The thunderstorm that forced Pitchfork Music Festival to evacuate just before 5PM Saturday was brief but powerful enough that Stereolab’s 6:15 performance was suddenly in doubt. Mercifully, after an hour spent scattered to the surrounding bars and restaurants, the soggy lot of us were welcomed back into Chicago’s Union Park just in time to see the reunited Euro sophisticates in action. “Yes, hello everyone,” Lætitia Sadier told us. “The heavens agreed to let us play half a set, so better than nothing.”
Stereolab were not headlining, but for many of us they were Saturday’s big draw. Across their original two-decade run, the French-English combo compiled an astonishing collection of retro-futuristic music, experimenting at the intersection of krautrock, lounge music, French yé-yé pop, and vintage rock ‘n’ roll. Like Air if they rocked or Yo La Tengo if they built their music for hipster Parisian discotheques, their sound embodied a chic European mystique that, for someone who grew up in suburban Ohio, has always seemed like a broadcast from some unattainably cool alternate universe. So even though my knowledge of their discography is not as deep as it probably should be, the chance to see them live was a special privilege not to be passed up.
At least for now, it is a rare privilege. Stereolab reunited this year and have been playing shows across Europe and the British Isles since late May. This was billed as their first North American show in 10 years, though in fact they played a Pitchfork-sponsored aftershow the night before. During the rain delay, while the weather threatened to completely wipe out their festival time slot, a lot of us were kicking ourselves for not attending the club show. Actually, I still wish I’d been to Thalia Hall on Friday night because like so many artists, Stereolab’s music seems better suited to a dark enclosed space late at night than an open field under blinding sun.
It was still pretty great in the daylight, though! Onstage, they are as unflappably cool as on their records, but they amplify the noisy rock elements so that already meticulous music begins to feel like stylish controlled chaos. Sadier’s quirky keyboard melodies, her vocal interplay with Xavier Muñoz Guimera, Tim Gane’s aggressive palm-muted guitar outbursts: For Stereolab, every instrument is a rhythm instrument, and even the loveliest melodies exist to be part of a groove. That ethos manifests in a few different ways — funky bass-powered loops like “Percolator” and “Metronomic Underground,” lush airborne pop excursions like “Infinity Girl” and “Lo Boob Oscillator,” rocket-fueled rockers like “French Disko” and “John Cage Bubblegum,” the graceful Francophone Tropicalia of “Miss Modular” — all of it machine-precise without losing the music’s loose organic humanity.
Sometimes they rocked so hard you could forget they made dance records; sometimes they locked into rhythms so hypnotic you could forget everything else entirely. All of it was of a piece, a manifestation of a finely tuned aesthetic. The aforementioned seven songs were the only ones they had time for, but even a painfully short set was sufficient to remind us what we lost when Stereolab went their separate ways. For now, we’ve regained it. Be there to savor it in person if you get the chance.