“Sun is falling down/Sky is falling down/Seasons falling down/Air is falling down,” Boston art-punk legends Mission of Burma sang in “Weatherbox” Friday night, midway through the opening set of the fourth Pitchfork Music Festival, as their guitars, bass, drums and tape loops evoked the fury of bombs falling in the midst of an earthquake during a vicious thunderstorm.
Thankfully, the real downpour stopped not long before the band officially opened the three-day festival in the West Side’s Union Park. But it was an ominous message nonetheless, with the weather threatening to dampen souls if not spirits all weekend long at what has become the premier celebration of the musical underground in Chicago and the entire U.S.
It’s easy to take shots at Pitchfork’s opening-night “Don’t Look Back” concept of bands performing one of their classic albums in its entirety and to dismiss it as a gimmick or cheap nostalgia. But as with everything else, it all depends on the music in question.
A long since gone-Hollywood Liz Phair performing “Exile in Guyville” or the reunited sorta-Smashing Pumpkins rendering “Gish” arguably are as sad as any state fair act. But a band like Mission of Burma is a different story: Its music was always far ahead of its time; it ended the first round of its career prematurely, in part because of guitarist Roger Miller’s tinnitus, and the new albums it has recorded since 2004 have been every bit as good as “Vs.” (1983), the subject of Friday’s retrospective.
The musicians started by playing a few tunes that weren’t on that album–it would have been perfect if they’d done “Signals, Calls, and Marches,” the 1981 EP that preceded “Vs.,” but you can’t have everything–and then they tore through their album from the haunting “Secrets” to the always-ferocious “That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate.”
In terms of the timeless anthemic melodies, the pummeling rhythms, the searing noise guitar and the still avant-garde tape-loop manipulations (courtesy of Chicagoan Bob Weston), the show was immediate, of the moment and absolutely vital–the total opposite of an oldies act.
The night’s headliner, the groundbreaking New York hip-hop crew Public Enemy, didn’t fare quite as well playing the indelible “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” on the 20th anniversary of its release. On the plus side, Chuck D’s megaphone voice was as powerful as it’s ever been, and his words are indeed still louder than bombs. The dense white-noise assaults of producer/DJs the Bomb Squad, Keith and Hank Shocklee, also were as potent as Mission of Burma’s more traditional rock assault on tracks such as “Bring the Noise” and “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.”
But where Flavor Flav was once a welcome comic sidekick, he is now merely a joke. Many of his raps seemed to be on tape, and it was nothing short of pathetic to hear him trumpeting himself as “the No. 1 star on reality TV” only moments after the group performed the relevant as ever “Don’t Believe the Hype.”
Then, too, there was the odd spectacle of this once controversial and downright dangerous group playing one of the all-time epics of urban discontent to an obviously privileged audience of college-rock fans. Fight the powers that be, indeed.
Sandwiched between those two acts, the overrated Massachusetts-based indie-rock cult favorite Sebadoh stumbled in its shambling, chaotic way through the inept noise explosions, none-too-tuneful folk-rock tunes and annoyingly plaintive ballads of “Bubble and Scrape” (1993). By no means is it the proto-emo heroes’ best album–that would be “Bakesale” (1994)–but band co-founder Eric Gaffney had left by the time his partner Lou Barlow made that one, and since it’s his version of the group that has reunited, Barlow probably didn’t want to ruffle any feathers.
In the end, the prevailing messages of Day One was that Mission of Burma is a tough if not impossible act to follow–and it’s probably a good idea to bring an umbrella for the rest of the festival.