Now that you’ve heard a couple of songs from every artist performing at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, let’s get down to brass tax. If you’re planning to spend some time in Union Park this weekend enjoying some live music, who should you see? Sure, you probably purchased a ticket because some of your favorites are playing, but realistically speaking you might not have enough information to know the best choices for every single hour of the schedule. Don’t worry, let this preview guide help! Here’s a more detailed breakdown of every artist performing at Pitchfork Fest this Friday, along with their set times and stage location (red, green, and blue). My personal recommendations are starred (**). Check back later this week for preview guides detailing the schedules and lineups for Saturday and Sunday!
Great Black Music Ensemble [1:00-1:40]
Ease into the 3-day weekend with a performance from the Chicago jazz collective Great Black Music Ensemble. The group is consistently in flux both on stage and off, and no two shows are exactly the same. Membership in the group varies between three and eleven musicians at any given time, and they go in with no planned set list or established songs. Everything is pretty much improvised on the spot, as is the nature jazz music. Expect saxophones and flutes and keys and trumpets and multiple types of drums mixed with some singing and spoken word vocals. It should be fascinating to watch, and hopefully they’ll get into some major grooves to get people dancing.
Bronx rapper MIKE is young and hungry. the 20-year-old has released five albums in the last two years, the most recent of which arrived in June to high critical acclaim. That record, Tears of Joy, marked his most personal work to date, reflecting on the recent death of his mother. He goes deep and reaches into dark places, but always tries to find the light in any situation. His baritone voice has a particularly emotive quality to it, which gives his words heft well beyond how they might appear on the page. Even though many of his tracks seem like they’re thrown together on the fly, a closer analysis reveals that everything he does is purposeful and carefully considered. It’s quickly made him one of the most interesting and intimate rappers around today.
Standing on the Corner [2:30-3:15]
As if designed to meld the distinct styles and 90 minutes of total music crafted by the two previous artists performing on Friday afternoon, Standing on the Corner is the experimental duo of Gio Escobar and Jasper Marsalis. These 23-year-olds blend a variety of sounds, including jazz, hip hop, electronica, soul, and Latin dance to craft what might best be described as sonic collages. Similar to the Great Black Music Ensemble, much of what they put together (at least on record) is improvised, as they thread together (often distorted) audio clips of singing, dialogue, drum hits, ambient noise, and other treats into a tapestry of beautiful yet complicated moments. They’ve also collaborated with MIKE on some tracks, so he’s likely to pop up for a guest appearance during their set. Ultimately Standing on the Corner craft intense and odd music, but the closer you listen to it, the more meaning you’ll find buried beneath the layers of sound.
**Rico Nasty [2:45-3:30]
It’s tough to recall when Chicago last had a rapper with the energy and intensity of someone like Rico Nasty. She’s released seven mixtapes over the last five years, each one hungrier and more ferocious than the last. Yet she’s also very young, and still trying to figure out exactly who she is and what she wants to sound like. As a result, she’s tried out a number of different styles that have emphasized different sides of her personality. There might be an introverted pop track that leads into a nu-metal groove that leads into an explosive trap beat, all of which wouldn’t make much sense were there not such a chameleonic personality holding it all together and evolving with ease. Her latest mixtape Anger Management is a collaboration with EDM DJ Kenny Beats, and runs through a collection of sub-3 minute tracks in just about 18 minutes, leaving you gasping for air by the end. She’s also just signed to Atlantic Records, which implies there are much bigger things ahead for Rico Nasty in the very near future.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Chicago rapper Valee is a quiet guy who’d rather be home hanging out on the couch than actually making music. That’s not his actual attitude, but the one projected in many of his tracks. Even when the beats are fun and energetic (which is often), his vocals tend to be lackadaisical and chilled out. It’s a style, distinctive enough to get noticed and catchy enough to get you invested. Others have certainly taken notice, which has led to a number of imitators, but also helped him get signed to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music label last year. Speaking of which, his track “Womp Womp” (ft. Jeremih) deserved the Song of the Summer title for 2018, and he’s essentially been on a hot streak ever since. There have been collaborations with Lil Yachty, Vic Mensa, Matt Ox, and DRAM in recent months, plus a new EP that arrived in early June. He’s still flying relatively under the radar for now, but it’s safe to say he won’t be for long.
