There were a surprising number of people in Union Park at 1:45pm on a Sunday, but I suppose that’s what happens when quality acts are booked to start the day. Porches kicked things off on the Red stage with what can best be described as dance music for lonely people. Indeed, Aaron Maine and his band used synths, bouncy bass lines and the occasional saxophone assist to settle into a groove, and the modest crowd shuffled around entranced while staring at their feet. Many of them may have been nursing hangovers or were simply tired from the previous two days, but at the very least they were moving. While the songs would undoubtedly have sounded even better under the cover of night, Porches still managed to inspire and help people get motivated for one more full day of music.
Inspiring in a different way was the Sun Ra Arkestra, who were the first of a few jazz-infused offerings set to perform on Sunday. I joked on Twitter that they were providing the perfect soundtrack for Sunday brunch, which I guess wasn’t an entirely false observation. Decked out in bejeweled robes and hats, the 13-piece band is certainly one of the weekend’s most unique offerings, with a highly impressive pedigree of musicians among their ranks. That includes 92-year-old Marshall Allen, who continues to lead the collective with gusto. Their mission is to create an otherworldly musical experience that promotes joy and inspiration in your life, and judging by the smiles on everyone’s faces, they succeeded. Following their set I saw a few band members wandering around near the stage, and a bunch of people approached them to talk about life and music. How wonderful.
Woods seemed to embrace the Sunday brunch vibe with the beginning of their set. They started with “Morning Light,” which falls somewhere in between Phosphorescent and Iron & Wine on the relaxed folk scale. Something about it just made me want to curl up in the grass somewhere with a good book. Great in concept, but maybe a bit too docile for a music festival. Just as I started to worry their entire set was going to be that sleepy, they jumped into “Sun City Creeps” and suddenly the second gear kicked in. Borrowing some stylistic flourishes from Ethiopian jazz, the tempo was enough for a good clap-along and even some flamenco dancing should the mood have struck anyone. It didn’t (that I saw), but that same energy held strong for the rest of the set, preventing it from falling flat in the festival sun. Credit most likely goes to having multiple percussionists who build the right kind of polyrhythms. They certainly fared better than their former bandmate Kevin Morby, who held the same time slot and stage the day before but failed to keep the crowd fully engaged.
I didn’t get a chance to see more than a few songs from Homme‘s set, but what I was able to catch illustrated their unique dichotomy – impressive and gorgeous vocal harmonies paired with intricate and heavy guitars. The same can be said of their lyrics, which often take simple sentiments and imply a dark undercurrent behind them. Like sweet and sour, they make for a quality pairing. Macie Stewart and Sinna Cunningham are seasoned Chicago music scene veterans, and that experience definitely showed in their highly intuitive interactions. It flowed so well they probably didn’t even need drummer Matt Carroll, though his sparse rhythmic contributions did help bring a greater sense of order to many of the songs. In other words, rock solid work all around.
If anyone had concerns that Kamasi Washington‘s set would feature a bunch of dry and/or “boring” jazz, those were quickly thrown away within the first few minutes of his set. He and his band launched right into the uptempo “Re Run Home,” and the mixture of instruments and tempos was positively intoxicating. Over the course of four lengthy songs, every member of the ensemble was afforded a chance to shine with impressive solo after impressive solo. Even Washington’s father Rickey came out for a 10+ minute version of jazz standard “Cherokee,” where he showed all the young musicians on stage what several decades of experience sounds like. But none was more extraordinary than Kamasi himself, who led the band with his dynamic saxophone work while making sure to cede the spotlight to his bandmates often enough to keep things interesting. Never thought I’d compliment a keytar solo, but I guess there’s a first time for everything. As somebody who doesn’t really like jazz yet enjoys Washington’s most recent triple album The Epic, his live show provided ample proof that inspiration and talent transcends style, genre and other perceived boundaries. Not only was it one of the best sets of the day, but of the entire festival.
The two main things that NAO has going for her are high quality R&B songs, and a voice that’s smooth as silk. Both were on full display during her Pitchfork performance, which was bursting with heart and energy. Part of that came from her backing band, who gave her songs a much grittier, physical presence compared to the more synthetic and polished studio versions from her records. NAO herself also took on those same qualities, moving around the stage to breathe extra life into the songs as well as embracing the lower registers of her voice to give a few songs some extra gravitas. Her confidence also enabled her to take on a variety of personas depending on what each song required, from seductress to scorned lover to sad and lonely in the blink of an eye. She’s clearly destined for much bigger things, so it was great to see her have such a strong impact with the crowd.
The middle portion of Sunday pretty much condensed all of the dance acts into a two hour period, starting with the modern disco stylings of Holy Ghost!. As buoyant and fun as their songs tend to be, I was a little surprised by the very business-like nature of their performance. That is to say, they appeared to be very serious and focused while hitting all the touchstones of a high energy party. It reminded me a bit of going to watch a DJ spin, in that visually it’s not much to look at but in the end it doesn’t matter too much because the tempo is the focus. In that sense, the live drumming paired with electronic beats was an inspired touch, as were the consistently evolving melodies that often found band members switching or adding new instruments mid-song. And hey, it seemed to be all the same to the crowd, as a few different dance parties sprung up in the area. After a few songs it started to feel a little static and too club-focused, so I skipped over to Empress Of.
