This July 14-16 the Pitchfork Music Festival took place in Union Park in Chicago and featured performances from artists like LCD Soundsystem, A Tribe Called Quest, Solange, and more. Over these three days, Chicago showed me exactly what it is has to offer, which is great music, better people, and some of the finest pizza on the continent. So let’s dive in.
Day 1 started with a rebellious fist in the air. Los Angeles rapper Madame Ghandi is not just a phenomenal artist with urgent and hard-hitting beats to rap over, she is a powerful feminist icon with something truly significant to say. Using music to challenge the status quo is exactly why rap music was invented in the first place, as an outlet for all the anger and frustration one experiences as a marginalized person in society. By vocalizing her experiences as a woman who often feels viewed as less than a man, Madame Ghandi is able to truly let the world know how much power women have and how loud their voices can be heard. Plus, it’s always nice to start a festival off on an angsty note.
Next, another female led punk-rock band. Priests took the stage and lead singer Katie Alice Greer immediately charged into the first song with the intensity of a bulldozer with a Ferrari engine. The level of passion drenched in her voice, emoting every word like it was an impassioned battle cry to the masses, Greer and the rest of Priests put everyone on their feet, and then made those feet jump up and down. The band said in an interview I had with them that they’re used to playing smaller club shows, but their Pitchfork performance proved that they’re as ready for the main stage as any, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the band exploded onto the scene on their next release.
When it comes to interviews and social media personas, Vince Staples is as calm, cool, and collected as they come. But when it’s time to perform, he is able to become a snarling ball of energy, delivering his urgent and striking songs even more urgent and strikingly than any record could ever do justice. To hear songs like “Hands Up,” “Blue Suede,” and “Norf Norf” live is to know what a riot probably feels like. These songs boom out of speakers with the same emotion that could cause one to flip a cop car. Even better yet, Vince performed tracks off his newest album, Big Fish Theory, that go just as hard as anything he’s done before. When he comes to your town, I recommend you go, and bring your best mosh-pitting shoes.
Up next was indie-rap and all around crazy person Danny Brown. Danny’s been a Pitchfork darling for years, especially since his album XXX dropped and made his brand of rap unavoidable. As soon as you hear those glitchy, druggy beats and his high-pitch, deranged “Check!” You know you’re in for a hell of a ride. Danny did not disappoint this year with a set containing exclusively bangers. He blitzed through songs off XXX, Old, and his latest album Atrocity Exhibition, as well as non-album cuts like his recent release for the show Silicon Valley, and his collaboration track with producer Rustie called “Attak” that will knock your head off upon first listen. Danny blazed through his set and before I knew it, he strode off stage, after just decimating his set, tongue-out and devil horns up as only Danny Brown can.
I went to Dirty Projectors hoping for a whimsical and twitchy set full of songs that make you want to dance. I knew I wasn’t going to get it though. Singer David Longstrength has channeled his band into a grief train since his split with band member Amber Coffman. Where you once would hear “Stillness is the Move” we got “I don’t know why you abandoned me…” It’s not to say Dirty Projectors didn’t do a great job, they definitely did, but I was watching the show alone and the sadness of the songs were a little too much to handle. So I went to the ass-shaking extravaganza that was Arca.
Arca is an interesting act to catch live. I’ve never seen him before so I was interested in what I was going to witness. I wasn’t ready. Wearing one of the strangest banana hammocks I’ve ever seen, Arca strutted on stage with the confidence of a proud jungle cat striding for its mate after mauling an antelope. His songs erupted out of the speakers and instantly the crowd was grooving. His singing made the festival feel like it was in a bizarre Spanish rave, and it was incredibly fun to party to. No offense Dirty Projectors, but Arca just delivered what I was looking for that night, which was some music to shake my ass to.
To cap off the night, one of the most beloved bands in indie rock history took the stage. Some people know exactly where they were when LCD Soundsystem called it quits, and thus, have been waiting over five years to see them live during their triumphant return. Now, that moment was finally here and it was time to enjoy every second of it. James Murphy and Co. are kind of the coolest, most fun people to see perform live because they make their live show feel like a club gig with your closest friends. Everybody is dancing and having a great time together. Everyone knows the songs word-for-word, and every collective “woooooooah!” is shouted to the sky. Together, we all danced ourselves clean, had Daft Punk play our house, and cried just a little bit during “Someone Great” and “All My Friends.” I’m going out on a limb and saying LCD is one of the best festival performances on the market today. So if they’re playing around you, run don’t walk to see them.
Day 2 was definitely a much different vibe than the other days. It was hot, sunny, and packed to the gills with people and awesome music. The shows felt more like a festival, because excessively sweating around thousands of other people who are excessively sweating for 10 hours is exactly how music festivals are made to feel.
