It can be hard to stand out in a city as busy and electric as Chicago. Though a gathering of tens of thousands of people would throw off the equilibrium of almost anywhere else in America, The Windy City seemed to take Pitchfork Music Festival in stride as just one of many events it would host throughout the summer. Unless you were near Union Park, you might not have even realized anything out of the ordinary was taking place in the city.
But relative smallness can be a good thing: the festival was largely free of corporate sponsors and provided a closeness to artists and focus on the music that other festivals are too big to pull off. With dozens of tables hosting poster artists and record shops, and only one or two for bigger sponsors, I was surprised and impressed by the independent ethos Pitchfork was able to maintain despite their status as one of the largest and most influential music sites out there. Though Pitchfork has grown big enough to become a mainstream tastemaker, it wore that responsibility well and delivered on a lineup that was innovative, diverse and fresh. Here’s what went down in Chi-town last weekend.
ILoveMakonnen gave us what was maybe the sweetest moment of the weekend early on Friday when he FaceTimed his mom in the middle of the set and had the crowd wave hi to her. While the “Tuesday” rapper might be misunderstood as amateurish with his simplistic rhymes and his slow, halting delivery, Makonnen twists and turns hip hop into new shapes that fit his weird, lonely style (notice how Drake imitated Makonnen’s own unique flow and voice on the “Tuesday” remix). Makonnen doesn’t yet have enough quality songs to fill an hour-long set, but he came out eager to please and with plenty of energy, making him more than suitable for an early Friday slot.
But before Makonnen, alt-country singer-songwriter Natalie Prass opened the festival with songs off her self-titled debut, one of the top contenders for “best break-up album of 2015.” Though she’s backed by an orchestral on the record, she shared her stage with only three other musicians on Friday, which stripped her songs down but didn’t necessarily make them weaker. Prass had a confident command of the early crowd and showed off more of a rock ‘n’ roll edge than she’s known for in the studio (possibly a preview of work to come.)
I’m still somewhat amazed by Mac DeMarco’s popularity, but I think I understood it a little better after his Friday evening set. Immediately starting with his most popular song (“Salad Days”), DeMarco played his extremely casual, tossed-off guitar music to a massive crowd late Friday afternoon. Though his music can sometimes make me ask, “Is that it?,” DeMarco has an everyman charisma that shines onstage. Wearing a baseball cap and a Nirvana shirt, DeMarco blurred the line between earnestly embracing and sending up rockstar convention — crabwalking with his guitar, he covered a Steely Dan song and even had his bass player take a solo. Sarcastic or not, DeMarco made me a believer.
Remember when I said Natalie Prass was a top contender for “best break-up record on 2015?” Well, her main competition might have just performed a few hours later. Tobias Jesso, Jr., coming off Goon, his own debut album, played his rainy-day singer-songwriter work with a full band, augmenting his songs and making them more interesting. His voice sounded great despite some sound hiccups, and I loved how Jesso interacted and joked with the crowd. In general, the smaller Blue Stage at the south end of the park was a surprisingly intimate venue for seeing some great not-even-that-obscure artists
Making my way back north for the end of the day, I caught the end of Panda Bear’s set and quickly wished I hadn’t. Though the Animal Collective member whose driver’s license says Noah Lennox has done some brilliant work in the studio (think The Beach Boys getting sucked into a giant vacuum cleaner, with pretty melodies thrown behind walls of distortion), putting him in a festival setting is almost embarrassing. Lennox just stood behind a computer, occasionally singing into a microphone but mainly just messing around with random sounds. When he finished, Lennox told the crowd “thanks for watching,” and that struck me as the most appropriate wording for what just happened. Panda Bear’s set didn’t include the audience in any way, and it seemed to belong more at an art gallery than a festival.
I was far away from CHVRCHES evening set, but the energy coming from its stage made me wish I was right up front. A Scottish synth band who dented the mainstream with its debut record a couple years ago and now seems poised to break through with its upcoming follow-up, CHVRCHES had the danciest set of the day, and the band made its case that it could very soon be headlining.
