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Pitchfork Music Festival 2011: Day 1 in review

4:40 p.m. Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus (above) is as volatile as a blindfolded chemistry experiment, her voice a pretty trill one minute, a feral shriek the next. She builds songs from a modest array of clicks, taps and rim shots on a snare drum, a handful of wordless vocal riffs, and then loops them into a mini-orchestra of sound. Pretty soon she’s in the midst of spiraling hurricane, looking to break through, her voice ululating over Afropop rhythms and darting horns. She unleashes a wordless whoop as “Powa” drives to a close, which charges the fans. “You’re a massive bundle of love,” she says with a smile. It’s another punctuation point on what has been a breakthrough year for Tune-Yards. (GK)

4:41 p.m. John Stanier sheds his shirt. Already dripping with sweat two songs into the set, the drummer assumes a hunched-over pose and appears ready to launch into a hardcore punk fury. Yet Stanier, whose contributions form the core of Battles’ kaleidoscopic instrumentals, infuses the pieces with post-bop percussive phrases, in-the-pocket fills and complex time signatures. Recently reduced to a vocal-free trio,Battles suffer no losses, relying on loops and prerecorded samples during moments when singing is warranted. Yet the performance largely concerns the creation and sustain of word-free, jittery jazz-rock that progressively builds in tension before getting broken open and unfolding as cerebral dance gestures. Songs such as “Ice Cream” alternatively march, jump and shimmy. Guitars introduce industrial streaks and scraped accents; calliope-like synthesizers chirp, shimmy and wheeze. Battles enjoys both mechanical precision and off-the-cuff looseness. Festive and in constant motion, it’s music for under the big top of an eclectic circus. (BG)

4:50 p.m. A brutal conflict rages at this hour for music fans, with Battles playing against Tune-Yards, so I hustle across Union Park to catch the last few songs of Battles’ set after Merrill Garbus takes her latest star turn. Battles is, like Tune-Yards, a band that needs to be seen as much as heard, with the shirtless John Stanier doing his Terminator impression on drums. He plays with flair, sticks over head, storming across the kit, putting a palable physicality into the band’s shifting grid of electronics. (GK)

5:12 p.m. Eric and Bronson DeLeon drove fromSouth Bend,Indiana to catch the festival for the first time and, in particular, see Animal Collective, Tune-Yards, TVOTR and Odd Future. They’re extremely impressed. “This is great. It’s nice and small, very personal. It’s unlike any other festival round,” says Bronson. They also plan on going to Lollapalooza, but prefer the cozy vibe here. “Lollapalooza is so big that sometimes it feels that you’re not connected to the performers,” adds Eric. Chalk up another vote in favor of Pitchfork’s capped attendance and manageable layout. (BG)

5:40 p.m. Thurston Moore is on holiday from Sonic Youth, and the master electric guitarist and mayhem-starter is in acoustic mode with violin, harp and brush-stroke drums accompanying him. Moore re-creates the lush, dreamy feel of vintage Nick Drake, but his pleasant strumming is no match for Drake’s strong melodies. (GK)

5:50 p.m. “You own today!” announcesCurren$y after spotting a crowd-surfing fan.The New Orleans rapper is visibly enthused and amused by the large crowd gathered amidst shady trees to watch his laid-back, smooth-paced set. With a majority of his tunes dealing with marijuana and chilling out, the air is fittingly perfumed by the sweet smell of pot. Not that Curren$y isn’t fluent in festival etiquette. He frowns on any bottles of water thrown towards him (“When it gets hot people start fighting”) and, in observing many younger fans, tells them to just say ‘no’ to smoking “no matter how cool it looks.” Dressed in a Michael Jordan Bulls jersey, his physique becomes a human gumby, limbs and joints flexing to unhurried beats. The amicable demeanor suits the largely chorus-free verses, often freestyled and delivered acapella in a measured, homey drawl. “#JetsGo” inspires a sea of hands in which the thumb and pinky finger are extended, and the middle three fingers closed. The flight-referencing symbol acts as a metaphor for getting high, a state attainable without chemical aids thanks to Curren$y’s concise, mellow flow. If there’s ever another “Friday” sequel, consider the role of Smokey cast. (BG)

6:40 p.m. The air is thick with jokes, humidity and weed asDas Racist roll. “It’s a brand new dance/Give me all your money/Everybody, love everybody,” they rap over gangsta-era synthesizer. The MC’s cut sharp and fast, using cultural references as springboards for wild, witty leaps of imagination: They hang with John Phillip Sousa in one verse, play double dutch with Maya Angelou in another. But a cameo by Danny Brown, a Detroit MC, sidetracks the momentum and the set never quite recovers. (GK)

