Pitchfork’s annual something-for-everyone summer festival in Chicago’s Union Park was on point again this year, with a lineup reflecting the genre-blind appreciation for good music that one can expect from the original record store connoisseur of independent music. From jazz to indie-rock to dream-pop to punk, the underlying theme of Pitchfork has always been musical integrity. Not that every act lived up to their critics’ reviews, but one can appreciate the honesty of the stellar musical variety Friday-to-Sunday, July 15th to 17th.
Part of the experience is also the extensive record-store tent, complete with everything from bargain bins to signings by bands on the bill. In addition to food and drink, there were flea-market type shopping tents for t-shirts and jewelry, and a Vans outpost with the best activity at the festival – constructing your own record player from a particleboard kit. With construction “counselors” at the ready to help out, it was like hipster summer camp for twenty-somethings.
At 1:00 PM on a Friday afternoon, festivalgoers were just beginning to trickle in as the festival kicked off with American indie-rock band Car Seat Headrest. You see there are no ‘warm up’ bands at Pitchfork. Car Seat Headrest, the project of singer-songwriter Will Toledo and a favorite of music critics from Pitchfork to Rolling Stone, took to one of the two main stages fresh off of the European leg of their world tour in support of their May 2016 release Teens of Denial by Matador Records.
Despite the strong start, the festival had some kinks to work out that unfortunately persisted at the smaller Blue Stage throughout the weekend. Singer-songwriter Moses Sumney was due to start there at 5:15 PM but by the time Twin Peaks had started on the main stage at 5:30 PM, Sumney’s set had still not begun due to some technical difficulties. Returning awhile later to the Blue Stage to finally catch a bit of Sumney’s performance, the garage rock of Twin Peaks was at full tilt and Sumney could not be heard. The affable performer made light of the situation as best he could though, and was chill enough to pose for a quick portrait after his set.
Meanwhile Chicago’s Twin Peaks came onto the Red Stage like a parody of a ‘70s rock and roll band, smoking and drinking and exuding general debauchery (but not without, in true millennial form, brandishing their Goose Island craft beer collaboration (a/k/a product placement), “Natural Villain”). They really don’t need to try so hard, though. Drummer Connor Brodner rocked. Cadien Lake James can sing. So can Jack Dolan. Clay Frankel had some serious chops on guitar despite the degenerate rock star act – he started out all bravado with a last drag on his cigarette before throwing it into the air just before rocking his first chord. These guys are local favorites and obviously having a blast playing their hometown festival. Their music is a little all over the place, almost like a walk through rock music history, but they’ve got some real depth and breadth and put on a good show. Good things to come for sure.
The lone pop star of the lineup, Carly Rae Jepsen played next on the Green Stage, and if you want to know what she sounded like you can listen to her album. Being at her live show was exactly like listening to the radio. There was nothing ‘live’ about it, except for the appearance of Dev Hynes of Blood Orange during her show to play guitar on “All That”, a song that he co-wrote with her. Jepsen’s performance was a perfectly polished step and repeat of peppy strutting in front of a backdrop where images flashed of – you guessed it – Carly Rae Jepsen.
Veteran live performers Broken Social Scene took to the Red Stage after a five-year hiatus from touring. The Canadian ‘musical collective’ is known for it’s rotating cast of collaborators, and were joined at this performance by singer Amy Millan of Stars. The indie love was flowing from this crowd, as the band managed to both premiere a new song from their upcoming album as well as stay relevant, with Kevin Drew imploring the audience, “We want you to do what’s best in this next election, we really do,” before launching into the ten-year-old tune “Fire Eye’d Boy”.
The first night closed out with the more contemporary vibe of Beach House in their typical smoke machine fashion, with Victoria Legrand appearing hooded in a dark shroud that she eventually shed as the sun set. The band’s hazy keyboard sounds and heavily lit stage show were the perfect fit for a summer night. As festivalgoers swayed to the dreamy sounds, mesmerized by the light show, one couldn’t help but think that Beach House should always be heard outdoors under a starry sky.
The beginning of the first full weekend festival day saw punks Girl Band and Royal Headache playing to smallish crowds. It may have been a little early in the day for the dissonant screaming of Girl Band’s Dara Kiely, who seemed to be clinging to the mic stand for dear life while howling at the sky. Unfortunately when Kiely would switch into his lovely dark baritone, the transition could not be heard well. The crowd was mostly stunned and staring, as the young group’s performance had maybe been better suited to the smaller dark clubs where they’ve been tearing down the house. A festival stage is a different animal, and this band has some sorting out to do in order to connect with an audience that is physically further away.