A collaborative project between Twin Peaks guitarist Clay Frankel and producer Chris Bailoni (aka Home-Sick), Grapetooth are perhaps best known for their wildly fun live shows. There’s jumping around, body surfing, climbing on things, bringing members of the crowd on stage for no particular reason, and just general hijinks that get people riled up in the best sorts of ways. They’re a natural fit for Pitchfork Fest, and might just secretly wind up with one of the best sets of the entire weekend. Music-wise, Grapetooth’s self-titled debut album attempted to capture the insanity of their performances but only managed to pull it off some of the time. It’s more fun to listen to the songs and familiarize yourself with them so you can sing along at their shows. Synth-pop is a good descriptor for their style, with the occasional drum machine or acoustic guitar thrown in for good measure. Let’s all meet up and dance in the pit, okay?
**Sky Ferreira [4:15-5:10]
It’s a real shame that Sky Ferreira and Grapetooth will be performing at the same time on Friday, because both are excellent and worth seeing but for very different reasons. For Sky Ferreira, her return to Pitchfork Fest for the first time since 2013 happens as she prepares to mount a comeback in the wake of a turbulent last few years on both a personal and professional level. Outside of a few live shows, some acting work, and a couple tabloid headlines, she’s been mostly M.I.A. until earlier this year when she released her first new song in more than six years. She’s always been a bit of an unconventional pop star, pushing back against label executives and managers who try to force her into a standard mold, while wrestling with her perfectionism as she writes and produces songs for her upcoming second album. Don’t ask her to smile. Don’t ask her to dance. Don’t ask her to calm down. Sky Ferreira is raw, honest, and unapologetic. We don’t deserve her, and are lucky to have her.
**Earl Sweatshirt [5:15-6:10]
Earl Sweatshirt was supposed to perform at last year’s Pitchfork Fest, but cancelled his performance to focus on his own mental health and family issues. Thankfully he’s back for 2019 and hopefully feeling a bit better. He’s managed to provide us with some new material in the meantime, releasing his “comeback” album Some Rap Songs late last fall to immense critical acclaim. A lot of that material dealt with his personal struggles and a number of losses in his life, all of which was dealt with in his signature honest and open way. That he chose to experiment with avant-garde jazz styles to blend with his rap also showcased a new level of maturity that bore some similarity to the strides made by Kendrick Lamar surrounding To Pimp A Butterfly. In other words, he’s one of the most exceptionally talented and unique voices in hip hop today, and if you can appreciate what he’s trying to do, you shouldn’t miss a minute of his set.
Julia Holter [5:15-6:00]
Nobody but Julia Holter could get away with using instruments like keyboards, horns, and bagpipes to imitate the sounds of ambulances and other emergency vehicle sirens for four minutes straight. A majority of her songs are on the quieter side with beautiful instrumentation and ornately poetic lyrics, so to encounter such grating cacophony is both annoying and a shock to the system. But that’s exactly her goal: to shake the listener out of their comfort zone and expect the unexpected. Whatever it takes to make you feel something, even if it’s revulsion. She’s an Artist with a capital A, always experimenting and never content to stick to a lane long enough to get boxed in. Last year’s Aviary record was one of her best, taking us on a 90-minute journey in search of humanity in our increasingly digital and disconnected age. Listening to her perform songs from that record and the rest of her catalog in the shaded area around the Blue stage should provide a late afternoon respite so you can recharge and prepare for the rest of the day.
