There are many ways in which I relate my recent experience at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival in Paris to this one particular painting by renowned oil-painter Edward Hopper. Unveiled in 1960 and currently sitting in the prestigious Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C, Hopper’s People in the Sun depicts a group of three men and two women sitting on wooden foldable armchairs, their gazes set on what seems to be a blue-blue-skied landscape of mountains and open fields stretching further than the eyes can see. The formal attire, as well as the odd sense of artificiality created by the grey concrete surrounding the five subjects cast some ambiguity and doubts as to whether the scenery is real or simply a painted, concrete wall, a cold stage set giving the mere illusion of a warm, sunny setting. “Sunny” might well be the key-word here, the main term that got me thinking about this seemingly unrelated oil-painting all throughout my time at Pitchfork, for despite the fact that we all were freezing our nuts and embryos off to the brink of fossilization, cramped up in and around what once was Europe’s largest slaughterhouse, long past the sun’s bedtime, every corner and every second of Pitchfork Music Festival felt that way. Sunny yet cold, artificial yet comforting, paradoxically planned to feel free down to the last detail.
Whereas my expectations were geared towards a simple, sober concert hall filled with stage gear, bands and an audience squeezed into a concentrate, I was greeted by a lot more than I could have ever hoped to see in such an old, cold building. Granted, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t smirk at the tattoo artists, barbers, jewellery stands, tote bag vendors and massage parlours stationed at the designated ‘market’ area, although, for all the effort put into turning the former meat factory into a Coachella-meets-Shoreditch hybrid, Pitchfork did pull off a spectacular feat. First-time festival attendees, myself included, felt a tad puzzled by the presence of swings, karaoke booths, games and a bouncing castle courtesy of Viceland stationed at the entrance of the site, though it did not take long for everyone to warm up to these vaguely familiar artefacts of long-lost childhood innocence. Self-evident though it may sound, Pitchfork Music Festival felt fantastically festive, as though our smug cynicism had been lifted from all of our minds for the duration of our stay at hip-young-music-snob-heaven, a time during which many Parisians briefly reunite with long-lost acquaintances such as the concept of bright, flashy colours and non-ironic optimism.
Appropriately, the first act to kick things off and warm the audiences to this newfound sense of unadulterated hopefulness and bliss went by the name of New Optimism, a newly founded experimental pop project by Miho Hatori. As the first-person voice of the character of Noodles of Gorillaz, Miss Hatori had me excited from the very start of the festival and delivered on her promises. The spectacular and near-irreproachable work of the festival’s sound crew began and locked into place with little to no delay, allowing for Miho’s thumping electronic beats to burst in and work its magic in a matter of an instant. Miho Hatori, clad with style and body-popping to the syncopated beats, rode the exotic sound waves with some cool flows and fierce yet melodic vocals drowned in a myriad of effects. Think of Kate Bush’s vocal production and melodies fed through Daft Punk’s vocoder.
The second entry on my list of great surprises for Day One followed up no more than five minutes later across the venue. The short, curly-haired frontman known as Cola Boyy – whom I had run into two days earlier before Jimothy Lacoste’s set at Badaboum – rose up and shone brightly for a brief but energetic thirty-minute show set to the sweet, shining sounds of disco funk. I had my doubts upon hearing Cola Boyy’s recordings a few weeks prior, but the man proved to be a great showman and an excellent performer at the head of an air-tight music ensemble of the funkiest kind.
Last on my list highlights for Thursday was an artist I frankly had little to no interest in, save for a fleeting sense of curiosity that comes with the recurring mention of an artist’s name. It seemed as though many considered Etienne Daho to be the French Headliner of the festival, and I was intrigued enough to check out what all of this fuss was about. French pop comes nowhere close to my listening habits, though one can only find oneself in awe when faced with such a meticulously crafted live sound. The old-school, radio-edited rock tunes will have admittedly made no impact on me if I had heard them on the radio, but I will not downplay the merits of a great stage spectacle led with grace. Mister Daho’s deep voice piercing through the massive synth-laced arrangements as well as the phenomenal neon-light show sporadically transported me back to my recent experience at Gary Numan’s phenomenal concert in Luxembourg. Looking around me, I couldn’t help but notice how diverse the audience was. Young and old festival-goers found common ground in the seemingly timeless sounds of Etienne Daho’s extensive repertoire, and though I may very well never feel the urge to spin a record of his, it would take a heart of stone not to feel moved by such a sight.
