CHICAGO -- A sage-cleanse, a New Age process intended to drive away negative energy, was the pre-show ritual for at least two bands this weekend in Union Park at the Pitchfork Music Festival, the annual event organized by the discerning indie music website of the same name.
Gang Gang Dance, whose percussive space pop has its own mind-clearing charm, even went so far as to keep a full-time "vibes manager" on staff, Taka Imamura. His duties at the group's Saturday afternoon performance appeared to consist solely of burning a fat bundle of sage and twirling around the edge of the stage.
Which begs the question: What (or whose vibes) exactly need cleansing here? The sweaty crowd, tanned in a layer of the park's dusty sand? Nope, they're fine. Sage smells nice, but nothing exorcises dull workaday routines like sharing the fresh music of 45 bands with thousands of other people over the course of three days.
And if a band can't keep the positive vibes going without sage, forget it. Sage 0, Music 1.
"You guys want to hear some songs about rape, incest and carnage?" Thurston Moore demanded at the top of his set of retiring, introspective music. "We'll do the best we can."
The Sonic Youth frontman shot down requests for material from his main band ("We don't do covers," he quipped). His solo music is quieter and prettier, hovering anxiously around powerful, mature lyrics that dig into spiritual questions and, on "Benediction," the challenges of staying rather than escaping: "Simple pleasures strike like lightning, scratches cross her name, whisper 'I love you, my darling, life is just a fling.' But I know better than to let her go."
Moore's backup band, including Mary Lattimore on harp, Samara Lubelski on violin and "beautiful girl in the front row on iPhone," as he introduced them, created a lush sound that resolved the lyrical and tonal unease into a cacophonous frenzy by the end of the set.
Over on the Blue Stage, tUnE-yArDs attracted a young crowd streaked with yolk-yellow face paint. Merrill Garbus loops her voice, percussion and ukelele to form the one-woman band, accompanied soulfully at this show by two free-jazzing saxophonists. Garbus is as fearless as a group of 7-year-olds staging a play in the basement for their parents and neighbors. She's serious about childlike wonder in a way most adults have recessed or forgotten, and that quality blossoms in her music, most notably on the anthemic single "Bizness."
Rap group Das Racist, who've thankfully overcome the one-hit notoriety of the purposely dumb "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell," leapt around and spit through a tack-sharp show late afternoon on the Blue Stage. They've added a hype man, Ashok Kondabolu, aka Dap, and brought Detroit rapper Danny Brown onstage for a head-spinning track.
The rowdiness extended into the crowd, where two young women in high-waisted short shorts tried to charm their way into the photo pit in front of the stage by torturing a good-natured Pitchfork volunteer who looked like he runs a chemistry lab during the week. While he meekly protested that he couldn't let them through because security might yell at him, the girls ran their fingers through his hair and blew pot smoke in his face. After security hauled the two off, the hapless volunteer polished his glasses and stammered, blushing, "I'm actually a little high now."
If the combination of music and scant clothing wasn't enough to spark lust in the crowd, Pitchfork sponsor AXE wanted to help. At the brand's booth, women wearing angel wings handed out samples of "Excite," a thudding fragrance with notes of vanilla-scented Yankee Candle, the eagerness of a 16-year-old boy and the tagline "Even angels will fall."
What fell mostly were the sample spritzers, discarded onto the grass.
Animal Collective led out the night as the Sears Tower glowed red over the trees and crossing plane contrails acted like X/Y coordinates in the sky for the festival. Neon flashes of teeth and lips lit up a screen during the band's set, a clash of soaring release and percussive ugliness.
"I can't remember the last time I left my apartment when it was this early," remarked Cold Cave's Wesley Eisold from the Green Stage at about 2:45 p.m. The early hour and heat didn't stop him and Madison native Dominick Fernow from dressing in all-black, mostly leather outfits or whipping feverishly into kneecap-vibrating synth-pop, which beat down on the appreciative crowd along with the afternoon sun.
The Alabama hip-hop crew G-Side, who were on top of every minute of their mid-afternoon performance on the Blue Stage, suggest in the song "Relaxin'" that there are two types of people in this world: "Those that are relaxin', and those that are gettin' relaxed on." They're talking about cheaters and the cheated-on, but it could as easily apply to the festival experience. No matter where you are, you're missing out on something.
So if you didn't want to get relaxed on, you got straight up off that grass and onto your plank-tired feet, put your iPhone in a Ziploc bag and headed into body-surfing center of the No Age crowd, where security guards sprayed sun-baked dancers with oscillating streams of bottled water. Even when singer Dean Allen Spunt briefly stopped drumming and stepped out from behind the drum set, the duo kept up a heart-palpitating energy.
The punk rock supergroup OFF! matched that intensity and punched it out with joyous anger during a short performance back at the Blue Stage. Frontman Keith Morris, formerly of Black Flag and Circle Jerks, dispensed fatherly advice on supporting your local music scene before jumping into a bug-eyed set of one-minute screamers punctuated by congenial asides ("That breeze is nice") and, sadly, time-eating technical difficulties.
"What are you all doing here?" wondered Zola Jesus, aka Nika Danilova, as she stepped barefoot onstage in an extravagantly ruffled silver dress and surveyed the crowd. Danilova, a Wisconsin native and UW-Madison graduate now living in Los Angeles, still holds an awkward shyness about her, but she's coming into her own as a performer and matching the bellowing power of her gloomy ballads.
She scampered around the stage, even into the wings, as if trying to devote and divide her energy between as many people in the audience as possible. I've always liked the heaviness of her music, but this time I found myself wishing she'd turn off the echoing processor on her voice, let up on the plodding beats and strip the songs down.
Anticipation buzzed around Odd Future Golf Wang Kill Them All, the very young hip-hop group known for shocking imagery, filthy language and surprisingly great rhymes, but their mid-afternoon performance on the Red Stage didn't hold my attention. I gave up after 15 minutes of bottomed-out beats and sloppy stage antics.
Odd Future boasted on Twitter of personally delivering cupcakes to a consciousness-raising booth that was protesting their presence at the festival. At least they have a sense of humor.
But the final day belonged to veteran performers, starting with Superchunk, especially on the exuberant "Digging for Something," and Deerhunter, which looped and screeched through a hypnotic rumble that seeped into my pores. A lone hula-hooper swirled to it, but most of us just gratefully absorbed it standing up.
As dusk fell and the heat mercifully dropped a few degrees, Cut Copy brought on a full-out dance party. No one was immune. The crowd waiting for TV on the Radio merged into the Cut Copy crowd, and the whole park pulsed.
TV on the Radio drew heavily from "Dear Science" at first, starting with "Halfway Home" and then straight into "Dancing Choose." There was little chitchat, no messing around; they flowed fluidly from song to song, and owned the full-bodied, assured performance.
An unholy stench of body odor, crushed AXE samples and stale Heineken wafted up from the trampled grass as we filed out of Union Park and past the stage where Cut Copy had performed hours earlier. It was the detritus of a soul-cleansing weekend of music.