Pitchfork Day 3: From Backstage

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Fans wait for The Walkmen's set to begin on Sunday afternoon (photo by Rachel Goldbrenner)

Something about Sunday felt livelier than the day before, even for the bookish crowd that gathers at Pitchfork. Maybe the backstage technical prep for The Flaming Lips' set fueled anticipation, or maybe it was simply that enough artists stuck around after they played on Saturday that it felt kind of like a convention for moderately famous indie-rock stars. Owen Pallett of Final Fantasy told me after his set on Saturday that he wanted to spend the rest of the festival hanging out with the guys in Grizzly Bear and catching as many of Sunday's acts as he could.

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Peter Bauer (left) and Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen (photo by Rachel Goldbrenner)

Pallett was among the large number of musicians and fans who turned out around the Connector stage for sets by The Walkmen and Grizzly Bear, each of which gave the other a shout-out from the stage. I saw members of The National, Beirut, The Thermals and Cymbals Eat Guitars checking out the music or chatting as the sun started to go down while Grizzly Bear played.

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Grizzly Bear's Edward Droste and Daniel Rossen (photo by Rachel Goldbrenner)

Grizzly Bear's set itself seemed to suffer from technical difficulties. From the side of the stage, I could see guitarist and singer Daniel Rossen run over to the sound booth on a couple of occasions to work something out with the engineer. They may have settled things eventually, but the set never quite recovered; the band's songs had many lovely moments, but never managed to build any momentum.

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Brothers Scott (guitar) and Grant (drums) Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit (photo by Rachel Goldbrenner)

On its most recent record, The Midnight Organ Fight, the Scottish group Frightened Rabbit sounds like a band on the verge of figuring out how to merge lead singer Scott Hutchison's anguished songwriting with his music's charm and hooks. Onstage early Sunday afternoon, with the volume cranked, it sounded ready to make a jump into wider fame. Later in the afternoon, I ran into a woman who works for the band's booking agency, and she told me with some pride that two years ago, Frightened Rabbit had been playing shows to crowds as small as 14 people.

I might share some musical tastebuds with the members of Ponytail. When I talked with them on Saturday, everyone in the band told me they were looking forward to seeing the set by Killer Whales on Sunday afternoon, so between talking with Owen Pallett of Final Fantasy and transcribing an earlier conversation with festival director Mike Reed, I rushed over to catch the last two songs of their early, energetic set. The rest of the day, I felt like I was tailing Ponytail around the festival grounds: I saw its members dancing to DJ /rupture at the Balance stage and talking with Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber while M83 played.

When /rupture, a.k.a. Jace Clayton, told me the festival felt like an illustration of "the indie aesthetic writ large," he was applauding the lack of corporate sponsorship and the apparent success of the little guy (in this case, the Pitchfork Web site itself), but the comment could easily apply to the fact that the festival's grounds hosted a miniature version of the elements required to point musicians toward the ears (and wallets) of listeners. The indie music scene is a tiny economy, and one that relies on corporate sponsorships, merchandise and publicity opportunities in order to complete the simple task of amplifying a sound so that thousands of people can hear it. Clayton was right: The festival felt remarkably free of the most egregious forms of branding that can make music feel like a soundtrack for funneling money into huge corporations, but I enjoyed seeing artists and fans alike negotiate — in a confined space — transactions that are usually carried out over a distance.

Besides, it's fun to see artists interacting with each other, with members of the press, their managers, publicists, roadies and vendors. Jessica Linker, the festival's head publicist (she works for the Chicago PR agency Pitch Perfect), was the woman with her hands on the VIP area's velvet rope, and told me that she got many hundreds of requests for the press list just in the week leading up to the festival. Even with the best preparation, sometimes people just don't get in.

There was no chance that was going to happen to Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune or Jim DeRogatis of the Sun Times. They're local music fixtures and hosts of the public-radio music show Sound Opinions (is there another town in the country that has dueling local rock critics at two major papers?), and I saw both working on dispatches for their respective publications. At the end of the night, DeRogatis got a shout-out from The Flaming Lips, whose members dedicated their song "Bad Day" to him before revealing that they hadn't played it in a decade.

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Steven Drozd and Wayne Coyne confer before The Flaming Lips' set (photo by Rachel Goldbrenner)

After spending most of the day running around behind the festival's three stages, I spent the entirety of The Flaming Lips' closing set out on the field. Singer Wayne Coyne plays directly to the audience — one fan near the photo pit was overheard saying that he had camped out near the stage for eight and a half hours to be in position for the set — but for me, watching Coyne and company felt a little bit like eating too much birthday cake. The band pulls out all the stops to make sure you have a good time. There's something exhilarating about the rush, and you indulge because you know it won't come around again for a while. But a lot of The Flaming Lips' set felt like empty calories. After the video screen and the confetti canons and the giant hamster ball and the guys dressed like frogs and the women dressed like pandas in bikinis and wave after wave of giant balloons that floated from the stage to the back of the 18,000 in attendance, I just wanted some songs, dude.

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Picture this times 500 (photo by Rachel Goldbrenner)

Not that I'd dream of complaining. The rest of the weekend provided me with plenty to get worked up about, and there was enough that I missed to make sure I'll have something to look forward to. Next time, Japandroids!

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