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At The Pitchfork Festival, Best New Music In Real Life

Claire Boucher, a.k.a. Grimes, on stage on Saturday during the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago.
Claire Boucher, a.k.a. Grimes, on stage on Saturday during the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago.

"Make some noise for Pitchfork!" South Central, L.A. rapper Schoolboy Q told the Saturday afternoon crowd at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, before thanking the website for awarding his album, Habits & Contradictions, an "8-point-something" rating and its coveted "Best New Music" tag. (Pitchfork rates albums on a decimal scale, from 0.0 to 10.0. The site gave Habits an 8.4.)

That "Best New Music" distinction is Pitchfork's way of highlighting music the site's editors think is worth your attention. Once a small web operation that posted passionately written reviews of indie rock records, Pitchfork has made its name identifying the best new independent music through media and genres across the map. The annual gathering in Chicago's Union Park is an element of that growth. As "independent" becomes looser as a signifier, the site's staff uses "Best New Music" to connote both what they like and what they hope has mass appeal for readers.

Pitchfork's annual gathering is a bit like a "Best New Music" convention designed to showcase the best of the best of right now. Of the 47 acts that played Pitchfork Music Festival this weekend, 34 have at some point been awarded a "Best New Music" tag for an album, single or reissue. All but three acts on this year's bill have had albums rated by the site; the average score for the most recent album by the other 44 acts is an 8.2. For the determined music fan, the festival's small size and focused lineup makes it possible to catch a little bit of every band that plays — and to judge for oneself how the Pitchfork editors' recommendations and predictions pay off in real life.

Most of this year's artists were brand new or upwardly mobile, or, at best, modest mainstream hits. On their own, many of these acts wouldn't play to a crowd of this size, sticking instead to small club shows when on tour. For Ed, one in a group of effusive high school grads I met while waiting in the rain for Japandroids, this festival is his chance to see all the bands he loves in one huge, all-ages venue. He and his friends first made the trip from Tulsa, Okla. last year. They chose Pitchfork because it was "more personal," citing last year's intimate but powerful performance by James Blake.

Of the 52,000 people who attended the festival this weekend, there were kids in rave-wear and face paint, parents resting in lawn chairs while their babies bopped around in those big ear-protecting headphones, and women of all ages sporting turquoise hair.

The crowd's diversity was matched by the music. This year's line-up featured more hip-hop, electronic and dance music — stuff that's a good bet to get a big crowd going — alongside straight-ahead indie rock. There are still genres that Pitchfork doesn't fully embrace, like mainstream country, R&B and some pop, so by virtue of scheduling on-brand, the fest can feel weighted in one direction on certain days. Sunday's line-up, for example, skewed toward varying types of noisier, harder rock, including sets by Milk Music, Iceage, Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall and The Men.

Pitchfork's tight focus works for the fans that show up. "I pay attention to what they pay attention to," said Michael Hunter, a volunteer in the Book Fort, a new addition to this year's event that hosted readings, sold wares from indie/DIY publishers and facilitated an extended conversation about music. Almost every festival attendee I spoke to said they check in with Pitchfork.com around once a week to see what has made "Best New Music." "Half of music is writing," Hunter added. For the die-hard fans, Pitchfork's voice is now part of the experience of listening to music. Access to music and music writing is easy, and the site aims to provide a context for both. The festival is an extension of that goal.

Above all, Hunter and others agreed that Pitchfork's "tastemaker" status is what drew them to the festival, where they can watch artists the site endorsed early on grow into next-level performers. In 2010, Sleigh Bells almost blew out the speakers on a side stage that was too small to hold them; this year, they soared on the strength of Alexis Krauss' ruthless, joyous engagement with her wild and muddy crowd. Grimes, still a little shy when I saw her in New York last March, held her own on Saturday night, offering a strong, bouncy, beat-heavy dance party against Godspeed You! Black Emperor's slow burning intensity on the main stage. And Danny Brown continues to be one of the most entertaining hip-hop artists around, whose showman persona flips effortlessly between goofy, serious and totally stoned.

By booking still-unproven artists, Pitchfork takes a gamble, and its audiences don't always respond as enthusiastically as its writers. Seventeen-year-old London crooner King Krule and Oneohtrix Point Never, whose album Replica held the No. 6 spot in Pitchfork's end of year list in 2011, played the side stage to thin but intrigued crowds. The Oneohtrix set provided a dreamy time to zone out if you weren't in the mood for the hyper hip-hop beats summoned by AraabMuzik's knob-twisting on the main stage. As AraabMuzik's fiery set quickly won over his audience, he invited a group of even newer artists, teen rappers/producers Chief Keef, Lil Reese and Young Chop, onto the stage to perform their Kanye-approved hit "I Don't Like." Between Keef, King Krule and Iceage's young punks, it's heartening to see Pitchfork giving young musicians a shot while they're still in their teens.

Overall, Pitchfork maintains its mission to share the great undiscovered. For the site's readers, coming to the festival is a way to craft or confirm a musical identity. These are sincere goals. Near the rear of the park, looming high over the "Blue" side stage was an 80-foot-wide wooden sculpture spelling out the words "THESE MOMENTS." It was a reminder to an emerging fan or budding musician that a life-changing experience could be found here.

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