Zak Breckenridge on Chicago’s music festival
“HAVE YOU EVER seen a cloud that beautiful.” It is not a question and it is not directed at me. It is spoken to the crowd with the voice of a street preacher. The guy is maybe twenty feet to my left and he’s been talking about the cumulus formation to the right of the stage for a while now. We’re all waiting for Wilco to come on and the setting sun has cast this particular cloud a warm golden-brown, like some otherworldly dessert fresh from the oven. “I challenge you to imagine a cloud more beautiful than that,” he shouts. I roll my eyes and say something pithy to my friend Evan; there’s little to do while we wait except try out clever comments on one another. The approaching dusk is clear and cool after a day of rasping sun.
It’s Friday July 17th, in Chicago’s Union Park, the first day of Pitchfork Music Festival 2015. When Wilco comes on their sound will be crisp and tight, and multi-colored lights will cascade behind them, and we will smile and bob our heads. But the band and their instruments will seem tiny up there between the crowd and the lights. And when they finish the crowds will be so thick it will take me a long time to get home.
It wasn’t until I stepped off the bus at Lake and Ashland that I realized I’d never been to a three-day festival of this size before. I had bought my all-festival pass almost three months before, sitting in a bunk bed in Marburg, Germany, and I had made the decision solely based on the names in the lineup. Courtney Barnett, Bully, Chance the Rapper, Caribou, Chvrches, Kurt Vile, Ex Hex, Sleater-Kinney, Future Islands. It felt stupid not to buy a ticket, and the price of the all-festival passes had already gone up $30 since they had first become available. But of course the idea, the one constructed by band names floating in front of your eyes, is very different from what it’s like to spend three days at an actual festival. The idea short-circuits the life you will live between purchase and performance, skips the work week you will be coming out of, and insulates against the heat of mid-July in Chicago. I wanted authentic art, and the band names guaranteed it. I was even saving money by seeing so many bands in one weekend.
The temperature on July 17th 2015 was 93 degrees and the humidity made the air feel like cotton in your mouth. I happen to live on number 9 bus route, which runs right past Union Park, which was lucky, but the trip felt long, packed as the bus was with festival-goers and rush-hour commuters. When I got off the bus I was not prepared for the carnival atmosphere of this normally unassuming block in West Town. Pop-up water salesmen shouted. Aspiring rappers promoted their new mixed tape. And the crowds poured from the bus and the train.
It could have been the fact that I spent that July morning hauling mulch with a team of surly adolescents, or it could have been the granola bar I had for dinner, but I was from the start a pretty dour and humorless attendee of the Pitchfork Music Festival. One fact that first drew me to Pitchfork was that there were relatively few bands and few stages. I liked that it felt curated, a consciously constructed musical experience. (This festival is an outgrowth of the Pitchfork music blog, a site of very cool music recommendations read by very cool people, so I knew I was in good hands.) I would see the bands I had come to see and be exposed to tastefully selected up-and-coming artists. In fact the two main stages (Red and Green) alternated bigger acts and the secondary stage (Blue) had a steady stream of lesser-known acts. The schedule was staggered so that you could, hypothetically, see each band for about 20 minutes, or you could stay in one place and see about half the acts for their full 45-minute sets. While on paper this gave the impression of curation, in real life it gave me a gut-level anxiety that I was always missing something. This was not the musical utopia, orchestrated for my pleasure, that I had unwittingly envisioned. If I was at Blue, I was missing a big-name show and if I was at one of the main stages I was missing the festival’s newest and hippest music. And no matter where I was the sound from the other stages bled over and reminded me where I wasn't.
It didn’t take long for me to notice a kind of pervasive somnambulism at Pitchfork. Pot smoke blew in clouds around the park and there was always somebody stumbling by with a beer in each hand. People smiled and laughed and smoked together, but it felt a little tentative, a little aimless. I ambled between stages, trying to sooth my fear of missing out, and noticed that few people were dancing, which seemed odd since here was an event saturated with music. Watch the jumbotrons and you see sprawling masses of people bobbing their heads, perhaps with a hand raised. But that was it.
The outfits at Pitchfork were carefully put together, and often they looked good, but they also tended toward the consciously edgy. It was as if Williamsburg had dropped acid and taken a short-notice trip to Chicago. Loud patterns and bright colors abounded; bare skin and sunglasses were important parts of almost every look. Some people didn’t seem to be wearing much at all, just straps and doilies. I saw one t-shirt patterned with tiny Johnny Depp faces. It was a very coordinated and coherent display of individuality. One guy complemented his American flag baseball cap with a flesh-tone t-shirt that said, "LIFE IS ALL ABOUT ASS."
Apparently, I had dressed as an explorer. The forecast had predicted a high of 93 so I was in a t-shirt, shorts, white socks, sneakers, sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed woven hat. In my backpack was a sturdy button-up (to keep the sun off), a rain jacket, a water bottle, and a tube of sunscreen. I felt distant from the action around me, as if I had accidentally stepped into a glass booth. I also felt hungry, but unenthusiastic about waiting in line to spend six dollars on a taco. So I kept wandering and watching, sometimes bands and sometimes people. Was there some magic I hadn’t plugged into, or was there a chance everyone was fooling themselves about how much fun they were having?
My mood rose only a bit for the second day, even though the schedule featured the artists I ended up enjoying the most. I caught the end of Bully’s set, which was better than I could have hoped. I was also introduced to Mr Twin Sister, who seemed to arrive at their sound by throwing every genre and piece of gear they could find in a blender.