There’s a certain amount of respect I have for Empress Of (Lorely Rodriguez) because she chooses to go it alone. No backing band, just a human being and a couple of instruments/machines on a stage. Grimes operates in a similar fashion, though she has dancers and an occasional assist from friends. The primary challenge with performing solo is creating a performance that’s lively enough to keep the audience entertained. That’s obviously more helpful if you create dance music, which is part of (but not entirely) what Empress Of does. All things considered, her set at Pitchfork was rather lovely. When she wasn’t triggering samples or backing tracks, Rodriguez was moving around a bit, doing her best to keep people engaged and dancing. The energy was good, as was her effort, though there were moments when it definitely felt like it wasn’t enough to sustain her 30 minutes on stage. People began to trickle out and wander away in earnest about two-thirds of the way through her set, though those that did missed out on a rather inspired version of “How Do You Do It?” to wrap things up. Empress Of at her best is always a great thing.
I’ve seen Neon Indian perform live a handful of times now, and am thankful that Alan Palomo & Co. understand how to fully entertain and inspire an audience. Clad in a “uniform” of black dress shirts, white pants and white ties, the band immediately launched into “Dear Skorpio Magazine” and the dance party began. The set list focused primarily on last fall’s VEGA INTL. Night School, a dance-heavy, ’80s indebted record that felt like a more polished return to form for the chillwave pioneer. As the ringleader of this celebration, Palomo shimmied his way up, down and across the stage with reckless abandon, more sold on the synthetic beats than a majority of the crowd – at least at first. You can’t help but be sucked into this vortex of fun, and things began to pick up once the single “Annie” hit. The true knockout punch though arrived in the second half of the set, when “Slumlord” and the classic “Deadbeat Summer” turned Union Park into one of the biggest dance parties of the entire weekend.
In terms of overall crowd enthusiasm, it was a wonder watching so many people get wildly excited over Jeremih. Of course, the R&B singer had a number of things working in his favor. He’s a local favorite with a lot of hits and plenty of high profile friends to count on. It also just so happened to be his birthday. As a result, he earned the benefit of the doubt when starting his set 15 minutes late. Nobody even seemed to care when his DJ started playing the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling,” despite the fact that it’s the sort of mainstream cliche a Pitchfork audience typically rails against. But when he finally did take the stage, people went crazy. Many hits were played, often only in parts before quickly transitioning into something else. He kept asking if people wanted to hear the “old shit or some new shit,” and the crowd always pushed for the old no matter how much it became clear he wanted to do some new material too. Of course “Birthday Sex” was in there, given how appropriate it was for the occasion. Eventually Chance the Rapper joined him on stage for a few minutes to do a couple songs, including song-of-the-summer candidate “Angels” from his most recent Coloring Book mixtape. Near the end he also brought out his mom, which was sweet but also a little awkward given how much he’d been singing about sex. It was a nice topper on a set that, while unfocused in the early going, never stopped being fun.
While Thundercat is a somewhat larger human being, the first thing that struck me when I saw him was the bass guitar he was holding. It was gigantic. Didn’t know they made them that huge. But I guess a big guy needs a big instrument. [That’s what she said…sorry] You’ll be able to see it when I publish the photos from the weekend, though I’m curious if it might look normal sized in his hands. But about the performance. I only had the chance to see a couple of songs due to the delays creating greater conflicts with the Red/Green stages, but it was enough to showcase the same sort of jazz-infused groove that Kamasi Washington had established earlier in the day. The primary difference was that Thundercat sounded much more indebted to prog rock and funk, largely due to his band being smaller and without any sort of brass representation. Instead, it was a battle between the bass, keyboards and drums to establish dominance, which brought both excitement and intensity to each song. Thundercat’s vocals also had an almost Prince-like falsetto inflection to them at times, which was also a bit fun and got some people moving. While I would have loved to stay, the Red stage was soon calling my name.
Miguel is a born performer. The guy knows how to put on a show and keep people entertained. He’s got a full band with him to bring his R&B songs to life with even more electric energy than how they’re presented on record. He dances up a storm, complete with moonwalks, the splits, spins and some microphone stand acrobatics. Not only is he really easy to watch, he’s also got the quality material to back it up. Realistically that should make his set one of the weekend’s best. While it was good, it wasn’t great. The issue was the set list. It was just a little bit imbalanced in favor of some slower songs. When it’s getting late in the day after a full weekend of a music festival, that sort of calm energy sucks some of the life out of you. About halfway through his set I started to feel a little tired, and an a capella version of new song “How Many” didn’t help. Of course that was in service of some powerful Black Lives Matter messaging, which was a highly admirable thing to include after virtually no other performer chose to mention those issues in the last three days. He attempted to bring back the party vibe to close things out, but by that point things had gotten so serious it was hard to celebrate after that.
With less material and less popularity than Miguel, it was somewhat surprising that FKA twigs was chosen to headline on Sunday night. Then again, if you’ve been following twigs’ progress up until this point, the top slot felt like it was just waiting for her to arrive. Her videos and performances have become increasingly artistic and strange, indicative of a truly unique talent that could set the creative world ablaze. So when she arrived on stage clad in tribal gear, her hair in beaded braids and a massive spike through her nose, it felt like she truly deserved to be there. Her performance told the story of a powerful woman who ruled a kingdom and was worshiped by her subjects, until someone stole her prized artifact and stripped her of power. Over the course of an hour, she embarked on a journey to recover the lost artifact and reclaim her power. At least that’s the way I interpreted it. Many songs, including a couple of new ones, were interwoven along the way, not to mention plenty of complex dancing and and other strange flourishes. If you were paying close attention, it was absolutely captivating and helped cement twigs’ place as the next Janet Jackson or Madonna. She’s set to break through in an even more major way and will be on a stadium tour before you know it. The most unfortunate thing about her set was the crowd, which was one of the lightest for a headlining act that I’ve seen in years. And many that were there appeared bored or insisted on talking with friends the entire time rather than pay attention to the action happening on stage. They missed out on something truly special.