Wilco’s set was a weird one. Having surprised-released a new album called Star Wars the day before, the band decided to open its headlining set by playing that record in its entirety. While the move is more understandable to me now in retrospect (you might as well do something bold with your festival slot), the record is not Wilco’s best, and it was somewhat alienating to a lot of people. After Star Wars, though, the second part of Wilco’s set was a heavy-hitting lineup of classics, and even if the band never seemed especially engaged with the audience, the musicians were tight and the material was strong enough that it still satisfied.
I walked into Union Park on Saturday to the sound of Jimmy Whispers playing the recording of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” for a somewhat bemused audience. I, for one, even though I know nothing about Jimmy Whispers thought it was a really positive way to start the day.
As a loyal Detroiter, I made sure catch at least a little bit of Protomartyr’s early set. Dressed in all black and unfazed by the heat, they played sturdy renditions of their intellectual post-punk tracks.
After a few Protomartyr songs, though, I went to catch Bully, an exciting young band coming off its recent debut, Feels Like. Though I was impressed with its set a few weeks ago when I saw Bully open for Best Coast in Detroit, I thought the band’s set at Pitchfork was even more powerful. Singer Alicia Bognanno has an extremely slight frame but a ferocious voice, and she led the band through a set of enjoyable power-pop. Bully has definitely established itself as a band on the rise.
Future Brown was a mess. The producer group decided to bring out a whole cadre of up-and-coming Chicago MCs, but instead of really performing anything, the producers just spun hip-hop hits while the rappers lackadaisically rapped along (or didn’t). The whole set felt completely improvised and not thought out in the slightest. Maybe it just wasn’t the right music for 2:30 in the afternoon, but with all that laziness and lack of focus, I don’t think it would have worked anywhere.
Heading over to Mr. Twin Sister, I got caught up in glittering synths, moody saxophone, and seductive vocals from Andrea Estella. Twin Sister played to a very receptive crowd, and its music was perfect to chill out to even as the anxiety of dark clouds moved across the sky.
But Twin Sister’s set was interrupted by a surprised guest appearance from Thunderstorms, which interrupted the whole festival. Initially, the rain was something that could be dealt with while the music played on, but soon, the wind started throwing it sideways into our faces with no let-up, and the thunder started loudly crackling like it does when you’re right in the middle of a heavy storm. We were evacuated for about 40 minutes.
Casualties of the storm included Vince Staples, whose flight from Detroit never ever got off the ground (too bad, because I really wanted to see how a mostly white crowd would react to his bleak songs about the Black American experience), and Kurt Vile, who had to play a truncated set of his hazy guitar music. That said, the festival did a great job of getting everything back to normal as quickly as possible.
Parquet Courts were a great bounce-back from the rain. Though I was far away from the stage, I could still feel the Brooklyn punks intensity from where I was. “Ducking and Dodging” was a particular highlight, with the band members seemingly trying to play it as fast as possible while also squeezing every ounce of energy they could out of it.
I don’t necessarily love The New Pornographers, but I was still pretty excited for their set. They make catchy pop-rock songs that all have the potential to be indie hits, and while they tightly delivered on the musical front, there was also, like Wilco the night before, an air of disengaged professionalism from the musicians, who performed well but rarely seemed excited to be playing for such a big crowd. As a warm up for the headliners, though, The New Pornographers were more than acceptable.
Future Islands are, for my money, a bit of a one-hit wonder, but the band was, enjoyably, never short on showmanship. I was far away, but I loved watching singer Samuel Herring’s silent-film-comedy facial expressions and rubbery dance moves on the screen next to the stage. Even if most of Future Islands’ songs sounded like lesser versions of its instant classic “Seasons,” sometimes, at a festival, I’ll sacrifice a bit of quality for a great entertaining frontman.
You might be wondering why I was so far away from a few of these acts, and that’s because I was camping out for a spot right up close for the greatest rock band of its generation. Sleater-Kinney headlined on Saturday night, and the legendary riot grrrl punk group played a career-spanning set of new and old material, proving its credentials while also showing that they have no intentions of slowing down or coasting on old classics. Drummer Janet Weiss and vocalists/guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker melt together to create one machine of musical euphoria while still maintaining all their personal strengths. Weiss provides the backbone while Tucker howls in her inimitable voice and Brownstein plays guitar like she’s possessed, pulling out rockstar moves and never losing focus even when she slipped and fell once. The musicians screwed up and had to restart an unrehearsed encore of “You’re No Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun,” but that made the show perfect, because they proved to us that they were, somehow, still human.
