Whether you like it or not, definition-of-hipster website Pitchfork has been a tastemaker for years, even after it got bought by Conde Nast. Maybe the best expression of that is not some kiss-off sub-6.0 record review, but Pitchfork Festival, which happens in Chicago’s Union Park. Obviously didn’t occur last year, but came back strong in ’21, with big crowds for the choicest Pitchfork cuts.
And there were crowds. Despite COVID, despite COVID precautions like vax card check and masks, people wanted to be out & rocking. It was great to see people up for appreciating music again, especially at an artsy festival like Pitchfork. But that also meant some serious lines, not just for free water refills or the food occasionally given out at the DoorDash interview tent (where you need to like have the app or something to get in), but even just for regular food, regular drinks, even the merch tent (though thankfully at least not the porta-potties…).
Pitchfork is a particularly tightly packed festival already, essentially two alternating stages right by each other, Green & Red, plus the Blue Stage not far away. If you had to negotiate yourself through some crowds, well, good to give those old show-going muscles a long-needed workout.
The festival officially started with Armand Hammer on the Green Stage, but the less said about their avant-jazz/hip-hop, the better. The true kick-off was with the kick-ass punk-metal of Michigan’s Dogleg on the Red Stage, loud & proud. It’s long been easy to say that punk’s dead, and it was great to see some young punks having fun.
It was also great to see an act who’d gotten some buzz during the no-show lockdown be able to carry it to a live audience. Chicago’s surf-rock Dehd got Pitchfork’s ‘Best New Music’ designation with last year’s Flower of Devotion, and that flower hadn’t wilted, with an audience at the Green Stage, sizable for how early it was, knowing the songs – sometimes more than the band did, as singer/bassist Emily Kempf would later admit to messing up some lyrics, “But the crowd got them right…” On the other hand, DJ Nate didn’t even show up for his slot on the Blue Stage (but considering his later set at the DoorDash space, perhaps that was for the best…).
Another, longer Pitchfork critical favorite, Hop Along, hopped up on the Red Stage. One can see why they’re loved by the literati, a nice mix of indie-rock and sad twang, without going overboard. They’ve also got more than ten years of music, from the more recent “This next song’s about two people who don’t respect each other” “Simple” to closing with 2012 crowd-pleaser “Tibetan Pop Stars”. Meanwhile, there was another, softer DJ at the Blue Stage, in The Soft Pink Truth.
The ‘arty vs. accessible’ push-pull is as old as art, and was certainly on display at Pitchfork ’21. You could practically hear critics call black midi’s set “angular,” definitely experimental, with everything from saxophone to wicker chairs up there on the Green Stage. Yes, interesting, but it did wear after a while.
One of the big stories going into Pitchfork ’21 was the return of The Fiery Furnaces. Siblings Eleanor & Matthew Friedberger went on a hiatus way back in 2011, and it actually stuck, until this year, with their reunion naturally starting at Pitchfork. However, they have not lost their own conceptual nature that divided critics way back when. Indeed, memory might have softened their edges in fans-from-then’s mind, but their Red Stage set certainly reminded ears.
The Blue Stage finally kicked into gear with a refreshing set from Ela Minus. Later there, Kelly Lee Owens brought her Welsh electronica for more of a mood music type of performance, Owens multi-instrumentaling all over the place. And that stage closed with Yaeji, who also exceeded her DJ origins by taking the mike and more, closing with a sing-along for “raingurl” and exclaiming, “Thank you, Chicago! Thank you, Pitchfork! Everyone here is ‘Best New Music!”
Putting their own electronic spin on experimental was Animal Collective at the Green Stage. Often, electronics wilt in the daylight, and the Baltimore group have had that problem in the past, but by this point, they’re experienced veterans, and it shows. They were also having fun up there, enjoying their own return to the stage, and at one of the best places for them to do it (Pitchfork has long supported the group). Still a little odd, sure, but the Collective wouldn’t have it any other way.
Closing out the Red Stage on Day One was Big Thief. Mixing heartbreak with twang and some big breakdowns, this was another artist that the hoi polloi might not know, yet drew a sizable crowd (having an overlapping crowd area with the headlining stage didn’t hurt, either).
But, let’s face it, you came to Pitchfork Friday, perhaps even Pitchfork Festival in total, for your quarantine crush: Phoebe Bridgers. Last year, she broke through from critical acclaim to worldwide fame – and even more critical acclaim – with the wonderful Punisher (QRO review). Okay, she didn’t win any Grammys (though got a bunch of nominations), but she won our hearts with such songs as “I See You” (QRO review), “I Know the End” (QRO review), and “Savior Complex” (QRO review), not to mention her oh-so-charming demeanor – and outfits, from her at-home performances in pajamas to her now-iconic skeleton onesie. She’s the 2021 artist you can bond over loving with your uncle, or with your niece.
