Two days down, one left to go. While I’m always impressed with the general lineup and flow of the schedule for just about any day of the Pitchfork Music Festival on any given year, there was something about Saturday this year that stood out. I had a strange sense of uncertainty about how some of the performances would go, and about how the crowds would react to them. Sometimes you’re expecting a rousing success and instead it turns out to be a tepid mess that nobody likes. Other times you watch an artist pouring his or her heart out while a bunch of people chat instead of paying attention to what’s happening on stage. The music festival world can be a complex and fickle beast. So on a day where it felt like there were more question marks about artists than usual, I’m pleased to report that the entire day went tremendously well. So much so that it handily bested Friday and I can’t imagine Sunday improving upon it. But we’ll just have to wait and see! In the meantime, please join me after the jump for a lengthy summary of every performance I witnessed on Saturday. They’re all sorted by paragraph, with the artist name bolded for easier navigation. I’ll be sharing a full photo set from Saturday at some point in the coming days, so keep an eye out for that!
While it would have been nice to start my day with Vagabon, a later arrival and a shortened set both contributed to that not happening. Instead, the first music I heard on Saturday was some “Weird Al” Yankovic blasting out of the speakers as the walk on music for Jeff Rosenstock. As he and his band took the stage with gigantic grins on their faces, it was immediately clear they were ready to have a good time. And they absolutely did. “I’d like to thank the person at Pitchfork who got fired for letting us play this festival,” Rosenstock proclaimed a few songs into the set. He’s not used to festivals, nor is he used to performing in front of such a large crowd. He used that to his advantage with fun stunts like asking everyone to do “the wave” in various directions and formations. At one point between songs he even told the crowd how much Pitchfork paid him to perform (it’s $7,500, by the way). He railed against corporate sponsorship, advocated for gun control, and then smashed a Drumpf pinata with his guitar. These are all wildly entertaining things that happened outside of the music, which had its own charms and appeal. While the core of Rosenstock’s sound is punk rock, he blends a little bit of reggae, synth-pop and other styles into some of his songs to really add spice. With a number of shout-along choruses, which the crowd was also very game for participation in when they weren’t busy moshing or crowd surfing, I couldn’t help but think about Dropkick Murphys. In short, it was the most fun I’ve had at a festival set in a long time, and put Rosenstock on a short list for all-time best performances at Pitchfork. I now understand why he’s regarded as an underground rock and roll hero, and strongly advise you to go see him perform if he’s ever in your town. If you’re not already a believer, he will convert you.
The transition from the wild punk of Jeff Rosenstock to the serene and baroque pop of Weyes Blood was uneven to say the least. Natalie Mering began her set with a solo vocal performance that was beautiful but also the equivalent of sitting down to read a book after taking a bunch of speed. Everyone’s all hopped up and energized, and here comes music to lull you into a docile state. The candelabra on stage, along with Mering’s turquoise suit told you everything you needed to know even before a single note was played. Here’s the thing though – Weyes Blood makes good music that’s worth listening to and going to see performed live. An unfortunate set time combined with the fact that most of the songs would sound better in a darker and more intimate venue setting simply did not do the band any favors. Still, there were highlights, including lovely versions of “Seven Words” and “Do You Need My Love”. A little extra spark was thrown into that latter song, and things got much louder and more psychedelic when they chose to cover Can’s “Vitamin C” to end the set. Through it all, Mering retained a smart and deadpan sense of humor. “Did you just yell ‘Fuck yeah’ or ‘Fuck you’?” she asked someone in the crowd. “Either one is fine, because we’re that kind of band.” For the record, the person did in fact yell, “Fuck yeah!” Unsuited as Weyes Blood might have been for this festival, I’m inclined to agree with the sentiment.
