Saturday at Pitchfork was the best day. The sort of day that makes you believe in the power of live music. The sort of day that makes nine hours spent in hot conditions feel like two. It’s a grand reminder of why the Pitchfork Music Festival is one of the best places to see and break new bands, as well as celebrate the classic ones. There’s so much to cover and I don’t want to waste much more time expressing general platitudes with this intro. So join me after the jump for a full recap of all the artists I saw at the festival on Saturday. As a reminder, there will be plenty of photos to share at the end of the weekend. But if you’d like some live reports straight from the grounds along with a few visuals, check my Twitter and Instagram for all of that fun stuff. Onward and upward we go!
Compared to Friday’s rainy start, Saturday was paradise. The sun was out, the temperature was in the mid-70s, and there was barely a cloud in the sky. Perfect music festival weather. I made it a point to arrive early to see Circuit Des Yeux kick things off with a psychedelic and meditative set. Haley Fohr and her band crafted a wellspring of experimental folk that would have been ideal in a dark room but instead felt defiant in the face of sun and heat. Somehow both peaceful and unsettling. After standing up close for a few songs, I instinctively felt the need to take a few steps back in order to mentally and physically align myself with the day. So with Fohr’s powerful baritone echoing out of the speakers, I did a little bit of yoga. Some kids were tossing around a frisbee nearby as well. As things came to a wild finish with a special guest appearance by “Jackie Lynn” (Fohr’s alter-ego), I felt inspired and ready for what was next.
Quite suddenly, it was out of the frying pan and into the fire. Girl Band came out on stage and immediately launched into an all-out assault against an imaginary force. The guitars struck with the blunt force of construction machinery while singer Dara Kiely screamed like his lungs were on fire. It was the auditory equivalent of a punch in the face, and if you weren’t awake before they started playing you certainly were after. Kiely wrote many of the songs on the band’s debut album Holding Hands With Jaime while in treatment at a mental hospital, and in some ways on stage it seems like he’s reliving it. There’s so much anguish and pain, but there’s meaning and catharsis behind it too. A couple songs into the set, someone in the crowd yelled out, “I’m 50 years old and am here to see Brian Wilson, but I have to say that you guys fuckin’ rock!” Shortly after that, the first mosh pit of the day began as Girl Band kept hammering away with nuanced brute force. Not sure about everyone else, but they made me feel more alive.
As with any folk singer, Kevin Morby‘s early afternoon set was a little bit sleepy. It stood in particular contrast to the insane noise of Girl Band right before. But he and his band did their best to translate even the quietest of songs into something a little livelier than they sound on record. Morby dove head first into some impressive solos that made you sit up and pay attention. He brought out backup singers that included Katy Goodman (La Sera) and Greta Morgan (Springtime Carnivore) to enhance songs like “I Have Been to the Mountain” and “Singing Saw”. All of it was fine, just not on the sort of level where you’re completely rapt by it. There were a lot of people talking during the performance, and to them this was probably more background music to a conversation. That’s a shame, because Morby and his band are and deserve better.
Rock and roll is alive and well thanks in no small part to Royal Headache. The Australian band offer no frills, high energy guitar rock, and if you don’t like it then go somewhere else. In some strange way they reminded me of Ted Leo circa 2005, skirting some sort of punk-alternative fusion that’s fast enough to jump around to but not exactly hardcore enough to start crowd surfing. For his part, Royal Headache singer Shogun struts around the stage like he’s got something on his mind and these songs are the only way to express it. If he’s not pacing relentlessly then he’s kicking wildly or pushing attention towards his band mates. There are lots of great shout-along choruses that encourage crowd participation, and if you’ve got a beer in hand so much the better. The formula might be simple and even a bit antiquated, but it still works like a charm. Royal Headache do it better than most.
There’s something about ’80s and early ’90s hip hop that feels different compared to today. Obviously the way that beats and melodies were constructed has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades, but delivery has shifted along with it. Digable Planets are a trio from that era, reunited for the first time in awhile to perform songs off their classic early ’90s records. The good news is that even back in the day, Digable Planets still stood out among their peers largely due to the incorporation of jazz elements into their sound. When performing live in 2016, their live band is able to deliver a more contemporary feel to each melody, which definitely prevents them from sounding like they just stepped out of a time machine. All three principal members Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, Mary Ann “Ladybug Mecca” Vieira and Craig “Doodlebug” Irving sounded great and brought a great amount of energy and camaraderie to their set. Given the warm and sunny mid-afternoon conditions, Digable Planets felt like a cool breeze.
