Despite the chaos, Pitchfork 2019 is unforgettable

Wednesday, July 31, 2019 - 1:56pm

The 2019 Pitchfork Music Festival should have been a disaster. Chaotic weather and an abundance of sound issues plagued sections of the festival. Heat advisories were issued on both Friday and Saturday. Torrential downpours caused a full-blown evacuation on Saturday. Sunday came with fields of mud as far as the eye could see. Constant monitor feedback and technical difficulties hindered performances, and even caused artists like Sky Ferreira to get visibly frustrated. I’ll reiterate: It should have been a disaster. But it wasn’t. 

Days after the event, I still can’t believe how unreal it was. There was just so much music happening, and not only that, it was music that I cared about. Other music festivals left me with time to walk around and explore, but with two stages running immensely talented acts simultaneously, I felt like I was constantly sprinting from one act to the next in an effort to constantly satisfy the curiosity my ears had developed. I couldn’t even stop to look at merch, I had to get to the next stage as quickly as possible to hear the next showstopper. Because of their brilliant lineup and dedicated crowd, Pitchfork 2019 was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

— Ryan Cox, Daily Arts Writer

Belle & Sebastian

Performing their seminal album If You’re Feeling Sinister in its entirety, Belle & Sebastian’s set was one of the most anticipated of the festival. IYFS has served as an album of transition for me, and although it has been sitting with me for a shorter time than others, it has been coated in nostalgia and strong emotions. The band, comprised of around ten different musicians of all sorts of instruments, came on just like any other. There weren’t any special guests invited on stage or any other sort of theatrics, but the performance didn’t need that.

The exceptional songwriting of that album was all the band needed to send cheers through a diverse audience as every word that bandleader Stuart Murdoch sang echoed back at him, almost just as loud. With rich but not overwhelming arrangements, every sound from the record was mimicked almost perfectly and somehow even more organically. It was a performance that lived up to the beauty and wonder of a timeless album. 

— Ryan Cox, Daily Arts Writer

Parquet Courts

I’ve heard glowing reviews of the legendary shows this band puts on, and after falling in love with them following their sophomore release, Sunbathing Animal, my date with Parquet Courts was long overdue. After failing to see any mosh pits break out at the festival thus far, I was a bit nervous that the crowd’s energy would be lackluster. But as soon as the quartet launched into their fan-favorite, “Master of My Craft”, the crowd exploded into a frenzy of chaotic energy, with fans near me at the barricade screaming, “FORGET ABOUT IT,” as loud as they could, with smiles seeming to spread contagiously.

This energy persisted throughout the entire set, even when the monitors cut out, and an evacuation notice was issued. The band continued to play, despite this notice, and as soon as the monitors crescendoed back to their original volume, both the band and the crowd gave all their energy into what we thought may have been the last few minutes at the festival for the day.

— Ryan Cox, Daily Arts Writer

Earl Sweatshirt

I had absolutely no idea what to expect going into this performance. Earl’s music, especially his most recent project, Some Rap Songs, is extremely hypnotic and very free-flowing, so I was skeptical about how that would translate to a crowd standing around in the extreme heat that graced Chicago that weekend. Few others seemed to share my skepticism though, as Earl’s crowd was easily the biggest I had seen that day by a longshot. Most of the MC’s set consisted of powerful performances from his latest album, with fans rapping along verse after verse. There were a few moments where I couldn’t tell if the rapper was fatigued from the heat, or if some of the more emotional verses dealing with his recent battle with depression were getting to him a little. Either way, Earl Sweatshirt’s tight performance was an amazing way to chill out during a very warm afternoon.