Moving on to Thursday’s noteworthy mentions, I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I failed to turn up to see Mr Casablancas and The Voidz, arguably the ‘darkest’ sounding act on this otherwise predominantly upbeat music line-up. Dressed like Mad Max characters, the band delivered a loud, electrifying set fuelled by heavy riffs and futuristic sounds. Though the rusty cyberpunk aesthetic and Julian Casablancas’ careless, nonsensical banter did add up to a great show, the set was somewhat plagued by a rough, unbalanced live sound.
Equally popular was the intriguing (or dare I say peculiar) performance put on by John Maus. “Intense yet puzzling” would be the best way to boil down this set into a few words. Primitive synth lines pummelled through the speakers whilst John, alone on the big stage, headbanged his brains out and yelled at the top of his lungs like a Bavarian yodeller having just caught his wife in bed with the local shoemaker. Unique as this may have been, Mister Maus’ cathartic screams quickly lost my interest and I eventually decided I had heard enough.
Last but not least, I gave Mac DeMarco the old benefit of the doubt and showed up early for his headlining set, convinced that my appreciation and ‘understanding’ of this indie shooting star would simply dawn on me through a first-hand live experience. I tried, I listened but ultimately gave up half-way through the set, bored and unphased by the chilled-out but ultimately unremarkable lo-fi indie rock tunes he played through with his band.
Interestingly enough, the next day at Pitchfork started off with a band I had first read about online on a list of ‘Unnecessary Mac DeMarco lo-fi indie rip-offs’. Granted, the publication (which shall remain unnamed) wasn’t one I particularly trust or respect, but reading about Boy Pablo’s striking similarities to Mac DeMarco’s music didn’t really motivate me to go check them out. As it so happened, I was feeling eager to start the day and took the chance nonetheless and was pleasantly surprised to discover a brilliantly talented band with great energy and solid compositions. The five-piece from Bergen, Norway felt visibly nervous and self-aware on stage but got the crowd going wild in the matter of a few minutes thanks to their fun, endearing stage antics and their upbeat, catchy pop-punk-meets-indie-rock tunes delivered with unmistakably explosive passion and enthusiasm.
Day Two had kicked off with a bang and would prove to be chock-full of terrific acts and sets. Tirzah’s eerie, phased out post-R ’n’ B added a touch of stripped-down, languishing melancholy before Dream Wife came storming out on the neighbouring stage, ready to tear the whole building apart. Loud, proud and dangerous, the three performers at the head of the London-based hard-rock band embraced the big stage with an explosive demonstration of pure girl-power. Most eye-catching of all was the aura of their main singer Rakel Mjöll from Iceland, who sings, screams, twirls and snake-dances like a blonde Betty Boop possessed by the spirit of Axl Rose.
Lewis OfMan proved to be one of the more bitter moments of the whole weekend. As impressive of a career he’s had so far, the young electronic music producer just did not strike the right chord in me with his flashy, tacky brand of dance music. My limit was reached no more than a couple of songs into the set, at which point he decided to play the excruciating title-track to his album ‘Je Pense à Toi’, a song whose epitomisation of cheesiness is best illustrated by its lyrics “Je pense à toi quand tu n’es pas là / Oui, je pense à toi quand tu n’es pas là” (I think about you when you’re not here. Yes, I think about you when you’re not here). Escaping the photo pit and running away from this godforsaken song became the utmost emergency by the time the verse repeated for the third time. To make things worse, the dreadful set carried on for fifteen extra minutes, prolonging my agony and delaying salvation for what seemed like an eternity.
