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From DJ Shadow to Fleet Foxes, Pitchfork Music Festival has tunes for many tastes

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Updated: May 9, 2012 9:38AM

An arriving heat wave dogged the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival on Sunday in Chicago’s Union Park. Sunday, however, was the one day of the three-day annual concert event, curated by the online music site of the same name and Chicago musician Mike Reed, that sold out its 18,000-person daily capacity well in advance.

Over the three days, nearly 50 bands played on three stages, and Sunday got off to a sluggish start in the oppressive heat.

Saturday was a bit more easygoing and offered some musical and technical surprises. DJ Shadow, for instance, had hoped to wow the evening crowd with an unusual light show — but it was still too light out.

The highly influential mixmaster, a.k.a. Josh Davis, performed his turntable set from inside a large white globe, with various psychedelic projections hitting its surface — though they were nearly impossible to see in the still-fading evening sun. But inside the globe was Davis, knitting together his breakbeats and samples. The crowd cheered, and stared at the white globe. On a video screen, cameras within the sphere showed Davis hard at work spinning his tables, toggling switches, cradling headphones to one ear and syncing up the next sound, beat or piece of music.

His mixes are exciting, no doubt, pushing funk, rock, slow jams, jazz, ambient music, whatever works through the stacks. But the gimmick was a strange gambit in a penultimate slot before nearly 20,000 people. Midway through the show, the back hemisphere of the globe spun around, revealing an opening and showing Davis to the crowd for the rest of the set.

The transition from DJ Shadow’s club atmosphere to the sweet, earthy folk of Saturday night headliner Fleet Foxes was a radical shift, emblematic of the catholic tastes of Pitchfork fans.

Fleet Foxes leader Robin Pecknold joked early in his band’s set about playing the Pitchfork festival three years ago following rapper Dizzee Rascal, who handed off the set by saying, “F--- that folk s---!” The fact that Fleet Foxes not only returned to Pitchfork this year but held down the Saturday night headliner slot so successfully says much about how they’ve come along as a band.

When they played here in 2008, they were still linked musically and lyrically to “Blue Ridge Mountains,” but the follow-up album — the dense and tightly woven “Helplessness Blues” — is more worldly, with a greater diversity (and proficiency) of instruments. That mass of music, as opposed to just a set of pretty harmonies, made for a rich and rewarding set that employed mostly acoustic instruments for repeated crescendos and thundering.

Always a self-satisfied performer and a wicked-nerdy dancer, Travis Morrison at the helm of Dismemberment Plan is never stiff, but Saturday he seemed exceptionally giddy and free-spirited. We last saw D-Plan in February at the Metro; the band ceased activity in 2003 but reunited late last year to tour in support of a classy vinyl reissue of their 1999 masterpiece “Emergency & I.” The tour finished, this was the only remaining show on the band’s books. Its last? Again?

Maybe that’s why Morrison was riding high even as he squinted into the late-day sun. The band certainly sounded crisp and dished out more wordy, jerky faves. In the outdoor summer heat, they hilariously started into their most anthemic song, “The Ice of Boston,” which traditionally finds Morrison inviting fans to join him on stage during the song. “No, you can’t come up on stage,” Morrison said Saturday, noting the impossibility of crowd access to the festival stage, “and, frankly, I’m relieved. I don’t need the microphone in the teeth, as usual.”

Throughout the bashing drum-and-guitar set by L.A. duo No Age, water and water bottles flew everywhere, in impressive fountains shooting straight up from the crowd or in thrown spray. Later, at the Blue Stage, Keith Morris of the punk band Off! advised his similarly inclined crowd: “Don’t throw stuff around! That’s not cool. Drink the water. Stay hydrated.”

After an opening homily — in which Morris warned, in the understatement of the day, “We’re gonna bring a different flavor to the party today” — Morris and his band, a supergroup offshoot of the Circle Jerks, bashed out a ferocious set of hardcore and speed metal. Rare was the song that passed the two-minute mark, propelled down the fast lane by riffy guitarist Dimitri Coats (Burning Brides) and bassist Steven Shane McDonald (Redd Kross). The particular flavors added by Morris were his occasional off-the-cuff comments (“F--- people” from a guy who actually seems so nice) and unearthly caterwauling.

Thomas Conner

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