The day started off with the gorgeous songs from New York artist Vagabon. Her soulful singing and incredibly catchy music swooned and cradled me like a lullaby. I felt powerful listening to her music, hopeful even. Her fragile voice over twinkling and beautiful guitar chords was the perfect way to start the day.
However, as soon as Vagabon ended her set, it was time to get in the mosh pit and get rowdy to the silly and extremely fun punk music of Jeff Rosenstock. Jeff’s “brand” is getting too drunk and pissing everyone off at your sister’s wedding. He wields this good-time persona so well and uses the feeling of having five-too-many PBR’s and being “that guy” to make his music relatable as hell. Punk music is supposed to stir up strong emotions and sometimes those emotions are partying through the pain. That’s a pretty special thing if you can do it right, and Jeff and his band do it extraordinarily well. Not to mention, they seemed baffled that they were booked to play the festival, saying “A big shout out to the person who got fired for booking us for this show,” and later proclaiming “70…5…hundred dollars… for us to play this festival” before jamming right into He raucous jam “Festival Song.” It was a great time, and I think Jeff loved it just as much as all the punk kids did, sweaty and smiling the entire time.
Los Angeles power-pop band Cherry Glazerr is quickly ascending as one of the most exciting rock bands in the DIY circuit and are a can’t miss at any festival. They’re able to take a song and make it sound bigger and bolder than ever imaginable. With screaming guitars and blistering lyricism, Cherry Glazerr are bringing the fun back to punk rock.
It makes sense that Cherry Glazerr was standing front row for the next performance, Mitski. The two acts share a lot of similarities. Powerful, intelligent, and fearless female singers are prominently featured in both bands. Mitski is currently being hailed as one of the most original and striking women in rock music. At times, her music is quieter than a church mouse, only awaiting to explode apart like a firework through the dark sky. She is just so freaking awesome. Her fragility turns into her strength, and her heavily emotional lyrics ring out of every mouth in the crowd. By making shockingly relatable songs about loves gone awry and let downs when hope is hanging in the balance, Mitski is setting the example for “I got through it, so can you.” It’s an incredibly glorious live experience.
Francis and the Lights took stage to a massive lot of fans, all of which were about to be mystified. Francis represents a group of young artists who are pushing the envelope of experimentation in pop music. He specializes in catchy and danceable songs, prominently featuring a voice vocoder that allows him to sound like an entire choir. It works wonders on his song “Friends,” and his latest hit “May I Have This Dance” with Chicagoan Chance the Rapper brought every dancer out in the crowd. I can also safely say that this song was stuck in my head for hours after hearing it live. Francis’s music is just that catchy.
A lot of people don’t realize this, but Madlib is perhaps just as important to the hip hop landscape as J Dilla was. While Dilla’s hit record “Donuts” set the standard for rap music production, what Madlib did for Stones Throw records and the rise of rappers like MF Doom and countless others is just as important. Watching the man spin records and lay down heavy beats live while sipping a fine glass of Hennessy was exactly the DJ set I was looking for. Madlib is a master of hip hop, there’s just no one else out there doing half of what he’s been doing for decades. Hip hop heads, pay homage.
Finally, it was the moment everyone in Union Park had been waiting for. The triumphant return of the illest rap group in history, A Tribe Called Quest. Their origins are foundational to hip hop music. As one of the most unique and startlingly intelligent rap crews to make music, Q-Tip and the late Phife Dawg changed what hip hop could be- an art form. They were always the masters, and after Phife passed away last year, they released perhaps their most important record to date, “Thank You For Your Service, We Got it From Here.” When they touched the stage at Pitchfork, it was living proof that real hip hop doesn’t die. Over boom-bap New York style beats, Q Tip and Consequence attacked the microphones with an energy I’ve rarely seen. I swear that every single head in the crowd was bobbing along to these songs, and when they got to the portion of their set with “Check the Rhyme,” “Can I Kick It?” and their newest anthem “We The People” the electricity of the music was palpable in the air. The show seemed nothing less than a legendary moment. To be able to see the men who made The Low End Theory perform live, and in such a spectacular setting, it was a show that will undoubtedly stick with me, and many other crowd members for years to come.
Day 3 of Pitchfork festival was picture perfect. It was slightly cooler than the other 2 days, and the music was on point.
The day started with Colin Stetson, a shockingly talented saxophone player who breaks every rule and standard possible with his epic sonic expeditions. The best way to describe Stetson is a “metal saxophonist.” He approaches his instrument like a heavy metal singer, attacking the notes with a level of ferocity that is unparalleled and unrivaled. His songs build and build and teeter on madness until they finally reach a point of true genius. He is able to cycle-breathe, meaning he takes no breaks for breath, and he creates loops with pedals to make his one saxophone sound like an orchestra. It’s pretty mind blowing stuff that you just have to see live to believe.
