One of the best things about Friday at Pitchfork Music Festival every year is how relaxed the overall vibe is compared to the rest of the weekend. It’s less a product of the artists on the lineup and more the result of lower attendance (because many people are working), later arrivals (some show up after work), and people wanting to conserve their energy for the days ahead. You spend the day getting your bearings, learning where everything is located, and trying not to over-extend yourself. Yet it’s still a blast and the lineup is certainly nothing to sneeze at either. This year one of the biggest features of Pitchfork Fest is just how LOCAL it is. Yes, it’s very local every year, but that’s mostly reflected in the vendors and fun side attractions rather than the music itself. There are always a handful of Chicago artists and bands on the lineup, which has been nice but felt more like an afterthought than an actual intention. With 13 Chicago acts (out of 42 total) on the 2018 lineup, that’s no longer the case. Not only that, but the artists that were booked are all highly respected and critically acclaimed. If this is something Pitchfork hopes to continue in the future I worry they may run out of good choices, even though the local music scene is pretty massive. But we’ll take what we can get, and this year promises to be one of the best yet. There are five Chicago artists performing on Friday, including two bands that kick off the festival proper. Learn a bit more about all of them, and check out my personal picks for who to see hour-by-hour below.
Before we get started:
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Check back later this week for the Saturday and Sunday preview guides, plus coverage of the festival all weekend long!
** = Recommended
The Curls [1:00 – 1:40]**
The local love starts right away with a festival opening set from Chicago’s own The Curls. They’re a little bit under the radar compared to just about every other band on the lineup, but have shown a tremendous amount of promise over the last few years. Their sound can be challenging to pin down, and that’s a good thing. It’s easy to place them under the general banner of “indie rock”, but their songs often include influences that range from jazz to funk to psychedelia and beyond. Think Devo mixed with The B52s mixed with Blondie mixed with Talking Heads. Fun and catchy stuff with hints of offbeat artistic elements. Worth checking out if you manage to arrive early on the very first day.
Melkbelly [1:45 – 2:25]**
It’s hard to believe that Melkbelly just released their debut album last fall, mainly because they’ve been buzzed about in Chicago’s local scene for the last few years. Of course there have been some EPs and singles along the way, it just seems like they would have gotten to that whole full-length record thing sooner. As it stands, Nothing Valley is a bit of a triumph – a collection of carefully crafted noise rock that generally sounds like a hard punch by a velvet glove. They are Sonic Youth, Bully, and Speedy Ortiz rolled into one, and if that sounds exciting to you then definitely make plans to catch them on Friday.
Lucy Dacus [2:30 – 3:15]**
Julie Byrne [2:45 – 3:30]
The first official conflict on Friday comes courtesy of two fantastic singer-songwriters. Here’s what I love about Julie Byrne: Her music is stunningly beautiful and remarkably introspective. There’s a genuine warmth that seeps into her songs that feels like flecks of sunlight on your skin while you sit beneath an otherwise shady tree. The last time I saw her perform, you could hear a pin drop in the room it was so quiet, which only added to the mystique more. She’s rightly placed on the smaller Blue stage, but also maybe just a bit too calm for an outdoor festival stage. Her set will be powerful, but it also might make you want to take a nap. Lucy Dacus also crafts warm and introspective songs, but her preferred instrument is the electric guitar. It’s going to be a much louder, and more energetic set overall, with songs that are catchy and packed with meaning. Her latest album Historian also happens to be one of 2018’s finest so far, so it’ll be great just to hear some of those songs performed live.
Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society [3:20 – 4:10]**
Filling the mid-afternoon slot without much competition, Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society will be looking to shake up the Pitchfork Music Festival landscape a bit with some world music and avant-garde jazz sounds. Seems like a bit of an odd placement for the local experimental collective, but they will undoubtedly make the most of their time on one of the larger stages. While I’ve got great appreciation for their off-kilter, polyrhythmic looped approach, it’s certainly not for everybody. If free-form instrumental jams aren’t your thing, by all means take some time to explore the grounds of the festival a bit and grab a snack or something.
Open Mike Eagle [4:00 – 4:45]**
Tierra Whack [4:15 – 5:10]
Open Mike Eagle’s latest album, 2017’s Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, is centered around his upbringing in the Robert Taylor Homes projects on Chicago’s South Side. It’s a vivid and remarkable record from a hip hop artist that’s truly reaching his stride five records into his solo career. Not only that, but he’s got a highly successful podcast and plenty of other projects in the works that go well beyond his music career. He may be living in Los Angeles these days, but Chicago will always be home and it’s always great when he visits. Expect a high energy and dynamic set in Union Park on Friday afternoon. Unfortunately, Earl Sweatshirt dropped off of the Pitchfork Fest lineup at the last minute, most likely due to the “anxiety and depression” issues that also caused him to cancel a European tour last month. Up-and-coming Philadelphia rapper Tierra Whack has been brought in as a replacement, and it’s going to be incredibly fascinating to see how that works out. I say that because her debut album Whack World, which came out last month, plows through 15 tracks in 15 minutes. It jumps all over the place stylistically, and seems to be the product of a highly creative mind not content to sit still for more than a minute at a time. She’ll have nearly an hour to fill, so it’s anyone’s guess as to what she’ll do with all that time. If her set is anything like her album, it should be highly entertaining and a whole lot of fun.
