July 2013: Pitchfork Festival

Note: I've written a little bit about Spotify as a service and the controversy over how little it (and services like it) pay to artists. My analysis is spectacularly elementary, and most of what I've read is not much more insightful. This piece on Pitchfork by Damon Krukowski is pretty damn smart, and starts to get behind the mentality of businesses that not only slight artists but are in fact themselves losing spectacular amounts of money. I encourage you to check it out.

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The Pitchfork festival was this month, and was my second year of going - but only for one day this time. It was especially fun because I got to take Gabe to her first outdoor music festival. There are more details about what we saw below, but I walked away with a general impression - younger artists need to step it up. Many of the performers earlier on Friday night, in one way or another, did not seem to be putting their best foot forward. Didn't seem totally prepared. Didn't display much showmanship. From my point of view, playing a festival like this is a big deal, and sometimes it seems like the very people who have the most to prove are trying the least, while the more established acts are really putting everything they've got into their show. Although I have a soft spot for Angel Olsen, I had to agree with Gabe when she began to deride her performance. "She wants to be here, right?" Maybe it was nerves, maybe it was inexperience, but she really seemed like she couldn't care less. Also, why only a trio? And she couldn't find someone to sing harmony with her? I like Mikal Cronin, and he and his band were not lacking for enthusiasm, but their "take no prisoners, wanky guitar solo on every song" approach sucked all of the texture and subtlety that exists on the album right out of the music. Also again, where were the harmonies? I realize that it's difficult to create a sense of drama onstage during the daytime, but bands need to give it a shot.

Walking over from Mikal Cronin (who was rocking out) to see the second half of Wire's set was like walking from a middle school students vs. teachers basketball game into game seven of the NBA playoffs. Here was a bunch of old farts just putting on a clinic in how to rock. Loud. Tight. Interesting. Intense. You know, professional.

This is ironic, because I feel like that blasé, "whatever" attitude that you get off of some artists in the Pitchfork milieu is a distant descendant of the punk rock ethos, filtered through several generations of indie ennui. And here were some of the original punks, taking seriously their commitment to putting on a show for people who paid a lot of money. Proving why they deserved to be there. Of course, Wire always was a step ahead of their peers in that regard.

And then there was Bjork, but I'll get to that shortly.

Now, to the list:

Kobo Town – Road to Fyzabad Every week I get an email from the Old Town School of Folk Music about upcoming concerts. Generally, I don't go see music there because ticket prices are outside the range of what I think is reasonable. (This is kind of an irrational opinion, but I think paying anything more than $15 for a show is extreme. Most of the amazing music I've seen has been in the range of free-$12. Obviously, there are exceptions, ex. - see next song.) They do, however, have a series of free concerts, called World Music Wednesdays, which I occasionally check out. Kobo Town is playing one of these on September 4th, and I've been kind of hooked on this album. Spunky, topical, rootsy and contemporary-sounding. I'm looking forward to seeing them.

Björk – Hunter I can't gush enough about how highly I regard Bjork. Years ago, while watching one of her many amazing videos, this thought occurred to me: "If there was going to be one Earth-wide ruler/dictator, and that person was going to be Bjork, I would be ok with that. Bjork for Queen of the Earth." She's carved out a career making startling, uncompromising albums. She has been at the heart of many of the most iconic music videos. She sings always with and about love, but is never wishy-washy or limp. A true artist. This may be controversial, but I explained to Gabe that she's like the white swan to Madonna's black swan.

When I saw that she was going to be playing Pitchfork this year it kind of blew my mind. I've never seen her live, and really never thought I would. Sure, one-day tickets to P4k were $50, far exceeding my "reasonable ticket price" guidelines, but I would be seeing other people too, right? Right? Right.

It didn't matter. I was there to see Bjork and she did not disappoint. The video below captures some of the magic, but I'll add these notes: there was a large pipe organ onstage, there was a choir of about 15 women, Bjork looked like a magical space goddess, there was a thunderstorm approaching from behind the stage the entire show (eventually ending the show early), etc. Her voice sounded amazing and she seemed in command of everything happening, including the very air. I wept.

As people started leaving the stage after the concert ended abruptly, I tried to rally the thousands of people to insist she go on, shouting "Don't you know Bjork owns the rain?!"

Hunter and Jóga (below) were two highlights for me.

The Impressions – We're A Winner - Single Version I've been on a little bit of a Curtis Mayfield kick lately, having picked up the vinyl of his debut album Curtis at Reckless Records downtown. A few weeks ago, Robb and Helean came down to Hyde Park one Saturday and we made our way to Hyde Park Records. My experience in this jam-packed record store is a perfect illustration of the difference between my current and former neighborhoods.  There's kind of a reversal - what would be kept to a small section (called "Soul" or "R&B" or "Rap" or "Jazz" or "Blues") up north takes up the lion's share of the store, while what would be a large, fleshed-out majority of shops up north ("Rock and Pop") is confined to a pretty small corner of the store, with very little interested in distinguishing between rock and folk. Clearly, Hyde Park Records is not aimed at white people in their twenties, which is great.

I had caught on to the fact that Curtis Mayfield started out in a group called the Impressions, but I didn't know exactly who they were. I figured Hyde Park Records would be a good place to pick up some Impressions, and boy was I right. I think the record I picked up is some kind of weird import compilation, but a lot of it's great, and this is by far and away my favorite track. It's got such great energy, and those drums just slay me. Mayfield's guitar playing is fantastic, too.

