Pitchfork midwinter 2019
Chicago, IL – 15-17 February 2019
For several years now, popular opinion has been forecasting the demise of the summer music festival. You don’t need to be a market analyst to see the principles of over-saturation at play-scrolling through any website or riding the train can feel like being run through a human car wash of wild graphics and hierarchical fonts. Chances are, if you’ve attended any of these sweat-soaked events over the past five years, suggesting the whole enterprise is due for a shot in the arm won’t sound controversial. When Pitchfork announced Midwinter back in November--three evenings of music, including various installations and custom soundscapes at Chicago’s world-renowned Art Institute--it sounded like just enough of a twist on the old formula to give weary festival-goers a reason to get excited, or at least curious.
The event sounded novel on several levels: scheduled during a time of year when large-scale music events are at a virtual stand-still, and bolstering a thoughtful lineup seemingly curated to align the aesthetic strengths of its featured acts with the atmospheric possibilities of its historic venue. Artists long championed by the indie behemoth, but stylistically ill-suited to their annual summer shindig, appeared to have finally found an appropriate forum; if you’ve ever heard yourself leaving Union Park while saying, “They’re interesting, but I’m not sure an outdoor festival is the right vibe,” then Midwinter seemed an ideal place to test that theory. Experimental and hard to categorize artists, such as ambient-folk auteur Grouper and the sample-collage onslaught of Oneohtrix Point Never were given prime time-slots ordinarily reserved for more crowd-pleasing fare. Participants from the more conventional fields of pop and rock bore a uniformly art-damaged bent; veteran guitar-based bands like Slowdive and Deerhunter, whose dreamy atmospherics demand resonant spaces, would be treated to naturally reverberant halls where the bewitching details of their effects-based layering could achieve full bloom.
Interest led to skepticism with the announcement of a cost prohibitive ticketing structure: a separate $30 base ticket would be required to gain entry to the museum on each night, allowing access only to the museum’s galleries with their exclusively created soundscapes from the likes of Julia Holter, Stars of the Lid and legendary Japanese composer Midori Takada. Other general areas would host sets from harp innovator Mary Lattimore or Circuit Des Yeux’s Haley Fohr. Quasi-spontaneous “pop-up shows” by higher profile artists were promised throughout the weekend, but to see those same marquee artists play their full sets would require an additional ticket purchased for each show (tickets for each “add-on” show ranged from $15-$30). A botched on-sale only contributed to growing suspicion that the event was little more than Pitchfork’s version of the Finer Things Club, meant to capitalize on the site’s increasingly upscale demographic since it’s sale to mass media giant Conde Nast in 2015.
With all of this baggage in tow, I ventured out on a wind-blown February weekend to judge for myself whether the refreshing concept could justify the fumbled roll-out and air of exclusivity….
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 15
I arrived at the museum around 6:00 p.m., with a couple of hours to spare before my first add-on show. There was hardly any line to speak of at the entrance, and as I wandered the sparsely populated galleries, it made me wonder whether resentment over the ticketing fiasco had demonstrably affected overall attendance. As the evening wore on, I learned that several individual shows were, indeed, sold out and felt accordingly congested with everyone funneled into their designated spaces. Turns out, it’s just really hard to make a huge, cavernous museum seem full. It was not unusual to round a corner and find yourself wandering a hall virtually free of other attendees, which made simply walking around a surreal, almost dream-like affair. I periodically had to remind myself that I was at a music festival and not some rich person’s birthday where guests were conscripted to play some live-action version of Clue.
Around the more populated areas, museum-staff were visibly nervous. I was told not to stand wherever I was standing more times than I thought possible to experience in my adult life. This was always done with the utmost courtesy, but still occurred with enough frequency to occasionally summon my inner Larry David. I was told by one well-meaning staffer to go back the way I came, through a gallery of rare Greco-Roman sculpture, to reach a performance space: “You’ll have to go back and walk-around. You weren’t supposed to walk through there.” “But by going back I would just be walking there again,” I offered. “Well, you’re just not supposed to come through there,” they replied. I suggested that more signage might be necessary. Judging from their expression, they didn’t realize I was being helpful.
These explorations had positive results as well. Upon seeing a small crowd gathered in a nearby exhibit, I drifted over to find Phil Elverum (aka Mount Eerie) giving an impromptu performance for eight to twelve people. I came to find out this was one of several fifteen minute “pop-up shows” scheduled throughout the weekend, where the artist in question was left a mystery until show-time. I only arrived in time to see him perform one new song, which had a lovely, lilting medieval-folk quality and stood in stark contrast to his most recent albums’ unsparing reflections on mortality. It was the first instance of true magic all weekend.
