The weather was top of mind heading into this Pitchfork Music Festival weekend, primarily because the forecast predicted scattered thunderstorms all three days. Prepared to go with the flow whatever that might wind up being, I arrived at Union Park on Friday armed with a poncho, umbrella, and plastic bags for my cell phone, wallet, and camera if needed. It began to rain as I approached the entrance gate, so the poncho became a fashion accessory immediately. Undeterred by the showers, I wandered a short distance to the Red stage, where the ferocity of Melkbelly‘s guitars made for a rather appropriate weather soundtrack. They’re Chicagoans, so they fully understand how everything from temperature to precipitation can turn on a dime in this city. And turn it did, because not only did the rain stop after about 15 minutes, but the sun was shining by the end of Melkbelly’s set. It almost felt like a weird bit of coordination, as the band’s performance only got stronger, louder, and heavier as the weather got better. Did they scare the clouds away? When your show has such a high level of intensity, anything seems possible. They set the bar high right at the start of the day, and woe to whatever artist had to follow them.

The artist that followed them was Lucy Dacus. Even though she was coming in hot off her magnificent new record Historian, pretty much anything she did would be viewed as a slight letdown compared to what Melkbelly had just done. The good news is that Dacus didn’t attempt to be anything other than her truest self on stage. As such, there wasn’t anything particularly flashy or gimmicky in her performance, just some rock-solid songs and some good interplay with her band members. After spotting a few ominous-looking clouds in the distance after her first couple of songs, she quickly called an audible and changed the set list on the fly “out of fear” the weather might force them to end early. “I’m also a little worried about the possibility of getting electrocuted,” Dacus confessed. She needn’t be concerned however, as the rain never came and she finished the set without any problems. It was my first Lucy Dacus live experience, and if I’m being honest it was perfectly lovely.

Speaking of perfectly lovely, that’s also how I felt about Julie Byrne‘s set. I’ve seen her before, and had some honest concerns about how her meditative folk songs would work in an outdoor festival environment. Just as she was about to begin her first song, an ambulance with its sirens blaring began to head down the street nearest to the stage. Without flinching or even the slightest bit of annoyance, Byrne sat and waited for 15-20 seconds until it was audibly out of range. When she finally began to play, it was to a completely silent crowd, which was stunning because that so rarely happens at Pitchfork. The whole thing was rather beautiful, actually. Then the second ambulance drove past just before the second song started (she once again waited), and the third flew by in the middle of her third song (she didn’t stop). Nothing you can do about that, but Byrne never let it faze her or her band, which included violin and harp players. She figuratively wrapped the audience in a blanket of love and kindness with her music, and it was a brief respite from the crazy world happening just outside the park gates.

The rain returned for Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society. It began to downpour right as they were taking the stage, and my annoyance about that may have influenced how I felt about their performance. As an experimental jazz collective, they began slow and gradually picked up steam, which initially caused me to walk away from the stage out of annoyance and boredom. The attitude was sort of, “They expect me to stand around in the middle of a rainstorm and listen to THIS?!” After seeking some shelter from the rain until it stopped about 20 minutes later, I decided to go back and give them another try. While I still wasn’t exactly impressed, the band did manage to stir up a frenzy that I found interesting and worthwhile to watch for several minutes.

Open Mike Eagle puts on a Performance with a capital P. There’s a fair amount of theatrics to it, as he includes dialogues, crowd interactions, poetry readings, and other various activities in addition to his standard songs. It may have been a character he was playing, but his cavalier, often nonchalant attitude ultimately wound up distracting from the overall experience of seeing him live. I appreciate what he was trying to do, but the results were a bit mixed in their execution. Less open chit-chat and more of a focus on the actual songs would have been a huge help.

Back in my preview guide for Friday, I questioned how Tierra Whack, an artist whose recent debut album was only 15 minutes long, would fill the 55 minutes she was scheduled for. The answer? Send your DJ out to play a bunch of classic hip hop hits for about 20 minutes to “get the crowd pumped up,” then end your set 15 minutes early. At least the 20 or so minutes Whack was on stage were positively magnetic. It’s clear she’s a very talented rapper, and her delivery reminds me of a cross between Kendrick Lamar and Missy Elliott. Her energy was off the charts high as well, which got the crowd jumping around and throwing their hands into the air on command. Plenty of fun, if only it had lasted longer. [insert your ‘that’s what she said’ joke here]

I’ve seen Julien Baker perform about four or five times now, and have been left emotionally devastated during all of them. My concern going into her Pitchfork Fest set was how that would translate on an outdoor stage in the middle of the afternoon. Pretty well, as it turns out, so long as you were standing in the right spot. Being up at the front of the stage for her first couple of songs, I witnessed Baker doing her thing, powerful as ever, and a crowd that shed some tears and passionately sang along with every single word. Then I moved a little further back, closer to the center of the Blue stage area. Everyone in my immediate surroundings was chatting loudly, plus you could hear the heavy bass bumping from Saba’s set on the other side of the park. Baker stood no chance against all that, to the point where toward the end of her set she cracked a joke that got a lot of laughs and thunderous applause, but I neither laughed nor clapped because I couldn’t hear what she said. Disappointing as that may have been, if you could filter out all of the excess noise and just focus on her songs, it helped to foster an intimacy that’s otherwise in short supply at a festival like this. Baker once again sang and played her heart out, and it’s not her fault if you weren’t paying close attention.

