What’s a summer music festival in Chicago without a little rain? Or a lot of rain? This year marked the first time in its 10 year history that Pitchfork was forced to evacuate the grounds due to severe weather. A similar incident happened at Lollapalooza a couple years back. Unlike that event however, organizers waited until seemingly the last minute before pulling the plug. That’s not intended to say that they did anything wrong, but rather tried as hard as they could to keep things going until they simply couldn’t anymore due to safety concerns. They made the announcement to please exit the park, and then less than two minutes later a massive, bone-soaking rain poured down complete with a lightning show for the ages. People gasped at the sky lit up while also running with panic due to the extremely intense downpour. Of course minutes after evacuating the rain stopped and about 30 minutes later Union Park reopened and the day continued. The grounds were a bit muddy in spots for the rest of the day, as one might expect, but overall the schedule wasn’t disrupted much and the situation was handled with relative professionalism. But what about the music? Read on past the jump, and I’ll share those details with you, dear reader!
My early afternoon started with Bully, who played to a surprisingly large crowd at the smaller Blue stage. There were definitely more people watching them than Protomartyr on the larger Red stage. Bully make music described as ’90s rock, in the vein of an L7 or Hole. The first thing I noticed about the band’s live show was how intense and ferocious Alicia Bognanno’s voice is. Hearing her raw, piercing wail on record is one thing, but watching her pull it off in person is another. There was an electric intensity to the half of a set I was lucky to see (on account of my arrival time), and as they plowed through each song like it was their last I began to fully embrace the hype surrounding them. They’ll be back in Chicago two weeks from now to play at Lollapalooza, so start getting excited now.
With a short schedule gap before Mr Twin Sister, I dropped by the Green stage to see what Future Brown is all about. The poly-genre collective makes music that’s all over the map, but are perhaps most popular for some of their more urban and hip hop forays, in particular two tracks with Chicago’s own up-and-coming Tink (a member of my Class of 2015). Part of me hoped that Tink might show up to contribute her verses, but we weren’t so lucky. Instead, Future Brown started their set by having three of its four members standing behind a table lined with mixing consoles and a laptop. More often than not, two of them would be standing off to the side chatting with one another while the third would play and mix songs. They’d take turns pushing buttons and turning knobs, looking bored out of their skulls most of the time. Every now and then a random person would walk out on stage, often with their phone out to shoot video of the crowd, and then get into a non-microphoned, private conversation with some of the people who were playing the music. Danceable music was coming out of the speakers, and a few in the crowd were moving to the beat, but everyone else looked bored. After three songs I walked away, hip hop collective Sicko Mobb walked out on stage trying to pump up the crowd. Perhaps things got better from there, but in all honesty I didn’t care enough to find out if they did.
As ominous looking storm clouds rolled in to Union Park, Mr Twin Sister took the stage. You could call it good luck, because the band’s music thrives on darkness as they evoke the atmosphere of a smoky nightclub. That’s not something easily attainable at 3:30 in the afternoon in a park. While their set wasn’t exactly high energy, the mixture of synths, bongos, drum machines, bass, electric and saxophone was coolly intoxicating, as were Andrea Estrella’s vocals. There was a certain spacey, new age quality to it that put me at ease whenever I didn’t have the urge to move my feet. The mood lighting and smoke machines helped as well. Above all else, it was an oasis of calm and positivity following that rather abysmal Future Brown experience.
Minutes before Ex Hex were about to take the stage, it began to rain. At first it was a drizzle, then as it got heavier I threw on my poncho for about five minutes of intense, hard rain. It was the big droplet kind that would completely soak you in 60 seconds if you weren’t careful. Thankfully the rain wrapped up quickly, though it delayed the start of Ex Hex by a few minutes. As they were coming out on stage, I heard Mary Timony offhandedly say, “10 minutes? Okay.” I was concerned there might be more nasty weather ahead, which turned out to be correct. After tearing through four songs with vigorous energy and buzz saw guitar interplay, Timony advised everyone to be safe as the band exited the stage. An announcement was made that an evacuation was necessary, and the storm rolled in.
Flash forward to just over an hour later, and Union Park is open once again as people stream back through the entrance. It is announced that the schedule will resume as normal with all of the time slots still in place. Following a 15 minute soundcheck, Kurt Vile was left with just under a half hour to do his thing. Only figures he’d choose a couple of the longer songs in his catalog to play, including the 10-minute “Gold Tones” and the 9.5-minute “Wakin on a Pretty Day”. Still, the extended jams were a nice thing to be welcomed back to as the clouds did clear out and it became a golden, pretty day after all.
