Pitchfork Music Festival is best served by committing to its own original roots. Now in its second decade of existence, the festival arguably became too sophisticated this year: Organizers implemented additional food stands immediately next to the Blue Stage that cramped the viewing area and they moved ID checks to the opening gate, which lead to wait times so long they abandoned the change entirely after the first day. The actual music, however, perennially the strength of what in the past has been a frill-limited fest, persisted, each headlining set delivering on expectations for the first time in recent memory in addition to most of an initially questionable undercard positively surprising live. Here’s what transpired July 14-16 at Union Park in Chicago.
— Joseph Schuman
Every driver I got in Chicago this past weekend asked me why I was there. “A music festival,” I’d reply. “Oh, Lollapalooza?” they’d respond.
Other than the driver on my last night asking if I was referring to the heavy metal festival going on in Lincoln Park, this was the typical call and response. No one really seemed to know about the festival I’d been counting down the days to since May. No one seemed to understand that another little deposit of history had been planted in their city when A Tribe Called Quest claimed the stage Saturday night. No one knew another answer for the clues “music festival” and “Chicago” other than “Lolla.”
And this is both a blessing and a curse. Pitchfork is a great festival, especially because it is smaller than its grandiose, increasingly Coachella-esque sister. Artists roam the fields beside their adoring fans, hoping to go unnoticed because, heck, Jeff Rosenstock wants to see Angel Olsen’s soulful, sad performance as much as his average fan. Tyler Bennett roams, and Shamir can be seen across a crowd. Pitchfork is a festival where the strict, tightly defined boundaries of celebrity and fan are blurred, and the heavy celebrity and aggressive alternativeness of big-name festivals are considered lesser. It’s chill and relaxed, but despite this, still has some learning to do.
I missed Frankie Cosmos because I was standing in the absurdly long and time-costing beverage ticket line, their system of buying drinks that didn’t need to be in place to encourage beverage sales. And I missed Vince Staples waiting on a friend to worm her way in after waiting an hour at the entrance. Two losses out of many wins, but it makes a big difference when you’re only there for three days. Nonetheless, music persisted, and worries were washed away in the light of Danny, Francis, Tribe and more.
— Natalie Zak
Dawn Richard’s renaissance is due in large part to her unearthing of her own genre, layering pop, R&B and EDM production to create a sound that may be unfamiliar, initially, to listeners. Richards appeared quite comfortable onstage as she and two backup dancers, all royally adorned in white, twirled through 2017’s Redemption. She was at her best, however, during an especially high-octane rendition of 2016 single “Not Above That.”
June’s Big Fish Theory would seem Vince Staples’s most stage-ready release yet, but the rapper looked uninterested (and perhaps just exhausted), even as he rolled out earlier hits like “Norf Norf,” “Lemme Know” and “Blue Suede.” It was a barebones set, and not the effective kind — Staples rapped entirely over a backing track and in front of covered props only there for Danny Brown’s later performance — which equated to a lackluster 50 minutes.
“Go Yah Yah, Go Yah Yah, Go” yelled Kamaiyah’s hype man, repeatedly, and loudly, as she ripped through various tracks off A Good Night in the Ghetto. Through the abbreviated set the Oakland rapper maintained a smirk that suggested she knew, and we knew, there were bigger and better (and hopefully longer!) things coming.
LCD Soundsystem opened its headlining set with “Yr City’s a Sucker,” an early hit that wasn’t included on setlists on last year’s festival circuit. The group sounded cohesive as ever on “Home” halfway through the set before flexing its most arena-rock melodies yet in “call the police.” The band’s usual grand finale (“Dance Yrself Clean” to “All My Friends”) reaffirmed its lofty status when it comes to (positively) emotionally wrecking-ability.