Saba [5:15 – 6:10]**
Julien Baker [5:15 – 6:00]
It’s going to be a stockpile of grief and sadness at 5:15 on a Friday. Over on the larger Red stage, Chicago rapper Saba will be offering up meditations on grief and loneliness in line with the tracks on his incredible new record CARE FOR ME. It was a collection of tracks crafted in the wake of his cousin’s murder, as he seeks meaning in life and reaches out with empathy. Depressing as that may sound, it’s so intricately arranged and powerful that you can’t help but engage with it. Similar things can be said about Julien Baker: she’s great, but she also makes music that is highly emotional and often very quiet. Her last album Turn Out the Lights was one of my favorites from 2017, and having seen her perform a few times in the past I can also attest she’s very good live. But every time I’ve seen has has been indoors, in the dark, with a totally silent crowd. Not sure if the Pitchfork Fest attendees will be able to pull off a similar atmosphere, especially if Saba’s set is bumping not too far away. Still, if you’re in the mood for a good late afternoon cry underneath some mostly shady trees as Baker sings her heart out while playing guitar solo, the Blue stage is where you’ll want to be.
Syd [6:15 – 7:15]
Big Thief [6:30 – 7:15]**
The 6 o’clock hour brings an R&B vs. folk rock match-up, which may or may not be a difficult choice depending on your own personal tastes. Syd functions as the primary songwriter and vocalist at the center of R&B group The Internet, which originated as part of the Odd Future collective (i.e. Tyler the Creator, etc.). Her debut solo effort Fin was critically acclaimed and fell in line pretty strongly alongside efforts from Frank Ocean and SZA. Soulful, inventive, and magnetic, Syd’s set should be a nice respite before the energy kicks back into high gear for the rest of the night. As for Big Thief, their two albums to date have been largely regarded as masterpieces – their debut quite literally, as that’s the title they chose. But title aside, the actual meaning is more humble than literal. Their rock songs often have a very insular, private, tragic, and bold quality to them, filtering tales of heartbreak, abuse, and pain with deeper reflection and catharsis. All of it is beautiful yet sad, minimalist yet heavy. They may not be the most exciting band, but they are one of the most emotionally gripping.
Courtney Barnett [7:25 – 8:25]**
Mount Kimbie [7:45 – 8:30]
I’ve got a world of compliments for Courtney Barnett. If you have yet to hear her records or see her perform live, that’s something you should correct immediately. She’s one of the more dynamic artists and songwriters to emerge in the last few years, and with any luck has much more greatness on the way. It makes sense that Pitchfork would book her for the second time in four years, not only because she’s touring in support of a new album, but also because of how she makes putting on a rock show seem like one of the most effortless things in the world. Come for the wild guitar shredding, stay for the witty observations about everyday life. There’s not a whole lot of options on Friday for music fans that love to dance, but Mount Kimbie aim to correct that at least a little bit with their Blue stage set. The duo of Dominic Maker and Kai Campos recruited the likes of James Blake and King Krule to contribute to their great 2017 record Love What Survives, and while neither will be on hand in Union Park for a one-off guest spot, it’s safe to assume those tracks will be played anyway with their pre-recorded vocals thrown in. Fans of Boards of Canada and Four Tet will appreciate the intricacies that go into their very specific brand of electronic music, which is focused less on drops and more on organic rhythms and transitions.
Tame Impala [8:30 – 9:50]**
Not sure what to say about Tame Impala at this point. Three great records of psychedelic pop under their belts, they’ve graduated to the upper echelon of modern rock. If you’re only familiar with their hit song “Elephant”, I strongly encourage you to dig deeper into their catalog, as they’ve managed to weave together a number of different styles that allows them to get weird one moment, reflective the next, and then break out into a full-on dance party. They’ve been on a break for most of 2018 after spending much of the past three years touring in support of their amazing Currents record, and the suspicion is that some new songs may have been recorded. If we’re lucky, one or two might premiere during their headlining performance. Even if they don’t give us any new music, the hits are more than enough to satisfy in what will hopefully be one of the best sets of the entire weekend.