Heat stroke be damned: This past weekend, we sent a brave coterie of correspondents to cover Pitchfork 2011, which drew 45,000 or so to a dry and oh-so-dusty Union Park (the attendance figure is slightly down from past years). Photographers Esther Kang and Jeff Schear mightily elbowed their way through the crowded and, in their words, “rank” photo pits, while writers Nora O’Donnell, Michell Eloy, and (the uber pregnant) Cassie Walker Burke swilled copious amounts of water while they surveyed the bands, the scantily clad crowd, and the extracurricular offerings. Here’s their best and worst of the fest.
1. Deerhunter. The highlight of our weekend, not only because they played their Southern-fried hearts out, but because their heady bass lines and driving tempos actually piqued our internal decibel meters—rare for a weekend characterized by more muffled and muted sounds. One of those bands that seems to constantly tour and know how to work a crowd, Deerhunter built up their looped- and fuzz-laden soundscapes loud enough to lure legions of listeners from the shaded trees on the periphery.
2. tUnE-yArDs. The first time we heard Merrill Garbus, we pictured her as a 400-pound sweat-laden soul singer—because who else could unleash those locomotive-like vocals? In person, the Canadian musician is a kinda soccer mom-ish, ukelele-plucking sort, with an asymmetrical haircut and a live show that will blow you away. The only people on stage: Garbus, a bassist, and two saxophone players. But with her prodigious mastery of the looping pedal, which allowed her to layer the percussion and vocals she was laying down live, she created a mind-blowing rich, distorted soul that had us wishing she’d been given a mainstage slot.
3. EMA. At one point in her Friday afternoon stage show, this former guitarist for Amps for Christ said she had been “this close” to quitting the music biz all together and going back to South Dakota to drink beer and presumably bury her career, which has never made the crossover from a cult kinda thing. Then she and her band tore into the song “California,” (I’ve bled all my blood out/but my red pants don’t show that), and we were so pleased that she’s yet again making the rounds with her damaged sounding psyche and serious guitar skills.
4. Cold Cave. If New Order and the Cure had a lovechild, it would sound something like this New York trio. We marveled as front man Wesley Eisold delivered some of Saturday’s jumpiest, glitter-infused dance beats while wearing a black leather jacket in the suffocating heat. Now that’s commitment.
5. Destroyer. Although Daniel Bejar’s stage presence was a bit lackluster, the sound oozed a strange—and intriguing—combo of 1980s smooth jazz and intergalactic sexpot (in a good way). Don’t believe us? Just watch this brilliantly outlandish video below, from his latest album, Kaputt.
6. Shabazz Palaces. Sunday’s preferable hip-hop alternative to the contentious OFWGKTA, which was playing at the same time. Helmed by rapper Palaceer Lazaro, Shabazz Palaces offered a more subdued, less-profane performance in comparison to the mainstage happenings. Not much is known about the beginnings of this Seattle Roots-esque collective, but with their thoughtful lyrics and simplistic beats, this group is sure to gain more notoriety after this weekend.
7. Superchunk. Nineties-era indie rock poster child Mac McCaughan can still “bring it”—those being the words of that record store boyfriend who first introduced us to this seminal band while cruising the college campus in his grandma’s Oldsmobile. Superchunk’s newer material evokes a wiser and more thorough group of musicians, but their Pitchfork rendition of “Like a Fool” transported us right back to that collegiate record store in a good way.
8. Cut Copy. This Australian synth-pop group’s fist-pumping song “Lights and Music” reinvigorated Sunday’s tired and sweaty crowd to the point that that there was gyrating all the way from the stage to the typically lethargic ballmounds.
9. Watermelon lemonade and Star of Siam’s potstickers. We wish the food at Pitchfork would get a makeover like Lollapalooza’s has, but for now we’ll make do with the simple and brilliant lemonade from the Wishbone tent and the $6 basket of chicken-and-veggie goodness from Star of Siam.
10. Baths. He’s only 21, but Will Wiesenfeld’s one-man digital show drew a sizable crowd to the sidestage on Sunday. The electro-producer moved back and forth from laptop to soundboard, building catchy hooks that, at times, seemed improvised, while the crowed bobbed around energetically despite the sweltering temps.
1. Animal Collective. We overheard one festival attendee describe the electro-psychedelic group’s performance as “one giant c**k tease.” No other account more accurately sums up the Friday night closer’s act. After 20 minutes of seemingly ambient noise, the group jumped into a few songs from their much-hyped 2009 album Merriweather Post Pavilion. The crowed pushed forward in anticipations of some more recognizable tunes. But another bout of nondescript beats followed before the Baltimore quartet closed out with hit song “Summertime Clothes,” leaving the crowd feeling restless and unsatisfied.
2. The style. Take, for instance, the dude in the American flag thong. With nothing else on. Or the man in the full-body Spidey suit. Or the ladies sporting the tragic lacey bras under see-through shirts, the opaque tights, and those creepy sandal-boots. But, hey, judge the crowd for yourself here.
3. Wild Nothing. Dream-pop that’s so dreamy it puts you to sleep.
4. Guided by Voices. We’ve seen them enough to times to not be surprised that, by now, they’re just that band that’s playing “I Am a Scientist” for the 999th time while we take a nap and/or refresh our beers.
5. Steaming hot port-o-potties. 'Nuff said.
Photograph: Esther Kang