Pitchfork 2016 Day One in review (Beach House, Carly Rae Jepsen, Whitney & more)
words by Ian Cory, photos by Ben Stas
Car Seat Headrest
Blame the gloomy weather if you must, but the first set of Pitchfork 2016 wasn’t a particularly lively one. For a band so willing to engage with rock iconography, Car Seat Headrest seemed ill at ease when trying to engage with an audience. Everything about their set seemed modeled in the shape of a good rock show, but with the filling carved out. On paper, Car Seat Headrest did mostly everything right, their dynamics were sharp and decisive, they moved from song to song smoothly and with a keen ear for pacing, and they even threw in a well intentioned homage to David Bowie’s “Blackstar.” Good intentioned only gets you so far however. No matter how prepared the band were, they appeared half dead on stage, and their arrangements universally revolved around a nasal-sounding distorted guitar tone that wasn’t doing them any favors. Still, you can’t deny that they know how to write a hook every now and then. “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” is a strong enough melody to muscle its way through the otherwise drab undertaking, and it inspired the set’s only moment of festival bliss when a fan tossed an inflatable killer whale balloon into the air right on cue with the song’s climax.
Regardless of your taste, you can’t deny that bands like Whitney sound great in an open air setting. Their approach to roots rock is about as straight down the middle as it gets, blending clear vocal harmonies with horns, electric piano, and boomy but unhurried drumming. Something about this combination of instruments played at unassuming tempos always works like gangbusters in open fields populated by people with cans of beer in their hands. Whitney might be the most agreeable sounding rock band on the planet, you could probably stick them in the middle of fucking Wacken Open Air and folks would still nod along.
In one of those sublime ‘god as lighting engineer’ moments that can only come at festivals like these, the clouds parted and the sun shined for Julia Holter. Holter’s meticulous arrangements can sometimes be suffocating on record, but at Pitchfork they were clear as day. Each instrument, stand-up bass, keys, drums, and viola, had a role and picked their spots perfectly. The end result was a blend that was flexible enough to travel across the distance of Union Park’s open field, but sturdy enough not to be blown away by the sound of Twin Peaks soundchecking on the adjacent stage. If you’re a fan of Holter’s hyper-intellectual songwriting, you couldn’t have asked for a better translation into the festival setting.
Twin Peaks continued to be a nuisance elsewhere in the festival, occasionally drowning out Moses Sumney’s delicate, loop-based songwriting. Luckily Sumney had a good sense of humor about the intrusion and, more importantly, his virtuosity had already transfixed the crowd. Using three microphones Sumney built intricate and soul-stirring arrangements that shared a passing resemblance to the music of Julianna Barwick or Bon Iver but existed in its own private aesthetic universe. Sumney played songs from his upcoming record (“You’re the first to hear them” he quipped “I know you hipsters love that”) as well as tracks from Mid-City Island, gradually incorporating more instruments and vocal effects until he had created his own idiosyncratic symphony out of his own voice.
Carly Rae Jepsen
Aside from the poptimist bro push-pit that erupted during “Call Me Maybe,” Carly Rae Jepsen’s set was as close to pop ecstasy my withered and gnarled heart could get. Jepsen and her backing band were relentless in their march from banger to banger, giving the audience little time to find their footing before sweeping them back up into a frenzy again. Jepsen even won over the hippest of the hip by inviting Dev Hynes of Blood Orange on stage to play guitar for the glorious power ballad “All That.” There’s a very well worn cliche that gets tossed around when describing relatively unpopular pop music where the writer will claim that a song could “be a hit in an alternate universe.” That universe existed for a brief moment in time at Union Park, where everyone in attendance treated E-Mo-Tion deep cuts as if they were chart-topping smashes.
Broken Social Scene
Even after seeing them live, at the second show on their first American tour in five years (and their second show in Chicago in two days), I still don’t understand how Broken Social Scene work. The band’s lineup never seems to end. New musicians enter and leave the stage constantly, all switching instruments and positions without missing a beat. The sound emerging from this aging hipster clown car never seems to change. No matter which of their three (four? Six? Who knows) guitar players is at the reigns at any given moment, Broken Social Scene still sound like an overcrowded and indistinct mush. The old heads still love this shit though, even hesitantly unfolding their arms for a brand new Broken Social Scene tune that incorporated more electronics and less brass. Even after their prolonged absence, this band remains firmly “not my thing” but they didn’t show any signs of having aged or rusted in their time away.
Beach House’s staging offered a teaching moment by comparison. Whereas Car Seat Headrest’s lack of movement on stage came across as apathetic and lazy, Beach House’s onstage minimalism felt like the product of confidence and control. Beach House know themselves very well at this point in their career, and at their fourth performance at Pitchfork Festival they certainly knew their audience. They had their absurdly stoned crowd (we’re talking “oohing” and “aahing” at the light show stoned) eating out of the palm of their hand for the entirety of their set. For a band as subdued and dream-like on record as Beach House, this set went surprisingly hard. The band knew exactly when to push a song one step higher on the dynamic ladder, alternatively lulling the crowd into a state of comfort and blowing the proverbial roof off. Given the stellar light show (which, I will admit that I ooh-ed and aah-ed at a bit myself) and the soothing summer night breeze, you could make a case that Beach House’s set was the most vivid sensory experience of the festival thus far. The band ended their performance with an extended riff on “Days Of Candy” from Depression Cherry, capping off the night with a plea for the love in the face of fear. Under any other circumstances this kind of banter would feel extremely corny and hippie-dippy, but after such a lovely set it was hard to be cynical.
More photos from Day One in the below gallery: