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Pitchfork festival finds groove when people start to move

by JON CARAMANICA New York Times News Service on July 24, 2013 10:50 AM

CHICAGO — Late Saturday afternoon, just as the stubborn, gummy heat was beginning to lift off Union Park here, Canadian DJ-producer Ryan Hemsworth took to the small stage in the southwest corner of the park and finally kicked this year’s edition of the Pitchfork Music Festival into gear.

At one point, he played a remix of a new song by Kanye West, one of this city’s hometown heroes, and for the first time since early Friday afternoon, when the festival began under conditions of extreme heat, bodies got to moving. They didn’t stop for the rest of the weekend — not just because the weather remained mostly tolerable, but also because the second half of this festival served as a reminder of how dance music has become the most exciting emergent narrative in pop. This was true, not only in the mainstream but also in the connoisseur’s corners documented by Pitchfork, the forward-thinking and taste-shaping website that has sponsored this festival every year since 2006.

For the rest of Saturday and most of Sunday, rhythm dominated here, and in myriad forms: M.I.A.’s mystical transnational club music, Solange’s misty lite-disco, Evian Christ’s lustrous dollops of bass, Andy Stott’s intellectual and precise but sometimes sleepy techno, Sky Ferreira’s moody electro-pop, TNGHT’s sledgehammer hip-hop.

For a festival that began life as an outgrowth of a publication obsessed with documenting and grading indie rock, it was a telling indicator of the shifts in the centers of creativity.

Music is increasingly an ecosystem of cults and tribes and microscenes, some of which grow big enough to be mistaken for the big boxes of old. But for the most part, category-killing artists — true, undeniable superstars — have become a thing of the past.

Pitchfork has been a key engine for identifying and nurturing any number of baby movements, feeding them until they can stand up on their own, in the hope of producing a few acts that can perform at this festival, which has something of a symbiotic relationship with the website, each validating the existence of the other.

At the same time, Pitchfork has grown broader and become proudly generalist, sometimes almost mainstream. This year’s best-known performers, like Bj￶rk and M.I.A., are basically king-size, global-scale cult acts. R. Kelly, the festival’s Sunday night headliner, is both a legitimate superstar and also, to this crowd, something of a mythical outsider-art figure.

Still, the indie rock that was Pitchfork’s raison d’↑tre in its early days was well-represented here, especially Friday, though not without some internal skepticism. Here were bands in various stages of delusion and defensiveness. Several — including the mystifying, Doors-influenced Foxygen and the pleasingly dour Daughn Gibson — laded their performances with dull sarcasm and eye-rolling anti-wit, as if there were no more tiresome thing in the world than to be the singer fronting a rock band in 2013. Even Lee Spielman, frontman of the hardcore group Trash Talk, appeared to have his reliable intensity beaten down by Friday’s heat, though he did eventually surf the crowd while seated in the lotus position.

By comparison, the veteran bands didn’t bother trying to be wry and were more appealing for their directness. The serrate art-punk band Wire was at its nervy best, and Belle & Sebastian sounded completely at peace with its ageless twee pastorals. Among the festival’s best performances was the one by Swans, full of dense abrasions, and as unsettling as a sudden natural disaster. Michael Gira was also the only singer of the festival’s first half who was superherolike enough to beat the heat, his voice howling and his body contorting.

A handful of younger bands played it straight as well, especially the ferocious punk outfit Metz and the knowing post-punk troop Parquet Courts. But the most exciting rock came from a different lineage: Blood Orange, sensually channeling the sweaty funk of the late 1970s as well as the chilly new wave of the early 1980s. Its frontman, Devont← Hynes, was both a technical adept and a louche presence. On Sunday night, he posted a picture on Instagram of himself kneeling in front of some Prince memorabilia at the Hard Rock Hotel, as if the echoes weren’t already loud enough.

Hynes has also had a hand in producing for two of the festival’s higher-profile female singers, Solange and Ferreira. As in previous years, the festival remains an exemplar of gender-balanced booking.

Many of the most impressive acts were women or female-fronted bands: M.I.A.; Solange; the bracing, confessional Waxahatchee; the howling post-punk Savages, the band most name-checked by other performers from the stage; the loose and riveting White Lung. And of course, Bj￶rk, the Friday night headliner, still in her nature-music phase, filling the air with heavily textured skronk and thump and filling the stage with shimmering-outfit-clad backup singers and a Tesla coil.

The Sunday night headliner, R. Kelly, was this festival’s biggest nod to this city. Kelly, who has been releasing albums for two decades, is a heritage act to this audience, and also in the context of this festival, a bit of an oddball by dint of his fame and also his genre, R&B, which has rarely been at the core of Pitchfork’s mission.

(That Kelly was acquitted of child pornography charges in 2008 felt like a distant memory; there were no apparent protests.)

He was a limber performer, stringing together choruses and intros and pieces of a few dozen hits, and improvising melodies in between. Elsewhere, he may be a superstar attraction, but here he was also a cult figure come alive.

As Kelly performed, on the other side of the park, TNGHT — the collaboration of Hudson Mohawke and Lunice — was bringing the festival’s dance music arc to a close, including a segment in which they played plenty of songs by West, that other hometown hero, and also the sort of artist Pitchfork eagerly cottons to. He is the most modern superstar, loved from the top down and also the bottom up, a cult figure bigger than the sky.

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