Reflecting on Pitchfork Music Festival

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I am sunburned, mosquito-bitten and there are blisters on my feet, but yesterday was a glorious summer day. After a picnic, I (we?) attended Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park.

This was my first Music Festival. I knew that it would be loud, and I knew that there would be crowds and that my senses would be assailed from all directions. What I did not anticipate was how those stimuli could synthesize and induce nausea.

The first band we came to see was Swans. Swans, spearheaded by Michael Gira, is a post-punk band that can be characterized as experimental and post-industrial. Seeing Swans play is an… experience. Michael Gira and the band members were clearly having an experience on the stage. The drummer and xylophonist played with their eyes closed, passionately, but clearly practiced. Michael Gira raised his arms and the bass beat and thumped louder, changing the collective heartbeats of the enthralled audience. The man to the right of my boyfriend stood with his mouth agape and hands poised for a prayer. Meanwhile, onstage, Michael Gira danced to a melody that was familiar to him, but new to us.

Indeed, the first song in the set was an unrecorded song entitled, “To Be Kind.” The lyrics went something like this:

“To be kind,

to be real,

to be new,

to be somebody’s song

that’s sung true”


The guitars, drums and xylophones played on as he stepped away from the microphone. Because it was so loud, it appeared that he was mouthing words. I could scarcely read his lips, but he was exhorting the audience to sing a refrain:

“There are millions and millions of stars in my eyes”

Some did sing. Others, unaccustomed to participatory performances said nothing. Others of us were swept in the romance of the moment. We felt the song as deeply as the bass beats coursing through our bodies, and were thus compelled to express it by kissing and embracing our beloveds.

And that was just the first song!

I left the crowd afterward, because I needed space to breathe. The smoke, and the sounds, and the clueless combat-boot-wearing audience members who stepped on my blistered feet exacerbated the nausea I was trying so desperately to quell.

As Swans finished their set, I wandered through booths of over-priced secondhand clothing and “organic jewelry.” I stifled my disgust at the R. Kelly-themed merchandise that read: “I went to Pitchfork, and all I got was peed on.” As I walked from booth to booth, I was struck by the utter whiteness of nostalgia. There were hundreds of rock band posters, but there was no acknowledgment of Black and brown artists and bands like Jimi Hendrix, Death (garage rock, proto-punk, started in 1971), or Poly Styrene (British-Somali songwriter, feminist, and musician Marianne Joan Elliott-Said,  the founder of punk rock band X-Ray Spex, who passed on 25 April 2011).

Afterward, we went to see Low at the blue stage. Low, an indie rock band (sometimes characterized as “slowcore” for its slow pace and sparing arrangements) based in Duluth, Minnesota, is primarily composed of a couple named Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk. I enjoyed the performance for what it was- an impassioned collaboration between two people (and their indispensable bass guitarist) who love their craft. There was something about lying in the grass and staring up at the sky that made the music washing over me that much more pleasant. That, I think, is the appeal of music festivals- not the overpriced posters and t-shirts, and certainly not the festival food.

The last artist I saw was Solange. She was positively radiant with her kinky-coily afro and 80s-lite aesthetic. But, I had my reservations about the performance itself. Honestly, I want to like her music. I do. But when I listen, I hear the artists who are still alive to whom she owes a musical debt. That said, I do have an appreciation for Black women who are artists and creators.

All-in-all, Pitchfork Festival was a memorable experience. I did learn one lesson- concerts and music festivals require comfortable, protective shoes. Take it from me- your toes will thank you.

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