There was an interesting shortage of what I would call “festival clichés” throughout the whole weekend. Artists’ never implored fans to wave cell phones in the air to light up Union Park for a song, and there weren’t even very many sing-alongs throughout the whole weekend. However, with the weather finally perfect, Sunday was the day that felt the most like a festival in the real sense of the world, with a wide range of excited artists performing celebratory sets.
Katie Crutchfield had a full band assembled for a set from her indie-rock project Waxahatchee. Though the band had some sound issues — and personally, I prefer Waxahatchee’s smaller, more intimate work — the performance made a strong case for Waxahatchee to move up on festival bills in the near future.
But I left Waxahatchee after only about 20 minutes, because I needed to get down to the Blue Stage to catch The Julie Ruin, who was one of my top acts to see because it’s fronted by the iconic feminist punk singer Kathleen Hanna (formerly of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre). She didn’t disappoint, dancing with the same enthusiasm she’s always had and talking to the audience about feminism and her own struggles and, of course, singing in that fabulous high-pitched scream of hers. Seeming freed in the outdoor afternoon air, The Julie Ruin’s dance punk sounded significantly stronger and more vibrant in front of a crowd of somewhat older but devoted hardcore fans. After Lyme Disease put her out of commission for quite a while, I’m so glad to see Hanna back.
Later in the afternoon, Courtney Barnett performed a star-making set. The young Australian only brought a three-piece band, which gave her maybe the rawest sound of anyone all weekend, but the marriage of that power with the neurosis and clever wit of Barnett’s lyrics was astounding. Shredding on guitar and making smart observations in her singing, Barnett was one of the best that the whole weekend had to offer.
Jamie xx was an interesting study in dance music and whether or not a few magnificent moments makes a whole set worth it. Looking chill and clean-cut in a white shirt and sunglasses, xx delivered some fantastic highs — a “Gosh” that was so absorbing that the audience was joyfully blindsided by the sudden needle drop on “Good Times,” and a closing sing-along on “Higher Places.” But his set had a little too much filler (or, more charitably, build-up to the highs) to be truly special. If mainstream American EDM is a cheap horror movie with effective jump scares, xx is “The Shining,” a lengthy piece of art that you have to devote time and energy into if you’re going to get the most out of it.
After Caribou played an enjoyable set of indie dance to a pretty big, excited crowd, Run the Jewels took the stage for one of the highest-energy performances of the whole weekend. From the moment they walked out to Queen’s “We Are the Champions” the critically acclaimed rap duo of El-P and Killer Mike were locked in and dialed up, and the crowd matched them blow-for-blow. (The one downside: a bum rush of dudes to the stage meant that all the women near the front had to quickly get the hell out or risk being crushed.) Though I think EL-P is a better producer than rapper, his chemistry with the more-talented Killer Mike was undeniable on stage, and the two both have such an everyman charisma that it’s easy to be a fan. Run the Jewels made the most of its big adoring crowd, too, bringing out multiple guests from its records, including Zack de la Rocha, Boots and Gangsta Boo.
Finally, Chance the Rapper closed out the entire weekend with one of his now-annual Chicago festival appearances. Though the crowd was buzzing with anticipation for which surprise guests he might bring out (Lil B and Kanye were both popular guesses), the ended up being entirely for Chance and his band, The Social Experiment (save a cameo from gospel artist Kirk Franklin). As a live act, The Social Experiment is probably the best thing to ever happened to Chance, as it gave him versatility and immediacy as he went through Acid Rap songs that he’s probably done hundreds of times now, as well as newer features and work from Surf. The old songs already feel so engrained in Chicago youth culture, while Chance himself is practically King of the city, his show bursting with local pride. With both his grandma and mother present, “Sunday Candy” and “Hey Ma” were emotional highlights as well. Chance was clearly enjoying himself onstage, but he made it clear that this show was the end of something for him as he tries to move into a new era of his life. It’s true that he’s now taken Acid Rap probably as far as it can go, and he’s ready to take the next step on the ladder, but wow, what a beginning it’s been.