My first add-on show of the festival took place in the Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room, where the conservative wood paneling and artisan decor served as a bizarre backdrop for the swampy experimental pop of Yves Tumor. The erstwhile Sean Bowie relied exclusively on backing tracks for his instrumentation, but brought more than his fair share of charisma to a combustible set composed mostly of songs from his latest release, the stormy, genre-bending Safe in the Hands of Love. Glammed-out in a pink wig and platforms, Bowie brought a confrontational energy that was half party-starting diva and half punk rock agitator. “It’s boring up here,” he declared at one point and hopped into the crowd, effectively spending half of his set in the audience, whipping folks into a frenzy that resembled something between a group hug and a mosh pit. I really had no idea what to expect from Bowie’s set-- his recorded output is the epitome of “hard to categorize,” fusing the claustrophobic atmosphere of Massive Attack and the noisy abrasion of Prurient with lyrics that split the difference between hip-hop’s righteous anger and emo’s confessional melodrama. It’s easy to imagine a more insular presentation for this music given its digital backbone, one overly reliant on static knob-twiddling and artsy projections. However, Bowie brought an unpredictable sense of urgency and showmanship to his set, underlining his status as a bold and fascinating new talent.
To be honest, the prospect of hearing the lush, swoon-worthy textures of ‘90s shoegaze legends Slowdive in an intimate setting was a large contributor to my interest in the entire event. Being more honest, I was slightly underwhelmed by Rubloff Auditorium which possessed an undeniable acoustic clarity, but lacked the charm and transformative atmosphere of the other spaces on tap. Admittedly, some of my disappointment rests with the band as well: while several of their peers seemed over-reliant on homogenized, effects-driven transcendence, Slowdive always stood out through their knack for infusing durable melodies into their sonic gauze. However, their set on this particular evening was culled mostly from the spacier corners of their catalogue and lacked the deceptively full dynamic range this band has at their disposal. Which wouldn’t be so much of a problem if that same material wasn’t missing some of the muscular oomph central to its allure on record. The pre-show music comprised mostly of dad-rock stalwarts like Dire Straits and The Grateful Dead, may have been a telling indicator of the surprising rhythmic looseness on display, and while shoegaze isn’t, say, acid house, its secret weapon has always been an underlying thrust that keeps things from evaporating entirely. Or maybe I’m just disappointed that they didn’t play “Alison.”
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 16
After one day of getting my sea legs, I started to develop some thoughts: the pop-up shows were undoubtedly cool, but had the odd side-effect of instilling some vague sense of FOMO that spontaneous delights were occurring everywhere I wasn’t-- unannounced and just out of reach. I doubt that was actually the case, but I couldn’t shake the nagging sensation that, for the cost of admission, there should be more happening around the museum’s main areas.
That said, on day two, I was generally more able to embrace my surroundings; to focus on what was there as opposed to what wasn’t. In other words, I made a conscious decision not to be a rube and perused the galleries of priceless art, quite literally, in front of my nose. In doing so, I took in some of the soundscape created by Julia Holter and Tashi Wada (it was….soundscape-y) and learned some genuinely fascinating things about Georgia O’Keefe and Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi--but I’ll save the details of my cultural awakening for another day…
I also took in some of the performances on The Grand Staircase and found there was something gently mesmerizing about the looped harp experiments of Mary Lattimore (where I was once again asked to stand somewhere slightly different).
Gradually, I made my way to Griffin Court to grab a cup of coffee in the balcony while waiting for the night’s first add-on show to begin. As showtime neared, I casually made my way to the stairs and was told that I couldn’t bring my beverage to the main-floor: “But the people down there have drinks too,” I offered. “But they bought them downstairs. It’s a safety concern to have an open container on the stairs.” Once again, I suggested that more signage would have been a helpful aid in my decision-making process.
“We’re Deerhunter and we love art!” If you give Bradford Cox an opportunity, he’ll detail an exhaustive list of his inspirations across every medium -- from Faulker to Cassavettes to Lou Reed. Luckily, on this occasion, the famously verbose frontman kept his gratitude to one succinct declarative, leaving ample time for him and his band to burn through a ruthlessly proficient, career-spanning one hour set. Despite his admirable protests that Deerhunter is a true democracy, it’s obvious that Cox is not only comfortable in the role of band-leader, but increasingly at ease as a bonafide rockstar--evidenced by his theatrically delayed entrance during a blistering, set-opening version of “Cryptograms.”
Saturday’s performance was missing the volatility of the band’s early days, but what remained was an expertly calibrated turbulence that speaks to their growth and experience as a live unit, without sacrificing what made them thrilling in the first place. Songs from their most recent effort Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? were padded with some focused jamming, which helped them fit spiritually alongside epic staples like “Desire Lines” and “Helicopter.” They even found room for deep cuts like the chugging, Strokes-like “Disappearing Ink” from EP Rainwater Cassette Exchange, and the sax-laden glam of “Coronado” from Halcyon Digest (apparently played for the third time ever). Yet, for all of their hard-won maturity, Deerhunter haven’t lost their ability to provoke; at the tail-end of a roaring, climactic “Monomania,” the band downshifted into an extensively noisy outro, rife with unruly feedback and screeching loops, sending several unsuspecting listeners toward the door with fingers shoved firmly into their ears.