It’s crazy to think that Pusha-T has been around and making classic hip hop tracks for the better part of the last two decades. What’s even crazier is that he’s still putting out amazing records like last year’s Daytona, which might just be his best solo record to date. He teamed up with Kanye West (of all people) to throw together a collection of seven raw and uncompromising tracks that fly by in just 21 minutes. The topics were largely the same as usual for him – selling drugs, making money, spending money, becoming paranoid, holding grudges, etc., but his lyrical prowess and tendency to use strange, non-traditional beats somehow still make it all seem fresh. As a seasoned live performer he also knows how to put together a set list that plays to his strengths, so expect a lot of hits and a lot of energy in a perfect follow-up to whatever Earl Sweatshirt will do in the time slot right before.
Soccer Mommy [6:30-7:15]
The Stooges 1969 classic song “I Wanna Be Your Dog” gets a tongue-in-cheek pseudo-inverse response nearly 50 years later in the Soccer Mommy song “Your Dog.” “I don’t wanna be your fucking dog,” Sophie Allison sings in the chorus, her voice dripping with disgust. On the list of things she DOES want, her song “Cool” features a hook with the line, “I wanna be that cool.” And she is that cool! Maybe not when she wrote the words, but they’ve manifested into something very real as part of last year’s great record Clean. It’s clear she’s a talent, and while her songs might fall into the sonic territory of many singer-songwriters from the past, her lyrics convey a whole host of tangled emotions that are equally unique and relatable. They sound precious, but have all the teeth of a wild animal gnawing on a bone. She puts on a great live show too, but may get sonically blown out by Pusha-T on the other side of Union Park.
**Mavis Staples [7:25-8:25]
What can I say about Mavis Staples that hasn’t already been said? An absolute legend both in Chicago and around the world, she’s been making gospel music since she was a teenager and just celebrated her 80th birthday last week. Her catalog, both as part of The Staple Singers and as a solo artist, is second to none. The fact that she’s still performing (and sounds AMAZING) is truly a gift. I’ve seen her a handful of times over the last decade, and have been absolutely blown away as she’s run through classics like “Freedom Highway,” “I’ll Take You There,” and “Respect Yourself” while covering songs from Talking Heads (“Slippery People”) and The Band (“The Weight”). You can probably expect to hear all those and more at Pitchfork. There may even be a special guest appearance from some friends like Jeff Tweedy, who collaborated with Mavis Staples on two of her more recent albums.
Here’s the thing about Low: they’re a fantastic band. It’s wild to think they just released their 12th(!) studio album last year, the fragmented experimental piecemeal titled Double Negative, that also turned out to be one of their best to date. More often than not, their music evokes a slow dread that might fit the mood perfectly as the sun begins to set in Union Park. I’ve seen Low perform a handful of times over the years, and while I’ve enjoyed those shows, they’re almost always not in the right location with the right people. For example, a few years ago they played at Chicago’s Millennium Park for free, but it was late afternoon and the friends I was with (who were unfamiliar with the band) complained of boredom. Slowcore is best enjoyed while seated in a dark room. Pitchfork Fest doesn’t exactly offer either, though at least the Blue stage has shade and grassy areas you can sit if you feel the desire. If you can find a way to chill out and absorb the vibes from Low’s set though, good for you.
Honestly, I’ve heard a lot of complaints about Haim headlining Pitchfork Fest. People saying they’re not popular enough (they sold out two nights at the Aragon last year). Others claiming their music is bland adult contemporary and generally sucks (their two albums received an 8.3 Best New Music and a 7.8 from Pitchfork). These reactions make sense to me, even as I disagree with them. One thing I will say is that I don’t know any hardcore Haim fans – ones who are obsessed with the California sibling trio in a major way. Most like them, but don’t LOVE them. I’ve been listening to their music since well before their first album came out, and well before they even had merch with their names on it. The songs are catchy and well-written. They’re very good at playing their instruments, and it’s a blast to watch them nail a solo or settle into a groove. They’re a whole lot of fun, and know how to work a crowd. A new album is presumably on the way either later this year or early next year, and with it they’ll likely be boosted to headliner status at some massive festivals like Coachella. This is happening whether you like it or not, so I’d recommend just sitting back and enjoying the ride.