A better and more appropriate follow-up to Jeff Rosenstock’s appropriately bonkers performance was waiting right across the park on the Blue stage with Cherry Glazerr. Clementine Creevy and her band of misfits turned music into performance art and pure catharsis with some hard-hitting rock and roll that alternated between sweet and vicious. Their set started with Creevy crawling on her hands and knees across the stage, flicking her tongue in and out of her mouth like some kind of lizard. It was highly amusing and just a little unsettling, and that was before she started stomping around stage and throwing a tantrum in time with the music. “She’s a wild one,” Creevy seethed on the cutting “Nurse Ratched”, and that couldn’t be a better descriptor for how things went. “Told You I’d Be With the Guys” also served as a showcase for Creevy’s guitar solo chops, which also happened to be fantastic. While it’s easy to focus on Creevy and her attention grabbing antics, it’s important to note that the other members of Cherry Glazerr are absolutely essential to their sound, and do an incredible job of keeping things on track whenever there’s concern a song or the show in general might spin off the rails. A grand mixture of punk, post-punk, and glam rock, the set was a great reminder that with the right talent behind the instruments, rock and roll is more alive than ever. The massive crowd seemed to agree, signaling that this band is destined for bigger and better things in the very near future.
With a catalog of songs focused on drinking, hangovers, and bad sex, Arab Strap aren’t exactly the most upbeat or lively bunch. Realistically, their live shows probably also function better when taking place on a dark and stormy night. Given that it was neither dark nor stormy in Union Park on Saturday afternoon, things wound up a little shaky. The heat certainly didn’t help, as vocalist Aidan Moffat looked like me might succumb to flop sweat at any moment during the performance. He also drank a copious amount of alcohol throughout the band’s set. I counted that he drank three full beers during the first three songs, and then decided it might be better if I didn’t know the final number so I stopped keeping track. If that’s what he needs to do to get through the material, then so be it I guess. But while it was a somber affair with a lot of somber songs, the band did an excellent job of enhancing the emotion as needed. Some of the harshest and most gut wrenching moments were punctuated by waves of heavy guitar and general noise to make them that much more punishing. When the chips were down and maybe a dose of sympathy was needed, a violin or piano would come in and match the sorrow in a very touching way. While I might not have loved Arab Strap’s set and largely felt they could have done a little better job engaging with the crowd beyond mostly standing in place and playing their instruments, I did walk away with a greater respect for them and the heartbreaking music they’ve made.
A Mitski performance is all about moderation and restraint. Well, to a point. Her songs focus a lot on the subtext of things, where personal emotions are running deep below an otherwise placid delivery. The guitars do most of the heavy lifting, punching hard with volume and distortion to let you know that in fact everything is not okay. But for as mannered and peaceful as Mitski can be, even she can’t hold it together for every single song, and nor should she. The moments she does break, unleashing vocal and sonic fury on an unsuspecting crowd, there’s this incredible moment of catharsis and relief for everybody. “Your Best American Girl” remains her finest and most important track to date, and it’s the one that hits hardest and gets the biggest response of the set. It’s difficult to classify a Mitski performance as fun when even her song “Happy” is not as the title might imply, but most of the Pitchfork crowd seemed to be having a good time and the overall energy was high even when things slowed down for a bit. We were all completely captivated by the journey, which isn’t a feat that’s easy to pull off in the middle of a music festival.
At one point during George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic‘s set I counted at least 15 people on stage. Were they all necessary? I highly doubt it, and honestly wouldn’t be surprised if that number was light compared to some of the P-Funk shows in the ’70s and ’80s. Clinton’s a bit of an elder statesman these days, him being 75 and all, but the people around him span generations. Some of the guys playing instruments had grey dreadlocks and looked like they’d been in the band for multiple decades, while some of the guys that sharing microphone duties were clearly in their early-to-mid 20’s and at one point covered Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz’s “Get Low”. Things started out relatively disorganized, with lots of people coming and going, dancers shaking their hips and the band trying to maintain some sort of groove as a series of random people took over lead vocal duties with Clinton in the rotation. It was basically a free-form jam session for the first half of the set, which had its moments of inspired greatness. Large portions of the crowd were dancing, which I guess was the main point, so it was a success in that regard. But the second half of the set was much more about diving into the hits, and that’s where things really kicked up a notch. It was a genuine blast to hear hundreds of people across generations singing/shouting/dancing along to “Give Up the Funk” and a couple other big numbers. The celebration might be a little more muted now than it was 30 or 40 years ago, but there’s clearly plenty of life still left in the Clinton & P-Funk tank.