Thankfully, my suffering eventually came to an end when Car Seat Headrest stepped in and set the evening ablaze for a solid hour, striking the audience with hit after hit. Now a seven-piece live ensemble since earlier this year, the band delivered some grandiose renditions of some of Will Toledo’s lo-fi indie rock tunes all the while maintaining the intimate poignancy that is the bands’ charm. Will’s enchanting voice and witty introspective lyrics resonated as clearly as on record amidst the full-blown fiesta unfolding onstage. Staying true to their nature whilst offering an expansive live experience Car Seat Headrest kept their introverted touch whilst magnifying the dramatic component of their sound.
Trading in angst and puppy love for limos, high-heels and flashy low-riders, Chromeo switched things up with a full hour of glittery 90s funk. David Macklovitch (Dave 1) and Patrick Gemayel (P-Thugg) had no intention of wasting time, and kept the good vibes going with their irresistible feel-good dance grooves and flashy stage show. And while Chromeo, with their mainstream pop apeal, may well have been the oddest artist on Pitchfork Fest’s entire line-up, the fact remains that tight funk grooves will always have its way with a festival audience. Add some duelling guitar solos, neon lights and talk-box vocals to the mix and you’ve got yourself a fool-proof formula to success. No matter how irritating David’s rock-star attitude may be onstage, there is no disputing the fact that Chromeo grooves harder than a grooving electric grooving machine set to maximum groove.
Next up, Bagarre stepped in as the headlining French act of the evening and opened up the largest moshpit of the festival whilst I casually watched from VIP area balcony. One thing is for sure: Bagarre’s eclectic, genre-blending formula is well-set to take the French music scene by storm in the near future. From explosive electro-punk to French Hip-Hop and Middle Eastern Music, Bagarre’s sound screams of French youth culture and proved to be extremely effective with the Pitchfork crowd. I’d have gladly joined the fun and squeezed my way through the masses to see the show, had I not decided to save a good spot for Chvrches. Unfortunately, my second live experience with the Glaswegian Synth-pop phenomenon did not justify the hopes and expectations I had kept since their disappointing show 2013 show in Paris. Refreshing though it may be to see the ever-so-adorable Lauren Mayberry fully blossoming into a confident bandleader and performer, the bands’ imperfect live sound-mix persisted once again. The live drums made no difference whatsoever, Chvrches still seemed to lack the dynamic, crisp sound I expected from them.
Following this somewhat disappointing set, I made my way to the stage at the other side of the venue, where a radically different show awaited me. Dev Hynes, more commonly known as Blood Orange, spared no expense and deployed a full band for his headlining performance in promotion of his grandiose, universally acclaimed album Negro Swan. Sax, synths and full backing-vocal section at his disposal, Blood Orange came prepared and played a phenomenal set. Whether it be on vocals, guitar or piano, the London-based artist has got skills to floss at his audience and some tender soul to share. The sound of nineties soul and R ’n’ B lives on.
Closing things off with his trademark bouncing beats, Kaytranada stepped up to the stage and gave the audience one more hour of infectious dance tracks. It doesn’t take much of an ear for dance music to understand what made this twenty-six-year-old producer worthy of a headlining spot at one of Paris’ trendiest music festivals. It was well past midnight by the time the Montreal-based DJ hit the stage and yet as soon as the music dropped, one was transported to an L.A. beach, dancing to a never-ending sunset. So long as the groove kept on going and the spotlights kept on shining, the Grande Halle de La Villette felt nowhere near the glacial cold that awaited us outside its walls.
My third and final Pitchfork day was a little more of a mixed bag. It may have been the fault of my fragile body slowly but surely breaking down from fatigue or simply sensory overload, but the first couple of acts I got to see play on Saturday did little to impress me. Snail Mail from Maryland seemed to be the subject of most conversations I eavesdropped on throughout the week, and yet I could not help but find myself underwhelmed by the sluggish performance they put on for us. Similarly, Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks played while I stood distracted and indifferent to their competent but ultimately unremarkable offering of indie rock.
