Sterile. Bombastic. Canned. Adult. Tame. Beck takes a crap on stage. Welcome to the dad rock era of Pitchfork.
Every summer my parents regale me with stories from their summer concert schedule in Toledo, OH. Events taking place at the Toledo Zoo and the Centennial Terrace at the quarry in the west suburb of Sylvania. I once joined them, dragging a friend along and getting stoned in the zoo parking lot, to see Crosby, Stills, and Nash. We all sang “Ohio” like it was the Buckeyes fight song and not a protest song about actual, tragic events that transpired in the Heartland. At times you could hear the beasts in their nearby cages protest the racket.
If Toledo, OH is on your tour schedule, soon it will be over for you as an artist. Yes, you’re still on the road, still kicking, but the art of it has been reduced to a Bob Ross painting, delicate and serene landscapes. Happy trees. The sort of pastures a farmer lets you see as the barrel is centered to the back of your skull. My parents have seen Chicago, lord knows how many times, Boston (fuck it, all the ‘70s bands named after cities), some headless ghost of The Beach Boys without Brian Wilson, Beatles cover bands, .38 Special, The Doobie Brothers with regularity, and Ringo Starr (full disclosure Ringo brought Todd Rundgren this summer and for a brief moment, I was jealous of my dad).
Two weekends ago I stood in one of those pastures, along with thousands of others, and no one got blood on their hands. We weren’t supposed to. The controversial, artistic, and the relevant… it’s all over for Pitchfork. Usher in the dads, the dodos with face lifts, the nearly extinct on stage, we’ve got a family-friendly concert in the park to perform.
Was this the last ripple in aftershock of the Death Grips break up? Was Pitchfork a casualty in their meteoric dismantling of publicity stunts? Without Death Grips on the Friday lineup, I mistook Sun Kil Moon for Bruce Hornsby. I dug Sharon Van Etten like I always have, but longed for a serape spread on a grassy knoll. Had the noise rap trio taken the stage on Friday afternoon in Chicago as originally scheduled, perhaps I wouldn’t have yawned and retreated to quiet corners for intimate conversations with old friends. (And yes, I know: Haxan Cloak.)
It’s 2014 and we’re all forcing it. Pitchfork Music Festival is up-selling a lineup that might as well have been performed by holograms. We’re forcing our interest. Force a few illicits into the system and hope for illumination, only to hallucinate a magic eight ball that reads “outlook not good” on the jumbo screen between FKA Twigs debut album ads and reminders to get in line for free haircuts. Yes, free haircuts. Is Pitchfork the armed forces? We the stylishly homogenous army of one. Force your friend to fork over that extra VIP pass for a stowaway’s buffet of perks before last call. Force Neneh Cherry into the states for the first time in 22 years. Force Moroder as relevant, instead of distantly iconic. Force Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby” into the lives of 20-somethings. (Note: My parents also attend an annual disco night at Centennial Terrace.) Force SZA on us, but offer no Blue Ribbon to accompany her PBR&B, only overpriced Goose Island. Beck, he’ll force himself as he always has. Forcing himself into our lives as only a man with one name can.
All it took during Beck’s headlining set was a “c’mon everybody” during opener “Devil’s Haircut” to scoff and seek the VIP area for as many free Goose Island beers and Jim Beam cocktails and cell battery juice in the Beats By Dre lounge as I could squeeze into the remaining hour.
Let’s back track.
“You guys look like you’re on my level,” came a voice from behind me and a photographer friend. We were on our way out of the VIP, carrying beverages to a few friends on the outside. We turned to see a dirty blonde haired yuppy-ish guy, 5’6” in height, and eyes hidden behind neon green Wayfarers. We’d never made eye contact and hadn’t even known we’d passed him. He just began as a loud voice that we could only sense was directed our way, then emerged from behind a low-hanging foliage—the lingering awkwardness suggested he’d mistaken us as familiar.
We were not on his level. Unless his level involved the slightest of buzzes, disengagement from all stages due to a series of dis- words, and the stinging reminder that festivals tend to sterilize all that is holy in live music. He was mistaken and five minutes of exchange proved such. The conversation was so out of balance, no one exchanged names until the end. His name was Nathan. He was eager to invite us to his level, handing over one of his Jim Beam mixed drinks to sip, while he dug in his pocket for a little baggy of brown powder. “Who wants some MDMA?”
When a guy that looks like he walked out of an Eddie Bauer catalog, save for the neon green sunglasses, offers you MDMA, distract him with interest in his life as a techie from San Francisco so that he hardly notices the repeated finger dips you make into his stash. Get him going on the perks of living next to Dolores Park—oh, that view, right? Dip. And being bussed out to Silicon Valley. Sounds kush. Dip. Only the poor complain about the high rent in SF. Get a career, right? Dip. Dip.