In all honesty, I was pretty sure that Francis Farewell Starlite’s (Francis and the Lights) vocals on his songs were almost entirely manufactured through a variety of filters. While he does gratuitously use Autotune at times to pull things in a more R&B or Bon Iver-like direction, it seems that his Peter Gabriel-esque voice is completely natural. It makes a lot of sense then why he composes so many songs that evoke the feelings and memories of Gabriel hits from the ’80s. The problem lies mostly in his lyrics, which can be so excruciatingly pedestrian they ruin otherwise great songs. Going into his Pitchfork set, I was mostly concerned with what his live show would entail, seeing as how he’s technically a solo artist and all. The couple of times I’ve seen him on stage, he’s always been with Chance the Rapper, which either left him stuck behind decks twisting knobs and pushing buttons, or doing a choreographed dance. To my surprise and legitimate delight, Francis had somebody at the back of the stage queuing up his songs, so he could stand front and center with a microphone and dance up a storm. And boy can he dance! The guy’s a pure showman, shaking and shimmying with such gleeful energy you can’t help but crack a smile. It also serves as a great distraction for the relatively mediocre quality of his songs. After spending a good 30 minutes showing off more moves than a competitive chess game, Francis ended his set by climbing up into a tree next to the Blue stage. Because why not? In several years of attending Pitchfork it was the first time I’d ever seen an artist do that, so there’s one for the memory banks. The gigantic crowd cheered him on in approval. Many were undoubtedly hoping for a Chance the Rapper appearance, especially since he contributed a verse to a remix of “May I Have This Dance,” but alas it was not to be. Those disappointed can take comfort in the fact that just Francis alone was pretty much fun and entertaining enough to make up for it.
It’s been several years since The Feelies last performed in Chicago, and if tradition holds true it might take several more for them to return again. They very rarely tour, which is why it’s important to take advantage any time you have the chance to see them. It’s too bad more of the Pitchfork crowd wasn’t motivated to check out their set. There was a nice sized crowd, just not really impressive given how respected The Feelies are. Then again, “respected” and “popular” are two very different things. But whether they were playing to one person or ten thousand, I get the feeling they’d be giving it their all either way – that’s just the kind of people they are. Polite and giving though they may be, there was just a little bit of malice thrown out at the beginning of their set after it wound up being delayed 10 minutes because George Clinton wanted to do one more song on the neighboring Green stage. Let’s just say as a rule you don’t cut into The Feelies’ set time unless you want to get cussed out. That minor hiccup aside, the band still powered through a set list of 14 songs, rarely stopping to take a breath. What largely amounts to a catalog of folk-pop songs could very easily have been boring or a chore to listen to in the hot sun, but there’s also a reason their most famous album is titled Crazy Rhythms. Their double percussion approach, combined with very active bass lines, really keeps things moving to the point where you could reasonably dance to most of their songs. I spotted a few people, mostly of an older persuasion, doing their best interpretations of what you might call “dad dancing”. So they were having fun, and the band definitely seemed to be having fun, which is about all you can ask for. There were also a whole lot of people just taking a breather and sitting down throughout the wide open field nearby, but still clearly grooving in their own inactive way. Anybody that has a bad time at a Feelies show would be engaging in an act of self-sabotage. They remain a delight, and I’m hoping they’ll be back in Chicago at least one more time in the next few years.
