Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Pitchfork Music Festival 2006: Critical Review, Day One

Tyondai Braxton Saturday’s biggest bummer (besides the searing heat and the overflowing portable toilets, of course), was Tyondai Braxton. The pedal-master’s performance itself was nothing short of intriguing; however, Chad Taylor and Rob Mazurek of Chicago Underground Duo, who played prior to Braxton’s set, went fifteen pompous minutes over their allotted time, and Braxton, who rarely plays solo performances, was forced to begin his set twenty-five minutes late. The tall and gangly Braxton sat in the center of the stage with a couple of Fender Strats, a microphone, and an array of about a dozen effects pedals. He struck a few notes on his guitar, ran it through a delay pedal and was off and running. His initial notes were layered with other sparse notes, with Braxton screaming a phrase or two into the mike. All of this ran in a continual loop through various pedals that Braxton manipulated as a DJ would manipulate records on a turntable, or even as a painter would mix the colors on his palette. What began as a few simple notes and a few passionate howls turned into a thunderous maelstrom of gorgeous noise. The genius of it all was that Braxton’s work was more than that of some skinny kid with a teased-out afro improvising as he went along; there were obviously many things going on inside his head at once, and while he was sculpting the sound of his present piece (I can’t really call them songs) he would already be recording elements that would appear in the next one. Watching him play is a little like cracking a code, and only after three of four pieces did I begin to work out the intricacies of what he was doing. At that point, however, some stage dude ran up and told him he had five minutes left. So after twenty quick minutes of performance time, Braxton, who needs several minutes just to set up the various elements of a piece, decided it wasn’t worth it, and he packed up his pedals and his guitars. Thusly ended what would probably have been the most stirring performance of the weekend. Art Brut Art Brut has as much business being at a summer music festival curated by Pitchfork as Pitchfork does being at a summer music festival curated by Art Brut. The bouncy, satirical, self-mocking Brit power popsters have the potential stuff to make a hot, pretentious crowd fall over in a stupor of ironic criticism. They also have the reputation for bringing energy to a show that is capable of carrying over a crowd of several thousand. The band played at 5:10 with the sun setting directly in its eyes. While the heat might have hindered Art Brut’s vigor, it didn’t impact frontman Eddie Argos’s sardonic, yet light-hearted wit. The band began with “We Formed a Band” and afterwards he asked, “Are there any questions?” But apparently the crowd understood and the band moved on. During “Bang Bang Rock & Roll” Argos sauntered around in his gray dress shirt (which became more and more unbuttoned as the set progressed) and his bowl coiffure, which he explained was a product of a haircut in a Polish barber the day before. “It’s the most Brit-pop haircut I’ve ever gotten,” he informed us. Ultimately the entertainment factor of the performance was Argos’s chatter more than it was the music itself. I imagine he’s normally much more animated, but because of the heat he mostly stood around, clutching the microphone, looking like a sweaty history prof giving a tedious lecture. During “Emily Kane” Argos had an imaginary conversation with Jay-Z, in which Jay-Z told him, “You got many problems. The bitch ain’t one of them,” to which Argos replied, “Jay, I don’t appreciate your misogynist language.” But while he was mostly talk and little action, Argos did find the energy to jump rope his mike cord during “Bad Weekend,” and the band behind him had the energy throughout the show to jump around and end the set with a classic punk rock jam outro to “Good Weekend.” Matmos I could probably just review Matmos’s set by listing a sample from its assortment of instruments: Snare drum Half dozen roses 2 iMacs 1 (or 2?) sampling machines 1 (or eighty million?) keyboards Guitar Shakers Tuba Bowl of water A tube to put into the bowl of water and through which to sing and blow bubbles 2 metal things that look like vases with drums on one end A large, plastic, cyan Easter egg What, no vaginas? I was willing to volunteer my own; however, the electronic duo, who has and will use anything on this earth that makes noise to create music, had enough at its fingertips without employing live manipulation of the female body (which it does in fact do for its most recent release, The Rose has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast). Watching Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt perform live (accompanied Saturday by a third dude whose name I didn’t catch) is like watching a group of scientists on speed preparing to launch a space shuttle. Indeed Schmidt looked like a high school science teacher in his horn-rimmed glasses, short-sleeved polyester shirt (complete with pocket organizer), and Daniel with his own geeky glasses, greasy hair, and dirty Chuck Taylors looked like his overzealous apprentice. During their first Chicago show in five years, Schmidt moved around the stage as he switched instruments; Daniel bounced on his heels and went back and forth between the various electronic equipment as the band ran through a rather dancey set, driven by pulsing beats and noisy melody that sent the crowd in the over-heated Biz3 tent into a frenzy. I watched the entire performance closely, wondering when each of these instruments would come into play. I was mostly intrigued by the giant Easter egg, which sat lonely on the table until the last song, during which Dude No. 3 snatched it up and used it as a mute for his tuba. Why he didn’t use a regular mute, we may never know. But we shouldn’t question Matmos in the first place. Their genius ability to turn anything lifeless and concrete into something beautiful and lively may seem something impossible to portray onstage; perhaps it is an example of their further brilliance that they were able to do just that, turning what should have been a dull laptop/synth show into one of the more electrifying performances of the weekend. Silver Jews Saturday ended in a cool calm and a subtle buzz surrounding Day One’s headliners, Silver Jews. David Berman might not be a famous name, but with a solid following and this year’s head-turning decision to tour for the first time, fifteen years after the inception of Silver Jews, his name was perhaps as big as any other being tossed around among the festival-goers this weekend. Onstage Berman sang in his grumbling country drawl, accompanied by his wife Cassie and a band of musicians who have worked on various Silver Jews albums. Despite the low-key performance, there was a touch of reverence in the air that held the crowd’s attention. It was both a somber and jovial show, tinged with anecdotes about the band’s recent visit to Tel Aviv just before the latest conflagration of that region’s conflict, and also about Berman’s comical detestation of Brian Wilson. While it was a performance not to be missed, it was in fact mostly carried by the fact that it was an oddity. It was interesting to see how this shy little guy would perform in front of a huge festival crowd, when until only very recently he hadn’t performed for even a handful of fans. He didn’t seem at all daunted; however, the lolling sounds of Silver Jew’s beautiful songwriting craftsmanship does not transpose to the festival setting very well. No one expected him to do cartwheels, but overall the performance was dull, and for us not in the first few rows it was impossible to pick up on those subtleties that would make such a performance memorable. Let us hope that by diving headfirst into the torrential waters of touring, Berman will have acquired the taste to do more, and in the future we can see Silver Jews back in the quiet, intimate setting that better suits them.

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