“Hey, you guys look like you could use some company. Come meet my friends, they’re holding down a good spot for Beck.”
My colleague had an excuse. Must get in line for the photo pit. Myself, I figured why not follow the guy. Maybe there’d be more illicits.
Earlier in the evening a body could outline the infield dirt within the premises to get from Red Stage to Green Stage, seeking a zig-zagged path in between. In the minutes before Beck took the stage, there was only a sea of humans, some prostrate on the grass, beaten by the swell of carbon dioxide or a mystery buried within their nervous system, others slamming plastic cups of Goose Island, and dipping into resources saved to accentuate the finale. Finding Nathan’s friends demanded invading personal spaces and shouldering past people who felt entitled to the territory they occupied. Every body was a flag planted. I was losing my will to do more of Nathan’s drugs. We found his friends, but I gave up two rows back and observed from there as one of his buddies, a clean-cut 6’3” guy in a muscle shirt embraced his diminutive pal. It was a lingering hug. It transitioned into an arm around the shoulder. A loving moment between two men ready for “Devil’s Haircut”. Nathan’s friend whispered into his ear and from my vantage point, looked as though he kissed him on the cheek.
When a guy that looks like he walked out of an Eddie Bauer catalog, save for the neon green sunglasses, offers you MDMA, distract him with interest in his life as a techie from San Francisco so that he hardly notices the repeated finger dips you make into his stash.
For a moment my impression of Nathan adjusted. His group was two men, much like himself though taller—one announcing his affinity for festivals through blue blockers, American flag bandana, and sea captain’s hat—and two girls that were grinding on one another to “Devil’s Haircut”. It was clear it was more about innocent flirtation or attention than deeper, buried feelings for the ladies. One of the girls broke the dancing to wrap her arms around Nathan’s friend in the muscle t-shirt, gazing up into his eyes and begging to make out. He eventually obliged, but kept his right hand resting on Nathan’s back, until the other girl approached Nathan, wrapping her arms around him, but not for a make out session. What was I witnessing? Is this my story, a solipsistic vision of their dynamic unveiled, repressions through the looking glass? Did I make it all up? Or is it on display thanks to the chemical reactions of MDMA on their serotonin levels?
I saw an Annie Proulx story tucked in a sea of Beck fans and I wanted out. Beck was on stage, being the type of headliner I dreaded most, the sort that encourages everybody to get with it, clap along, and request a few thousand voices to do his job for this next part. There are those, and I among them, that question the sustainability of Beck. He’s a chameleonic fluke in the canon of one-name artists, always dodging the fatal blows that should flatline his value. It’s 2014 and we’re still letting him bask in spotlights and patting him on the back for Modern Guilt and Morning Phase.
My phone nearly dead, I retreated to the VIP with my stowaway credentials to charge up in the Beats By Dre lounge. It was there I met up with Serengeti, a rapper I’d long admired and corresponded with, but had yet to encounter tête-à-tête. He confided “I never know what to do at these things” and I understood the concern. What is to be learned from watching Beck be as tame as a zoo giraffe in the mid-day sun? With no controversial bookings like Death Grips or using R. Kelly as chum for the media piranhas, what’s the story in 2014? Here I sat, a stowaway in the VIP, forcing it with a hometown rapper, while two debutantes try to force conversation with us. I oblige briefly, but sense Geti wants no part of it. Rightfully so, they are clearly 18. I excuse myself to the Port-O-Johns directly behind Beck performing. The MDMA at this point is an imaginary friend. Before I return to the Beats lounge, I stop at the Beer stand and simply say, “doesn’t matter, just beer, please.” The bartender says she likes how I think and hands me two.
And that’s it for day one on the festival grounds. We shuffled out. I saw a local friend I’d made the night before at Logans Hardware. She was distraught over Beck and could not find the proper dis- word to alleviate her frustration. For a moment, I felt wise having walked away from the MDMA, the manly embraces, the debutantes, the free haircuts, the Devil’s Haircuts, and the dad rock. I’d like to thank the people of the Beats By Dre lounge for being nurturing in my time of need, creating an hour’s worth of safe haven at the price of simply hearing out a quick pitch that Beats is now an app.
“It’s like a summer camp reunion.”
Who said this, I can’t recall. All I know is it was said to me and it rented a room in my memory hotel, still does. I never went to summer camp growing up, or not the sort this person was recalling as a comparison to Pitchfork Festival. Sent away to wilderness, isolation, create bonds through bunk houses and lunch tables, daily activities, maybe light evening mischief after lights out, but mostly strict guidance and adherence to routine.
