I’ve never been a big fan of music festivals.
Of course, on paper they’re amazing! A bunch of top tier artists, some up-and-comers and the chance to discover raw, fresh talent, all in one area? Sounds great. However, in reality, things are over-priced, it’s hectic to get in and out of, and the grounds are over-saturated with obnoxious groups of people. Not to mention the God-awful sound quality of outdoor venues.
For me, the negatives outweigh the positives, and I’d much rather pay to see a band in a smaller venue or dive bar any day. Perhaps I’m jaded from past experiences or just getting old, but I’ve felt this way for quite some time.
With that said, I recently interviewed Michael Dixon about his various record label endeavors for another publication, and we’ve remained friends. A few months back, he invited me to tag along as his “assistant” to Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival, where his company Mobile Vinyl Recorders was having an exhibition.
I was reluctant at first, but then I thought attending a festival with a job to do would give me a different experience.
I live in Chicago, so there wasn’t much of a commute and I knew the area well. Essentially, there was nothing to lose. I also got wind Brian Wilson was headlining the second day with a performance of Pet Sounds in it’s entirety. That obviously sweetened the deal too.
Mobile Vinyl Recorders is made up of Michael Dixon and Kris Dorr, two audio mastering engineers who specialize in creating playable records live on site using vintage record manufacturing equipment. However instead of using vinyl, they can use just about any flat surface from plexiglass to chocolate! They’ve done personalized work for many well-known artists and people: The Flaming Lips, The XX, The Isley Brothers, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, among others. They’ve also put on presentations at events such as Coachella, SXSW, and Sundance Film Festival, just to name a few.
On this particular outing, they teamed up with Clif Bar for an upcycling presentation called Green Notes Resound Lounge where they cut records for Beach House, Courtney Martin, Moors, and Holy Ghost! using picnic plates donated from a local non-profit fundraiser and machines previously used to record live radio broadcasts, back before the days of television. The outer rim are cut from the plate and placed on one of four machines, which in turn are hooked up to an iPad. Each plate record held a single song from one of the artists and could be played a few times before the quality would drop.
On the first day of Pitchfork Music Festival, I met with Michael and Kris as well as the ladies from the Clif Bar staff, just as the builders were finishing up on the Resound Booth. They gave me a run down as to what was going on and how it all works.
I still can’t fully wrap my head around the process but each time I saw it happening, my mind was blown!
They told me I was going to be in charge of quality control. I had my own section at the booth with a turntable, headphones, a speaker and box full of sleeves and labels. Once the records were cut by the machines, they were given to me and I’d listen briefly for audio quality. If it was up to their standards (and later, mine) I’d add a sticky label, write the artist’s name on it, place it in a cardboard sleeve with a printed label and move on to the next one. I was extremely intimidated at first, and thought I was going to mess something up at any moment. But after a few hours of reassurance from both Michael and Kris, I was ready for the day!
When I arrived at Union Park around 8am, the venue was still in the midst of getting ready. Crew members rode around on Gator carts, managing various products and exhibits. Builders were setting up booths and applying finishing touches.
I’d never really thought about how much work goes into setting up something as big as this festival. Seeing it with my own eyes made me both excited and a little anxious. The coolest part was seeing most of the participating bands doing their soundchecks at one of the three stages.
Car Seat Headrest went through an explosive, grunge rock version of David Bowie’s “Blackstar” while Broken Social Scene burned through a few songs, as well as a brand new one after pleading with the crew not to film or record it with their phones.
Meanwhile, Carly Rae Jepsen’s soundcheck was the better part of her setlist, and despite my not being a fan, I felt she put on an amazing show for the audience of about ten crew members and engineers. She and her band joked back and forth and worked through songs with an intimacy sadly absent from her actual performance later that night. If her shows were as entertaining and intimate as the soundcheck, I’d be willing to purchase a ticket in a heartbeat!
I’ve caught soundchecks before, this environment was different though.
Maybe because I was both caught up and feeling a little overwhelmed with being behind the scenes of such a large festival. But it felt like I was a part of something special. There were guidelines and deadlines to meet, but everyone pulled together and made it happen exactly on schedule.
By the time the gates opened at 1pm, Michael, Kris and I had a tiny group of plates already cut. Guests would receive a ticket from one of the Clif Bar associates before getting a line at the front of the booth where Michael would explain the process of cutting. Kris kept his eyes on the four machines and worked out various hiccups and bugs.
Since the records were cut in real time, each record took as long as the song to make. After the record passed my inspection and make-shift label manufacturing, a guest would turn in their ticket and I would hand the finished product to them. Each ticket holder was limited to only one record, but they were free of charge!
Throughout their presentation, Michael and Kris remained upbeat and willing to educate not just people getting their free picnic plate record, but me, too. I asked them so many questions about the process, I can’t even remember most of their answers. Still, it’s obvious this is both a hobby and a job for these guys. Michael seemed happy when repeating the explanation spiel to the guests over and over throughout the day, never once being annoyed or irritated.
Even when the occasional audiophile would question the sound quality of the records we were cutting, Michael would joke “I guarantee it will sound better than any other song cut into a plastic plate!” He’s just that passionate about sharing his knowledge with people willing to learn.
While I helped out at the Resound Lounge, I missed a few sets from some of the earlier artists but from where we were situated, I could see and hear both main stages perfectly! Car Seat Headrest, Twin Peaks, and Julia Holter put on fantastic shows that acted as a wonderful soundtrack while I packaged the records. Taking a short break, I was able to catch some of Digable Planets’ set as well as Blood Orange’s. On both days I attended, we worked from about 11am to around 5pm, just in time to catch bigger-tier acts.
Of the smaller acts I witnessed, Girl Band was easily my favorite.
