Concert Review: Day 1 of the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival (Friday, July 19 in Union Park)

Concert Review: Day 1 of the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival (Friday, July 19 in Union Park)

Friday afternoon, despite the threat of storms later on, Wire, Björk and more performed on a sweaty first day at the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival...

The weather was hot, and got stormy late, but that didn't stop thousands from congregating in Union Park for live music on the first day of the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival.

As we saw in August of 2012, when storms forced a moderately haphazard evacuation of Grant Park in the middle of Lollapalooza, it's critical for any major festival to have a contingency plan when it comes to the possibility of bad weather.

Phish cancelled a Friday night show at Northerly Island around 9:30PM due to the weather.  Pearl Jam, on the other hand, opted for a two hour and forty-five minute rain delay at Wrigley Field.

Friday night, Pitchfork got the chance to show off their plan too and, taking no chances, opted to cut off Björk's evening closing set about twenty-five minutes early due to the threat of impending, inclement weather (which gave fans plenty of time to depart the festival in an orderly manner and head for safety).

"Wouldn't be much in Iceland, I'll tell ya that" came Björk's disappointed retort to the announcement.

I wouldn't want to be the Pitchfork official who had to convey that message to her.

But what a night of live music it was leading up to that.

The first band I caught Friday night was Wire and the English godfathers of post-punk did not disappoint.

"This is a song inspired by the Midwest" said the band upon launching into "Map Ref. 41°N 93°W" from 1979's 154 album (an apparent reference to Centersville, Iowa).

What impressed me most about the band (performing Friday as a quartet) was it's ability to make sound count - and what I mean by that is that they didn't just play loud for the sake of doing it (though they were certainly great at it).  Tempo changes, key changes and the ability to establish an intense, at times eerie, mood set them apart.

Following Wire armed only with pop songs and a harp (never an ideal instrument in the wide expanse of the outdoor festival setting), poor Joanna Newsom was no match for what came before her or what would soon follow...

Because it was Björk that stole Friday night and maybe the entire 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival, delivering what, at this point, may just sit atop my list of the best live performances this year.

Flanked onstage by a live drummer (playing an electronic drum kit, xylophone, hang drum and more), a DJ churning out electronic elements and bursts of keyboard, and an all female backing chorus (I counted sixteen people onstage), Björk's set was surprisingly sparse and yet extremely powerful.

Despite strong winds (a precursor of storms to come), the Icelandic, electro-pop princess sounded outstanding, her voice cutting across Union Park clearly.  I started her set up front, about forty feet from the stage, and finished it from afar, in front of the Red Stage, where the sound was still surprisingly strong.

Clad head to toe in gold and sporting a headdress most closely resembling a dandelion before it's bloomed, Björk performed Friday under strobes timed to the music and a sort of massive tesla coil that seemed to respond in spark to the music too (ironic given the actual electrical storm going off all around).

Björk was impressive throughout (be it with sparse backing on newer fare like 2011's "Thunderbolt," or conversely with powerful synth backing on one of her biggest commercial hits in 1995's "Army of Me").

It would've been very easy for Björk to merely sing live over electronic backing tracks and forgo an actual band/large chorus in the live setting.  So credit her for putting together the musicians necessary to create so many of these sounds live.  Case in point, an incredibly gorgeous rendition of 1993's "One Day" that was built solely upon an extended hand drum solo by percussionist Manu Delago and vocals (eventually some whistling too) from Björk.  It was one of the highlights of the show and was made all the more powerful by the live instrumentation.

Not even approaching storms and an early end to the first day of the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival could keep this set from achieving the outstanding.

- Jim Ryan

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