I made it to a day of Pitchfork Festival Paris last weekend. P4k is an oddly shaped festival – its two stages face each other from opposite ends of the same room, the long Grand Halle de la Villette. As one act plays on the North stage, the South stage prepares for the next, and vice versa. The result is a generally lull-free run of sets punctuated by short intervals, during which fans flow from one end of the room to the other, losing only a few stragglers to the toilets at each change of ends.
I hadn’t got much out of Purity Ring’s (below, left) album beforehand, but their set was a creative lesson in how to bring electronic music alive on the stage. Papery pupae (supposed to light up – a function that was sadly lost to a technical fault) were suspended in fog around the duo, while atmospheric lighting completed the backdrop for the performance. Most of the music came from Corin Roddick’s precise combinations of samples on drum pads. Dull as that could look, each pad was wired up to a coloured lamp, each of which lit up when struck. A simple touch, but one that illuminated Roddick’s percussive skills.
Liars (below, right) were probably the most absorbing band at the festival. No strangers to radical stylistic changes (their latest album mutated away from noisy guitar-based post-punk to a more sinister electronica style), the trio always maintains its distinctive interest in sound textures. At Pitchfork, songs old and new were transformed into involving, ferocious and beat-driven blocks of a relentless set. The stage was dominated by Angus Andrew’s hyperactive, somewhat deranged persona, but the show owed just as much to the relatively still but no less intense offerings of bleach-blonde bassist-cum-synth player Aaron Hemphill and drummer Julian Gross. Despite their chemistry, an ongoing stream of projections of the Liars practice room – at first mundane, yet oddly compelling – provided real and surreal competition for the crowd’s attention.
The biggest treat of the night came from Grizzly Bear, who – since latest album Shields dropped – have resurfaced as a remarkable live band. An eye-catching light show that resembled Chinese lanterns and an album’s worth of new material were their most obvious steps forward from 2010’s last shows, but it was the subtle addition of a fifth performer – pianist and trumpeter Aaron Arntz – that really took the show to another level.
The familiar line-up of Grizzly Bear consists of the memorable voices of central singer-songwriters Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen (the latter also known for his work in Department of Eagles), woodwind concentrated multi-instrumentalist Chris Taylor and drummer Christopher Bear. There’s a sense of egalitarianism in the way the quartet always performs in a straight line – refusing to consign some poor rhythm section player or other to the shadows – which here ensured that Bear’s stunning jazz flourishes and the likes of Taylor’s stunning falsetto vocals and sax improv during ‘Knife’ were afforded the appropriate pride of place.
On this occasion, at least, Arntz sat in the shadows, where he fleshed out the band’s subtle arrangements, adding piano flourishes to new tracks (in particular ‘Sleeping Ute’) and essential synthesised orchestral parts to older highlight ‘I Live With You’, to name a couple of examples. His contributions thickened the texture and brought out colour where the arrangements were helped by it, freeing up the other band members to indulge their improvisational leanings at other points. In both of his uses, he appeared to be the missing piece of a band which had seemed to be quite good enough already. It made for a group performance that rewarded a real variety of approaches: it was great to be lost in its the overarching atmosphere, but just as memorable to focus on the sheer musicality of the individuals on stage. It’s difficult to imagine many other bands today giving a concert as satisfying as this.