Pitchfork Music Festival 2018: A weekend of erratic weather and extraordinary performances

Wednesday, July 25, 2018 - 6:00pm

Cloudy, ominous weather welcomed me to Pitchfork Music Festival this year, and bracing myself for the worst I strapped up in a raincoat and boots for the first day of the fest. But what was originally daunting proved simply unreliable. The weather circled through cloud, rain and shine all weekend while artists dealt with wet equipment and herds of fans waiting patiently in the rain to see them. But this erratic weather didn’t do much to dissuade fans. If anything, the rain that poured down onto us during the Tame Impala set Friday night simply made their backlit bodies and light show all the more spectacular as beads of water could be seen streaming through the lights. A festival dominated by female-fronted bands and artists, Pitchfork stands out from more mainstream festivals in its emphasis on female and queer artists, especially this year. The diversity of the artists, genre, and its celebration of smaller names alongside bigger ones is what makes this festival unique; it’s relative tameness and inclusiveness of an older, less wreckless crowd is what makes it still exciting and bearable by day three. In the last year the festival improved upon its layout and welcomed more women than ever before, and despite last minute cancellations from artists such as Earl Sweatshirt, the festival carried on day after day as thousands gathered in Union Park to celebrate music, drink excessively and participate in the hedonistic rituals that accompany music and those who value it more than their own life.

Julien Baker

Around the same time Julien Baker began her set at the Blue Stage, Pitchfork Music Festival’s most intimate stage, Saba was playing on the other side of the park. His effusive shouts traveled to the crowd gathered around Baker’s feet and provoked the singer-songwriter to divulge halfway through her set that his sophomore album has been one of her favorites of the year. “I wish I could do that. I wish I could just be like, ‘Make some noise!’” sighed Baker, as Saba’s crowd roared across the field while hers stood in silent reflection, taking in the sheer enormity of songs like “Turn Out the Lights” and “Sprained Ankle.” But with this remark, her crowd pulled themselves out of their daze, clapping and yelling for Baker as she went into “Sour Breath,” a standout from her second album Turn Out the Lights. “This is probably my one song that has the closest thing to a chant,” Baker said, laughing along with the sudden outburst of adoration bestowed onto her by her fans. The song builds into a powerful recitation of “The harder I swim, the faster I sink,” a crescendo which feels more like a feverous call to the heavens than anything else. Each of her songs, with their somber tones and heady subjects, contain undercurrents of Baker’s Christian background. This is unsurprising, given the introspective and somber nature of her music. What was surprising was the preface for her entire set: standing above us in her small frame and Terror t-shirt, she divulged that she always wanted to be in a metal band. But instead she strummed, bringing most of the crowd to tears rather than leading them to be kicked in the head.

Syd

Syd, the lead singer of the hip-hop soul collective The Internet, stood in stark contrast to her crowd when she took to the Green Stage on Friday. Crowded around the front gate were swarms of Tame Impala fans waiting out for the headliner who was set to play the same stage later that night. But Syd operated in spite of this, pointedly dedicating song after song to the ladies in the crowd, excluding the masses of white boys in Hawaiian shirts crowded around her feet. As a queer artist of color, this was not the demographic her performance traditionally appeals to nor the audience for whom she makes music. Her charisma and charm is undeniable and probably one of her most identifiable traits as an artist outside of her sultry voice. Straddling the mic and crouching at the edge of the stage, Syd performed songs from her self-titled and closed with four Internet songs while accompanied by Steve Lacy, a primary member of the band and producer for other artists present at the festival such as Ravyn Lenae. And while Syd and Lacey delivered “Come Over,” “Rollin’ (Burbank Funk),” “La Di Da,” and “Girl” with smooth confidence and smiles, I couldn’t help but feel that a certain ambience was missing, a certain personal element. Syd and The Internet are meant for small settings and intimate spaces where their beats can reverberate and bring the recipients to dance. Syd played to her advantages, to her ladies, but her audience didn’t respond in kind.