Australia’s Royal Headache had it together enough to sustain a mosh pit for a while. The band connected with the small but lively crowd and lead singer “Shogun” used the stage well.
Kevin Morby was just soooo good, and the timing of sets on the stages was just slightly off enough that this reporter could not gain entrance to the photo pit and could only hear him from afar, but his performance was so much bigger than expected for a folk musician. Morby’s performance was surprisingly well suited to the large festival stage, and a great band accompanied him with a seriously stellar drummer. Total bummer to miss.
The largest crowd of the day yet gathered for alternative hip-hop band Digable Planets, who came to Pitchfork on the third stop of their reunion tour. The band has only played together sporadically since their initial breakup in 1995, yet they had an easy connection with each other that translated well with the adoring crowd, most of whom could not possibly have seen them before. A great set and positive vibes – perfect summer festival fare.
Singer-songwriter Blood Orange, a/k/a Dev Hynes, followed DP on the Red Stage. A multi-instrumentalist and engaging performer, Blood Orange was a master on stage, alternating between keys and guitar as well as manning the mike and bringing the dance party – both to the crowd and onstage, where he was joined alternately by Carly Rae Jepsen and Empress Of.
In case fans didn’t know what to do over at the Green Stage, Welsh psychedelic rockers Super Furry Animals held up cue cards at the beginning of their set, prompting the crowd to cheer “Loud,” “Louder,” and “Ape Shit.” Their wit had solid effect, as the crowd did roar and generally go ape shit for SFA, on their first tour in six years. A fun show, with lead singer Gruff Ryhs delivering one song as a Power Ranger (?), donning a red robot helmet and singing through the grill.
Brian Wilson’s highly anticipated performance of his seminal album Pet Sounds in its entirety made for a sweet afternoon set on a sunny summer day. A very large ensemble joined Wilson onstage, including original Beach Boys guitarist Al Jardine. The festival setting, however, made it difficult to appreciate the intricate sounds for which the album is acclaimed. Wilson remained seated at his piano for the length of the set, addressing the crowd at the beginning with, “How are all the boys out there?” and “How are all the girls out there?” (which brought chuckles and then cheers as the crowd caught up with the 74 year old man’s lingo). Yet for the remainder of the show, Wilson appeared to be either anxious or confused, and it was difficult to see him not fully cognizant of the honor of having his work recognized so many years after he created it. What was fun to see, however, was a 50-year-old festivalgoer who had waited all day in the sun at front row center to see Brian Wilson, and who cheered like a teenager throughout the show.
The very best performances of the day had to be from Savages and Anderson .Paak. Lead singer Jehnny Beth of U.K. post-punk band Savages had total command and control of the Green Stage. Striding across the Stage in pink zebra stilettos and a black suit, she had the audience’s attention riveted for every second of the show. She made it personal – speaking out to and wading into the crowd. Every member of this band was hitting it hard, and you could see the intensity of focus on the drummer Fay Milton’s face. An outstanding performance.
Anderson .Paak stormed the Blue Stage with his personal blend of R&B and hip-hop, alternatively singing and rapping and moving like a funk master. He’s a talented musician whose performance was absolutely electrifying. He called out in anger and in grief for black lives, raising his fist more than once in defiance, but also unifying the crowd, taking a day to revel in music and summer sun in a time of daily onslaught of both global violence and our own domestic racial strife. Everyone in attendance at the small Blue Stage was absolutely jumping with .Paak’s energy.
Sufjan Stevens closed out the night just after Anderson .Paak’s performance, and his smooth vocals and psychedelic rapture were all that could possibly follow the frenzy and fever of .Paak’s set. With his over the top production complete with stage toys, dancers, neon and glitter, Stevens delivered a fitting headlining performance. He told the audience that after a year of touring and singing about death and loneliness he just wanted to stick with upbeat stuff for a night. So he spread his wings – literally, a pair of giant wings he had strapped to his back, as the crowd gasped in awe and then smashed a banjo to bits on the Stage floor. What does it all mean? Who the hell knows, but we all need a little fantastic sometimes, and Stevens’ pal Moses Sumney finally got to be heard – joining him onstage to play guitar in a rendition of Prince’s “Kiss”.