You’ve got to give Angel Olsen a little credit for adding a dash of glitz and glamour to her performance. While her songs stand up perfectly fine on their own, having your band dress in identical suits and bolo ties is both classy and shows you’ve got a sense of humor. Actually, that sense of humor was present throughout her set, as she often subtly joked with the crowd between songs, like when she told people to send her photos from the show via Instagram DM so they could start a “special, secret relationship”. But dry, deadpan jokes and coordinated clothing choices aside, Olsen’s performance was a wonder to behold. After beginning with a spirited version of “High & Wild” off her 2014 album Burn Your Fire For No Witness, things quickly escalated with the brash energy of “Shut Up Kiss Me” from last year’s near-perfect My Woman. In fact, the latter album completely dominated the set list, with only an exception made for the striking vocal showcase that is “Acrobat”. It truly is transfixing to just hear Olsen sing, as her voice has such a dynamic range you’re nearly powerless to resist its charms. That’s a big reason why she can easily transition from a louder and wilder first half into a slower, more introspective second half without ever losing the crowd’s attention or support. The two 7+ minute songs that helped close things out also provided ample opportunity for Olsen’s band to really stretch out and show off their own chops, which are nearly as formidable as her voice. It was really perfect mood setting music for the early evening hours, as the sun continued to burn brightly but slowly sink in the sky.
There was something perfectly fitting about PJ Harvey and her band taking the stage in marching formation. On the one hand, the whole pomp and circumstance was fitting for rock music royalty arriving in Chicago for her first show in seven years. On the other hand, it felt like a military unit from the Civil War era preparing to engage in battle. They all stepped together across the stage in a single file line, in time with the beats of multiple snare and bass drums. Anybody not carrying a drum had a saxophone, and it was with that combination of instruments and a chorus of voices they launched into “Chain of Keys” from Harvey’s latest album The Hope Six Demolition Project. With themes of social and political unrest dominant throughout the record, all black outfits, and lots of “coat of arms” imagery, it’s not difficult to connect the dots with a strict wartime aesthetic. But a saxophone isn’t exactly the instrument you’d associate with bombs or guns or really any sort of protest. Perhaps that’s why Harvey chose to focus on it throughout that record, just as she chose to use the Autoharp all over 2011’s Let England Shake, which was far more explicitly about World War I. Fittingly, tracks from both of those recent albums made up a vast majority of the Pitchfork set list, with her nine-piece band twisting them down new and often more exciting avenues compared to the original recordings. There was a very avant-garde and art-pop feel to all of the proceedings, further highlighting the fact that there’s nobody else quite like PJ Harvey. Vocally she sounded fantastic, and also proved she can still growl and howl with the best of them on classics like “50ft Queenie” and “Down By the Water”. While it most assuredly wasn’t as provocative or strange as her shows from 20 years ago, there was a tactical charm to it that made the performance magnetic from start to finish. You could say it was executed with all the precision of a targeted military strike.
Last but certainly not least on Saturday was A Tribe Called Quest. The group haven’t played a full show since the passing of Phife Dawg, so their set at Pitchfork was set to be something of a proving ground as they embark on a final tour to celebrate his legacy and give fans one last chance to say goodbye. After plowing through “The Space Program,” which kicks off their last album We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your service with all the ferocity of a starving man eating his first meal in a long time, the four guys (Q-Tip, Jarobi, Consequence and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammed) on stage wanted to make it perfectly clear that an empty microphone stand on stage with them was there for Phife, and it would remain there for the duration of the show. Whenever a Phife verse would come up in a song, they would play Phife’s recorded version in full, and shine a spotlight on that microphone stand while everyone on stage stood off to the side out of respect. And though a performance featuring a lot of tributes to a deceased member might seem like a somber affair, it was anything but. All of the guys absolutely brought their A-game, completely dominating every verse with passion and energy. Their chemistry was unbelievable too, as the bounced off one another from verse to verse like rubber balls pounding against the pavement. It truly was a privilege to watch them work and run through a set list that touched on the entire Tribe catalog. The new material, which was featured most, fit in surprisingly well with all the classics, and actually got some of the biggest crowd responses of the night. “We the People…” wound up being the final song of the night and may have elicited the biggest sing-along, but mega-hits “Can I Kick It?” and “Award Tour” led into it at the start of the encore, which took an already electric party up to a whole other level. And so it ended, not with a whimper but a massive bang. This was Tribe at their absolute, ecstatic best, and what better way than to go out on top?