— Joseph Schuman
Danny, Danny, Danny, in your pink dress shirt and blazer and wild-eyed smile. Danny, Danny, Danny with your infectious, giddy rap. I have this image of him running through my brain: He stands at the front of the stage, one hand on hip, the other gripped around a mike pointed towards his lips as the elbow shoots up in the air. Kind of like he’s looking at his audience, posing for us, but also kind of like he’s looking at the heavens, secure in the fact that it’s his god-given right to be there, on stage, delivering us right into evil (otherwise known as “Smokin’ and Drinkin’”). Most of the set is a blur. He moved from one song to the next with little hesitation as we were thrown immediately into “Die Like a Rockstar” into “Lie4” and so on. There wasn’t a second to stop moving, not a second to grab a breath and not a foot on the ground when he started chanting “Dip I dip you dip / dip I dip you dip I dip.” It’s because of this that I honestly think Danny Brown could start a cult if he wanted to. The power he commands over an audience, the pure joy and excitement that pervades through his fans as they shout in communion — it’s straight biblical. He has the key of charisma and a hundred adoring fans, and chants set to a beat championing hedonistic ways of the world. So let’s go Danny; I’d like to see this happen.
But then there’s Kamaiyah, my goddess, who came to us in 2016 with her first mixtape A Good Night in the Ghetto, a damn-near perfect testament to big money, big drinking, big drug use and female badassery. Because she’s coming from no money to tons of it (see: “I’m On”). She’s coming from a broken, broke East Oakland home to a field of fans at Union Park. It was a compromise to miss half her set for Danny’s; it was a gift to see at least half of it. Because she’s a charmer, and she’s lovable. The bombast of her songs, the self-assertion and extravagance she preaches about in songs like “How Does it Feel” and “Fuck it Up” — they were toned down without the gold chains and bottle of whiskey in hand but with every “hoochie hoo” she howled at the end of a song you knew who she was, who was in control. You want to talk about hedonism, charisma and unadulterated narcissism? You’re talking about Kamaiyah. This girl holds a baby in one hand and a fifth in the other in her video for “I’m On.” She belongs in the ranks of female rappers like Noname and Cardi B because of the completely unapologetic nature of her music. And the emphasis is on her music there, because when you place Danny Brown at the same time as a female rapper whose subject matter and talent rival his, you’re making people consider the aggressively heteronormative nature of hip hop, and you’re overshadowing a soon-to-be giant. Kamaiyah, from the rough, mean streets of Oakland, deserves our ears, our attention, our call-and-response. So consider her gold chains and fifth of whiskey. Pitchfork, she deserves more than less of a chance.
“Is everyone O.K.? Is everyone good?”
“Is everyone O.K. is different than is everyone having fun. Is everyone O.K.? Is everyone doing well?”
“What we’re just saying is, everyone’s going to be O.K.”
And so went the exchange between James Murphy and Nancy Wong as they stood at the front of the green stage, preparing for the next song making casual yet weirdly inspirational conversation with the massive audience. The field was covered at this point with fans all gathered around the green stage watching the band that was, then wasn’t, then was again, give us a show, make us feel, make us dance. There’s nothing quite like LCD these days. No bands mimic or can mimic their electronic-dance-rock music even if they tried, and certainly no group will have the silver-haired Murphy at its head, guiding us through eight-minute songs. No bands can recreate the whiny, desperate, utterly despondent nature of songs like “New York, I Love You” and “All My Friends” or have a single beat that hits you in the gut like the third drop of “Dance Yrself Clean.”
But there’s something to say about how they’ve changed. A year ago at Austin City Limits, they were impulsive, more driven by the music than by time constraints and setlists. Murphy stood atop a speaker at the front of the stage looking down at the masses of people who had waited six years to see them, not knowing that one day they would be able to. And now, continuing along a tour that’s going to carry them through the release of their new album and deep into the fall, they seem tired. Still good, still playing music that cuts deep, but tired. The surge of energy that came with reviving the dead speakers seems to be fading and routine is taking over.
That doesn’t mean “I Can Change” doesn’t still chill to the bone or the electric guitar of “call the police” doesn’t make you want to scream. Because the music’s power is still there. Its command over a crowd of thousands hasn’t loosened. But I just can’t shake the feeling that with “american dream” and “call the police” they finally gave in and wrote slightly more poppy, catchy hits. They sacrificed a bit of “Home” for a bit more “Dance Yrself Clean” and in doing so, gave us hits. And there are only more hits to come.
— Natalie Zak
One could write in cliché about Jeff Rosenstock starting Day 2 with a bang, if thrgdat bang was one produced by Rosenstock’s guitar swinging into a midsized Donald Trump figurine (this after the band came onstage to Weird Al’s parody of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and before passive jabs at Pitchfork’s increasingly big-money subcurrents). The band explored an intersection of humility and hubris that left fans — after a cultish “You, in Weird Cities” finale — leaving the set feeling like they’d experience something they’d truly remember for a long time. Such a performance played a microcosmic, and effectively ironic role in terms of what makes the festival great.
