By Mark Guarino and Jeff Pizek
Yoko Ono did what Yoko Ono is known to do: She squawked, cackled, shrieked and quacked. In front of a generation of indie rock fans Saturday, and as the headliner of the Pitchfork Music Festival’s second day, Ono demonstrated that weirdness and political aptitude can still be a potent combination, even if you are 74-years-old.
Rock’s most famous widow performed a little over an hour Saturday, the second of three nights of the eclectic music festival held in Union Park, located in Chicago’s far West Loop neighborhood. She rarely performs live and in the beginning, it showed. Clad in all black and topped with a fedora, Ono was wobbly and unsure of herself as she fumbled with her lyric sheets and microphone. “We’re all in this together, right?” she asked the crowd.
Then she sang. Her wordless exaltations were startling, funny and confrontational. Then, as her set wore on — and backed by a four-piece rock band — the quirks of her voice and bravado of her performance grew in strength. She alternated between lyrics and sounds — “Open your heart” she sang before countering it with a menacing cackle. One song, very short, was presented as a prayer: “I miss you,” she intoned repeatedly, her voice filtered into a loop until it echoed around the park. Considering her history of loss, there was little mistaking who is was addressed to.
Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth joined Ono near the end. She and Moore provided a sound collage, recreating her memories of the bombing of Hiroshima when she was a child. As she moaned in the persona of a mother looking for a lost child, Moore pumped a harsh litany of sounds out of his guitar — mechanical noise, the ugly buzzing of airplanes.
Joined by the rest of the band, he and Ono launched into the familiar refrain she and John Lennon made famous during the Vietnam era — “War is over/if you want it.” With Moore delivering guitar histrionics — reminiscent of Lennon’s famous Central Park concert — the lyric became a tormenting rock jam that was powerful to experience and mighty in its message.
Two post-dinnertime acts greatly clashed with the rest of the lineup. Virginia hip-hop duo Clipse matched dark tales of street life steeped in machismo, violence and cocaine references with tense, ominous beats. Although brothers Malice and Pusha T traded rhymes like an old-school rhyme crew, theirs was not the “positive” sort of rap usually championed by alternative audiences.
Even further removed from the rest of the Pitchfork performers was Atlanta’s Mastodon. The quartet brought the thunder with a commanding set of progressive metal, blending straightforward thrash, lethargic doom, manic grindcore and lyrical Southern rock touches into one explosive, trickily cadenced package.
The afternoon brought Iron & Wine’s pleasant folk-pop, Sam Beam’s hushed, honeyed voice floating on the warm summer breeze. Battles’ bright guitars and electronics took the edge off the jerky polyrhythms of their danceable indie/jam/alien rock. Grizzly Bear’s earnest psychedelic panoramas brought to mind the Alan Parsons Project with cooler haircuts.
A smaller side stage mostly featured experimental jazz and electronic acts. This frequently packed corridor offered plenty of its own highlights, from Fujiya and Miyagi’s slinky disco/funk to the minimalist, lo-fi dream pop of Baltimore slowcore duo Beach House.