I didn’t request VIP access to Camp Mohawk, knowing my place as just PRESS at Camp North Star. There are two privileges to press access: no line for entrance, no bag check. It just doesn’t matter. After that they see you as another one in the thousands. No authorities guard the press tent, checking for credentials. It just doesn’t matter. At the tent there are outlets for charging, free water, and if you time your visit correctly, free pizza. In the VIP each camper gets their own masseuse, not masseur, but masseuse. But, it just doesn’t matter. Some press types wore the lanyard. Each of them wore the same facial expression, traveling to and from stages to press tent, an expression that says, “I’m here… for what it’s worth.” Rough translation: it just doesn’t matter. The perks of the badge reading PRESS is that no one bothers you, ever. Knowing that, I entered with a bottle of Buffalo Trace Kentucky bourbon in my satchel because… it just doesn’t matter.
I strolled in around Cloud Nothings’ set, Dylan Baldi and Co. giving it the ol’ college try at channeling transcendence through distortion and fuggery. It was barely with pulse, ghostly. It wailed, but meandered with a rehearsed control that I once saw Stephen Stills pelt out to nearby tigers under the intoxication of tranquilizers. This event needs some goddamn controversy.
Pusha T was late to stage, as rappers are known to be. Does he require we chant his name and make him feel wanted, perhaps needed on stage? Let’s try that three times. No results. Pusha T would not be 15 minutes late, right? Watch as stage hands gesture to the empty stage in frustration. Tiny figures on the main stage with posture that can be read without the assistance of binoculars. Pusha T is definitely going to be 18 minutes late.
I gave up waiting for Pusha T and went to watch The Range. Pusha T finally took the stage after I left, but I regret nothing. The Range delivered one of the most inspired sets I saw in my two days at Pitchfork Festival. His most recent records, the Nonfiction LP and the Panasonic EP, can be terse and static. James Hinton’s project on the rise wraps vignettes of rap memories and echoes of ‘90s R&B vocalists from archaic radio transmissions into the transgressive electronica of the present. He performed in the afternoon shade of the Blue Stage like he might in the witching hours of a Boiler Room set, generating seamless mastery of his catalog and reconstructing tracks like “The One” from their barest core into peaking catalysts. Moroder shlocked it up with countdowns and beckoned his audience to get into his past, treat him like more than a mustache. The Range proved he cares very deeply about his craft, still vibes out to it like the day he made it in his bedroom. Hinton still has decades to lapse into a ‘just click play on the hits’ set, but if he’s smart it will never come to that.
After The Range, I sat on the remnants of a horseshoe pit, near the entrance to the VIP. In that same spot three years ago, I recognized a then-barely known Danny Brown, pre-career-defining haircut, sitting by himself in a wild print kimono and white skinny jeans. I introduced myself and he said Das Racist, who’d performed in Detroit the night before, had brought him along to the festival to hang out. This afternoon, I sat in the same spot discreetly pouring a taste of bourbon into a plastic cup, while I waited for my friend in VIP to walk out a beer for me. On the nearest and largest stage behind me, Danny Brown’s DJ, Skywlkr, was spinning Brick Squad tracks to energize the crowd. This is how time works.
The Danny Brown set came and went without issue. He’s one of the few professionals in rap that seems to understand the consequences of punctuality and since he reads everything (hello, Danny), treats his career with the sort of care that rarely exposes itself to negative criticism. He turned a controversial onstage blowjob encounter into a discussion on victimization, gender roles, and chivalry… turned that into a song about the loneliness of fame and turned that into a Best New Music stamp of approval. Even Insane Clown Posse can’t explain that magic.
The remainder of Saturday was not Centennial Terrace in Toledo, OH-worthy. Tune-Yards carried the freak flag onto the Red Stage. Later, St. Vincent did no wrong, much like Prince can do no wrong. She enters with a baby-step shuffle, heavily decorated, and maybe you worry for a moment she’s all pomp, forgetting she’s a guitarist. Annie Clark looks like a pretty face in an expensive dress, playing it up as vacant and docile much like a lion in the zoo looks majestic and sedated, but don’t think for a second she’s not master of her domain and could leap the partition and break her guitar over your skull. It was the closest I felt to danger all weekend and part of my Friday night included local friends dipping their middle fingers in a shot of 151 and lighting it on fire for a photo they never could capture before the burning got too intense. Annie Clark was not forcing it, like James Hinton doesn’t have to force it, like Danny Brown can channel it with ease, like Neutral Milk Hotel will have it forever, like Buffalo Trace goes down smooth, like Merrill Garbus ain’t forcin’ it, like Factory Floor burrows into it, like Serengeti resigns to let it be.
But, does it matter?