As some old, bad joke goes, you could drop a bomb on the Pitchfork Music Festival and set music media back a decade. Critics from across the country have flocked to the festival to hobnob, network and reunite; on my train ride downtown, I run into a friend of mine who contributes to Pitchfork, who then runs into his friend who contributes to Pitchfork. As I walk into the festival, I’m cut off in the press check-in line by New York Times critic Jon Caramanica, who resembles Game of Thrones’ Robert Baratheon in metaphysical swagger if not physical resemblance; dressed head-to-toe in black, I imagine a thirty-foot procession of lesser critics and interns behind him, eager to learn. It’s a weird start to the day: not forty-five minutes before everything is set to kick off, it’s raining with the fury of a wronged God. Bent trees, gallons of water, whipping winds—it’s real apocalyptic shit, and not at all the right mood. It does die down, but I read later that as many as 5,000 ticketbuyers chose not to attend the first day, in apparent fear of those hurricane winds.
I feel bad for Lower Dens, whose 2012 record Nootropics is heady, smart stuff, and in no way deserves to open up a not-yet dry field. The first band I’m able to see for real is Olivia Tremor Control, the reunited Elephant 6 collective whose meticulously structured indie pop seems birthed from a time capsule. I have my doubts whether they can pull off those intricate harmonies for such a sprawling stage, but songs like “Hideway” and “Jumping Fences” glide with perfectly poppy ease. They appear to have something like twelve members on stage, which adds to the ramshackle glee; they just seem like a group of friends happy to hang out and jam. I head away from their set to catch Willis Earl Beal, who’s an idiosyncrasy among idiosyncrasies. Pushed to describe his sound, a critic friend and I say “black Tom Waits” at the same time, and then sigh over our lack of originality. When I shuffle over to his set, he’s finishing a monologue about Rick Ross while dressed in a way that makes him look like the sixth, grown-up member of New Edition. As soon as he begins to sing in his strangled howl, the appeal of his outsider art becomes clear; swaying and weaving like he’s dancing alone in a mirror, he seems the type of musician who would actually be content playing to himself.
What A$AP Rocky lacks in polish, he makes up for in energy. Chants of “A-fuckin’-sap” ring out every thirty seconds, and his ten-deep A$AP Mob is completely stoked to kick out the jams behind him. (They even crowd around one section of the stage with big-brother worry when Rocky jumps into the audience and seems like he has a hard time getting back.) “I didn’t come here to play, but to party,” Rocky tells us before the rain returns. “It’s very windy, very rare,” he adds.” Songs like “Goldie” and “Peso” pop with collective momentum, and everyone’s generally having a blast. A stage away, Japandroids come on nearly a half-hour late after endlessly tweaking their gear and have to play a truncated set. Their timing seems a little off, too—songs like “Adrenaline Nighshift” and “Younger Us” don’t race along as tightly as they do on record or in previous live performances, though I can’t fault anyone for having to play in these conditions.
I don’t catch all of Dirty Projectors, an unfathomable wrong I’m still fuming about. Two songs into their set, I leave in order to interview A$AP Rocky, who I’m supposed to talk to in the backstage area. Unfortunately, common sense didn’t inform me that my measly press credentials don’t put me high enough up in the media hierarchy to get into the VIP section, and all the puppy-eyed seriousness in the world can’t get me past a very overzealous security guard who’s just doing her job, I suppose, but one that seems sort of unnecessarily asinine. I mean, I’m not trying to welch free tacos and beer and whatever other Olympian delights must be hiding backstage; I just want to ask Rocky a question about Lana Del Rey and where he gets his braids done. By the time I convince someone to take me backstage, I find out that Rocky and his crew have literally left just a moment ago to perform some unspecified business. Quite fittingly, the moment I’m told this, I can hear Dirty Projectors performing “About to Die,” which climaxes with singer Dave Longstreth singing, “I’m about to diiiiiiiiie” in his distinctive whine. Defeated, I slink back to the side and bemoan my second-class media status.
Dirty Projectors do sound amazing from the distance, though.