George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic came in hot with a rollicking open, a horn-heavy cover of Lil Jon’s modern classic “Get Low.” The collective, however, fell victim to too much of its own disorganized chaos and never really recovered from major sound problems that affected fans on either side of the Green Stage.
Making the most of a drowsy mid-afternoon Blue Stage crowd, Francis and the Lights put on a set that was more of a literal performance composition than a showcase for its music. In an entirely all-black outfit (save for bright orange accents on in the inside of his shoes and blazer) Francis Farewell Starlite showed off nimble footwork that brought to life his synth-heavy, ‘80s-esque pop. His ascension into a nearby tree offset fest gossip of a potential Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) appearance that never came to fruition.
Soon after — a glass of white wine alongside his deejay set — Madlib paced his way through a set that eschewed pomposity in favor of fluid cuts. The veteran DJ appeared calm and confident as these cuts drew from diverse areas of rap production (Freddie Gibbs’s Pinata (2015) and Anderson Paak’s “The Waters” (2016) snippets from relatively recent work) ultimately providing an understated-yet-smooth segue for the headliners.
And what a main event the headliners put on. When A Tribe Called Quest took the stage the audience reacted as if it were historical figures making a rare final appearance, and it just might hold up that way. The group left an empty mic for Phife Dawg — a sincere and heartbreaking touch — as it ripped through classic after classic. Once the crowd collectively lost its mind to an encore of “Can I Kick It,” “Award Tour” and “We the People,” Tribe’s work was done. And it’s still a struggle to come up with adequate words to summarize the show.
— Joseph Schuman
Jeff — resident punk and dissident of Pitchfork — found himself undeniably out of place among the many big name bands that played this year. At least in his own self-deprecating mind he was. And he let it be known: “I’m sorry to whoever got fired for letting us play this festival,” he said before going into “Festival Song.” And then he ran into the audience with a saxophone. Truly a phenomenal human blessed the red stage that afternoon.
But despite the self-deprecation, his words ring true. Rosenstock more commonly frequents smaller bars and showhouses instead of festival fields. Yet fans still gathered at the foot of his stage ready to answer his cries of nausea and loneliness. Fans still pushed and shoved their way around, forming circles and then throwing their bodies into it. I never understood moshing before as a form of dance. Now, after Jeff, I recognize this form of self-expression.
She was placed at the blue stage, pushed back by the edge of the park, and her crowd stretched further than any other at the stage had in the previous day and a half. Because everyone wants an eye on the beautiful, reserved Mitski. Everyone wants her to teach them how to feel happy, teach them the lessons of first love and a late spring.
Mitski holds back, lets her music do the talking. Other than words of thanks, introductions and more words of thanks, she didn’t interact much with the audience. She didn’t need to. With her bass and her lyrics that was speaking enough. She bears her soul to us in her music; it would be selfish to ask for anything more.
So no one did. And she gave us exactly what we needed: a confusing feeling of sadness and joy as she delivered us from the glaring sun and sticky heat of day two. Her entire demeanor, style and music can be summed up in her introduction to “Your Best American Girl”: “I just want to say thank you so much to those of you who relate to this song.” Earnest, reserved, grateful, pristine — we all need a little more Mitski in our lives and in our hearts.
Francis and the Lights
It’s hard to explain just how much this man with his flailing limbs, tight pants and dark sunglasses means to me. It’s hard to explain because I don’t entirely understand myself. Maybe it’s the memory of crying the first time I heard “Thank You,” the final track off of September’s Farewell, Starlite!. Or maybe it’s the minimalism of everything he creates, the simplicity. His video for “See Her Out (That’s Just Life)” is him walking down a city street, the camera tracking from behind. The video for “Friends” is Justin Vernon and him dancing in a white room, with Kanye standing off to the side. It’s all so simple. Yet it makes you feel so much.