There have been some strange and avant-garde performances at Pitchfork over the years, but Jenny Hval‘s set on Saturday might just win the award for most bizarre. And hey, that’s a good thing. We all could use a little “WTF” every now and then. As Hval began her set, she emerged dressed in white coveralls and a brown wig with two other women also in coveralls but wearing Kabuki masks. While singing “That Battle Is Over,” one of the women began to spread blue paint all over her abdomen, which then spread to the other woman via hugs and other physical contact. Hval herself got involved as the song concluded, and also removed the wig. Things only devolved further from there, as the coveralls were stripped off to reveal clown suits, and the Kabuki masks removed to reveal “happy clown / sad clown” makeup. Hval ceded the microphone as the two women with her on stage began to recite abstract poetry that was basically the set list along with a detailed action list to be completed before the end of the set. That included inflating innertubes, showering rose petals down on Hval from a ladder, as well as the removal of more items of clothing. Quite frankly it was all a bit ridiculous, but the subtext was brilliant. For her part Hval sang to perfection, and I’ve got to give her credit for crafting such a strange and memorable performance related to gender roles and independence. It’s something you rarely see, and something I certainly won’t forget.
Speaking of unforgettable performances, Savages once again dug in their heels and willed another brilliant performance into the world. The drums pound with monster truck force. The bass rumbles heavily enough to quake your internal organs. And the guitars wail with the screams of a thousand dying suns. Leading this parade is Jehnny Beth, who commands the stage with all the gusto of a professional wrestler during a cage match. Fingers are pointed, fists are raised high in the sky, and victory over the day is inevitable. It’s very exhilarating and intense to watch them race and rage through songs like “City’s Full,” “Husbands,” “The Answer” and “T.I.W.Y.G.” as the crowd gets stirred up into its own mosh pit frenzy. Then of course Beth asks if they want the songs to be even louder, faster and dirtier, which leads into “Hit Me” and the portion where she climbs down to audience level to incite/inspire in an even more interactive way. Take note, other bands. This is how you put on a live show. Easily one of the best of the entire festival, don’t miss Savages whenever you have the opportunity to see them.
On just about every level, Blood Orange (Dev Hynes) is a superstar. The man’s last two records broke down all sorts of genre divides and earned him critical acclaim. The same can be said of his live show, which is so remarkably fluid it’s often tough to keep up. Hynes is a ball of energy, twirling and jumping around one minute, strapping on a guitar for a few riffs the next, then seated behind a keyboard for an extended jam session after that. The brisk pacing and uptempo tracks keep the mood largely celebratory, and the time just flies by. Carly Rae Jepsen made an appearance to lend some vocals to “Better Than Me,” which was a return favor for Hynes’ guest spot during her set on Friday. Just like the rest of the set, it was light, fun and perfect for a summer afternoon.
BJ the Chicago Kid earned his late afternoon set time, given his prolific output and guest appearances on tracks from a murderer’s row of superstars. A few songs into his set, he gave the crowd a little revue of some of his work, busting out tracks from Chance the Rapper, Joey Bada$$ and many more. None of those artists actually made guest appearances, nor did he play more than a minute of each track, but it spoke to the largely unfocused nature of his set. As he dove into tracks from his latest album In My Mind, he’d often use vocal breaks in the songs to jam with his band and bang on a floor tom drum that was set up next to his microphone. There wasn’t much purpose behind it, other than to give him something to do beyond standing around singing the whole time. It kept the massive crowd excited too, so I guess you could call it effective to a degree. It’s my opinion that BJ should be able to get by on his pure talents alone, instead of resorting to unnecessary gimmickry.
hen a band does psychedelic pop as well as Super Furry Animals, their live shows become appointment viewing. Indeed, as they kicked off their first Chicago show in six years, SFA certainly brought the strange and unique factor with them. Whether it was wearing a giant Mighty Morphin Power Rangers head, holding up signs to encourage applause, or chewing on a carrot to create a different sort of rhythm, there was no shortage of stand-out moments throughout their set. I just wish it was all more interesting. Once the initial novelty of their on-stage antics wears off, all that remains are the songs themselves. SFA have a massive catalog to pull from, but a majority of their set list appeared to focus on some of the spacier and more relaxed tunes. There’s a time and a place for those, but early evening at an outdoor music festival is not it. As a result, things dragged a bit. Even the livelier numbers felt a touch off as the band performed them without a whole lot of gusto or charm. I chose to sit and relax for a majority of their set, and in hindsight that was a wise decision.