They ripped through their set with an angst-ridden fury that needs to be seen to be believed! Their set was early in the day, but I’m sure if given an opportunity closer to the headliners, they could’ve brought the entire festival down! Definitely a band I’m going to check out in a smaller venue when I can.
Another favorite was Super Furry Animals. Thanks to my VIP wristband, I was granted space in the photographers’ pit, on the condition that I wouldn’t take any pictures with my phone. A fair trade, seeing there’s no way I could’ve taken my eyes off one of the best live shows I’ve seen in years.
Savages put on a great show as well, although they were a little disappointing as a live band.
But like I mentioned above, I’ve never been a fan of outside venues for the sound alone. What they lacked in the sound department, they made up for it with performance. Frontwoman Jehnny Beth slithered up and down the stage, taking full control of the audience with a vocal delivery that was equally seductive and chaotic. At one point she even jumped off the stage and into the crowd in the middle of a song without missing a beat, proving she is one of alternative rock’s most commanding singers.
If you listened to the festival episode of the BGM Podcast, you already know my apprehension of seeing headliners like Beach House and Brian Wilson in an open festival setting. For example, Beach House’s droning shoegaze is best suited for smaller venues where the atmosphere can be smoky and dream-like, while Wilson’s performance of Pet Sounds would benefit from a quieter, more intimate setting where the emphasis could be on the sounds rather than on punching beach balls around the crowd. In retrospect, I was only half right.
Beach House closed Friday with a beautiful set.
Mostly of songs from last year’s Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars (as well as breathtaking rendition of The Korgis “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometimes”). Despite my preconceptions, they pulled off a gorgeous show of spacey atmosphere almost making me want to fall in love with every single person in attendance. Of course, that could’ve been a contact high from the girl standing next to me blowing bubbles with her date and smoking God-knows-what. At the end of their set, singer Victoria Legrand spoke briefly about recent world events of terrorism. She encouraged us to love one another and not let fear win. A perfectly poignant way to end the night.
The next day, my main event was seeing Brian Wilson performing Pet Sounds. I went through most of the day counting down the hours until the performance. Not only did I grow up listening to The Beach Boys, but Pet Sounds is one of my all-time favorite records. Sometime during “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” it hit me what was actually happening: I was standing about 200 feet from one of the most gifted composers in human history. Now well into his 70s and with years of mental wear and tear, Wilson sat nearly motionless at his piano for the duration of the set.
It still didn’t seem real that I had the opportunity to see what was happening in front of me.
During “Let’s Go Away For A While,” I looked to the left of me by the VIP section, and I saw a familiar man and woman. When I realized it was John and Joan Cusack, I pointed at him. He looked at me, winked, pointed back and started laughing. It was a strange moment that came out of left field, but then both of them joined Brian on stage during “Sloop John B” before disappearing off stage after just as fast as they appeared.
After Pet Sounds, Wilson and the gang played a handful of songs from various points of The Beach Boys’ career. While “Good Vibrations” was a given, I feel they cheapened their set by playing songs like “Barbara Ann”, “Fun Fun Fun” and “Surfin USA.” Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy these songs, but after the perfection of hearing Pet Sounds, these standards weren’t much different from the abomination of Mike Love’s Beach Boys, touring state fairs or holding residency in Branson, Missouri. I’d much rather hear cuts from Wilson’s solo records, songs like “Love & Mercy” we may never get to hear live. On a more positive note, seeing Wilson perform with Al Jardine was touching and a little bittersweet, knowing both Carl and Dennis Wilson are no longer with us.
In fact, during “Caroline No,” I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t get a little emotional.
Overall, this Pitchfork adventure was hands down the greatest festival I’ve ever experienced. Being there as somewhat of a crew member changed my perception of festivals for the better. I’ve learned to look past the annoying attendees and see just what the festival is all about. Everyone from vendors, bands, to even people picking up trash, worked together to bring something together. It overwhelmed my petty annoyances about festivals.
Working with Michael and Kris and seeing their passion first hand, gave me a new appreciation for what goes on behind the scenes. It was humbling to see how hard they worked at bringing their presentation alive. Sure, it was mind-blowing to see picnic plates turned into playable records and it was awesome to catch so many great artists and see a legend from my bucket list, but there was more to the experience than just that. These two guys took me in as part of their team.
They trusted me with their finished product. It felt it was like I was part of a family.
I also want to give a shout out to the guys who put together our booth and helped cut all of those plates throughout the days, and the ladies from Clif Bar who treated me as an equal and not some punk intern or monkey wrench. They constantly asked if we needed anything from water, food, or a break. A genuine sense of care and respect I didn’t expect when it comes to the behind the scenes stuff.
It’s the kind of passion I think all music festivals are about, but I was too jaded to see at first.
Sure festivals make millions of dollars with tickets and merchandise, but it’s not entirely about money and profits, either. It’s genuinely about bringing people together under one roof over a shared love of the arts. Everybody there cared. Some about their product or band, others for their desire to see their favorite artists in the flesh. All coming together to enjoy something positive. For the 30-plus hours I was there, I saw no negativity whatsoever. No fights, slurs, or tension, just thousands of like-minded people enjoying the one thing with the ability bring us all together: music.
I’d like thank Michael and Kris for inviting me on this adventure. Before, I’d been unfairly harsh to not only to Pitchfork Music Festival, but to all music festivals. Working with this crew showed how getting past my own grumpy selfishness meant I’d enjoy an once in a lifetime experience. It might be a little heavy to say it’s life changing or whatever, but I’ certainly look forward to other festivals in the future with this newfound mindset. Thanks for the experience and new perspective!
Aaron (or Coop) is a freelance writer, multi-instrumentalist and overall lover of all things music. As an advocate for indie record labels and artists, he is passionate about local scenes and do-it-yourself artistry. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, he’s not afraid to explain why.