Review: Pitchfork's best acts are growing into their stardom

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It was an idyllic weekend in Union Park, and when Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum held the stage by himself with just an acoustic guitar, it got even better.

He sang of “secret songs that you keep wrapped in boxes so tight, sounding only at night as you sleep,” his voice ringing out over the park like a lullaby to a hidden society's shared past. Suddenly, Mangum and his fans were back in the '90s, when Neutral Milk Hotel was a new band and it seemed like only a few hundred people knew about it in a handful of cities.

Now, in front of 18,000 people, Mangum was closing down the second night of the Pitchfork Music Festival, an unlikely star playing in near darkness, because he wanted it that way. The video screens were black, the photographers weren't allowed to snap pictures, and skyscrapers loomed silently in the distance like watchful giants.

Despite Mangum's ability to validate again the staying power of songs he recorded 20 years ago, it was not his festival to define. Instead, it was another veteran artist from Mangum's era — Neneh Cherry — who set the tone. Call it the weekend of Neneh and her kindred spirits: St. Vincent's Annie Clark, Sharon Van Etten, and Tune-Yards' Merrill Garbus. Each demonstrated artistic growth, charisma and star power at Pitchfork, which concluded Sunday (total attendance was about 55,000, festival organizers said) with a performance by hip-hop powerhouse Kendrick Lamar.

Lamar has honed his arena-worthy show to a sharp, bombastic edge with what is essentially a rock backing band. With his second album on the way this year, the MC balanced introspection with bravado.

Nostalgia really isn't part of the festival's cutting-edge reputation, but the past is becoming an increasing part of the culture created by erstwhile Internet startups such as Pitchfork. It was there with Beck, on stage for the first time in years and bringing a batch of vintage songs (“Devil's Haircut,” “Loser”) mixed in with the new (the set highlight “Waves”) to his headlining slot Friday.

On just before him, Giorgio Moroder dusted off his '70s disco hits with Donna Summer in a time-warp DJ set — all that was missing was the mirror ball and a white polyester suit. The genial 74-year-old waved his hands overhead like he was leading a senior-citizen aerobics class, and the crowd loved the musty hit parade, especially when Summer's “I Feel Love” washed euphorically over the park. Beck later reprised the song in his set, connecting it to his “Think I'm in Love.”

Also performing over the three days were '90s shoegaze-era Brits Slowdive, and Circulatory System, like Mangum's Neutral Milk Hotel, survivors of the '90s Elephant 6 psychedelic-rock collective. Unlike many of these seasoned performers, Cherry — she of the 1989 electro-rap hit “Buffalo Stance” — didn't have much use for looking back. She brought a new band playing new material from her latest album, “Blank Project,” to her Friday set. With her voice boasting jazzy shadings that would've been beyond her two decades ago, Cherry made her first U.S. show since 1992 a showcase for who she is now rather than what she once was. She came across as a restless and eternally youthful spirit, bouncing in her gym shoes and shaking her ringlets to music that merged the electronic with the organic, jazz with soul, trip-hop with be-bop. Tom Pazen, a veteran Chicago DJ, came away impressed.

“It's a lot grimier than I expected,” he said. “She's keeping up with the times.”

Cherry holds the notion that an artist who anticipates the future as she did can now jump back into it, two decades later, and remain relevant. By staking out her own persona and sound, Cherry is something of a role model to a number of artists who dominated Pitchfork weekend, whether they know it or not.

When Van Etten first played the festival several years ago, she looked a bit lost on the big stage, armed only with her guitar and songs about break-ups that split the divide between personal therapy and universal catharsis. Now, four albums into her career, she owned the stage with a commanding, confident presence and a band that gave her songcraft an extra boost. Van Etten's songs outline the geography of broken relationships, but they're unified by their narrator's perseverance, a sense that all that turmoil is somehow worth it and things will work out.

The surging “Serpents” and the lacerating “Your Love Is Killing Me” brought things to a peak Friday, then came the Spanish and country accents of “Every Time the Sun Comes Up.” With its dark humor and deceptive sway, Van Etten played it perfectly. Her slight smile spoke volumes about how far her music has come in a few short years.

Clark of St. Vincent has never lacked for vision or confidence. But her music could come off as a touch cold and remote in concert, a case of precision trumping passion. That's no longer the case. Clark cut an austere figure Saturday, like an alien partner of '70s David Bowie, and she let her guitar speak with lethal clarity. By the end she was tumbling on the stage, the acrobatics no match for the sonic boom she extracted from the six strings. The voice may have been pristine, composed, even beautiful at times, but the guitar playing was pure mayhem — thrillingly so.

Garbus has expanded her solo act in Tune-Yards, taking her multitasking as a vocalist, drummer, keyboardist and ukulele player to new heights with a band that blends voices and percussion into ecstatic polyrhythmic songs. In facepaint and rainbow colors Saturday, Garbus resembled the puppeteer she once was and turned the adult drama in her songs into dance-inducing Afro-funk that echoed “Remain in Light”-era Talking Heads.

In contrast, Grimes — the Montreal singer-songwriter-producer — has stepped up her act, but not for the better. On Sunday she displayed a far more professional stage presence than her somewhat ramshackle appearance at the festival a few years ago, but the addition of a more choreographed presentation and new songs that leaned on EDM cliches buffed out some of the artist's personality. Far more persuasive were DJ Spinn — who fired up a footwork party in the park with his 170-beats-per-minute soundtrack for a bevy of onstage dancers — and Majical Cloudz, which survived the breakdown of its sole keyboard with a set heavy on a cappella performances, audience participation and we're-all-in-this-together spontaneity.

A batch of newcomers didn't fare quite so well. Empress Of's Lorely Rodriguez and U.K. singer SZA, aka Solana Rowe, had not fully worked out how to translate their modest successes in the recording studio to the stage. And the sonic corners occupied by noise celebrants Haxan Cloak and industrial-disco heavies Factory Floor wore thin after extended exposure.

Of the newcomers, Chicago quartet Twin Peaks sounded most prepared for its first big moment on a festival stage. Though guitarist Cadien Lake James was using a wheelchair with a broken ankle, he brought touches of nuance and texture to the band's exuberant garage-rock ruckus. The triumphant feeling, shared by an audience of madly dancing die-hards packed at the front of the stage Saturday afternoon, couldn't be broken even when Clay Frankel destroyed a balky guitar. He tossed the remains into the audience, and set off alarm bells from his bandmates.

In keeping with Pitchfork tradition, the bulk of the 43 bands were in a heady but risky moment in their careers — making progress, showing promise, and woefully low on disposable income.

As the remains of Frankel's guitar flew into a sea of hands, Twin Peaks bassist Jack Dolan pleaded: “I don't have to get sued, do I? Because I got no money, baby.”

Tribune special contributor Bob Gendron contributed.

greg@gregkot.com

Twitter @gregkot

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