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Pitchfork Festival Saturday: Sleigh Bells, Hot Chip And The Benevolence Of God

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CHICAGO -- After half an hour of midday driving rain that sent concert-goers scrambling for cover under tents, and with the sun tentatively reappearing through the Chicago clouds above Union Park, indie pop band Cults emerged on stage to check their microphones and, instead of the traditional "One two one two mic check one two," said this:

"Fuck the rain! Fuck the rain! And fuck that church over there" -- gesturing to a cathedral that overlooks the concert grounds -- "that gave us the rain!"

Though Cults does not play punk rock n' roll -- and nary a true punk band appeared on Saturday's bill -- that punk spirit inspired and informed the best performances on the second day of Pitchfork's indie music festival here in Chicago. Great emerging independent music -- the calling card of influential music review website Pitchfork, the sponsor of this three-day festival -- is nothing if not disruptive, and the most impressive acts here were more like jolts to the brain than pleasant Saturday afternoon listening experiences.

Cults, for example, appeared on the other side of a mid-day thunderstorm and got the crowd dancing and tapping their rain boots against the mud. The band's best and most famous song -- the ironically-titled (because of the taunting rain, you see) "Go Outside" -- especially seemed to rouse the crowd out of its drenched stupor and essentially kicked off the festival. (There were performances before Cults, of course -- angry rockers Cloud Nothings and the wispy, hypnotic Atlas Sound, whose set was cut short by the rain -- but here was the true beginning of the day.)

God and the weather cooperated for the remainder of Saturday, and the headlining acts almost universally thrived and bewitched the audience. California-based DJ Flying Lotus mixed samples of Lil Wayne and Kanye West into his own dirty, propulsive beats, setting a throng of captive sun-drenched -- and, yes, almost all white -- Pitchfork patrons dancing. Wild Flag -- an all-female, balls-to-the-wall rock band led by Portlandia star (and former Sleater-Kinney guitarist) Carrie Brownstein -- began with a stunning cover of the 1977 Television classic "See No Evil" and then powered through a much-applauded, riff-heavy set of straight and sincere rock n' roll tunes.

On the main stage, the endlessly-discussed Sleigh Bells -- whose curious mixture of Southern rap beats, AC/DC guitar riffs, and crowd-pumping female vocals led at least one writer to call them "the only band that matters" -- gave the day's most memorable and successful performance. Lead singer Alexis Krauss, in jean short cutoffs, fingerless leather gloves, and a sleeveless white tee, had a sweat-drenched and excitable crowd jumping, moshing and crowd-surfing to the beats of its propellant, stadium-ready rock. The set was draining, and given the enormous character of the music and the audience's enthusiasm combined, it almost felt as though the day should have ended then, after six hours of music on three stages, and all of us weighed down in clothes heavy with dried rain and sweat.

There were a few acts that followed, alas, though the crowd seemed sapped. The dance-friendly indie stalwarts Hot Chip wound through a set of classics to the delighted-yet-not-quite-dancing thousands who watched; up-and-coming shock rapper Danny Brown brought some swagger to his set on the side stage, though the audience was more slack-jawed or scandalized than energized. Headliners Godspeed You Black Emperor begin their set with 10 minutes of a single, droning violin note -- twilight approaching, thousands giving up on standing and lying down on towels and blankets -- before slowly building into its cosmically large post-rock. The songs were epic -- the band's two tunes lasted well over 25 minutes apiece -- but they felt like lullabies or exit music for a film so late in the night. The park was littered with Heineken beer cups, plastic Vodka flasks, Vitamin water bottles, discarded cardboard taco trays, cigarette butts, and the enormity of Godspeed's climactic final song well approximates the largeness of the three-stage day.

If God is to be blamed for the afternoon rain, then so too should He be praised for keeping the skies clear for the rest of the night, for a satisfying Saturday of rowdy, varying indie acts.

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