BY MARK GUARINO | SUN-TIMES MUSIC WRITER
As St. Vincent, Annie Clark ended her set the way many of us, after a long day under the sun, felt: On her back, worming her way through the stage floor, then on her knees with her head in her hands. The physical punishment her actions implied was part of the endurance of attending the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park Saturday, the second of three days. Sixteen bands in 10 hours is a marathon — But the rewards made everything worth it.
On the top of that list was Clark. Her hour-long set showcased songs from her most recent album, which accentuated her compelling lead guitar skills: smearing notes together to buzzing through fill after fill of staccato runs. Rightly so, she ended up climbing the steps of a pink riser that gave her rock god status. For a player with such inventive, and apparently seamless, guitar skills, her body movements were tightly controlled. Near the end she hopped onto the shoulders of a security guard who leaned her body over the edge of the photo pit so concertgoers could claw at her while she continued running her fingers through her guitar, all the while remaining fully in control.
Clark’s recent album and tour collaboration with David Byrne of Talking Heads remains an influence through her syncopated dance movements and chilly remove in her vocals. While atop that riser, she sang the sweetest song of her set, “Prince Johnny,” which collapsed into quasi-metal riffing that was the loudest anywhere, all day.
Cloud Nothings, from Cleveland, came close. The noise rock trio was loud, speedy, but also played songs crafted with big pop hooks. Lead singer-screamer Dylan Baldi didn’t sugar coat anything in his raspy vocals, but the innate melodicism of this band kept things accessible. The songs, short and efficient, rarely detoured into longer segments, but when they did, they always returned to the band’s bottomless source of energy it measured in short, powerful bursts.
Before they took the stage, England’s Wild Beasts presented a set of vintage New Wave, with a heavy nod to The Cure. Two synthesizers and the crooning lead vocals of Tom Fleming presented mid-tempo songs that sounded like they were melting under the sun. Fleming also offered what could have possibly been the nicest compliment of the stage this weekend: “I’m not used to people looking so pretty,” he said, then explaining: “That’s my English talk.”
The most unexpected configuration of instruments came from Tune-Yards, featuring lead singer Merrill Garbus accompanied by two accompanying singers, bassist-keyboardist Nate Brenner, and everyone playing sticks, the band combined the doo-wop female harmonies of vintage girl groups like The Dixie Cups and The Shirelles, and Afro-pop. At first disarmingly weird, their sound — a skeletal mix of pure rhythm and call-and-response harmonies — became instantly likable. Especially when Garbus pulled out a ukulele on “Powa.” At first she plucked the tiny instrument, but before too long, she was strumming golden power chords.
The two rappers who played the same headliner stage Saturday were Danny Brown and Pusha T. Both arrived with minimal baggage —just a DJ and hype man. Brown, from Detroit, presented sunny, laid-back beat in high-pitched, almost nasal vocals that were carried to the outer edges of Union Park atop a fuzz-heavy bottom. Pusha T was slightly less imaginative: Not only did he show up 30 minutes late, he also paid homage to benefactor Kanye West (who signed the Bronx rapper to his GOOD Music label) by forcing the crowd to repeat the label’s name early and often. On “Hold On,” he came clean on his dark past (“I sold more dope than I sold records”) while balancing regret with swagger.
One thing Pitchfork has in abundance each year are artists on the third stage who arrive relatively alone onstage with nothing but a vocal microphone and sideman playing pre-recorded tracks. This year’s lo-fi models were Kelela and Empress Of, both of whom looked like they were performing on karaoke night at a sports bar near you. Empress Of, also known as Lorely Rodriguez from the Bronx, did not have the vocal grit having a live drummer onstage might demand. R&B. Kelela played slow motion songs that did not have the sultry edge or pop ambition of her better-known peers.
Closing the day was Neutral Milk Hotel, the band that released only two albums in the late 1990s before disappearing from the public eye until last year when regrouping to hit the reunion circuit. At Pitchfork, the band played most of its 1998 sleeper hit “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” (Merge), complete with the full orchestration: a banjo, trombones, flugelhorn, accordions, and a Minimoog synthesizer, among other instruments.
The set showed why contemporary bands like The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons owe their success, by and large, to this modest band. Lead singer Jeff Mangnum sang with a bellowing voice that was louder than the horn section, but he remained hidden inside a beard and cap. Unlike all other headliners at this festival, there was no video projection of his singing, nor was any spotlight allowed. Instead, Magnum stood in the relative shadows and let his vocals earn his keep. The set featured intricate orchestration (“I Love How You Love Me”) and Magnum solo (“Two-Headed Boy”); in both scenarios, the music blended whimsy and mystery.
The festival continues Sunday in Union Park.