I discovered this weekend one of the most important qualities that comprises my personality: I am not the Music Festival Type.

I had always thought (or maybe hoped) that I might be—that I would feel OK and possibly even thrive in being outside all day. That the rules of basic human biology wouldn’t apply to me and I would be able to go a whole day without having to use a porta-potty. That I would have tolerance for adults who wear flower crowns and ponchos that may or may not be ironic, who even cares anymore. But none of that is my reality, and that’s why this weekend’s Pitchfork Music Festival was a nightmare.

Look, if you are the type of person who enjoys outdoor music festivals, I’m sure Pitchfork would be a complete dream. While it may have been filled with garbage and dirt, Chicago’s Union Park is actually a really nice place to be. It’s massive, but not overwhelming due to the festival’s accessible layout, and there is a surprisingly good view of the city’s skyline way off in the distance. This year’s festival featured one of the summer’s most diverse lineups, including headliners Beck, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Kendrick Lamar, and offered plenty to do besides standing at one stage for an entire day in the hope that you’ll be able to see Jeff Mangum’s weather-inappropriate sweater up close. The CHIRP Record Fair and the Book Fort were among the most popular attractions. At CHIRP, you could shop from a huge selection of records, CDs, and cassette tapes from over 20 record stores in the Chicagoland area. The Book Fort, a modest set up near the back of the park, was maybe a little less exciting, but featured readings from Chicago Tribune music critic Jessica Hopper and senior editor of This Recording, Britt Julious.

There was also an impressive, albeit somewhat obnoxious, selection of local food vendors. There was gelato (not ice cream) from Black Dog, vegan hot dogs from Chicago Diner, and watermelon mint salad from the Rice Table. If carrying around a plate of salad while looking for a spot during Earl Sweatshirt isn’t your thing, there were also a couple free sample booths. The most notable was the Hostess Cakes booth, mainly for how entirely out of place it was. It doesn’t make much sense that, among the plethora of healthy and organic options, they were also handing out Twinkies, which legally shouldn’t be considered food. It makes even less sense that there was a man dressed as a character named Twinkie the Kid (a Twinkie who was a cowboy, though I’m sure you already knew that) who had to be led around the park by a another person because his costume didn’t have eye holes, but he was there nonetheless. Woozy from dehydration and low on cash, I opted for the Twinkie. While my choices weren’t healthy, my sense of shame was and I was too embarrassed to eat it out in the open. I don’t think I’ve experienced anything more dehumanising than trying to find a private spot in an overcrowded park to eat a free Twinkie. 

The main thing I took issue with isn’t necessarily unique to Pitchfork, but just an inevitable factor of any large-scale outdoor music festival: the performances are rarely worth the effort it takes to see them. There’s a disconnect between the performer and the audience that doesn’t happen at a regular concert where everybody has come to see that specific musician. I think it’s safe to say that the vibe is a lot less intimate when half of the crowd is made up of people who just wandered to the stage after eating an artisanal corn dog. Also, the festival got off to a rough start this year, mainly for reasons beyond its control. In April, one of Sunday’s headliners DJ Rashad passed away and then, less than a month later, Kathleen Hanna’s band the Julie Ruin cancelled their set due to her relapse with Lyme Disease, causing a last minute scramble for replacements. Perhaps the biggest hit taken was the sudden passing of intended opener Death Grips, forcing the flute-laden synth-rock band Hundred Waters to take over. The zen kick off to the fest set the energy off balance, especially as it was followed by trip-hop throwback Neneh Cherry, the folksy Sharon Van Etten, and the now aggressively ethereal Beck.

One of the few exceptions I witnessed was St. Vincent, Saturday’s secondary headliner, who blew the lid off of what had started as a slow weekend. Annie Clark and co. pulled out all the stops, with a light show, expansive set list, and, most importantly, Clark’s wicked guitar-playing and bonkers choreography. I think it was the first time the crowd truly lost it that weekend. It was as if the official kick off happened two days into the festival, and it was well worth the wait. Unfortunately, nothing quite lived up to it. Neutral Milk Hotel played immediately after, a buzzkill in the truest sense of the word. The band requested that all of the monitors projecting the stage be turned off to create a more intimate atmosphere, which was fine because who wants to see a 43 year old man sing about how he loves Anne Frank anyway? It was quirky when he was in his 20s, and now it’s just unsettling.

To pretend that I’ve actually read a David Foster Wallace book, I would classify this experience as “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”. I don’t think Pitchfork was bad—it may have had some rough spots, but overall it’s still one of the most revered music festivals, and for good reason—it just wasn’t made for me. I think I can live with that.