Ex Hex, however, dropped their gear and left the stage about four songs into their set. A voice came over the PA system: “Due to circumstances beyond our control, the festival has been closed. Please make your way to the gates.” It had been raining on and off for much of the day, but as I headed for the exit the rain escalated to build-an-Ark level. Disoriented, I waited in line to get on the train, but only rode it two stops before getting the notification that the festival had re-opened. They tried to stay on schedule and did a pretty good job (I missed Kurt Vile’s curtailed set because I waited through Ariel Pink’s soundcheck [not worth it]), but the storm left puddles and fields of mud that stayed for the rest of the weekend. Such a big puddle developed under the central portapotty cluster that the platforms they were on would cave and soak the feet of unsuspecting customers. Mud fields cropped up, cutting wide swaths through otherwise dense crowds. I wore my boots on Sunday.
Festivals somehow continue to surprise me with their commercialism, their blatant dedication to separating you from your money. Another product of my naive utopian tendencies, I’m sure. It’s the reason I can’t stomach sporting events or network television or airports. Despite the merits of these classic American institutions, the constant demands for money turn my stomach. And like an airport, Pitchfork’s prices are inflated because you’re captive. You may have paid to see the bands, but the beer and deep-dish are extra. Among all this pleasure bought and sold, it’s easy to go slack, to do nothing but drink in the beer and beats and sun-bright flesh.
And yet I’ve been trying to cultivate the habit (productive or not) of thinking about everything I encounter. (My mind put to good use torpedoing pleasure.) Pitchfork is artifice, a built environment for the stimulation of your wallet and dopamine receptors. Thinking critically about it means thinking about the cabling, the amps, the flour in the fried dough, the straw in the hats, the desires behind the sunglasses. I don’t know if my skepticism made me a bummer, or my mood inspired some skepticism, but all weekend it felt deeply important to me to wonder, and it seemed like too much enjoyment would get in the way.
None of this is to imply that Pitchfork was merely an ordeal. I came for communion with the artistic Oversoul and there were times I got it. I missed the beginning of Bully's set (by underestimating the bus commute again), but what I did see actually produced tears. It was one of the moments I was jarred out of being a spectator, and the music felt immediate, a performance I felt with my body more than my brain. In particular, Courtney Barnett’s set on Saturday afternoon made me feel the way I wanted to feel the rest of the weekend. Her studio recordings can come off as restrained, but her live show is loud, energetic, and abrasive. I read somewhere that she’s supposed to be our generation’s Bob Dylan, which I’m not so sure about, but she is a thrilling force to see on stage, at once vibrant and unassuming. And whether or not she’s our Bob Dylan, she seems to be an authentic artistic presence. In any case, she made me feel like less of a grouch. My purchase had been justified.
Pitchfork is more than a consumer experience, though. It reproduces a version of Chicago’s racial dynamics. The way my commute worked, I got off the bus on the west side of Ashland, then crossed the street and approached the festival from the north. Before I could even cross, though, I was assailed with calls of, “Ice cold water, one dollar!” Before I got to the festival’s entrance I had passed a dozen or so people trying to sell me water, Gatorade, or food. One woman had a child on her hip, another in a stroller, and was selling with her free hand. And while this was not an explicitly segregated event, almost everyone selling water was black, and almost everyone going to the festival, white. Culturally this is not terribly surprising. Pitchfork’s taste and tone as a publication tends to favor the self-consciously hip and edgy. It’s basically an ‘indie’ proposition, and indie music is infamous for its whiteness. It’s also expensive; Chicagoans with $180 and three days to spend at a music festival are more likely to be white than black. In a way Pitchfork’s racial dynamics are unremarkable. But seeing Chicago’s segregation and inequality mapped so starkly at this festival was one of the first (and worst) blows to the musical fantasy I had constructed. What made these racial politics so crude, however, were the white concert-goers mimicking the water sellers as they walked to the train or climbed into cabs: “Ahz kohl watta, one dolla,” giggling together.
On Sunday I finally bought some food: a taco at a stand where the whole staff did a cheer every time a customer was served: “One, two three, whoop!” I don’t remember the tacos themselves, but I remember squatting in the mud and chewing while I searched the eyes of passersby. I was killing time before Chance the Rapper’s set. For the sake of journalistic diligence, I made a circuit of the food and vendors’ stalls while the tacos settled in my gut. Every vendor was selling band posters, mostly psychedelic or unsettling or both. At the end of the circuit, on a tennis court behind the Green Stage, was a Haymarket Books booth and a do-it-yourself silk-screen. I sat on the edge of a sandbox and listened to two dudes chat while they smoked a blunt. I felt empty, a shell-shocked veteran of hours upon hours of continuous stimulation. I caught my eyes focusing on individual blades of grass. The sky was a deep blue edged with pink. The air was thick and hot in the gathering evening. I realized I would gain nothing by staying for Chance’s set. As much as I wanted to see him, I was at my live music capacity.
But there was one moment of communion I should add. During The New Pornographers’ set someone tapped me on the shoulder to tell me that two dragonflies were “boning” while they hung from the brim of my hat. The happy couple were outside my field of vision, but apparently they had been hanging there for a while, weathering the bobbing of my head. I turned around to find myself in the centre of a semicircle of phones. I left the dragonflies alone. They were probably having a better time than me. A very short woman I had to stoop to hear told me this was a good omen. She stared a while longer.
ZAK BRECKENRIDGE's work has recently appeared in Post-Road Magazine and is forthcoming in Colloquium Magazine. He lives in Chicago.