Despite a very lopsided lineup this year, Pitchfork Music Festival went off with a bang and seemingly without a hitch. I say lopsided because of the somewhat unequal distribution of star power between the three days: Sunday was stacked with R. Kelly, TNGHT and M.I.A., while Friday and Saturday, besides respective headliners Bjork and Belle and Sebastian, were something of a hodgepodge of punk bands and DJ acts.
You don’t come to Pitchfork to see the big stars, though. You come to see the big stars a year before they reach that level Š—ê at least that’s what I assume. This was my first Pitchfork attendance ever, and I sought to make the most of it. Of the 46 bands in the lineup, I saw 29, which by my elementary calculations is more than half. And when I say I saw them, I mean I bore witness to no less than 15 minutes of their set.
Here are some highlights of each of the days, based on notes that I took and my memory.
FRIDAY, July 19
The first day of the festival started later than the next two would, with the first act going on at 3:20 p.m. I arrived shortly after 2:30, which is when press check-in was starting. After receiving my credentials, I did what everyone else was doing and walked over to the media tent and milled about. They told us we couldn’t go into the park itself until the gates opened at 3. Turns out, they took this regulation very seriously and had to herd us back outside the gates until we could go in “for real this time.”
Once that was figured out, it was off to the races. Friday was not a day that was full of any big commitments for me; of course I would see Bjork, and I really wanted to catch Mac DeMarco, but otherwise I was content with just wandering and seeing as many bands as possible. The first two artists Š—ê Frankie Rose and Daughn Gibson Š—ê were somewhat opposite. Frankie Rose was your prototypical Brooklyn band, with lots of surf rock guitar sounds and things you can easily sway to. Daughn Gibson was something like alt-country, and it was kind of unnerving too. The man who I assumed was Daughn Gibson sang in a low, throaty tone that sounded like a combination of Lou Reed and Johnny Cash, two men with esophagi the width of the Channel Tunnel (Chunnel). This made for slow songs that were a little uncomfortable, but Gibson’s band was something else when they kicked the tempo up. Their guitarist alternated between a pink Fender Telecaster with a shiny silver Bigsby tailpiece and an electric steel guitar, from which he wrenched some killer solos. After a few minutes of their set, I ran back to Blue Stage to catch big-name hardcore act Trash Talk, which was everything I thought it would be. There was something hilariously magical about the backdrop of their set, since the Blue Stage is situated in the shadow of an old church with a beautiful spire. Vocalist Lee Spielman was also quite the showman, and his dialogue between songs was great, with such lines as: “There’s some sick old people here, cool.” At one point he also implored the crowd to sit down.
I only stayed at Trash Talk for a good 15 minutes before making my way to Green Stage for Mac DeMarco. Based on what I had heard and seen of him on Pitchfork’s website the last few months, I knew this would be a great show Š—ê indeed it was. DeMarco is a natural entertainer who gives off a very sleazy, weirdo sort of vibe. It fits well with the music, which sounds like delightfully out-of-tune lounge rock. It’s the kind of music your dad would probably enjoy at least marginally. I realize none of that sounds entertaining at all, and maybe it shouldn’t be, but DeMarco and his band are simply hilarious. The guitarist and bassist both look like recent high school graduates, and the bassist in particular provided some great lines between songs.
“We’d like to thank our manager Bruce Willis for making this happen,” DeMarco said at one point. DeMarco himself would regularly alternate between his relatively normal voice and other silly, guttural, truck-driver-sounding timbres. They even covered Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” and Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business,” among other classic rock songs, with DeMarco occasionally reverting to his Neanderthal voice and substituting random swear words for the real lyrics. DeMarco and his band aren’t the musical talents of our generation or anything, but they put on a great show and I would love to see them again in a smaller venue.
After that set, I sojourned back to the media tent and struck up a conversation with a writer from Consequence of Sound, as well as enjoyed some free but admittedly sub-par pizza. I’m not about to complain about free pizza, but it’s worth noting.
Next, I caught a bit of Mikal Cronin’s set, which seemed like a lot of punk rock fun, but I honestly don’t remember much about it besides thinking to myself, “I should listen to this more later.” I then trekked over to the Red Stage to watch Joanna Newsom, a harpist and singer who was certainly delightful to listen to, but honestly pretty boring after a few songs. She sang and played a majestic harp at the same time, and also switched to piano for a few songs, and while I admired the skill with which she played, it made me want to lay down. I could not lay down, however, due to the fact that everyone was standing and also because Bjork was about to begin.
I left halfway into Bjork set, which I wasn’t too proud of at the time, but thunderstorms and high winds were approaching, and I was tired, and I figured the show would get cut short (which it did with about 30 minutes left of the set). Still, Bjork delivered a phenomenal performance, complete with weird costume and strange visuals on video screens. The lightning in the distance made the whole scene look that much cooler, but there were times when all the lights onstage would go out seemingly at random, and I wonder if they were having power trouble. Bjork was unfazed by this and pressed on regardless. Her set was a great way to cap the first day of festivities.
SATURDAY, July 20
Saturday was going to be my ultimate mill-around day, since I knew little of most of the bands on the lineup. Overall, it was pretty heavy on the punk rock and hardcore spectrum of sound. Brooklyn’s Parquet Courts was an early favorite of mine. They played what was essentially straight-ahead punk with a slight psychedelic tinge to it. I was also ecstatic to see the guitarist playing a cheap Squier Telecaster, an entry-level guitar that also happens to be the exact guitar that I own (he made it sound way better, though). The crowd was very enthused as well, with plenty of pushing and shoving and jumping going on.