The power of M.I.A. as a pop personality is to turn every moment that surrounds her into a microcosm of righteous political anger. The world is full of chaos and violence, so her live show is full of chaos and violence. Halfway through her scheduled 75-minute slot, she invites members of the audience on stage. They’ve got the message, they dance violently, and yet full of life. They are liberated. Just as M.I.A. kicks off “Boyz”, the already poor sound cuts out and the lights go off. Boos from the audience are heard as the clearly frustrated singer has no choice but to leave the stage. Five minutes later, she returns for “Double Bubble Trouble” and, of course, the big ones: “Paper Planes” and “Bad Girls”. She has no choice but to cut the set short due to technical failures, but you’ve still witnessed one of the most important pop stars of, frankly, all-time at her most powerful yet.

As it turns out, the sound cutting off wasn’t security expressing anger at the stage invasion, but just some berk onstage kicking out a cable. But, as said, M.I.A. can take any small moment and make you focus, make it a moment, a moment of political frustration. Her show is a celebration of solidarity, and a celebration of protest. When she comes on-stage (bringing her five-year old son along with her for a moment), hundreds of glowsticks are ejected into the audience amidst the sound of trap sirens, before she rips into the adored “Bucky Done Gun”, a celebration of rap culture as well as a commentary on the Sri Lankan civil war. M.I.A. makes the party political. Trap sirens are a constant feature throughout the show, along with seemingly random samples of Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks”, along with dancers jumping about the stage, dancing aggressively and in the name of liberation, some wearing the now infamous “Free Tamil” shirts. “Y.A.L.A.” is a parody on the “Y.O.L.O.” phrase popularised by Drake; she turns a contemporary Internet slogan into a reference to Hindu reincarnation, and it goes down a storm. The industrial grind of “Bamboo Banga” sees her jump into the crowd, as she is held up like the icon she rightly deserves to be celebrated as.

The sound throughout is poor, and sometimes M.I.A.’s rapping can barely be heard. What the audience can hear is her saying to the people on the side that she “can’t hear my own beats”. It’s a frustrating display of amateurism from the technical team behind the festival (especially such a large one), and it clearly takes its toll on the singer, who ends the night by angrily throwing her mic over her shoulder. But the sheer chaos, energy and excitement, from both the stage and the audience, makes up for it; this is what the audience came for, and besides, the songs are strong enough to stand on their own. “Paper Planes” is nearly seven years old and has already been namedropped amongst the greatest songs of all time by Rolling Stone and The Guardian, and despite the iconic gunshot effects being muted, it still goes down a storm, as does the massive “Bad Girls” (which, by the way, has the greatest music video of the 21st Century).

So while the whole show has a bittersweet side to it due to technical failings, for the hour it lasts the audience are treated to a dazzling and spectacular hype show all in the name of solidarity and liberation. It manages to be an event in of itself, and when M.I.A. storms off at the end, you know it’s only made her hungry for more.

Photo via Caroline Hayeur

In the terrifying future we find ourselves living in, Anno Domini 2014, there are no shortage of pundits weighing in to remind us of how much we’ve ‘lost it.’ As life goes from being dominated by computer technology until there is no life left to dominate but the machines continue piling up and out of factories in China for consumers in America we find ourselves in dizzying and unsettling existences. Some people even yearn for the simpler times of the – get this – early 2000s. Thus we have the many -wave genres and their accompanying theories and aesthetics. From this miasma rises Daniel Lopatin, known as Oneohtrix Point Never. All preceding hyperbole is the long way to describe that he makes electronic music which references computers a lot.

One of the most common criticisms against electronic music as a live performance is that it’s just “laptop music.” It’s not entirely unfounded, with a large portion of electronic acts electing to play to their strengths and play DJ sets rather than live performances of their music. Lopatin instead plays, or rather triggers, his music live from a setup that is unseen by the crowd. As he stands motionless (occasionally bobbing his head) and generates the music from his station on the right of the stage, a mesmerizing and at times deeply uncomfortable series of images and visual abstractions are projected onto a screen behind him. The visuals, created by Nate Boyce, function largely the same as the music. They form a type of noise that communicates feelings and vague ideas rather than concrete emotion or objects. 

On record, Lopatin’s music is notable for the precision and careful composition of the tiniest details. It is all a carefully ordered disorder. In a live setting it’s hard to make this exciting and so Lopatin changes things up by reinterpreting and remixing his own works to the point where they are nearly unrecognizable. Trance arpeggios and heavy trap bass are brought in and layered over the drones and stuttering beats. Everything is mixed hot yet the sounds created are uniformly cold and somewhat menacing. Synths build and the beats get heavier and Lopatin processes and distorts his music until it is replaced by ear-piercing noise punctuated by bass hits that knock the breath from your lungs. The result is something that can only be described as EDM From Hell But In The Future. Over the course of his short set, Lopatin builds and releases tension by following the louder and more aggressive sections with short chillout passages of calm drones and loops. 

OPN’s latest two records have functioned around vague theses about alienation from post-modern society. Replica was composed of stitched-together samples from infomercials cut up and processed to become unrecognizable. R Plus Seven was based around cheap midi sounds (most notably vocals) and ultra-crisp sounds of new age music and computer technology. The result of both is an experiment in communicating ideas that don’t quite have words, or at least no words the average person could understand. None of this matters to the average if they aren’t nice to listen to, but luckily they are. The OPN project stands then, at an interesting crossroads between experimentation and pop accessibility. 