In the spirit of Midwinter’s emphasis on fringier artists and genres, I felt compelled to include at least one ambient experience in my itinerary. Ambient is a genre I reserve a certain appreciation for in recorded form, but the concept of it as a live experience has never made sense to me. Taking that into consideration, Grouper’s Saturday evening set seemed like my best bet for a successful experience; I had the strongest pre-existing relationship with her work, which technically, with its submerged yet hummable vocal lines, is ambient only in feel.
The experience completely exceeded my expectations. For starters, the artist otherwise known as Liz Harris took complete ownership of the space: the already gorgeous Fullerton Hall, with its domed ceilings of stained glass, was outfitted to resemble some lost-in-time cathedral / cabaret, somewhere between Michelangelo and David Lynch. Dimmed to near darkness, the stage was outfitted with a lush blue velvet curtain illuminated only by a row of floor-lamps and some minor track-lighting, in front of which stood Harris’ setup of grand piano, an electric guitar, a folding table filled with effects pedals and a tiny mixing board. Harris took the stage visible only in silhouette, and proceeded through an hour of music that was surprising and subtly varied. Haunting melodies dissolved seamlessly into shimmering guitar textures, only to be overtaken by a barely-there percussive track which gradually revealed itself to be nothing more than a sharp intake of human breath looped over itself again and again.
Despite the intimate setting, Harris’ voice seemed tantalizingly out of reach, while field recordings piped in from vintage cassette decks (a train passing, a dog barking) had the eerie quality of happening right over your shoulder. A menacing rumble of distortion slowly parted to reveal one of the set’s few recognizable tunes: the blurred heartsickness of 2016 single “Headache,” which stood out as the night’s most breathtaking moment, as layers of reverb slowly peeled back just in time for the song’s devastating last line to ring out with pristine clarity: “Why does love keep letting me down?” It was enough to send some very real chills down my spine.
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 17
I spent the least amount of time roaming around on Sunday and arrived at the museum with just over an hour to spare before my sole add-on show of the night. For what it’s worth, the staff seemed decidedly more relaxed; I even saw more stanchions and strategically placed volunteers diverting passerby from restricted areas. You’re welcome Midwinter. You’re welcome, indeed.
I made my way back to Griffin Court and secured a spot near the stage for my last add-on show of the festival. Since his debut as Perfume Genius with the spare, ethereal Learning in 2010, Mike Hadreas has grown with each successive release, culminating in the widescreen art pop of 2017’s No Shape. Backed by a modest four-piece consisting of bass, drums and keyboard, Hadreas took the stage with effortless poise for the subdued verses of opener “Otherside” only to burst into full-bodied fits of lascivious writhing during the bombastic crashes of the song’s wordless chorus. Hadreas spent the entire hour exhibiting similar physical commitment for a set consisting mainly of highlights from No Shape and 2014’s dark, complex Too Bright.
“Just give me a second to change…spirits,” the droll frontman huffed between gulps of water to delighted giggles, but you get the sense he wasn’t being charming. Hadreas seemed more conduit than performer, pushing both his body and voice to the limit, finding the capacity within himself to become what each song requires,particularly on the ecstatic, celestial bridge of “Fool,” and the nightmarish breakdown of “My Body.” To watch Hadreas morph from bedroom auteur to glam archangel over the years has been fascinating, but to watch him single-handedly command the room on Sunday evening was cathartic.
I decided to amble toward the location of an announced pop-up show on my way out the museum and was delighted to see Natalie Mering, also known as Weyes Blood, tuning her acoustic guitar. She played three gorgeous, sprawling folk songs I can only assume were from her forthcoming record. From the gathered crowd of nearly thirty people, it was evident word had spread that these pop-up shows were legit.
Listening to Mering’s flawless voice waft through the marbled halls of the gallery and over the hushed faces of a reverent audience seemed to capture the essence of what Midwinter managed to achieve at its best-- a renewed context for what is, more often than not, becoming a prefabricated cultural experience. In measuring its success or failure on that score, it’s important to consider this was the endeavor’s maiden voyage; there were bound to be some growing pains.
Look, I’m not a business major--I have no idea what potentially legitimate, cost offsetting reasons might exist for things to be so expensive (it’s a testament to the weekend’s considerable joys that we didn’t dig into the egregious ticketing system for food and beverages). If it needs to remain expensive, I think there are opportunities for more all-access experiences to be incorporated. Pitchfork has already stated they intend to make this an annual event and the real test will be in what adjustments are made in forthcoming years. In the meantime, by channeling a more immersive aura, and foregrounding niche artists as opposed to the same recycled crop of names, Midwinter might just be onto something special.