About 15 minutes before Brian Wilson was set to take the stage, I really needed to use the restroom. With Super Furry Animals turning out a bit lackluster, I wandered across Union Park to a section of porta potties, only to find the line extending back about 30-40 people. So I headed to a second section. The lines there were at least a dozen deep for each stall. The third area was the worst of the bunch. As part of a small festival layout modification, about 30-40 porta potties were eliminated from the grounds compared to last year. These long lines were the result. The 20 minute wait I endured was my worst experience of the weekend, and felt like a huge mistake on the part of a festival that rarely makes them.
The long lines caused me to miss the first few songs of Brian Wilson‘s Pet Sounds set, along with any opportunity to take up-close photos of him. That’s a real shame, since it was one of my most anticipated performances of the day. As I was making my way back from the bathroom, lightly jogging across the main field towards the Red stage where he was playing, I thought he hadn’t started yet, since I couldn’t hear anything. Turns out the volume was so low it practically required that you be in close proximity to the stage to even hear it. By the time I waded through the massive crowd to a relatively good viewing point, they were already on “I’m Waiting for the Day” – nearly halfway through the album. John and Joan Cusack showed up to provide some backing vocals for “Sloop John B,” and hearing Wilson perform “God Only Knows” is an experience I won’t soon forget. The rest of it was…okay. Annoyingly low volume aside, Wilson appeared to be in a haze for much of the performance, leaving his band to do a majority of the heavy lifting. Years of drug use and mental disorders likely played a role. Beach Boys guitarist Al Jardine took the reins for a bit, which kept things lively. He wasn’t the main attraction though, and nice as it was to hear the Pet Sounds record performed by its creator for one of the last times, it was also sad to watch Wilson limp through it, so far gone.
Once Pet Sounds finished, Wilson and his band began to run through a host of other Beach Boys hits. Given the state of things, I chose to skip over to the Blue stage to find out what Anderson .Paak was up to. From the past into the future, that was the best possible decision I could have made. As his band The Free Nationals began to play, .Paak bounded out on stage to a large crowd that was going absolutely nuts. And for good reason. The man’s a fireball of energy and inspiration. He’s running across the stage from end to end. Jumping around like a kid who just had too much caffeine. Climbing atop speakers while commanding that everyone throw their hands in the air. Sitting behind a full drum kit to add some extra rhythmic power to some songs. He truly does it all, celebrates it all and is absolutely relentless the entire time. To call him a breath of fresh air is an understatement. To say he put on the best performance of Saturday and perhaps the festival as a whole seems like a fair assessment. Anderson .Paak has already had some big things happen to him in the last year, but talent like this is bound for superstardom in the very near future.
When Sufjan Stevens began his set with the lengthy folk ballad “Seven Swans,” I’ll confess to anticipating the worst. Between that record and his most recent effort Carrie and Lowell, the man’s been on a bit of a somber acoustic trip recently, which doesn’t make for great festival material. But about halfway through that first song, loud and crackling electric guitars kicked in and turned a fragile melody into a muscular one. Stevens then unfurled angel wings on his back and smashed a banjo to pieces. Those are the sorts of theatrics that earn you a headliner status. After that opening salvo, things quickly became playful with neon colors, choreographed dances, and some moments from his more pop-centric effort The Age of Adz. Even a quiet song like “Fourth of July,” which is infinitely depressing and ends with the repeated line, “We’re all gonna die,” somehow came across as more upbeat in a reworked version. Then there was “Impossible Soul,” the 25-minute sojourn into the strange, appropriately performed with Stevens standing on a ladder dressed as a gigantic disco ball for one half, then dressed in a suit made of tube balloons for the other. If a theater troupe decided to make a musical using Stevens’ songs, it’d probably look exactly like that. Gimmicky as it might have felt from time to time, it was also downright entertaining. The songs were largely great too, including a rousing version of “Chicago” and a cover of Prince’s “Kiss” to close out the night. It represented a strong end to an already outrageously strong day.