— Ryan Cox, Daily Arts Writer

CHAI

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a performance that paraded pure joy the way CHAI did during their set. From the moment the group jumped up onstage in their bright matching outfits, proclaiming to the audience that, “WE ARE CHAI!” I knew that whatever I was expecting from the four-piece Japanese dance punk band wouldn’t hold a candle to the real thing. I know the term ‘wholesome’ is thrown around pretty often these days, but with speeches on body positivity (a concept they referred to as “neo kawaii”), constant smiles, synchronized dance moves and even costume changes, I don’t think there’s a word that sums up one of the brightest, wildest sets to grace the stage that weekend. And I loved every second of it.

— Ryan Cox, Daily Arts Writer

Stereolab

Once the evacuation notice had been given on Saturday afternoon, there was one thing on everyone’s mind: Would Stereolab’s set be cancelled? After a 10-year hiatus, the highly influential ‘90s band’s set was the most anticipated of the weekend for many festival-goers. So when the all clear was given, listeners flooded the park just in time to hear the group’s downbeat.

Although their lineup has changed drastically over the years, Stereolab’s sound has remained insanely consistent. But while with other performances that weekend I was impressed by how closely groups could mimic their recorded sound, Stereolab was the complete opposite. They weren’t just playing songs, they were performing them. Some songs, like “Lo Boob Oscillator”, turned into krautrock-influenced jams that lasted significantly longer than their recordings. And with such talented musicians, the group clearly hasn’t skipped a beat in the last ten years. 

— Ryan Cox, Daily Arts Writer

Sky Ferreira

I remember waiting in the photo pit — “First three songs, no flash!” they always say — for Sky Ferreira’s set. And then I remember certain details about her set and, well, I feel compelled to write about it because it was the most uncomfy trainwreck of a set anyone experienced all weekend. My job is not to apportion blame, and if it were I wouldn’t know where to start, so I won’t try. But the gist of it is that Ferreira came on 20 minutes late, and her set was plagued by sound difficulties start to finish. There was something wrong with the monitors so that Ferreira couldn’t hear her band or herself when she needed to. What this resulted in was not one but two false starts on a new song, “Descending,” before a successful third try. The parts of Ferreira’s set that went well — ”Everything Is Embarrassing,” “Boys,” “I Blame Myself,” “24 Hours” — went so well, it’s a shame that they’re likely incontrovertibly tied to the friction that surrounded them in the minds of attendees. To top it all off, Ferreira’s set was “cut short” (i.e. she wasn’t allowed to go over her time to make up for the late start) so that Earl Sweatshirt’s set could start at the nearby Red Stage.

— Sean Lang, Daily Arts Writer

black midi

If you’ve listened to Schlagenheim, the debut album from the London-based noise, post punk, math rock, who-knows-what quartet black midi, you’ve probably wondered, “How the hell are they supposed to do this live?” I know I did. Heading into the festival, black midi were my most anticipated set, and from opener “953” down to the final note of “bmbmbm,” all I can say is that, while the album really is something, it’s not quite like the real thing.

These guys are all between the ages of 19 and 21, but they rip like veterans, and Morgan Simpson is, quite simply, a god on drums. I asked some friends what they thought after the show and one of them told me he actually just watched Simpson for the entire 40 minutes. black midi’s chaotic, angry, pretentious brand of screeching guitar rock probably isn’t right for a lot of people, especially not when we’re talking a casual listen on earbuds during the workday. But everyone in attendance that early afternoon was rapt, and I’m willing to bet that more than a few of us left the set regretting not having bought tickets for their aftershow that took place the night before. 

— Sean Lang, Daily Arts Writer

JPEGMAFIA

After having gassed up the black midi’s show, I’m not quite sure how to contextualize the absolute absurdity of the set that followed. Before 30 seconds of his first song had elapsed, JPEGMAFIA was already in the crowd. At one point he said, “I only have one question. Will you catch me?” I hesitate to say that the audience was ready for what was happening, but they did catch him. Peggy was breathing hard about eight minutes in, but his intensity hardly waned. At one point, he asked everyone to sit down on the ground. If he hadn’t begun the set with their respect — or, perhaps, their fear — he had it by then, because they listened.