Cheech & Chong – Dave Ch & Ch were recently on WTF, and Maron geeked out, asking them about specific skits - including this one. I'd never heard this stuff, so checked it out. It's really simple and silly, but somehow it cracks me up every time.

Bob Marley & The Wailers – Jammin' Gabe is on a summer-long jam-making frenzy. You know, strawberry-rhubarb, peach, etc. Watching her mash about 10 lbs. of blueberries the other day, I made a funny by playing this song to accompany her different kind of jamming.

Mikal Cronin – Change I got to see the first part of Cronin's set at Pitchfork, before heading over to see Wire. This is not my favorite track on the album (that would be this one), but it's the most representative of the headbanging fun they produced onstage.

Beck – I Won't Be Long A new Beck song, ostensibly from his forthcoming "acoustic" album.

Alberta Hunter – My Handy Man Ain't Handy No More Picked this up on vinyl sometime in the last couple of years and only recently got around to listening to it. I kind of love the way her advanced age shades and adds flavor to the song's innuendos. I also love the way she says "greazes" instead of greases, and emphasizes the h in wheat. Great style.

Robert Plant – Killing the Blues Something unbelievable and almost hallucinatory happened to me and a few friends recently. We happened to be at a bar called the Map Room for a drink on a Saturday night. The place was super crowded and noisy, and Robb had just scored us a table in the back of the bar. I was standing next to the table talking to him and Helean when an older white guy walked right by me, probably about 8 inches from my face. The moment I looked at him my mind just immediately flashed "Robert Plant!" He walked over to a different table with some people and sat down. I leaned in to my friends quietly and said, "I'm probably crazy, but I think Robert Plant just walked past us." I started to doubt myself, but after craning his neck Robb confirmed, "Yeah, that's Robert Plant." It was exhilarating and nerve-wracking. On one hand, you want to talk to the guy, say "Wow. Thank you so much for the amazing music you've made." On the other hand you want to let the guy do his own thing. Then there's the reality that if you actually were talking to him your brain would be saying "HOLY SHIT I'M TALKING TO ROBERT PLANT!" while your mouth was saying something along the lines of "Aaaaah, bllllleeeerrrrr - so awesome, uh. Derrrr." He had a small entourage with him, but otherwise looked like a pretty unassuming aging hippy. At one point he was standing behind me talking to another guy and brushed me a couple times with his elbow. I was excited and trying to play it cool. Our friend Josh Shin leaned over and said "You want to talk to him, don't you?" I said, "Yeah, but I know I'll just be a blathering idiot." I'm not sure how it would have worked out, but it was a pretty awesome experience as it was.

Although I love this song and this whole album, playing a Led Zeppelin tune would clearly have been way more appropriate. But, you know, there's no Led Zeppelin on Spotify.

Daughn Gibson – You Don't Fade I like Daughn Gibson's music pretty well. The new album has a lot of great moments on it. The guy has a great haircut.

I got to catch a bit of his set at Pitchfork, which leads me to my main point - which I hope does not diminish anyone's enjoyment of his recorded music. Listen to this song. You clearly hear a bass guitar part, right? Same thing for most of the other songs on the album. Same thing for the music live. One problem. No bass player onstage. All of bass parts were pre-recorded. Live drummer. Live guitarist. No bass player. Maybe it's because I'm a bass player, but this seems like a really really unfortunate trend. It's bad enough when a rock band decides they don't need a bass player at all (they do). But when you clearly have bass parts in your music, and there are live musicians onstage (i.e. - it's not a DJ in a rap show) why not have the real instruments be real? Hire a goddamn bass player!! You're onstage with a band, clearly. Give a dude a job. Put on a show. Come on, man. Come on.

Tyler Ramsey – No One Goes Out I wound up listening to this meditative and soulful album a while back by following a chain of "Related Artists" on Spotify. There are a lot of singers doing this kind of thing, and while I don't think Ramsey is extraordinary, he does it really well. I was reminded of him recently when Steve recommended the most recent Hayden album to me, and all I could think about when listening to it was how much better Tyler Ramsey is at doing pretty much the same thing. This happens a lot when I listen to people's recommendations, and I feel like a jerk about it, but just can't help it. "Oh, you like X? Well, Y is pretty much the same thing, only waaayy better." Sometimes I hate myself.

Björk – Jóga Sometimes hearing a song live just really drives it home. Man, she got me with this one - with that whole choir and shit. Man. Bjork for Queen of the Earth.

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I had the privilege of spending several days camping, canoeing, and fishing in the Boundary Waters in Minnesota this month with Steve and Ingrid. Ingrid finally introduced me to Takis, which I had known previously only through this great video from Y.N. Rich Kids, out of Minneapolis. Fitting, I guess, that my introduction to this snack happened in MN. I love everything about this song and could gush for a while. While these kids are clearly aping the basic timbre and rhythms of contemporary rappers, I think they actually put some pretty famous MCs to shame, if for no other reason than they seem to actually have coherent thoughts other than talking about "I'm so great." Plus, the music is fun. Their other song "My Bike" and the related NSJ Crew's "Khaki Pants" are also pretty great.