Isaiah Rashad followed with an equally brilliant performance. Rashad is a Chattanooga based rapper who is part of the illustrious Top Dawg Entertainment group which boasts Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, and SZA as members. Clearly the label represents the high level of music Rashad is capable of making, and on his latest release “The Sun’s Tirade,” he knocked it out of the park. His laid back sound and effortless delivery was both chill and exhilarating. Tracks like “Wat’s Wrong,” “4 Da Squaw” and “Free Lunch” got the entire crowd going for the third day of music. If there’s one musician I would love to sit down and chat with, it would be Rashad.
The party Isaiah started led perfectly to Joey Purp’s subsequent performance. The Chicago native brought the entire city out to his celebratory show. Knox Fortune was holding down the DJ table and the impeccably talented Peter Cottontail laid down the slickest piano chords of the day. Joey Purp hit the stage and didn’t take any prisoners with his hard-as-hell hip hop. He continually asked the crowd, “Are we still alive Chicago?” as both a rhetorical and also a reminder of the cruelty that has been unfairly labeled to the city. Joey’s music displays this all. The good, the bad, the proud, and the ugly. He is proud of his city and all its imperfections. His show didn’t come across as a rap concert, instead, it came across as a block party- one where the entire city showed out to celebrate life and the power of music. It’s music after all that allows the struggle to be turned into something beautiful.
Hamilton Leithauser brought the sun and the soul out during his set. The former lead singer of indie-rock band The Walkmen has one of the strongest voices in music, and his croon could send chills down your spine and bring tears to your eyes. His album, “I Had a Dream That You Were Mine” combines beautiful ballads, rowdy rock jams, and everything in between. His songs “1000 Times” and “In a Blackout” sound even better live than they do on the record, and they sound stellar on the record. That’s a good impression of how talented this guy is.
Next up was one of the most highly anticipated acts of the day, the cult-favorites of the indie-emo scene, Pinegrove. The young outfit has exploded in popularity off their latest album, “Cardinal.” Songs like “Old Friends” and “Cadmium” tell stories of young love that, as all young loves tend to do, falls apart. These songs really struck a chord with listeners and became instant fan favorites, and the live show only illuminates the sentiment behind these songs. Fans were screaming the lyrics with tears welling in their eyes. It’s an incredible thing to see a young band, overflowing with potential, who have found success on such a high level. Pinegrove is a lovely band who performed a lovely set at a lovely festival, and what could be better than that?!
At 6:00pm, an unfortunate event led to an unforgettable one. It was revealed that celebrated DJ group The Avalanches who are currently on a comeback tour after not making music for almost 15 years, would not be appearing at the festival. However, Chicago native Jamila Woods would be taking over their spot on the main stage. This moment, surely one of the largest performances of her career led to one of the most joyous shows of the weekend. Jamila’s smooth, emotive, and beautiful R&B played so well to the audience, and she gave the love right back. Each song was performed with a big, bright smile and the gorgeous tone of Jamila’s voice combined for one of the most joyful shows of the weekend. It’s as if Jamila Woods is a ray of sunshine keeping the world just a little bit warmer. We’re lucky to have her singing sweet songs to us, and Chicago gets to watch another young artist grow into a star.
The highly inventive and mysterious producer Nicolas Jaar captured the day and took it to new levels of weirdness. In a good way, to be clear. His music is ambient and distant, glitchy and electronic, yet booming with bass. Jaar is one of those unique producers like Flying Lotus that can just make music sound like nothing you’ve heard before, and yet get you bobbing your head and dancing to the oblivion of sounds he’s crafting behind his synthesizers. I’ve wanted to see Nico for years and he did not disappoint one bit. The rage was real, and the truly one-of-a-kind artist he is was on full display, one set before the headliner and closer of the entire festival.
Speaking of headliners, Solange has been enjoying a tidal wave of success resulting from her stunning standout of an album, “A Seat at the Table.” Solange is able to create a mood that is so hard to capture in music- and that emotion is vulnerability. Her lyrics are so illustrative of a broken heart, but there’s another layer to it- strength. She’s able to make something beautiful out of her trauma, whether it be music, dance, or poetry- she masters all with grace and elegance. Solange makes the title “artist” sound short in describing her entire being. She is truly capable of anything and at such a young age, she just might change the music world as we know it.
Pitchfork Music Festival is one of those festivals that just excels on every level, which is exactly what you’d expect from the brand. They do an incredible job keeping the set times staggered so you can maximize the amount of bands seen, and the three-stage set up allows for the easiest possible viewing experience. It’s intimate, yet definitely feels massive during the headliners. The lineup selection is always amazing, and the free Bai beverages and Clif bars kept me alive all weekend. Pitchfork, it was a pleasure, and Chicago, I’ll see you in three weeks for Lolla.