The one thing you hadn’t been able to do was see Bridgers in-person, but she’s thankfully finally headed out on a tour (QRO’s live review from the weekend prior). The crowd was with Bridgers & co. (all in their skeleton onesies that you hope they get cleaned regularly) from the start, who opened with 2017’s “Motion Sickness”, the song that got all the people who were into her before you, into her. And then there was “Kyoto”, practically the pop song of 2020, that on its own justified going back out into a crowd.
But what’s actually notable about Punisher and its success is that it’s a highly successful sad album, all full of quiet heartbreak, the kind that the cool kids used to make fun. For many of the pieces, the sing-along was as loud as Bridgers, like “Garden Song” or “Savior Complex”. She was even able to bring in a piece from her side-supergroup with Julien Baker & Lucy Dacus, boygenius, with “Me & My Dog” – not to mention covering Bo Burnham’s “That Funny Feeling” (the idea of covering the comedian/musician is a little divisive among Bridgers’ fans, but not her cover). The crowd even broke into a short shout-along for the line “Cause fuck the cops” in “Smoke Signals”, proving just how well they knew her music.
And it all ended with, of course, “I Know the End”. Some have joked that Bridgers will always have to end her sets with the song; others have rejoiced that she always will. It’s the piece she smashed her guitar to when she was on Saturday Night Live. It’s the piece that smashed you. And it’s the piece that smashed Friday at Pitchfork.
The temperatures increased on Saturday, as did the crowds. It worked for the airy & tropical Divino Niño on the Green Stage, and gave rapper Maxo Kream an excuse to take his shirt of at the Blue Stage. Meanwhile, Amaarae brought rhymes & a free jazz feel to the Red Stage.
The alt-country twang of Waxahatchee has long been a Pitchfork favorite (QRO photos at a Pitchfork event), so it was no surprise she brought it on the Green Stage. And it was a good time of the day for her relaxed and enjoyable music, when the heat was getting to you a bit, and you don’t want to rock. On the other hand, Jay Electronica’s last-minute cancellation pushed up most of the acts at the Blue Stage, so if you headed over there for Faye Webster, you got the last-minute add of DJ/producer RP Boo.
Faye Webster’s actual Blue Stage set was bumped up so that it was the same exact time as Ty Segall on the Red Stage, a rare full overlap at Pitchfork Festival. Segall brought his raw rock, and it was about time that some psych-rock came to the fest, his own brand of experimental (which included him hilariously harmonizing with Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee at one point). Meanwhile, Webster’s set was a much smoother, low-key counterpoint to the rawk (though at times Segall’s volume could carry across the farther stage in relatively tight Union Park).
But if you really wanted experimental rock, and Pitchfork Festival is certainly the place for it, why not go to one of the O.G.s of experimental, Kim Gordon? The once-and-forever Sonic Youth (and we’re all #TeamKim after her divorce from her erstwhile bandmate), and if you weren’t into Sonic Youth, you pretty much still had to check her out if you were going to Pitchfork ’21. Gordon still flies the flag of the NYC eighties No Wave scene noise-rock, and while she might not be easy to get into if you just know her name & reputation (kind of always the same issue with Sonic Youth), she’s also a compelling frontwoman – and just a legend.
On the other hand, there was Georgia Anne Muldrow, also bumped up on the Blue Stage. She was really experimental, with “bleeps and bloops” as Marge Simpson might say, doing a sort of extended mixtape improv. If you were into it, okay, but otherwise it put off (not to mention a crew member standing mere feet from Muldrow & keyboard, looking intently at it like it was expected that the whole thing, or Muldrow herself, could fall apart at any minute).
While Jamila Woods took over Jay Electronica’s headline slot at the Blue Stage, Angel Olsen played her first show in two years (likely true for a lot of the artists at Pitchfork ’21) on the Red Stage. She had already been growing, but 2019’s All Mirrors (QRO review) really saw her build her audience, and there was a big crowd for her on Saturday night. Olsen was also in good spirits, joking about one song that she only ‘sort of’ taught her band. And she closed her set with Pitchfork’s big (if not well-kept) surprise guest star, Sharon Van Etten, who came on for their hit team-up this year, the heartfelt country-resign, “Like I Used To” (QRO review).
And to headline the night on the Green Stage was another angel, Annie Clark, a.k.a. the divine St. Vincent. This year saw her release her latest record, Daddy’s Home (QRO review), and take on her latest persona, full-on seventies. Like actual seventies-er David Bowie, Clark has switched styles and profiles record-to-record, going from the Aeon Flux neo-future of 2017’s MASSEDUCTION (QRO review) to now having Madonna-esque hair and back-up singers with afros. The Saturday Pitchfork ’21 headline slot was so persona-driven that it started with a St. Vincent look-alike coming on & joining the band + back-up singers, before Clark herself appeared atop her rotating mini-stage.