The sun began to shine as Parquet Courts took the stage, and after quickly commenting on it, they launched right into their set like a two-ton wrecking ball. Jumping up and down, swinging their heads from side-to-side like a lawn sprinkler, it was clear they came to play. That’s exactly what they did, bringing a startling intensity to just about every one of their songs. In the past they’ve been very funny guys too, and cracking jokes and humorous observations to keep the mood light next to their raging, speed demon guitar playing. No such luck this time, as it was all business from start to finish. Perhaps alcohol plays a factor in that. Either way, Parquet Courts remain an incredibly compelling band to watch, and the crowd got really into it as well with some crowd surfing and a little moshing.
The New Pornographers are nothing if not reliable. They put on a super fun and bouncy set filled to the brim with catchy indie pop tunes, and don’t let up until their time slot ends. Smiles and multi-part harmonies abound, they want to put everybody in a great mood no matter how terrible their day might be going. Even the absence of key players like Neko Case and Dan Bejar can’t sour the set, to the point where you wouldn’t know the difference unless you were really looking hard for it. A.C. Newman and Kathryn Calder form the core, but it’s clear everybody’s role is essential and appreciated. Rolling through hits like “The Laws Have Changed” and “Twin Cinema” made for a positively magical, memorable time.
When I arrived at the Blue stage shortly after Shamir’s start time, A$AP Ferg was still going strong. This was at least 20 minutes after his set was supposed to have ended, and I immediately inquired with a rabid Ferg fan about the hold up. Apparently the rapper arrived very late for his set and then refused to cut things short as a result. He did it for the “fans,” who in the five minutes of performance I saw looked like they were having the greatest time in the world. In terms of hip hop shows, if there are lots of call and response moments, instructions to wave your hands in the air, plus air horn or gunshot sound effects used in excess, you’re one of the most unoriginal artists around. Ferg went three for three in those final minutes, and though it was hell for me, the crowd ate it up like a homeless man at an all you can eat buffet. Sad it’s come to this.
So after Ferg running straight into Shamir‘s start time, there was an inevitable 20 minutes changeover delay, which wound up being 30+ minutes due to “soundcheck issues.” He finally kicked things off 45 minutes behind schedule, shortly after many frustrated people left to watch Future Islands instead. Was the wait worth it? Going into this weekend I called Shamir’s set one of my most anticipated, and claimed he’s quickly headed for superstardom. Thankfully he pretty much delivered as promised, a dizzying electro-pop spectacle complete with a full band and backup dancers. His high-pitched vocals showed impressive range as he led one compelling rave-up after another. While I wouldn’t call anything he did on that stage revolutionary, the attitude and passion shone through, providing the crowd with a nice motivational boost. Yes, Shamir is all that and a bag of potato chips. Or whatever metaphor the kids are using these days.
Bouncing back over to the Green stage to close out the night, it was finally time for Sleater-Kinney. The trio of Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss are still riding high on their reunion at the start of the year, which came complete with a brand new and excellent album called No Cities to Love. They’d play plenty of tracks from that over the course of their 90 minute headlining set, but also ran roughshod over their extensive back catalog. It was clear from the first notes of opening song “The Fox” that the band was out for blood. Brownstein’s guitar hit those obtuse chords just right, Tucker’s voice shook with intensity, and Weiss’ drumming thundered more than the storms earlier in the day. That was only the beginning of a mind-blowing, furious set that provided a perfect reminder of why many prominent music critics consider them to be the best rock band in America. I’ve been privileged enough to have seen Sleater-Kinney three times now, and they’re among some of the most memorable concert experiences of my life. Their energy, intensity and commitment to connecting with audiences through rock and roll remains unparalleled. The world is a better place because Sleater-Kinney is in it, and the same could be said of this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival for bringing them out. Here’s the set list, just because:
1. The Fox
3. Bury Our Friends
5. Surface Envy
6. No Cities to Love
7. What’s Mine Is Yours
9. One More Hour
11. All Hands on the Bad One
12. Price Tag
13. A New Wave
15. Words and Guitar
17. Dig Me Out
18. Modern Girl
19. You’re No Rock n’ Roll Fun
20. Little Babies
We’ll pick things up again tomorrow with a full recap of Day 3. Please join me!