Saba was one of the few artists on Friday that brought elements of stage design to his set. He had a refrigerator and sink sitting just off to one side, behind which his DJ was cueing up all the songs. The idea was to help make the stage feel at least a little like a home – not just for his HOMEtown of Chicago, but also a little reflective of the home he grew up in with his cousin, John Walt. Walt was murdered in 2017, and the fallout and memories from that ultimately formed the basis for Saba’s latest album Care for Me, which was on full display during his Pitchfork set. He ran through just about every song on that record, which moves between joy and sadness with deft precision, and the massive crowd was with him the entire way. They sang along and jumped around to some of the more vibrant tracks, some older classics included, then cheered loudly in support when things got darker. Saba himself appeared humbled and grateful in the end, that so many people would show up to take this journey with him. The underlying message was to take care of each other and live your life to the fullest, because any day could be your last. By the end of the set, it felt like a celebration, as Saba brought out the rest of the Pivot crew and they each took turns bouncing verses off one another.

A gigantic white sheet that looked like a movie screen was stretched across the entire Green stage for Syd‘s set, which looked cool but didn’t really have much of a purpose beyond that. No lights were projected onto it, nor was it used for shadowplay or anything like that. It was just there for aesthetic, I guess. Reminded me of Vince Staples’ very orange background when he performed on the same stage at Pitchfork last year. Aesthetic is also what Syd’s songs brought to Union Park, her stunning voice drifting across the open field and pulling you closer like an invisible magnet. She ran through most of the songs on her debut solo album Fin, then tossed in a couple tracks she’s done with her main group The Internet. Oddly enough, even though all the members of The Internet were in Chicago for a special aftershow celebrating the release of their new album, none of them dropped into Syd’s set for a special guest appearance. Of course that was likely her decision, and honestly they weren’t missed. “This one’s for all the women in the crowd,” she said multiple times when introducing songs with messages about empowerment and loving yourself. The crowd, in turn, gave that love right back to her.

Two albums and three years into their life as a band, and Big Thief already feel like they’ve fully come into their own. They operate with ragtag precision, in that their songs can sometimes feel rough around the edges, but that’s by design. They got a couple heavy hitters out of the way early, starting with the title track from their 2016 record Masterpiece, then moving into the single “Shark Smile”. While the band explored their louder, more aggressive side, they also inserted many moments of genuine tenderness, as songs like “Mythological Beauty” and “Mary” managed to push at least a few audience members to tears. For me, the biggest heart swelling moment came near the end of the set, when frontwoman Adrianne Lenker told the crowd to take care of one another, then launched into an extended version of “Real Love” where she stepped out to the very front of the stage near the barricade and crushed a lengthy guitar solo. What a great set from a great band.

While we’re on the topic of great sets, Courtney Barnett absolutely destroyed her Pitchfork Fest set. She’s an incredible live performer who I’ve been lucky enough to see a handful of times, but this one just might have been her best to date. The last time she was in Chicago back in May to celebrate the release of her album Tell Me How You Really Feel, she performed at the Chicago Cultural Center. The sound was muddy and she sounded a bit worn out. It left me a little disheartened and worried, which I’m thankful now that it was just a minor bump in the road. Barnett was all smiles and energy as she tore through her set tearing into solo after solo like it was just an average Friday for her. But that’s part of the charm, because she’s such an unassuming rock star. As someone who was slightly disappointed by her latest record, those songs sounded infinitely better now for whatever reason, and blended effortlessly with her older classics. It was a real kick to watch, and everyone in the massive crowd responded with the appropriate level of unbridled enthusiasm.

Tame Impala have been taking a self-imposed hiatus for much of 2018, a necessity after touring for nearly three years straight surrounding the release of their 2015 album Currents. Pretty much all they’ve done so far this year is play a few festival shows, and Pitchfork happened to be on that list. The good news is that now more than ever, Tame Impala have become the sort of band that excels in a festival environment. As their fan base has continued to build at a slow but steady pace, the band has managed to fine tune their sets to foster a maximum level of engagement. That means crafting a set list with bursts of energy and hits interspersed pretty evenly while never letting the tempos dip for very long. It also means adding other visual elements to help offset frontman Kevin Parker’s general shyness and apparent dislike of the spotlight. While he seems more comfortable than ever on stage these days, that could be the result of dim lighting, psychedelic visuals, and confetti canons keeping the focus elsewhere. Rest assured that anyone high on illicit substances probably had one of the best nights of their life watching all the lasers and chemtrail graphics slide across the screens on stage. Sonically speaking, Tame Impala sounded great, even if the first couple of songs were met with chants to turn the volume up (something the band has no control over). They played most of the songs almost exactly as they appear on their records, save for fun little tweaks like a mini disco breakdown in the middle of “Elephant”. As it’s their most recent record, Currents was a focal point and took up half of the set list. While there are some real JAMS on that album, it also has its fair share of downtempo numbers, which left the crowd restless more than once. Overall though, it was a highly impressive headlining set that I’d gladly see again tomorrow if given the opportunity.

That’s a wrap on the Friday recap. Check back tomorrow for a complete rundown of Saturday’s performances!