Sunday afternoon jazz sounds ruled the festival with Sun Ra Arkestra, Kamasi Washington, and Thundercat schooling the largely youthful crowd in the joys of layered compositions and brass. But not before Aaron Maine’s Porches delivered on the unenviable task of playing first up on the third day of the festival. The band seemed to take it in stride, confident but dialed down given that weary festival-goers were just beginning to arrive. Pianist and composer Sun Ra convened the big band that he called his Arkestra in Chicago in the early 1950s, pioneering the use of electronic sound in jazz. Through the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s and even after his death in 1993, Sun Ra Arkestra has continued to perform and record. This reporter caught up with 60 year old saxophonist Knoel Scott after the Arkestra’s set, who was standing under the shade of a tree telling stories to young people about what it was like to play jazz music in Harlem in the 1970s.
Composer, saxophonist and bandleader Kamasi Washington appeared on the Red Stage later in the afternoon, bringing the sounds of The West Coast Get Down jazz collective to Midwesterners. Washington is revered not only for his own debut record The Epic, but also for his arrangements and saxophone contributions to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
Folk-rock band Woods filled out the lineup with their brass-tinged easy going set on the Green Stage. Mid-afternoon, it was laid-back listening for the still gathering crowd.
Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart’s Chicago duo Homme were a late-add to the festival lineup, playing a set on the smaller Blue Stage. The songwriters only came together to collaborate a year or so ago, having known one another since high school but each playing on their own projects. Their sound is experimental, with harmonic vocals and dueling guitars joined live by a drummer, and no bass in sight. Those guitars take you everywhere from soft and intricate to a most definite rock sound. The musicians were mesmerizing onstage, as the intensity of their music blew away the hometown crowd and as performers they never pandered, but instead they were totally immersed in their own sound.
Next on the smaller Blue Stage was Worcester, MA emo band The Hotelier. Lead singer Christian Holden laid it all out on the stage with his keening vocals and able hands on the bass. The band has an earnest intensity that is raw and truthful, and very unassuming onstage.
Most charged performances of the day went to Neon Indian and Miguel. Alan Palomo of electronic band Neon Indian stormed the stage with a hard-as-nails dance performance that brings to mind, really – Michael Jackson, complete with white pants and pelvic thrust. He crooned, falsetto-d, bantered with the audience and threw some serious shade with those eyes, but Palomo had so much energy that it was somehow tiring to watch. With the daylight slot for an electronic band that usually employs a light show, let’s just say he worked overtime to make up for it. His exaggerated movements worked well on the jumbotron, too.
Next up Miguel brought his star power persona to the Red Stage, where he shone brightly with his beautiful vocals and well-orchestrated stage show. He seemed to be able to bring an audience diverse in age and in musical tastes together with his magnetic energy and ability to engage fans both at near Stage level as well as on the jumbotron. While this reporter was off at the Blue Stage (which was hopelessly off schedule) trying to see LUH, Miguel was imploring fans to take action on police brutality, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
One of the most exciting events of the weekend was when Chance the Rapper made a guest appearance during Jeremih’s set. Unfortunately, between the lagging Blue Stage schedule and Jeremih’s own issues with starting his set on time, this reporter experienced much of Jeremih’s performance from the press tent, which could be heard mostly as disorganized and foul-mouthed chatter with little substance, until suddenly people began running and screaming toward the Green Stage, shouting “Chance the Rapper, it’s Chance the Rapper!” Chicago’s beloved Chance literally saved the day there.
The final headliner of the festival was FKA Twigs on the Green Stage, and there was plenty of excitement as the smoke machines worked into overtime just before she took the stage. FKA is a performance artist as much as she is a musician or composer, with a background in dance. The result was an arena-worthy show. There was a narrative to the dance performance, with a number of dancers incorporating modern dance movements to tell a story. Visually, gorgeous drawings of hands floated behind the performers as if to pull them on strings like marionettes. Twigs’ whispered vocals fluctuated with mysterious sounding electronica and the entire effect was to captivate the audience, who were all enthralled with the beauty of it all taken together. A theme at this festival – ending each night on a more peaceful tone with acts that rely heavily on a stage and light show.
-words & photos: Deborah Lowery