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Pitchfork Music Festival offers everything but the kitchen sink

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Updated: October 29, 2011 12:35AM



The 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival opened Friday afternoon and quickly established a yin-yang balance to the weekend’s musical offerings.

The annual indie-rock-and-more event at Union Park in Chicago’s West Loop features nearly 50 bands over three days on three stages. More than 50,000 fans are expected to attend over the weekend, culminating in a sold-out lineup today featuring controversial rap group Odd Future.

Shortly after the gates opened Friday, the music began ­— light, blissful tunes on a side stage from electronic duo Gatekeeper vs. dark, enigmatic alt-rock on a main stage from South Dakota native EMA (Erika M. Anderson). The rest of Friday would swing between these extremes: inventive new electronic music and grinding, often classic rock and roll.

The knob twiddlers

Fey young Londoner James Blake not only proved himself, following his curious debut album released in February, he proved to be the night’s most transcendent performance. Influenced by American R&B — and vocally often a dead ringer for Aaron Neville — the 22-year-old Blake made cold beats and fragmented samples come alive Friday evening on the festival’s smallest stage. Seemingly shy behind his keyboard, Blake played a set both graceful and grandiose, reaching surprising heights often with just two or three ingredients.

The intrepid Merrill Garbus, the central figure of tUnE-yArDs, leapt to life with “Party Can (Do You Want to Live?)” on the strength of her insistent looped vocals, a lynchpin of the tUnE-yArDs’ engaging, exciting set. Singing, re-singing and playing her own abbreviated drum kit, Garbus, her face streaked with colorful war paint, wailed and cooed and hollered through a set bristling with punkish spirit and bracing compositions. Each song found dissonance and harmony tugging at war, never finding an easy truce but always a workable and tuneful solution.

Animal Collective closed out the night, making a god-awful racket of their unfocused, rambling electronic jams. Industrial clanking, monotonous rhythms and lengthy, noodling transitions between songs made for a noisy, messy performance. Only a few moments came close to gelling — a frenetic calypso waltz early in the show with wild static noises sliding up and down the scale, and an easygoing “A Long Time Ago” — but most of the music was scattered. I know the Guggenheim has bestowed some art-rock cred on them, but while their drifting, shiftless sounds may constitute art it doesn’t constitute a good time.

The rockers

Somewhere between the knob twiddlers and the hardcore rockers is Battles, a New York trio (down from a quartet) whose members are not averse to describing their music as “math rock.” Mixing loops and ferocious live drumming from former Helmet basher John Stanier, Battles ably re-crated the tunes from their new and acclaimed “Gloss Drop.” Former Chicago guitarists Ian Williams and Dave Konopka worked sometimes together, sometimes at cross-purposes on, under and around the beats. There were moments the music was both punishing and pretty, a strange but exciting experience.

Stubbornly prolific band Guided by Voices returned to Chicago for the fest, still going with its reunited “classic” ’93-’96 lineup. But the longer this rascally band trundles on, the more fun they get. Lead singer Robert Pollard is growing into his natural curmudgeoness, and Friday evening’s set was 45 minutes of pure kicky, catchy rock. Pollard took the stage joined by Neko Case singing harmony and shaking a tambourine on “Echos Myron.” Clutching a tequila bottle, Pollard and his jittery leg led the band — with the rip-roaring twin-guitar attack of Tobin Sprout and Charles Mitchell — careening through an oldies but very good set.

Alt-country queen Neko Case seemed in a relaxed, cozy mood, playing a set of mostly ballads and slow belters. You know, the stuff that best showcases That Voice — songs like “The Pharaohs” with its long, patient phrases about being “your blue, blue baby,” or her tiger empathy in “People Got a Lot of Nerve.”

With squeeze box, banjo and frequent brushes on the drums, Case commanded a steady set and reminded Chicagoans how much we miss her being a resident.



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