Fortunately, the latter half of the evening would prove to largely make up for everything, starting with Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Although it had been no more than seven months since Ruban Nielson and the boys graced a Parisian venue with their presence, the band still found themselves greeted by a full-house of fans. Armed with a near-identical albeit abbreviated set-list, the Portland-based quartet gave it their best with an enthusiastic showcasing of punchy, catchy psychedelic rock. Any rock band with psychedelic leanings would prove to be a risky choice of co-headliner for the last day at Pitchfork, though Unknown Mortal Orchestra manages to find the right balance between instantly gratifying compositions and free-form, envelope-pushing solo breaks to break the clean-cut mould. The layered, hazy timbre present on the band’s studio recordings was peeled off in favour of a more energetic, potent live sound. Songs like ‘From the Sun’, ‘Necessary Evil’ or the electrifying ‘American Guilt’ were reconfigured and set to instantly drill themselves into your mind with their ear-grabbing riffs and melodies. Kody Nielson’s snappy, syncopated drum-fills were incredibly satisfying to hear live, as was the warm synth sound played by bassist Jake Portrait. The fact that the band did not end up playing any songs from their brand new album IC-01 Hanoi was definitely a shame, but they delivered the goods nonetheless and struck the right chord with their audience.
Thus came the time for the final headlining band to make their entrance into their elaborate stage decorum. Bright spotlights, flashing lightbulbs and vine-shaped curtains adorned the stage to immerse the audience in the otherworldly vistas borne by Bon Iver’s vivid folk soundscapes. I had been waiting all week for this show and the band certainly did not disappoint. The synthetic, digital sound textures and timbres of 22, A Million played in its near-entirety were the main course of the evening, buffed up with a live set-up crafted with surgical minutia to make you forget you were ever part of this reality in the first place. Effervescent sound waves of heavenly beauty flowed, swerved and crashed, captivating every second of my attention-span and moving me to tears. The ineffable strength of Justin Vernon’s rendition of ‘715 – CR∑∑KS’ in particular accounts for what I consider to be the most gripping moment of the entire Festival: a gorgeous acapella interlude track used here to reel you into the intimate musical emotional space and narrative. If anyone having seen the same show wonders how they ended up engaging so deeply with the stage performance, look no further than Justin Vernon’s masterful sense of pacing and narrative. There was a reason why the song came in so early (third) in the set. Bon Iver did more than stitch a few songs together into a programmet, the live show here was evidently prepared with great care, going so far as to rearrange some older tracks (namely ‘Minnesota, WI’) to better fit the set’s general vibe and progression. The remarkable, awe-inspiring performance carried on for what seemed like one of the shortest ninety-minutes I had ever lived through, leaving me with fresh memories slowly but surely seeping deep into my mind, and unlikely to leave anytime soon.
I didn’t get to stick around for the all-night DJ sets that followed Bon Iver’s performance, though I felt like flooding my senses with another six hours of music would have only served to dilute the impression it made on me. I made my way back home and sat down as I rewound my senses and started to think back at the past five days at Pitchfork Festival. Both the Avant-Garde part and the main festival proved to be radically different from what I first expected, and yet the whole week ended up being a lot more fun than I could’ve hoped for. Granted, the line-up certainly felt considerably safer and more upbeat than that of the previous edition, given Pitchfork’s reputation as being on the cutting-edge across the entire indie music sphere. There certainly wasn’t any Deafheaven or Death Grips to disrupt and shake up the line-up, but then again one could see this absence as a trade-off in favour of a more coherent, smooth running-order. Pitchfork 2018 and its overall harmless, upbeat feel made room for a great festival experience, albeit one weighing heavy with concern for the Festival’s general direction. Given the growing popularity of Pitchfork Paris, I hope this fantastic yet eerily “family-friendly” edition does not signal a loss of identity in favour of a larger, radio-friendly appeal. Though I may snark at Pitchfork’s reputation and its association with hipster-culture, I would hate to see the event lose what allows Pitchfork Festival to be so smug compared to its similarly sized counterparts. Thank you and remain vigilant, Pitchfork; I love you and need you to stay just the way you are.