6:44 p.m. Guided By Voices bassist Greg Demos looks like he’s about to drop from exhaustion. Indeed, the gray hair and pudgier physiques of some of the members are telling: The reunited “classic” lineup has lost a step. Years of chain-smoking cigarettes and heavy drinking have taken a slight toll, with the group’s garage-rock coming across lumpier and less urgent than it did in it’s heyday. Still, there’s no faulting the animation of singer Bob Pollard, whose high-leg kicks, hopscotching movements, microphone-cord twirls and one-footed pogoing make it seem like 1994 all over again. Other unironic rock-star poses — windmill guitar-chord strikes, splayed-leg postures — coincide with the band’s catchy, stripped-down take on late 60s psychedelic pop and early 70′s arena rock. Concentrating on 1992-1996 material, GBV get off to a great start, as chanteuse Neko Case lends her distinctive vocals and tambourine hand to “Echos Myron.” Simple and lyrically imaginative, the songs are still melodically great and varied just enough, spanning pensive prog (“Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory”) to radio-friendly rave-ups (“Game of Pricks”). For many, it’s a nostalgic trip, and for the festival, it harkens back to the All Tomorrows Parties concept it entertained several years ago. But for an overly content GBV, it should signal the end. (BG)

7 p.m. Flashback is right. Demos’ striped pants look identical to the ones he wore in ’94, and guitarist Mitch Mitchell’s cigarette is still drooping from his lip while he windmills a chord. Pollard plays the white-haired Godfather of Alternative role to the hilt. “The original classic wino,” he says, with a wink and a bow. He takes great songs on their last go-round by the “classic” Guided By Voices lineup — I suppose there are worse things to be done in the name of a payday. But this feels oddly perfunctory. (GK)

7:19 p.m. When will Pitchfork organizers learn to avoid placing beer-ticket and beer sales right next to the entry to the passageway to the outlying Green Stage? The latter is already over congested due to its smaller size, and adding more, immobile people to the mix creates a logjam. (BG)

7:33 p.m. A barefoot Neko Case sings and trades quips with Kelly Hogan, their banter a necessary counterbalance to songs of murder, dementia and despair. Case’s songs are almost deceptively beautiful — all that heartache and blood wrapped in such graceful melodies. As dusk descends, the duo’s wordless harmonies waft over Jon Rauhouse’s pedal steel guitar — “Star Witness” seems to have been written for exactly this moment. The interplay of Rauhouse and guitarist Paul Rigby is equally nuanced, a delicate but sometimes ornery reflection of the emotional turmoil in the songs. (GK)

8:05 p.m. James Blake ups the tempo and invokes a club atmosphere, complete with waving arms and swaying hips. Where has this energy been for the last half hour? Save for infrequent nods to dubstep, the extremely polite British singer, one of the most anticipated up-and-coming acts on the bill, prefers faint electronically soaked arrangements constructed around his fluttering, delicate voice and lounge keyboard lines. Vocals are filtered through echo devices, treated with wet reverb and layered. Akin to his fractured, melodramatic outpourings — defined not by clearly enunciated words but by fading vowels — abstract percussive effects randomly bounce about a synthetic haze. He’s chasing a minimalist vibe wherein the divide between artificial and organic is bridged, yet the precious approach and pillow-soft nature don’t suit the setting. In an intimate venue, such aural solitude and painstaking patience might work. But not when Neko Case can be heard crooning from a distant stage, and not when, in an already drowsy atmosphere, Blake and company remain seated throughout. (BG)

8:39 p.m. Give Animal Collective this — their keyboards and synths sound vaguely obscene. They evoke burping frogs, burbling bongs, mating jungle animals. The group commands an unlikely niche somewhere between electronic rave cheerleading and jam-band noodling. Structure is a sometime thing, less a performance than a soundtrack for a mass audience hallucination with jelly-like blobs dancing on a massive video screen. The band performs inside a stage that suggests an aquarium, and a lot of the vocals sound like they are emanating from some underwater lair. As for songs — those cool little melodies that dotted the excellent 2009 album “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” for example — they are in woefully short supply. (GK)

9:39 p.m. Animal Collective emerges from a prolonged, aimless, and often amateurish psychedelic mishmash by returning to hyperactive fusion guided by African-oriented pulses and jumpy rhythms. It’s all over in five minutes, and when encore calls go unfulfilled, day one is complete. (BG)

greg@gregkot.com

Copyright © 2011, Chicago Tribune

andbabymakes3 at 12:44 AM July 16, 2011

Where is Jeff191 to tell us all how much he disapproves of this? Perhaps he is on another important thread, expressing his profound displeasure with Obama.

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