Courtney Barnett

Steven Hyden claimed in his recent novel that Courtney Barnett is the best rock song writer of our decade. Her lyrics and unsympathetic electric guitar deliver what the Sex Pistols or the Rolling Stones did for a previous generation except with one noticeable difference: She’s a woman. And that makes her even fiercer. In an all black outfit accented by her blood red guitar, Barnett greeted her adoring crowd with the song “Hopefulessness” which is off her recent release Tell Me How You Really Feel. And immediately, her crowd went into a concentrated state of head-banging until the set concluded more than an hour later. It was as if I was standing on the precipice of a mosh pit the entire set; eagerly wanting to break out into a push and pull with other attendees, I held back. For while Barnett’s songs reach towards punk rock, they often hold back just a little bit and show restraint. This can be particularly heard on songs like “Charity” and “Small Poppies,” but becomes less clear on more aggressive songs like “Elevator Operator” and “Pedestrian at Best.” And perhaps this is what made the performance so thrilling. There was an element of unknown over what was going to happen next, whether the crowd would burst into a mosh pit of continue banging their heads along, holding back with every bit of strength so to fully take in the rock god Barnett has established herself to be.

Blood Orange

Seconds into Blood Orange’s set on Saturday, I gasped. The familiar notes of Sky Ferierra’s “Everything is Embarrassing” echoed through the field as Dev Hynes, Blood Orange’s lead singer, walked on stage and immediately dove into the 2012 hit he co-wrote with the punk rocker. From this, the set only grew exponentially better. Delivering familiar tracks like “Best to You” as well as hints of new music from their upcoming album Negro Swan, Hynes and his accompanying band put on one of the best performances of the weekend, drawing in a rapturous crowd and greeting cheering fans with sly smiles and matched energy. Closing with two of his biggest hits, “You’re Not Good Enough” and “E.V.P.” Hynes captivated the huge crowd that had gathered around the Green Stage, the largest stage at the festival.

Japanese Breakfast

Along with Blood Orange, Japanese Breakfast was my favorite performance of the weekend. Between their after show Saturday night at Thalia Hall in Chicago and the Sunday afternoon performance on the Blue Stage, Michelle Zauner captured my heart. For while Psychopomp and Soft Sounds from Another Planet are gorgeous albums in their own right, hearing the songs performed live and watching as Zauner delivers them with fierce energy and enthusiasm not easily located in the recordings is a completely different thing. Yielding her electric guitar and egging on her fellow bandmates, Zauner pushed through hits such as “In Heaven,” “Everybody Wants to Love You,” and “Boyish” and left me in a distraught state — I wasn’t sure if I wanted to dance or cry, so I did both at the same time. Closing with a cover of the Cranberries’ “Dreams” and the song “Machinist” off of their second studio album, Japanese Breakfast left the crowd in awe. Zauner is a bubble of happiness on stage. One wouldn’t know the grief that inspired and undercuts Psychopomp and Soft Sounds unless they’ve read about their background elsewhere (one was written in the wake of her mother’s cancer diagnosis, and the next in the wake of her mother’s death). The juxtaposition of this heaviness with Zauner’s lighthearted delivery is perhaps why I felt so struck by the band’s performances. In the end, it proves to be a catharsis not just for the crowd, but for Zauner too at each and every tour date.

Noname

Last September I was lucky enough to see Noname open for Ms. Lauryn Hill at the Royal Oak Music Theatre. At the time, it had only been a month since she released her debut studio album Telefone, and while it would grow to garner widespread praise from multiple critics, it only had a small following at the time. Six months later, she would come to Michigan once again, this time headlining her own show at the El Club with opener Ravyn Lenae. By this time, her stint as Lauryn Hill’s opener would become a verse in rapper Smino’s song “Amphetamine”: “Said I'm moving too fast, slow down, slow down / Opened up for Lauryn Hill, woah now, woah now.” In six months she had grown from a small Chicago rapper featured on Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap to a woman being called the “musical reincarnation of Lauryn Hill.” And while her music does lend itself to this comparison, her stage presence is much more reserved than the mother of modern hip hop. “I wanted to do one of my new songs, but then I smoked and forgot the lyrics,” the rapper said, after stopping her band two minutes into the first song. “Do you mind if I do it a cappella?” She’s irresistibly charming, if untraditional in her delivery of her music. The set continued on in this vein, with her occasionally stopping to start a song again from the beginning or guiding the audience in the harmonies for a song from her upcoming album Room 25. With 20 minutes left in her set, she brought out guest after guest — from Ravyn Lenae to Saba to Smino — and while they brought a boost of energy to her reserved stage demeanor, she still remained the star.

