Pitchfork Music Festival
Union Park, Chicago, Ill.
July 13, 2007
When Slint walked onstage as a five-piece Friday evening, the sun was hot on the back of about 14,000 necks crowding right field of Chicago's Union Park, a youth-league baseball field four blocks from the home of the Chicago Bulls. Slint was 10 minutes late for its set, rightfully taking its time as the opening act of the three-day Pitchfork Music Festival. After all, Slint was a decade ahead of most rock bands when it recorded its second and final album, Spiderland, in 1991, right?
But this wasn't just a Pitchfork festival: Slint was the first of three bands to play Friday's inaugural American date of Don't Look Back, a British series that hires bands to play their quintessential album in entirety live. Slint's Spiderland would open for GZA's Liquid Swords would open for Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation—in a baseball park in the daylight in Chicago in 2007. And you thought "Breadcrumb Trail" was weird?
Slint did exactly what they'd been hired to do: They played Spiderland nice and neat and flawless, sticking to the script, adding a decade-plus of afterthoughts in only the slightest of ways. They augmented the guitars of cut two, "Nosferatu Man," with slightly more abrasion and ferocity. For the third track (or the end of side A), Slint cut the edges of "Don, Aman" so close that—played only by guitarist David Pajo and guitarist/poet Brian McMahan seated at center stage—it felt more like a house show than a sold-out festival. And, on closer "Good Morning, Captain," McMahan's "I miss you" screams roared over the coda, somehow more raw and live than they were on record 16 years ago. The crowd's response/non-response was surreal, too, a strange mix of reverence and inquisitiveness fostering near-complete silence. Some came to hear an album they memorized a decade or so ago, while most, it seemed, came to hear the album they've heard so much about without hearing much at all, if ever. Spiderland is rightly (if reductively) credited as the great fount of the post-rock fanfare—Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, a growing contingent of metal bands—that continues to produce unequal parts brilliance and boredom. What more, then, could Slint do on this summer day but just play it?
Some grumbled, of course. They expected Slint to pump it up, maybe to crest and collapse more, perhaps to be more like the apostles who sprang from the Spiderland hymnal. Or that's certainly what I heard during the rest of the festival: Newcomers said, rather flatly, that Slint wasn't good, and veterans chided that they could have heard the record better in the privacy of their own home. Certainly, Slint could have played louder, added more solos and alternate layers, or simply worked to make their sound more "triumphant."
But Spiderland has aged well because it hasn't aged well at all. Its legacy has been mishandled by some and, at best, reconfigured into more Aristotelian plotlines by others. Its two or three guitars, unflinching lyrics about destitution and misanthropy, and plodding but thin rhythms are full of holes, like a score scribbled out by a 20th-century composer, where a series of loose rules and suggestions on page become fully realized (hopefully) when different people add their own interpretations to the key motifs. Friday afternoon, playing Spiderland for the first time ever stateside, it wasn't up to Slint to fill the holes other bands are still unimaginatively exploring. And if that disappointed, then so be it. Spiderland sounds remarkably bright and unapologetic, even still.
As if they had heard the complaints even before playing the set, though, Slint closed with new material as a sleight-of-hand. When the last proclamations of "Good Morning, Captain" had been shouted, McMahan exited stage right. Guitars were swapped. Nods were exchanged. Pajo let loose with the opening, heavy riff of the unreleased "King's Approach," a 10-minute track that seemed like a retrospective medley of the past decade-plus of post-rock. Britt Walford's drums opened in springy stutters, hinting at some approaching, heavy assault. Instead, things got deathly still, mid-range guitar notes and occasional bass rumbles slowly building into a Motorik march. It didn't feel like the Slint of Spiderland at all, even when McMahan returned, guitar in hand. And that must be one of the best jokes Slint's ever told.
Slint plays Spiderland Thursday, July 19, at Cat's Cradle, at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $18 in advance and $20 at the show. STRANGE opens.