Monsoon-like rain bursts, mud and scorching heat held Pitchfork attendance at a new low of 47,000, but the beloved annual festival managed to batten the hatches at Union Park July 13-15 and, once again, prove its mettle as one of the top indie festivals in the world and one of the most fan-friendly experiences in Chicago's jam-packed summer festival schedule.
Wild Flag, Beach House, Feist, Kendrick Lamar, Vampire Weekend, The Field, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Hot Chip, and 40 other rising bands, rappers, DJs and local acts rocked out despite weather challenges, power outages and fainting fans. Lady Gaga sightings, dips in the public swimming pool and teasing stretches of blue skies kept spirits high among the perennially optimistic Pitchfork revelers. If attention waned during any of the 47 acts on three stages, festie-goers could wander through Flatstock's impressive concert poster collection; uncover vintage vinyl at the Chirp Record Fair; score renegade-style artisan goods at the Coterie Crafts Fair; chill at one of the mobbed beer-sponsored cooling stations, or lounge under the trees with vegan goodies from inventive food vendors.
Pitchfork is a three-day hipster, geek, queer and family-friendly indie mecca, with a seemingly inclusive overall philosophy, but one element was sorely underrepresented: Where were the women rockers? Although Pitchfork placed the few invited women into headlining and high profile sets, programmers booked a dismally low count of only eight women-fronted or co-ed bands at the entire three-day festival. Pitchfork filled the remaining 39 coveted slots with exclusively male bands, save a female back-up singer or two.
Pitchfork is a career kickstarter for new, rising and even seasoned acts that need an influential introduction to critics and young fans. Do Pitchfork programmers really think there are only eight women-driven bands worthy of the hallowed Pitchfork blessing? Granted, the competitive megafestival Lollapalooza snagged Brittany Howard and the Alabama Shakes, Florence and the Machine, Santigold and some of the hottest women musicians around, but there are dozens more where that came from, and hopefully Pitchfork and other major fests will start booking Bomba Estereo, Nneka, Bomba not Bombs, Sharon Von Etten and more from the long list of brilliant indie women musicians.
The women who did get their brief turn on the Pitchfork stage came ready to play and gave up some of the festival's most memorable and invigorating moments. Here's a few of the highlights that will hopefully give Pitchfork programmers an itch to program more women into Pitchfork 2013.
Sleigh Bells, fueled by lead singer Alexis Krauss, hit the stage just on time to revive the rain soaked, heat stroked crowd with a stage-pounding performance that formed one of the festival's few mosh pits into which Krauss eagerly dove and surfed atop. Breaking out of any undesired "pop" label the band may have previously acquired, Sleigh Bells threw down genre-defying electro-metal punk that worked the crowd into an aerobic frenzy and left no doubt as to Sleigh Bell's headliner-worthy status.
Whether you love Carrie Brownstein from her Sleater-Kinney days or from the hit television show Portlandia, or are just now catching on to the two-year-old supergroup Wild Flag, this all-girl quartet was a welcome site amidst the relentless droning of synth-laden electro-boy bands and rappers. The former members of Sleater-Kinney, Helium and the Minders did not disappoint and ripped through an athletic set that mixed in some riot grrl, '60s surf sounds and straight up rock 'n' roll, with plenty of dual guitar feedback and screaming riffs. Rebecca Cole was a star among stars as she harmonized; danced behind her keyboards; and cheered on her band and ecstatic fans.
Current hipster favorite Claire Boucher, aka Grimes, turned the Blue stage into a high-end art-school B-movie set, with smoke bombs, florescent hair and leotards, clone back up dancers, stage leaps, growling and sound effects. Back by Diamond Blood, Grimes performed looping electronica tracks from her acclaimed new album, Visions, to a hopping, shouting visibly entertained audience.
An unlikely headliner, Feist, strapped on her guitar, and turned out an unusually rousing set to a devoted, bopping yet small Friday-night audience. Thankfully avoiding her pop-hit "1-2-3-4," Feist relied heavily on songs from her album Metals, and revealed shades of her former indie punk side. Nonetheless, like her albums, after about five lovely songs, I was ready to move on.
Perfectly placed at dusk on Sunday, the highly anticipated Beach House rewarded the weather-weary crowd with a lush and enchanting set. Victoria Legrand's captivating vocals transfixed the enthralled audience and soothed even the naysayers who predicted that the mellow, dreamlike refrains could not hold up at a large outdoor festival. Famed WXRT DJ Terri Hemmert, one of many rock-'n'-roll royalty spotted around the grounds, commented that Beach House was her favorite act of the entire festival and credited a "very sophisticated" Pitchfork audience for tuning into the sublime, ethereal soundscapes that Beach House emitted across the sunset skies.
Hopefully, the awesomely talented women rockers who did perform can hold onto those headlining spots and have earned some extra stage time for women on next year's lineup.
Boy/girl-band ratio aside, each year Pitchfork steps up its community based, eco-friendly mission, and this year they raised the bar again. Sustainability efforts grew to include composting of vendor food, use of bio-deisel fuels for all viable festival transportation, more carbon offsets for performers, cleaner cars and a perfected bike-valet system that makes leaving the car at home very appealing.