There were two big music festivals in the midwest this past weekend: Justin Vernon and Bryce Dessner’s inaugural Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival and the 10th anniversary Pitchfork Music Festival. Ultimately, I decided to attend Pitchfork for the third time. It is consistently one of the best music festivals year after year. The diverse lineup, the easygoing atmosphere, catching up with old friends — it all makes for a enjoyable festival experience.
While I was looking forward to seeing established acts like Wilco, who opened Friday night’s set by performing their surprise 11-track album Star Wars in its entirety, and Sleater-Kinney, whose show I missed at First Avenue on Valentine’s Day, I was even more excited to see smaller acts that have put out some of my favorite releases of the past year.
Before I dig into the five bands that had me truly mesmerized, I have to mention a few others that stood out: two former Rock the Garden acts, Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile and the Violators, once again proved to be phenomenal live performers. The former’s set was tongue-in-cheek: “Are you having fun?” asked Barnett, and after receiving a roar from the crowd she introduced “Depreston.” The latter, after a downpour delay and evacuation due to nearby lightning, put on of one of the most compelling performances of the festival. Parquet Courts, Mr. Twin Sister, Madlib & Freddie Gibbs, Future Islands and Perfume Genius were just as persuasive. Side note: I was especially bummed to have missed Chance the Rapper’s hometown headlining performance and Run the Jewels (I had to catch a flight back to Minneapolis). Luckily Run the Jewels, like a lot of bands that play Pitchfork Music Festival, will perform in the Twin Cities come fall.
I’ll be honest: it was hard to decide between catching Protomartyr on the main red stage and Nashville’s Bully on the tucked-away, smaller blue stage, but hearing “Trying” was worth it alone. And it was packed back there, especially for only being the third set of the day. Bully’s mastermind Alicia Bognanno let out some of the most rip-roaring screams I’ve ever heard and the crowd responded, moshing for the entire 10-song set. “Milkman,” the set closer, was another highlight. “This is awesome. Holy sh*t,” the Rosemount, Minn.-native said while looking on to the audience, almost in disbelief. Bully won’t be performing on the small stage for long, having played the First Avenue mainroom last month (opening for Best Coast), so be sure to catch Alicia and the band at the 7th St. Entry in October.
Having seen Mac DeMarco last year at the 7th St Entry, where he climbed the ceiling and covered Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend,” as well as his performance two years ago at Pitchfork, I was excited to catch his early evening performance on the main red stage opening day. I could have sworn I was at a ‘70s rock festival after hearing the first few chords of Steely Dan’s “Reeling in the Years” but was brought back to at least the ‘90s with a glimpse of DeMarco’s tucked-in Nirvana tee. “I don’t give a sh*t if you download my new album,” Mac said, referring to the leak of his forthcoming mini-album Another One. But he showed a softer side after encouraging the audience to sing “Happy Birthday” to his girlfriend Kira and bandmate’s mom. With a never-ending smile you can tell Mac’s having fun up there, and the crowd is, too.
It’s not an easy feat to get a crowd moving as one of the first performances of the day, let alone an entire festival, but Natalie Prass’ sweet energy was exactly what the audience needed on a sunny (and sweltering) opening day of Pitchfork 2015. Natalie’s voice is just as dynamic on record as it is live. Though the live set lacked the endearing orchestral elements of her phenomenal self-titled debut album, Prass proved she’s here to stay with a glimpse at promising new material, an unreleased song titled “Jass.” Her performance was most compelling when it was just her and the mic, swaying with soulful arpeggios. And you can’t go wrong with a Janet Jackson cover (“Any Time, Any Place”).
One of my favorite and unexpected finds of 2014 was Ought’s More Than Any Other Day. The Montreal-based band formed in 2011 at McGill University and flew under the radar until Constellation Records picked them up for the follow-up to 2012’s self-released album and are already set to put out their third release on the label this fall. At nearly eight minutes in length, “Beautiful Blue Sky,” the lead single off the forthcoming Sun Coming Down, was easily a highlight. Old favorites like “Habit,” “Pleasant Heart” and “The Weather Song” got the crowd riled up, with the front row singing every word as their bodies pushed against the guardrail. Ought reminds me of Lonesome Crowded West-era Modest Mouse, so no wonder I like ‘em. These guys are young, and it looks like they have a bright future in music ahead of them.
Viet Cong opened their set with the hit (“Silhouettes”), which is a gutsy move. Then again, their name is Viet Cong and the set was only five songs long. And it was glorious. As one of the first sets of the last day of Pitchfork 2015, Viet Cong drew a sizable crowd. Frontman and bassist Matt Flegel was light on the stage banter (“It’s too early for a rock show. We were up until 5 a.m. drinking tequila.”), but he showed his humorous side, introducing “Continental Shelf” as “Continental Breakfast.” When the epic “Death” finale reached its eleventh minute, Scott Munro ripped off his guitar strap and by the end of the song, both Munro and guitarist Scott Christiansen were lying on their backs, playing to the very last riff. “Death” is the kind of song that can only be pulled off live if the band is completely in tune with one another, and they were.