Despite starting his set late and finishing it a bit quick, Lopatin put on exactly the show his music demands.  How to translate his music into a live environment is no easy task. How to communicate material so thick with ideas and messages to a crowd of drunk, high and/or tired festival goers at midnight in around 40 minutes is daunting. The experience of seeing Oneohtrix Point Never live is fascinating and definitely worth it for the reinterpretations of his fantastic material. 

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Caught Live

Catfish & The Bottlemen
Camden Dingwalls
May 2014
by Braden Fletcher

Caught Live:
Rosenthal

Paperdress, London
by Braden Fletcher

Leeds, West Yorkshire. For almost a decade now, this city has bookended the festival season from the May Bank Holiday’s Live At Leeds through to the August bash at (Reading and) Leeds Festival’s £200 weekender. In recent years, such luminaries as The 1975, Bastille, Ed Sheeran, Mumford and Sons and Bombay Bicycle Club have played across the city at LAL with tickets not once costing more than £25 for the day.

This year, similar amounts of excitement await and it’s visible from the off as a visit to Leeds College Of Music instantly shows. Hitsville arrives in time to just locate a seat for Nottingham band Amber Run. Playing from a series of tracks from their upcoming debut record, the band is in good spirits. “Last time we were here we played to our manager and a friend from school” they joke. Today, the auditorium is filled with 200 people eager to start their festival on a high and with a series of tracks that fall somewhere between We Are Scientists and Bombay Bicycle Club; few leave disappointed.

Sadly though, many do leave before Lyla Foy’s debut in Leeds. Possibly Sub-Pop’s most ambient signing of recent times, her band plays a 25 minute set that lulls us into an early afternoon mellow. The audience are very much aware of the bright room and mid afternoon billing and it takes away from Foy and her band’s ambient Stevie Nicks qualities.

From there, Hitsville travels half way across the city to our favourite bar in the city; Nation of Shopkeepers. From décor through to the food and drink options, everything’s in place as Northern Irish duo Southern take to the stage. It proves to be the first highlight of the day as the band’s two EPs to date don’t disappoint. Energetic, bluesy and confident, the young siblings will be ones to watch as they continue their summer.

At this point, a bit out of practice of city festivals since last summer; Hitsville forgets how much time it takes to get around Leeds, especially when following hype to Courtney Barnett. Leeds MET is filled literally to the balcony where we just manage to find a space to watch a confident half hour from the Australian. If you liked Waxahatchee last year, Barnett’s more punk stylings will be for you. As if that wasn’t enough, the room fills even further for Royal Blood. Anyone doubting how much noise a two piece can make are silenced by the sheer power of the band. Filling the void that both Biffy Clyro’s edge and the White Stripes’ absence left with the best of their ability; huge pits appear in the 500+ capacity venue as we watch on from the top in awe.

Looking to continue on this rock vein; we drop over to Stylus for Cheatahs. Choosing dubiously from their debut record leaves some of their set feeling lacklustre and robotic, but singles “Cut The Grass”, set/album opener “Geographic” and show closer “The Swan” prove that Cheatahs may yet be a great rock band if they sort out the pace issues.

After that dampener on our rock vibe, Hitsville makes the walk to Lanterns On The Lake. The Town Hall is a beautiful and perfect setting for a band who’ve shone whilst supporting the likes of Sigur Ros as well as in venues across the country. Playing from their full catalogue, they warm the hearts of the hundreds assembled at the front; ruined only by a few dozen loud-mouthed idiots at the back. Yeah lads, really good bantz pricks. 

After a quick recovery, we make our one and only stop at the Academy for the day. It’s not that it’s a bad venue, quite the opposite infact; it just feels like cheating to watch ALL of Radio One’s Playlist. Of course we’re here for the headliners though; Clean Bandit.  Expectation of an alright time quickly dissolve as the band come out and rifle through past and future singles before closing with a one-two blow of a very CB cover of “You Got To Show Me Love” and number one hit “Rather Be”. It’s bordering on a rave, only there’s a man playing violin and another on electric saxophone; even Hitsville lets loose for a while whilst Clean Bandit mark their early ownership on the summer.

The best thing about Live at Leeds though? Diversity. So whilst Albert Hammond Jr, The Hold Steady, Pulled Apart By Horses, Frank Turner and Clean Bandit DJs get kicked off, we’re up to the Faversham for Catfish And The Bottlemen. Worries that we’ve made the wrong decision dissipate in minutes as crowdsurfing, sing-alongs and generally raucous behaviour ensue for a band who’ve not even put out a record yet, although they admit that they’ve recorded it in their two month break from playing live. If this is how they are after a break, they’ll be unstoppable with a bit more practice!

Roll on the summer and the next Live At Leeds. We can’t walk for a few days.

Hitsville Live!
The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die
@ The Lexington, London

Photos by Braden Fletcher