So when he was in front of me, flesh and bone and not hidden behind a computer screen, he looked exactly like I expected him to. And then he started flailing, and then he started dancing, and then he climbed the stacked speakers, climbed a tree. He flailed and spun and dipped the microphone stand and threw it behind him. It was wild, but still so simple. His style is a messy control — messy because my gosh nothing about that dancing suggests he knows where his body’s going to land next, and controlled because some way, somehow he hits the beat. You could call it an experiment in trust between the audience and him.
But the dancing, it's only a product of the music he creates. The scattered beats perfectly accentuate the piano backing on tracks like “Comeback” and “My City’s Gone.” There’s a release on the listener’s part, a sort of capitulation to Francis’s music. How else can one describe the overwhelming sadness when he sings “Something quite special / A really cool party with a solid group of people” or the chills from Chance’s verse on “May I Have this Dance.” It’s the absence of anything more. And while Francis can entirely succumb to his own music, his own dancing mess, we have to retain somewhat of that control. But we can live vicariously through him if only for a little while.
A Tribe Called Quest
I mentioned history earlier; this was it. The first performance Tribe has done since Phife’s death was greeted with a crowd that stretched across the entire park. Video cameras captured only a fifth of the actual audience. And why? Does that even need to be asked? We were in the presence of legends, a group whose style and influence has pervaded generations of rappers and hip hop, influencing the style of our greats, current and past. Hip hop, according to a recently reported Pigeons and Planes article, just surpassed rock as the most popular genre in the United States. And here, standing before a crowd of thousands, are the men that inspired this wave. Minus one.
And so stood a sole microphone stand without a man behind it for the entirety of the set. Consequence, Jarobi and Q-Tip, rather than avoiding the subject of Phife’s death, glossing over it or proceeding on without it, honored it, included it, made it loud and clear throughout the park when at one point all the members left the stage and the audience was left listening to Phife rapping an a cappella version of “Butter.” It was sad, sure, but mostly awe-inspiring. Here before us were three of hip hop’s greats right off of the incredible and stylistically perfect We got it from Here … Thank you for your service, an album rich with features and collaboration, staying as just the three of them with one ghost.
Not a single person stopped moving throughout the entirety of their set, but at some points it became hard to breath. Because no one wanted to miss a beat from “Award Tour” or “Can I Kick It?” no matter how many times they rewound it to the beginning, asking “Can we do it again?” No one wanted to disappoint even when they restarted “We the People” three times back to the beginning and through again. I’ve never heard so many people shout “the ramen noodle” at once. I’ve never heard, and may never again, so many people shout “We the people, we are equal, we are evil.” But we did, because Q-Tip and the rest of the tribe asked us to. We did because we’d do anything to hear Consequence, Jarobi and Q-Tip, gather in a half circle, moving in a two-step back and forth, back and forth, do it all over again.
— Natalie Zak
Chicago native Derrick Carter lived up to his House legend status, deejaying one of the best sets of the weekend with cuts that married disco, jazz and even R&B. Such a funky pulse prompted an audience energy level that, for an early crowd, this 5-time Pitchfork attendee had never seen before.
If you fell in love at Pinegrove’s early evening Blue Stage set, you probably weren’t alone. Maybe the band soundtracked an intimate moment with a significant other, or, most likely, you couldn’t help developing a concert crush on frontman Evan Stephens Hall. For every “aw” his earnest presence incited, an equally resounding “damn” was probably elicited thanks to his impressive range of vocals. The New Jersey natives vulnerably captivated a crowd with its string of hits (“Old Friends” a highlight) at the end of the set.
Nico Jaar gave fans a major adrenaline pump for the weekend’s final stretch, gradually building up toward an exhausting, physically overpowering finale. Jaar, one half of lauded electro-duo Darkside, used a multiplicity of sounds (think, for example, House currents meeting earthy melodies) as he kept constant the set’s experimental vitality.
Solange showed off a surprisingly commanding stage presence, bolstered additionally by an easily audible group of diehards in front of the stage. After bringing out an ensemble of horns for an especially soulful “F.U.B.U.,” she induced a dance party via “Losing You.” Closing out the festival under a magical nightglow — adorned, along with her band members, in pink-reddish jumpsuits — in front of a similarly-filtered backdrop, the ethereal blowout served as a proper goodbye for a weekend of strong musical statements.