Between subtly ripping on “Pitchfork Condé Nast Festival” and not-so-subtly playing his song “I Cannot Fucking Wait Until Morrissey Dies,” JPEGMAFIA put on the most engrossing, enrapturing, humorous and cathartic set of the weekend. I knew not a single song of his going into the show (whoops), but left a devoted fan. 

— Sean Lang, Daily Arts Writer

Lala Lala

I have long held in my heart a certain tenderness for Lala Lala. I first saw Lillie West’s Chicago-based band open for Surf Curse, and then later for Frankie Cosmos. After that second show, I started doing some research, and found myself delightfully fascinated with the interconnectedness of the Chicago scene (see also: NE-HI, Earring, Accessory, Vail, Dehd, Grapetooth, Whitney, the list goes on). West has a charming humbleness about her that shines through on both her songs and her Twitter feed. On the day before her set, she tweeted: “oh btw if anyone takes ugly pictures of me at pitchfork it’s over.”

On stage, she was equally self-effacing, but more outwardly grateful than anything, expressing thanks to the audience and her massive backing band, whose ranks included Sen Morimoto on keys and Nnamdi Ogbonnaya on bass. In sum, Lala Lala’s set left me with a warm, wholesome glow in my belly, not quite nostalgic but not entirely unlike nostalgia either. 

— Sean Lang, Daily Arts Writer

Grapetooth

How Grapetooth somehow remains a best-kept secret of the Chicago scene is beyond me. A collaboration between Chris Bailoni and Twin Peaks’s Clay Frankel, the duo formed in 2015, and their eponymous first album arrived in late 2018, loaded with barn-burners comprised of killer synth riffs, straightforward and sometimes silly lyrics and just a whole lot of joy. Believe it or not, Grapetooth came to the Michigan League back in April of this year. Unfortunately, their show was woefully under-attended despite the better efforts of student organization New Beat Happening.

This is what made it especially heartening to watch them play an official aftershow in their hometown on Friday night (with Lala Lala opening). Metro’s showroom quickly became a sweaty mess of jubilee only moments after Frankel took the stage, closely followed by Bailoni, and it didn’t get any less sweaty for the next hour and a half. In keeping with the custom of a Grapetooth show in their hometown Chicago, they closed out their set with a friends-and-family rendition of album standout “Trouble.” What I mean is that there were about 25 people on stage (among them were Lillie West of Lala Lala, members of Twin Peaks and Whitney, and so many others I didn’t recognize), all singing and dancing, not even performing anymore but simply reveling in one another’s company. 

— Sean Lang, Daily Arts Writer

***

A lot of unknowns go into a music festival, even a tightly managed one that’s been around for almost 15 years now. Despite weather problems and persistent sound difficulties — I remember Ryan, who himself is a Performing Arts Technologies major, whispering to me at one point: “Live sound mixing is the most stressful thing ever” — Pitchfork came out on top again. Its success is due in large part to the volunteers who put in the work to keep water readily accessible through the weekend’s hot stretches and sucked up puddles of water with shop vac after shop vac before laying down bags of soil to soak up the excess after Saturday’s storm. 

Thinking more about the festival on paper (rather than in execution), I also can’t help but think about the crowd they actively cater to. At the festival, you’re far more likely to run into a 50-year-old than an obnoxious teenybopper and, in my experience, fewer people are “off their asses,” as the kids say, at Pitchfork than at a larger-scale affair like Lollapalooza or EDM-leaning fests like Electric Forest.

It feels a little silly putting it down on paper, but Pitchfork fest really strikes me as a festival that’s put together for the art more than anything else. Here, I say art rather than music, because the festival’s Blue Stage also featured readings by 15 different poets from Young Chicago Authors’ Louder Than A Bomb Poets. Regardless of your feelings toward the oft-pretentious music publication itself, that commitment (14 whole years of it!) is something we would be remiss not to recognize. 

— Sean Lang, Daily Arts Writer