Next I caught Savages, an all-girl band whom I felt sorry for because they were wearing all-black in the middle of the day. I suppose it’s an image thing. I also caught the beginning of METZ which was more of the same loud garage rock. Swans was utterly baffling to me. I don’t know much about them, except that they’ve been around for a while and are more on the experimental side of things. They were skull-rattlingly loud and played lots of monotonous, repetitive figures that honestly just gave me a headache. Am I missing something here? Are these guys prog rock geniuses or do people just go see them to trigger migraines?
In any case, after more free pizza and seeing bits and pieces of Ryan Hemsworth’s and The Breeders’ sets, I set up camp with my friend to see Solange, who I only just recently learned is Beyonce’s sister. I was expecting the show to be somewhat knock-offish in that regard, but it turned out to be brilliant and unique. Solange’s sound is distinct from Beyonce’s in its greater emphasis on soul and less on the theatrics that we have come to associate with Queen Bey. She’s a great entertainer as well, imploring the audience to “grind” like “in high school” at one point, and doing some crazy dance moves of her own. The crowd loved every second. It was the perfect background music for the setting sun.
Unfortunately, my fatigue set in again soon after Solange’s set, and I saw only parts of Belle and Sebastian. They were great, providing laidback and fun music to sway to. They even brought a member of the audience on stage to read dialogue from a song, which is always great to see. Once again, it began to rain in the middle of the set, and I decided it was best I head home. This was my first music festival that I attended basically by myself, and I have to say I loved it, mainly because of the freedom you have. I could see whoever I wanted for as long as I wanted, and I could leave early to avoid crowds on the CTA and getting soaked, without feeling like a burden on anyone Š—ê I highly recommend it.
SUNDAY, July 21
This was the big day, the stacked lineup of mostly hip-hop that I had been waiting for. Local artists Tree and DJ Rashad served as the opening acts, and I split my time between the two. Tree, whose brand of rap he calls “soul trap,” was a little underwhelming. Perhaps my expectations were set too high, but his onstage support Š—ê a DJ, a drummer, three backup singers Š—ê seemed out of sync most of the time. I couldn’t hear much of the “soul” I was promised, although maybe the sound guy was asleep at the wheel. DJ Rashad was a little more energetic, backed by locals DJ Spinn and the Treated Crew. I really enjoyed Rashad’s unique take on the juke sound, as well as Treated Crew’s vocal accompaniment.
The next couple hours were full of enticing acts for me, and it was hard to split my time between them accordingly. Foxygen was incredible to behold. Their singer, clad in kaleidoscope gaucho pants, was literally all over the place. During the first couple songs, he ran and jumped around every corner of the stage, at one point even climbing the stage’s lighting scaffolding for no apparent reason, other than because he could and because maybe he just drank like 20 Red Bulls and therefore had no other choice. Autre Ne Veut’s lead singer was similarly energetic, and for some reason was backed by four or six men, dressed like waiters, who stood on stage and held empty picture frames for the entire show, because why not?
Killer Mike Š—ê one of the many big name emcees coming out of Atlanta right now Š—ê was next, delivering a blistering set of cuts from his latest album “R.A.P. Music,” interspersed with long-winded and very sentimental diatribes on the importance of nonviolence and mutual respect. He teared up when talking about his past as a community organizer and the woman who inspired him to become one. It was overwhelmingly positive and great to see such a big, imposing guy be sensitive, and not in a comedic way or anything. He later joined El-P on Red Stage to perform what seemed like the entirety of their recent collaborative effort, “Run the Jewels.” It was a spectacular set, maybe one of the best I saw all weekend.
There was still plenty more to see, however. I decided I may as well stick around for Lil B, who played an hour after El-P to an enormous crowd of pink bandana-wearing, meme-reciting teenagers. Lil B was extremely positive as usual, which made for an afternoon full of really joyful and fun hip-hop. I caught Toro y Moi next, synthpop masterminds who played an hour of chilled-out, house inspired jams. Very fitting to be playing in the shadow of the Willis Tower in Chicago, where such music was created some 30 years ago.
Once M.I.A. began performing on the Red Stage, the entirety of Union Park’s field was packed to the gills with people, all jockeying for a position to either get a glimpse of her, or get close for R. Kelly’s impending set. M.I.A. was spectacular as usual, with a stage backdrop of lit ferris wheels and dancers dressed in neon colored robes, like some kind of hip-hop monks. After she closed out with an obligatory performance of “Paper Planes,” pretty much everyone crowded around the Green Stage to witness the arrival of R&B’s reigning king. He arrived as it began to drizzle lightly, amidst a gospel chorus, singing “Ignition (Remix)” and generally loving every second of it, which is admirable. He’s probably sang this song close to a million times, but he has to Š—ê it is the definitive R. Kelly song, after all.
While the crowd was going wild for Kelly, I waded through a sea of people to at least catch a glimpse of DJ duo TNGHT, situated at the opposite end of the park on Blue Stage. I felt bad for them in a way, since they were playing at the exact same time as a veritable superstar and probably only there for crowd control. It’s unfortunate because they are one of the biggest deals out there right now, the most risen of rising stars. I think anyone there was hoping to see Kanye West pop out, which he has been wont t do at previous TNGHT shows, and of course he’s from Chicago so it seemed plausible enough. I didn’t stick around long enough to find out, though. Local rap talent Rocky Fresh was onstage with them holding his own; I guess he would have to suffice.
I left Pitchfork with a sense of accomplishment. I had seen more than half of the bands on the bill and now had lots of new music to discover in the next few weeks. This being my first time at Pitchfork, I was overall very pleased with the way things were run. One part of the festival that might be overlooked are the various shops and vendors available to peruse. The “Book Fort” featured local authors and their latest works, printed and bound in custom covers by Chicago-based publishers. The food selection was quite varied as well. My only complaint would be that lines for water were brutally long, longer than I remember them being at Lollapalooza or any similar festival, but otherwise, I had a great time.