All along, I would write down notes for later reference while also hesitating to go much further, convincing myself that I’d most effectively recount my experiences based on the sheer emotions of each moment. Well, this plan backfired, which is probably for the better, because the standalone quality of each performance was the most important thing to come out of the weekend. Such simplicity isn’t found so easily at every festival, but then again, music is what makes this festival great. It did just that again this year.
What a cutie. Bouncing around the stage in a Carhart hoodie despite the sweat dripping down his face and 70 degree weather, Joey Purp burst with energy as he invited the likes of hometown heroes Vic Mensa and Towkio to join him on stage. These guests, along with brief glimpses of Noname and Chance backstage, made the excitement bubble up in a crowd already crammed together as Purp told it to take a step forward, and then another.
Three hype men flanked him. Not on stage but in the photo pit, they were armed with water guns pointed at the audience, aimed and ready to shoot. It marked the beginning of the chaos that was the crowd during that set. But there was no chaos on stage, only charm. It seems that charisma is what graced the blue stage most over the course of the weekend. From Kamaiyah to Mitski to Francis to Pinegrove, this stage became the haven of some of the best acts with the most active, engaged, death-defying crowds unconcerned with crushed toes, only concerned with jumping a little higher.
In 2015, the members of Pinegrove stayed the night on Lincoln street in Ann Arbor after playing a set at our very own beloved Lincoln House. Nearly two years later, following the release of 2016’s Cardinal, there they were before me on stage in front of a crowd that rivaled Mitski’s from the previous day. Evan with his wild smile, Sam with his floppy hair and the drummer Zack Levine ringing in his birthday stood with unabashed charm in front of their fans (ones that I can only compare to the kind Mac Demarco closely appeals to. No shade being thrown here — just offering a comparison).
Their set was short but sweet. Throwing us into it with “Size of the Moon,” they’re there to play despite calls of support from the audience (calls ranging from “That was pretty good” to “That was really good” from the guy in the hat that thought he was clever and/or forming a fleeting relationship with the band). And then they took us into the hits, the songs filled with emotion that would start onstage, between the members, and then cascade into the audience as they joined in, bit by bit, with Evan’s screams and pulses of the guitar.
Imagine this: a single bass note blaring across a park. You turn your head and see what? Lights flashing in the distance. What could possibly be going on, a light show? Fireworks? Faulty lights-manship? No, no, it’s simply Nicolas Jaar blaring through the park.
The Avalanches canceled late Sunday due to an illness in a member of the group’s family. As a result, changes were made, acts rearranged. One of those rearrangements: Nicolas Jaar playing at the same time as American Football. One of the results: his blaring electronic music pervading the park, interrupting American Football’s set. At one point, the trumpeter introduced one of their songs with a horn solo. It turned into a massive battle between trumpet and Jaar, with Jaar sadly coming out the winner.
Regardless of this battle that permeated American Football’s set, their melodies persisted. Their melodies and their tediousness, because while the band has undisputed mastery over their instruments, these founders of emo were, in fact, emo. They were withdrawn, unengaged. The reaction elicited from the audience was one more of appreciation, the kind you see at a Yes concert when you can’t exactly sing along or move in tune, but you know it demands admiration. But moving from Jeff to Pinegrove to their founders — Pinegrove’s guitarist was next to me in the audience — there was something missing. An element of engagement maybe, but also an element of change they hadn’t come to embrace. The genre they were considered pioneers of has changed greatly since their self-titled album 17 years ago. Their LP2 resisted that change, and the band evidently does too.
— Natalie Zak
To round it out
Despite long lines at the beverage ticket stands and outside the park, and despite a cancelation from The Avalanches on the third day, Pitchfork pushed on to the delight of concert-goers. It was a weekend of interchanging punk and hip hop, the two genres that seemed to dominate and fight for control the entire weekend. And the result? A strange mix of older and younger all in communion with recent breakouts and older, more honored acts. It's with this balance that Pitchfork thrives: With a good representation of both male and female fronted groups and solo artists as well as still-revered older acts, it pushes back against festivals that can unwittingly push male-heavy acts (see Austin City Limits festival lineup for this coming year for reference). And as a result, we learn. We distinguish diversity of music and performance; we distinguish diversity of performers and we listen to the advice they have to bestow on us, whether this be in lyrics, in a shouted, communal "Resist" or in James Murphy's bittersweet, "Everyone's going to be O.K."