and digging most of those tunes.  It was clear the band had grown leaps and bounds since being booked for the fest, as their mid-day set had one of the largest crowds I saw all weekend.

The set was mostly a mix off of WMN and Furr, with tracks from the latter being noticeably better received by the audience.  While not as energetic as the club show I’d previously seen, Blitzen Trapper still threw one hell of a mid-day festival set.  It will be interesting to see what this band does next and how they continue to adjust to their newfound indie stardom.


I saw Canadian band Women next at the suggestion of a few friends, and was very entertained.  While not groundbreaking, the band takes a very interesting stab at the drone-heavy Velvet Underground-approach to noise rock.  I enjoyed their set, and am planning to check out their self-titled record released last year.


Next up was The Walkmen – another band my friends were eager to see.  This set was the surprise of the weekend for me, as I hadn’t heard a note going into it and found myself transfixed the whole duration.  Lead singer Hamilton Leithauser can belt tunes with the best of them, often arching backwards and straining to sing with his whole body.   The band behind him was sharp, using their vintage instruments to provide the perfect feel for each tune.  I definitely plan checking out their records ASAP.


A last-second audible found me skipping Grizzly Bear to see Denmark’s Mew.  The band took the stage to a rousing applause from a noticeably younger demographic, eager to see the band live for seemingly the first time.  Not gonna lie…this set did nothing for me and I would have enjoyed GB much more.  Mew sounded like an awkward mix of ’80s pop sensations Wham! and The Holy Fuck.  While I didn’t hate everything I heard, it was not for me.


…and then the big finale: The Flaming Lips.  Perhaps the quintessential indie band, the Lips have been doing their own, weird thing for over 20 years.  The records are varied both in sound and quality, but the band’s live show is always guaranteed to be an over-the-top circus of sensory overload.  Even though their shows have been annoyingly similar each time I’ve seen them, I still couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement leading up to their Pitchfork performance.

I’ve never been able to take photos at a Lips show, and hadn’t seen the band in a few years.  Would they do something different, perhaps some new tunes off their forthcoming record?  Would their be a new show for the next year unveiled?  Would this be a one-off for a rock band, pulling songs from it’s 20+  year existence?

In short: couldn’t tell ya.  I didn’t see more than the fist half of the set-opening Race for the Prize.  I would have LOVED to have shot the Flaming Lips.  I was pumped to get some great shots of Wayne Coyne with his trademark white suit all covered in stage blood.  I was excited to catch some candids of the supporting cast of dancers, confetti shooters and those guys in the orange suits with the yellow hard hats.  It was impossible.

In what had become standard procedure, I started making my way towards the photo pit 15 mins before the set.  We were only allowed to shoot the first 3 songs, and were not allowed in the pit until the act hit the stage.  I found myself walking towards the stage with a small group of other photographers, weaving through what was obviously the largest crowd of the weekend.  As we got closer to the front I noticed something – these people were partying.  They were hammered, loud, obnoxious, everything you expect at a big outdoor rock show.  People actually seemed to be enjoying themselves and excited about seeing the Lips.

Then, suddenly, things turned ugly.  Our group got to where the side fencing ended, mere feet from the entrance to the photo pit, and we were stuck.  Roadies were putting the final touches on gear; Wayne was visible off to the side, waving at the eager crowd; the place was about to erupt.  The band was about to start and some photographers got understandably antsy.  Our time in the pit was limited, and here we were stuck seven feet away and unable to get anyone to let us through.  Then it got tense.

“You’re not fucking getting by. Deal with it.” screamed one wasted middle-aged woman, there with her almost-equally-drunk daughter (or younger sister, or niece, or something).  “Look, lady, I’m just trying to get to the photo pit to do my job” countered the photographer.  “I don’t give a shit. You’re not getting by.  I’m doing my job which is drinking.”  She let out a drunken “WOOOOOOO” and the photographer’s face turned red.  He started to push his way forward and the drunk hag threw herself in front of him proclaiming “If you take another step I will fight you.”  That was enough.  I put my head down and barged upstream, out of the madness.

I would have loved to have heard the Flaming Lips.  That was impossible too.  From the back of the crowd (where I went to catch a deep breath), only Wayne’s slightly-flat vocals and the bass coming from The Very Best on stage across the park were audible so I left.

A disappointing end to a festival filled with some ups and downs, but provided an interesting glimpse into a culture different from my own yet undeniably similar.  Perhaps some of the attendees need to get out more in general.  No one seemed to really lose themselves in the music, opening themselves up to what the artist on stage is projecting.  It was amazing that the band to get this uptight crowd to break, to act the fool, to act real was the Flaming Lips – a band who offer the same forced-epic show each night.  Yes, the songs are good (some are even great), but live I’ve become bored with them.  I couldn’t believe that was the band to truly reach the Pitchfork culture.

Maybe I’m a little off base and my view is colored by the whimpering end to my festival experience.  I don’t know.  All I know is that I’ve never encountered something quite like the Pitchfork Music Festival in all my years of attending concerts, festivals, events, etc.

Here’s a gallery featuring the rest of Joel’s photos…

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6 Responses

  1. multi-band festivals are tough. it always seems to be more about socializing than the music, which is ok, i guess, but makes me appreciate the phish-style 1-band no-bullshit festival all the more.

    built to spill’s discography is definitely worth checking out.

    yo la tengo peaked in the mid-90s (“painful”) but are still a good band.

  2. Good pictures and nice review Joel. I’m sorry to hear about your unfortunate encounter on Sunday night before the lips set. That is too bad, because the lips played a solid show. The setlist was quite different with bad days and Enthusiasm for life defeats existential fear thrown in with three new songs off the upcoming album. This was my second pitchfork and I find it hard to beat. A three day pass for $70 is incredible. I understand your comment about the fans not letting themselves go, but you have to remember that pitchfork takes a big chance with many of these bands. When you put bands like wavves,pains of being pure at heart, yeasayer, and ponytail in front of massive crowds when they are still used to playing clubs with about 200 people, you might find the crowd having a hard time to totally let go or just getting down. When you go to the clifford ball, everybody knows the words to runaway jim… it is a different setting.

  3. this was my second Pitchfork and while it’s a nice little festival with some Great band selections, there is one major problem which really is the main culprit behind the overall vibe of the event. The Sound Fuckin Blows! They are restricted from turning it up since they are in a neighborhood so the sound is easily washed out by the winds of Chicago. I could barely hear YLT and had similar experiences with other bands. You had to be in the first 15 “rows” of people to get a decent sound experience. Friday night was a clusterfuck as far as bathroom/beer lines go as well which caused me to be in line during most of YLT and JL sets. The crowd itself I find more polite and much better about picking up after themselves than any Bonnaroo or Phish experience I’ve had (74 Phish shows and 4 Roo’s). True, much more reserved as far as letting themselves go, but that’s their nature mostly, plus, the sound sucks.

    Highlights for me:
    Built to Spill
    The Thermals
    Frightened Rabbit

    Flaming Lips – terrible, predictible, anti-climatic

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