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Pitchfork Music Festival: Tame Impala & Courtney Barnett’s Aussie Rock Explosion

A snatch of conversation I heard outside the Pitchfork Music Festival on Friday afternoon:

“Oh, I did ketamine yesterday.”

“Ooh! How was it?”

“Good! Really subtle.”

I’m going way out on a limb and guessing that those kids really enjoyed Tame Impala’s headlining set. If you’re discussing horse tranquilizers like a sommelier, Kevin Parker’s dazed and fragile riff-pop is pretty much made for you. But then, it’s made for a lot of people.

Over three albums and nearly a decade, Parker’s not-really-a-band project has developed itself into, more or less, the only acid-rock band that matters. This is no small feat. Tame Impala reach back toward late-’60s utopianism, but they do it without really copping the music of that era — or, at least, without recreating it outright. There’s plenty of Cream and late-period Beatles in what Parker does, but it’s filtered through disco and downtempo chillout-tent music and synthpop and R&B. The riffs are great; the textures are better. Sometimes, the band feels like a best-case scenario for whatever chillwave was supposed to be. It’s immaculately woozy headphones music, and it sounds pretty amazing when you’re in a field with a few thousand of your closest friends.

It’s been a full three years since Currents, Tame Impala’s last album, and they don’t seem to be in any rush to follow it up. Live, they aren’t playing new songs or even switching up their set from night to night. This year, they’ve basically only played festivals, and festivals are the right place for them. Tame Impala don’t need new music to fill up one of those big stages. Their music has remained in circulation, through Atlanta trailers and Rihanna covers and general slow-building word of mouth. They’re a rock band that feels culturally vital on a large scale, and how many of those do we have?

Parker is a creature of the studio, and the few times I’ve seen Tame Impala live over the years, he’s been a little flinchy and awkward onstage. There’s a bit of a baby-deer quality to this skinny and shaggy and beautiful boy — a man who still looks 15 even though he’s past 30 now. But as Tame Impala’s music has grown, so has Parker’s confidence. He’s still a bit sheepish whenever he has to talk between songs, but when he’s playing a big stage now, he looks at home. And with the band’s bright and abstract and ketamine-friendly light show, he looks good in silhouette.

Tame Impala aren’t an especially demonstrative band onstage; Parker and his buddies mostly just stand still and let the tunes wash out of them. But they’re not boring. The show isn’t the band. It isn’t even the lights or the erupting confetti cannons. It’s the way the thousands upon thousands of kids in the crowd react to this music. The assembled Pitchfork masses received Tame Impala with absolute rapture. Every song was a huge singalong and a dance party. (Give Tame Impala credit: They make rock music that you can dance to, and they do it without making “dance-rock.”) And when those kids spilled out into the street as the night was ending, the loopy-grin quotient was a lot higher than I usually see at festivals.

Tame Impala don’t have a whole lot in common with their fellow Australian rocker Courtney Barnett, who played the adjacent stage immediately before. Their versions of guitar-rock are wildly different. Where Tame Impala are sleek and layered and dizzy, Barnett is tangled and wordy and purposeful. And yet the two of them made for a beautiful pairing. (I’m guessing this was artful programming, not a happy accident. The other two nights of Pitchfork have similarly inspired combinations at the top of the bill: Fleet Foxes/War On Drugs and Lauryn Hill/Chaka Khan.) Barnett was never a wallflower onstage, but like Parker, she’s leveled the hell up in the past few years. Right now, she’s a motherfucking rock star.

On record, Barnett often comes off mannered and thoughtful. But onstage, she plays even her most embarrassed rambles as anthems. She mashes the fuzz pedal, throws her hair around, and lifts her axe to the sky. She and her band look giddy and overjoyed, like they can’t believe all this riffage is coming out of them. And when you hear those songs loud, outside, with an amped-up crowd cheering her on, it feels a bit like you’re watching late-’60s Neil Young. Barnett’s music might be heady and personal, but it scales. And it’s immensely gratifying to see Barnett bringing that fire to a crowd that was nearly as large and excited as the one that turned out for Tame Impala. The Australians, it turns out, know how to fucking do it.