Indeed, it was clear that Clark had organized and choregraphed every moment of her set, not a new strategy for her, but never to this extent. The back-up singers had synchronized moves for practically every song that they were on, including singing with backs to the crowd, their faces to the mirrors on the mini-stage behind them, for “Actor Out of Work” (even though it’s off of Clark’s Actor from way back in 2009 – QRO review). Even the main crew member was in costume, as a diner waitress, whether handing Clark a guitar or the band a drink (the latter during “…At the Holiday Party”).
This is not to say it all took away from the great songs. Instead, it made the whole thing feel special – even if she’s probably doing similar moves throughout this Daddy tour, likely not again after that, likely not again in Chicago. Plus, her back-up singers were great, both in harmonies and on-stage presence, and were different enough from Clark herself or the band so as not to compete or copy.
Also, Clark was able to both deliver the new songs that hadn’t been on the road before, like “Holiday Party” or “Daddy’s Home”, but also older pieces such as “Actor” or a killer “Los Ageless”. Before “Ageless”, she took a faux phone call from her sister (on an old landline, of course), where Clark heard a rating of the crowd that was a joke about Pitchfork’s own middling review of Daddy’s Home, “You would only give them a 6.8?” But then she got the crowd to cheer, adding, “I know, I know, Best New Crowd.”
And of special note on this day, the otherwise largely unremarked-at-Pitchfork twentieth anniversary of 9/11, was St. Vincent’s own “New York”. Done stripped down like on remix record Mass Education (QRO review) and Clark’s recent livestream (QRO livestream review), the rotating mini-stage turned to show a skyscraper backdrop as Clark sang largely on her own. The ode to her adopted hometown, and leaving the town, losing your “old crew down on Astor,” really hit home on this night (especially if you were a twenty-year NYC native in Chicago this night, like your correspondent…).
For the final day of Pitchfork ’21, it certainly felt hotter, though some of that might have been the increased dust from the worked-over field. Just another reason to wear a mask…
Still, it was a wild start with the likes of Special Interest on the Red Stage, with a wild, photogenic frontwoman, and a mosh pit broke out. Meanwhile, oso oso brought free jazz to the Blue Stage, because sure, why not?
Then things took a smoother turn, with the R&B rhymes of Mariah the Scientist on the Red Stage. One of the rising Pitchfork favorites at the festival was The Weather Station, whose relaxed alt-country twang glided into smoother sounds (including blocks & wind instruments) with skill on the Blue Stage. Main woman Tamara Lindeman joked about being over-volumed by Caroline Polachek on the Green Stage, “I hate to compete, but…” adding, “Much love to Caroline.” Polachek drew a big crowd for her own return to Pitchfork, after her Chairlift days. Her airy electronica was very washing, but given energy by her presence on stage.
The Sunday same-set-time-overlap was Thundercat on the Red Stage vs. Yves Tumor on the Blue. Thundercat certainly went balls-out, including handling a busted amp by putting a new amp on top of it, to wild applause. But all wild was Yves Tumor, a rapper towering at like 6’ 7” with a full-on metal band, the crowd & the frontman eating it all up.
Also wild from the get-go was the self-described “Black Brad Pitt,” rapper Danny Brown, “smoking & drinking” at the Green Stage. He remarked that he didn’t know the lyrics to some of his new stuff, because over the COVID break, instead of practicing he was using his new air fryer, “I air fry things you’re not supposed to air fry…” But if you weren’t up for that, you could go the opposite direction and take it mellow with Andy Shauf on the Blue Stage.
Of course, it was a giant light show for renowned DJ Flying Lotus, lighting up the close of the Red Stage from his raised platform. He even had the crowd to chant, “FUCK COVID!” twice, because he was unimpressed with the first chant, “It sounds like you still kinda like it…” And of course, it was dim, only red lighting for Cat Power to close the Blue Stage, because while the mercurial singer might have sounded great, she seemingly never wants anyone to take a photo of her.
And of course, Erykah Badu was almost a half-hour late to her Green Stage performance that would close out Pitchfork ’21. Badu is notorious for the diva action, but she does have the power to go full-on when she finally gets on, grooving soul and dance to end the weekend on a high note.
Doing a festival in 2021 was always going to be tricky, from having to cancel last year to people wondering whether festivals should even be happening this year. Pitchfork ’21 did move from July to September, but that reportedly improved it, the weather not blistering (and no rain, the forever bane of outdoor events). The crowds certainly turned out, maybe too much of a turnout for some, but that’s always good news for a music festival that goes so decidedly artsy, not Top 40 but alt-cred.
Perhaps there were a few too many cult experimental acts, oddly fitting a festival format that is still designed for mass appeal casual fans, but that’s what made Pitchfork’s name. It also should be noted the impressive diversity in artists, particularly the female representation that reached having women headline all three nights, yet it felt natural, indeed something one could easily not notice at the time. And even if there were acts that turned you off, there were at least a few great finds, some that you’d never have seen otherwise but now want to see again on their own. Kind of like Pitchfork.
-words: Ted Chase
-photos: Amelia Baird