(Sandy) Alex G

(Sandy) Alex G can be an asshole. A primary feature of his performances is often his antagonistic treatment of his crowd, asking for requests from his adoring audiences and then blowing them off to play a hardly recognizable deep cut. This performance was no exception, with the singer-songwriter barely addressing the crowd during his brutally short 45 minute set. But for some reason, I, and all the other fans gathered around the Blue Stage Sunday evening, still dwelled in every second he bestowed on us. Throwing out the melody to Weezer’s “Island in the Sun” during soundcheck and then blasting the Rascal Flatt’s cover of “Life is a Highway” before taking the stage with his band, (Sandy) Alex G went right into a rendition of “Kute” and “Forever” before even addressing the audience. Strangely enough, Alex G played several songs off of Beach Music, his 2015 studio release, and at one point Michelle Zauner joined him on stage to perform the popular “Brite Boy,” a personal favorite of mine that hasn’t made a setlist at his concert in quite a while. And unlike the reserve fans showed during Courtney Barnett’s set on Friday, when her crowd remained stationary despite her rock songs begging for a mosh pit to form, the second Alex screamed the first lyric to his aggressive, punk-heavy “Brick,” the crowd broke into a mosh pit, his dedicated fans throwing themselves at each other in a religious fervor, only stopping after a girl went down after getting elbowed in the nose. After a 15 song performance, the set ended suddenly with Alex G announcing that despite what he thought, there was no more time for another song. While the crowd bemoaned this and chanted “one more song!” Alex G fittingly approached the mic and screamed “Shut up, and thank you” before finally departing the stage.

Ms. Lauryn Hill

The most popular topic of discussion Sunday evening was throwing out guesses as to how many minutes would pass before Ms. Lauryn Hill would finally take the stage. Twenty minutes? Thirty? Would she come at all? Having set a precedent for being erratic and undependable when it comes to her live performances, Hill begs this kind of concern from her fans. The answer, come 9:03 p.m. Sunday night, ended up being 23 minutes. And when she finally did take the stage, after her DJ hyped up the crowd for those intermediate minutes, there was no love lost. Decked out in a white gown, flannel button down, and a wide brimmed hat cascading over the side of her face, Hill looked like a vision. And the command with which she executed notes to her backing band and singers made her seem like a god. Having been lucky enough to see Hill a year ago, I knew what to expect from her live performance. That is, I expected that the songs from the seminal Miseducation of Lauryn Hill would be almost unrecognizable in their live format. In the twenty years since this album was released, Hill has completely revamped and remixed her classics. With a horn section by her side and her voice moving a mile a minute, songs like “Ex-Factor” and “To Zion” become equally ballads and sped-up, funkified versions of their original selves. This can be to the dismay or delight of the audience. I can dwell in her performance, feel as if I don’t need to sing along or keep up with the unexpected twists and turns these songs now take in their live reincarnations. But it’s surprising that a tour dedicated to celebrating this album produces songs that are foreign to those who cherished them.

In the concluding minutes of her set, before “Doo Wop (That Thing)” could close out what had been an hour of nonstop music, Lauryn Hill paused her band and began to address the crowd. She talked about how she’d felt driven to “warrior through the resistance and deliver a piece of art” and how after putting it out there she had to come to terms with the fact that “this album has a life outside me, beyond me.” There are two times I’ve seen an entire crowd fall silent for an artist; this was a second. For the first ten minutes of her speech, the crowd barely breathed, standing in awe as this miraculous woman offered honest and powerful words about the stakes that existed for this album and what it means to continue to perservere in creative endeavors despite fierce obstacles. And finally, after giving what seemed to be most of her heart and soul to her audience, she finally broke into “Doo Wop” before departing. It was a fitting end to a festival dedicated to diversity and representation in not only music genre, but artists as well. Hill spoke about recognizing the past and present when making music; she spoke about the importance of embracing the past and bracing oneself for the future. These words, like her music, have already become something outside of her, beyond even the audience who took them in. Like The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, they have already taken shape as something beyond all of us.