With The Julie Ruin’s cancellation, Death Grip’s now-infamous breakup, and the passing of DJ Rashad, Pitchfork Music Festival hit some logistical bumps and was making music headlines weeks before the gates opened.
“This is when we start playing Death Grips covers, right?” said Nicole Miglis, lead singer of Hundred Waters, midway through their opening set. Early in the day, a fan raised a sign that read “I came here for Death Grips” during Factory Floor’s set. I lost count of ironic Death Grips tee shirts.
But as the cliche goes, the show must go on, and attendees piled into Union Park on one of the nicest afternoons of a notoriously cool Chicago summer, the first day of Pitchfork went without a hitch.
While I, too, largely purchased a ticket to see the now-defunct hip hop group, it forced me to remember one of the greatest functions of the music festival format: discovery. With its uniquely curated lineup – ranging from the now alt-rock legend Beck to the now widely successful hip hop artist Kendrick Lamar – makes it well-suited for wandering.
The mostly mellow day began with Hundred Waters’ set, an experimental outfit that merges folksy vocals with slightly dark and woozy synth elements. Miglis mentioned it was their first festival, but considering the ease with which they swayed through breezy and intricate melodies, paired with Miglis’ sweet and grounded vocals, this fact would not have otherwise been apparent.
Over in the shady corner of the Blue Stage, Factory Floor surged into a meditative stream of grungy industrial beats. Their set felt only slightly out of place in the daylight; as their name suggests, I would imagine it might be best suited for some stereotypical European rave hall with pulsating lights. Still, as the crowd settled into the percussive-heavy beats, they took to a fierce head-bobbing dance.
I retreated to the shade for Sharon Van Etten’s early evening set, which proved to be a popular option as a few people lay themselves across the grounds to siesta as the songstress spun tales in her effortless soprano vibrato. A bit worn myself, I wandered to the park’s basketball courts where Chipotle promised free tacos. Though rarely one to pass up on free things, I eventually became impatient – for whatever reason, a half hour seemed a bit too long to wait for free food in that moment – so I settled on a blast of caffeine in the form of Dark Matter’s iced coffee.
The ensuing overlap of Sun Kil Moon and Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks proved to be the first somewhat divisive moment of the weekend. Mark Kozelek’s Sun Kil Moon project has been widely-acclaimed in the critic’s sphere, with Pitchfork slapping a “Best New Music” label on his 2014 album “Benji”. Known for his work with Animal Collective, Avey Tare’s latest Slasher Flicks project is a spooky take on his weirdo brand of pop. Their debut, “Enter the Slasher House”, was inspired by kooky and cheesy horror films filtered through a lens of childlike wonder.
Still, Kozelek’s latest is dark in content, with many of the tracks spinning tales of untimely and often brutal death. Kozelek has also been touring somewhat frequently; as one attendee put it, Slasher Flicks could be a “one and done” project, with Pitchfork being their only set thus far in Chicago.
As an unapologetically avid Animal Collective fan, I was a bit worried that their compact and splattery sound would end up flopping around limply in the open air. But from midway between the soundstage and stage, Avey’s shrieks pierced through beautifully live. I eventually made my way closer to the stage to join the goofy hopping and swaying dance celebration.
I had high hopes for closer Beck. After all, he is alternative music’s wunderkind, the “loser” who has both garnered radio airtime and widespread respect. Put “Odelay” on for your mom, your cousin, your best friend, and odds are none will protest.
Though his opening one-two of hits “Devil’s Haircut” and “Black Tambourine” proved exciting, there were a few unintentional or misplaced feedback squeals that signaled some sound issues. These were worked out just as he settled into a few, more somber “Modern Guilt” cuts that seemed to fall a bit flat on the audience. From the back of the crowd, a few groups began cutting out early.
But when Beck is on—as he most often was—he commands the stage like the not-so-old rockstar that he is. His cheekier and sensual tracks allowed him to work his cheesy, tongue-in-cheek vocals onto the stage for a crowd-pleasing encore. Bassist Justin Meldal-Johnson pulled caution tape across the stage before jumping into “Midnight Vultures” cut “Sexx Laws” and the dorky pick-up lines of “Debra”. After Beck closed with an extended jam of “Where It’s At,” even the brief and more relaxed afternoon of milling and discovery left me satisfied.