This weekend the indie kingmakers once again held court to thousands at Chicago’s Union Park. As usual, there were plenty of effervescent highs (Robyn, LCD Soundsystem, Lightning Bolt), welcome comebacks (Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) and a handful of head-scratching moments (Washed Out, Panda Bear). The peaks outnumbered the valleys this year, thankfully; but nearly everything provoked a reaction. After the jump: photos and ‘Fork-like grades from the front lines.
Robyn: 9.0 Robyn opened her set with the one-two punch of “Fembot” and “Cry When You Get Older,” and the crowd was instantly putty in the Swede’s capable hands. In long, white button-downs that resembled fashionably collared lab coats, her band looked like a brain-trust of pop scientists — and supported her like the same. From her on-beat air-punching and grinny enthusiasm to the keep-dancing-on-my-own aplomb with which she handled a mic malfunction on “With Every Heartbeat,” Robyn somehow managed to further raise her deservedly skyrocketed indie stock. Also: she would later sport a green beret. Her delirious command performance was the pearl of Friday’s otherwise mixed undercard.
Real Estate: 5.3 Sandwiched between Free Energy’s fizzy glam stomp and Delorean — whose shimmering, fat-bottomed indie dance felt akin, at least in spirit, to M83’s similarly blissed-out performance last year — New Jersey’s Real Estate were revealed to be the standard-issue, humdrum indie band many suspected. There was nothing virtuous about their mid-tempo slackness, and the lack of memorable hooks, texture, and presence was met with an appropriate meh. Being bookended by more visceral bands didn’t help, but the shrug-along set wouldn’t have carried much water in any context.
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion: 7.1 In his dapper pin-striped shirt vest and painted-on leather pants, Jon Spencer struck an impression even before he picked up his guitar. Many knee drops, howls, and sweat-soaked falls to the stage later, the crowd — much of which was probably pretty new to JSBX — seemed even more taken. All of that old hand-wringing about whether or not JSBX were ruthless ironists suddenly felt about as timely as arguing whether or not Evan Dando is too cute to be credible. It wasn’t exactly revelatory — just a fine testament to the swagger of relentlessly pounded drums, loud guitars, and a committed frontman. Still, with baggage firmly shed, that was plenty.
Wolf Parade: 8.7 With workmanlike practicality, Wolf Parade took the stage and told the crowd that, time being of the essence, they’d leave the chitchat and plough through. No one seemed worried about clever stage banter, as the Montreal skewed-poppers touched down on each of their albums, doing energetic justice to new choice cuts and aged-well fan favorites like “I’ll Believe in Anything.”
Bear in Heaven: 7.9 Leaving the dandily mustachioed trio Bear in Heaven mid-set to go see Panda Bear proved unwise. While we were there, singer Jon Philpot skillfully anchored the band’s poppy prog with all the weirdo self-assuredness of a man who draws attention to his own lederhosen. Beautifully textured vocals, just-so guitar flourishes, and some surprisingly powerhouse drumming provided all the anthemic rapture that Panda Bear would soon cruelly deny.
Panda Bear: 6.0 Panda Bear’s buzzed-all-over set was clearly the weekend’s most divisive. Did we see an act of tremendous, if laid-back, self-confidence or a self-indulgent snoozer? Like the new “Tomboy” single, it was a bit of both — though sadly inching toward the latter. Noah Lennox has definitely earned some slack; and the sizable crowd obliged him for the most part. But neither the ultra-mellow set — heavy on new material, no surprise — nor Lennox’s dwarfed guitar-and-electronics setup offered much to hang your wide-brim on. The cornball visuals on the jumbotron only made us pine for the dazzling light show and killer set that Lennox delivered from the same park in 2008 with the rest of Animal Collective.
LCD Soundsystem: 9.4 In a New Yorker profile from May, James Murphy said, “I always thought that we were so obviously not a great band, comically not a great band.” It’s a sentiment he’s echoed many times in interviews, often referring to how LCD Soundsystem nonetheless thrive onstage through strict attention to detail and hard work. The self-effacement is charming; but at this point, they are clearly one of today’s great live bands — almost comically great. No, “All My Friends” didn’t deliver quite the fever-pitch catharsis it did three years ago (how could it?), and “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House” sounded a bit undercooked compared to highs like “Yeah” and the stomping, set-opening “Us V Them.” But overall LCD gave us one of the festival’s apexes &mdsh from this year or any other.
Washed Out: 4.9 “I’m feeling chill,” said point-belaboring chillwaver Ernest Greene (aka Washed Out) without a trace of irony near the mid-point of his Sunday afternoon set. He was too chill by half, unfortunately. Life of Leisure‘s sleepy romance sounded, well, just sleepy; and Greene’s simple Mac-and-keys setup didn’t do the charisma-lacking Greene any favors, either. The side-stage communal vibes and post-thunderstorm glow seemed tailor made for Greene. But he was frequently drowned out by Girls’ overlapping set, which understandably turned away quite a few heads. Also: his dance moves were frighteningly similar to Andy Kaufman‘s. And not in a good way.
Lightning Bolt: 9.1 Early sightings of Bastard Noise and Rudimentary Peni T-shirts should have tipped us off: despite Sunday’s large chillwave and dream-pop contingent, there were plenty of noiseniks in the crowd, certainly eager to soak up Lightning Bolt’s RISD art-spazz riffage. Still, the appropriately bonkers reaction that greeted the now-veteran (!) Brians was perhaps the day’s most pleasant surprise. One could have dwelled on how the circle pit and crowd-surfers smelled of opportunistic bro-ishness, or how Chippendale’s reference to Bitchpork — Chicago’s noisier, underground Pitchfork alternative — tellingly fell on deaf ears. Or you could have simply dwelled on the bruising, uber-precise assault at hand — a welcome shot of manic energy and a clear festival high point.
Major Lazer: 8.8 If you squinted hard enough, you could make out the hand-written letters on the makeshift, cardboard sign sitting on Major Lazer’s decks: “Diplo Rulz.” It was pretty much the only small thing involved here. The thunderous dancehall revue included Chinese dragons, ballerinas, grinding dancers, and even a resourcefully used ladder. Sporting purple overalls and a yellow mohawk, Skerrit Bwoy stage-dove, poured Hennessey down his supporting cast’s throats, and generally lived up to his billing as indieland’s premiere hype man. It was a frenzied, mindlessly fun highlight — and a welcome respite from some of the more sexless guitar rock elsewhere on the bill.
All photos by Stephen Gossett