Sometime after 7 p.m., Das Racist killed it. For every other act performing the first day of this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, the K.O. came when the Brooklyn rap trio dropped their infectious new single, “Michael Jackson.” The tune’s chorus is simple, kinda dumb, hilarious, and downright catchy:
“Michael Jackson/A million dollars/If you feelin’ me/Holler”
I didn’t expect this to be a line that would fester in my head for the entire day, and yet that’s exactly what happened. That hooky tune lifted a good chunk of the anxiety I felt running around the festival all day, which had peaked during an epic Tune-yards and Battles face-off around 4:30 p.m.
I arrived at Union Park a little before the gates opened to the press at 2:45 p.m., my stomach slightly in knots from feeling the calm before the storm. In the weeks leading up to a big event like Pitchfork—a three-day blowout featuring a slew of bands constantly in my headphones—the hype surrounding it all also brings to mind some concerns. Will I see every band I want to see? Will I be able to cover the fest to the best of my ability? Will I get a chance to rest before my body fails me from running around the park all day on little to no sleep?
These were the thoughts plaguing me as I walked to the press tent to see a couple kids from 826Chi—a local non-profit literacy program—interviewing the dudes in Das Racist. They were still haunting me around the corner at the CHIRP record fair—a sprawling space where record labels, music stores, and local artisans sell their wares—when I spotted Thurston Moore perusing the music selection. They stuck with me as I tried to take in the creepy sounds of dance production duo Gatekeeper. Things did not bode well for that act battling my rising anxiety: Hearing Gatekeeper’s dark tunes in the middle of the afternoon ruined any chance they had at making their atmospheric sounds stick.
I quickly moved onto EMA, the solo project of former Amps for Christ and Gowns member Erika M. Anderson. I’ve been digging EMA’s new debut album, Past Life Martyred Saints, but for some reason most of the tunes couldn’t quite capture my attention, which was getting monopolized by texts from friends trying to find a meeting spot. Between coordinating meet-ups by the first aid tent, I’d hear a clip of “Milkman” or another tune from the album and pump my first in approval. But as EMA’s set ended and I made my way to take photos of Tune-yards, those dreaded thoughts came roaring back.
Technical difficulties kept Tune-yards from starting right on time, which made me wonder if I’d be able to run and catch Battles in the photo pit. That wasn’t a concern for many of the folks at the blue stage waiting for Tune-yards: A number of fans in the crowd streaked their faces in tribal-esq lines just like Tune-yards frontwoman Merril Garbus, a surefire sign of hardcore fandom. That thought got confirmed with every cheer that erupted whenever Garbus made a quip about the stalling soundcheck.
But, these fans had good reason to be so devoted to Tune-yards: From up close, Garbus and co. had a wealth of energy to bring “Gangsta,” a highlight from the band’s new whokill, to fleshed-out light. Having caught that song, I felt free to dash off to catch Battles, who were halfway through one of the brightest spots from their new record, “Sweetie & Shag.”
I didn’t make it to the stage in time to snap some photos of Battles up close, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying “Atlas,” the standout tune from their debut record, Mirrored. Something felt a bit off, though: The band replaced Tyondai Braxton’s warped vocals with a recording of a chorus, removing some of the sinister excitement the song first had. Yet, I felt vindicated for having caught the tune anyway.
I spent the remainder of Battles and Tune-yards sets straddling the area between the two stages, catching bits of songs, though never quite feeling comfortable with the situation. If I spent too much time watching Tune-yards from the back of the blue stage’s enclave, I felt bored, and could just hear Battles teasing me with a live rendition of “Ice Cream.” Sure, I caught Tune-yards performing “Bizness,” but I’d always wonder what I’d be missing around the corner.
I took a break to scarf down some food when Curren$y hit the stage, and only caught a small portion of Thurston Moore wailing on an acoustic guitar. I know I made the wise decision to rest up when I saw folks starting to drop like flies, sleeping on whatever patch of grass had enough shade. And I know I made the right decision once Das Racist took the stage.
Confident, cunning, crass, charming, and a bit crazy—to liberally borrow from Philip Roth, that’s just the “Cs”—these dudes absolutely nailed their set, and they did so while exuding air of effortlessness. It’s hard to imagine that these guys once got ripped for having an awful live show: They owned the stage, keeping the energy high even while debuting new tunes from their forthcoming official debut, Relax (that carried through with a guest appearance by Detroit rapper Danny Brown, who is on one of their new songs). And sure, “Michael Jackson” pleased the crowd, but they rolled out some of their well-known jams that absolutely killed—specifically “Who’s That? Broown!,” “You Oughta Know,” and “Rainbow in the Dark.”
The same cannot be said for James Blake—sure, his smooth, buttery voice and his soulful quasi-dubstep jams are something to admire, but his music practically vanished in the open air of the outdoor festival. Same with Neko Case, though her alt-country songs seemed to stand out a little even if they didn’t quite hit.
Closing out the night, Animal Collective made good music to peruse records. All things considered, their set was a pleasant surprise: I’d heard that their jam-centric live sets were louder than they were interesting, but they created a warm, lush ambience to welcome the night. The only problem is just focusing on the music unto itself. Sure, “Did You See The Words” and some cuts from Merriweather Post Pavilion—“Brother Sport,” “Taste,” “Summertime Clothes”—piqued my interested and certain portions of the crowd prone to dancing. But the rest just kind of floated by as their synth-heavy set lurched forth. At the very least, it provided a nice background soundtrack to a return visit to the record fair. I took off shortly after Animal Collective finished their proper set—some 15 minutes before the festival’s designated curfew—without bothering to stick it out for any potential encore: Not even a “big” smash hit like “My Girls” would’ve made the wait worth it. With two 10-hour days ahead of me, I felt it wise to jet and save my energy for some sets that could reach the high mark Das Racist set early Friday evening.