The first day of the 2019 Pitchfork Music Festival, all anybody could seemingly talk about was the heat. Chicago has been placed under an “Excessive Heat Warning” through Saturday evening, with temperatures reaching into the mid-90s though the “real feel” was just a touch over 100 degrees. So yes, it was hot. Everybody was sweating. Not much could be done about it, though some people took it upon themselves to find ways to keep cool. Fans, both paper and mini portable electric ones, were being used by many. Others brought mist bottles. Some simply felt they were wearing too much, and stripped down to the barest of essentials without resorting to outright nudity. The festival organizers were kind enough to offer up as much free water as you could drink, complete with giant ice tubs packed with bottled water free of charge, as well as water fountains in multiple areas of Union Park. At one point I spotted two large buckets filled with ice and a sign on them that simply said “DUNK”. A few brave souls just went right ahead and plunged their whole heads into them. There were also a few cooling buses available so people could have a seat in some air conditioning if they really needed it. Every time I walked past them they looked to be about half full.
One of the saving graces of the day was the Blue stage in general, because it’s a tree-heavy area with plenty of shade. Lots of people took it upon themselves to lay out blankets and just hang out there for much of the day. More than a few were napping somewhat comfortably. While I did see a couple of medical personnel carting somebody away in an ambulance at one point in the late afternoon, the medical tent itself appeared to be pretty quiet for most of the day. I didn’t spot a single person who had collapsed from the heat, and that’s kind of a regular thing that happens at just about every music festival no matter the temperature. People were smart and took care of themselves and others. It’s one of the things I love most about the Pitchfork Music Festival – everyone is super relaxed and friendly and wants to make sure you’re doing okay. We all look out for one another. Hopefully that’s the case again for Day 2 which is expected to be just as hot. But weather and cooling techniques aside, this is a MUSIC festival, and there are a bunch of performances to talk about. So let’s jump right in.
My day kicked off with just a little bit of Standing on the Corner, and I’ll openly admit to being surprised at what was going on. It was my interpretation that Standing on the Corner was a pretty traditional band led by Gio Escobar and Jasper Marsalis, who worked in a non-traditional way by blending genres and incorporating a lot of improvisation into their music. What they actually are is an ensemble (or collective, if you will) of more than a dozen musicians who are directed/conducted by Escobar and Marsalis. The 15 minutes of their set that I caught was largely influenced by jazz and soul, bringing to mind the Sun Ra Arkestra performance I saw at Pitchfork a few years back, as well as Kamasi Washington. There was a six-piece saxophone section, a three-piece trumpet section, two violinists, two cellists, three drummers (one on congas), plus some people on keyboards, guitars, and clarinet. Again, it was a LOT of people. Yet they were making it work. Escobar was leading them like an interactive conductor, pointing at certain people or instruments and waving his hands to give an impression of what he wanted from them. I’m almost positive that every note I heard was improvised, and if there were any missteps I certainly didn’t hear them.
The main reason I had to leave Standing on the Corner was to spend some quality time with Rico Nasty. The Chicago rapper was making her return home after some time away, and it was clear right from the start she was thrilled about it. “I just got back from Europe, and it was nice and all but there’s nothing like a hometown crowd,” she said earnestly. The hometown crowd was overly excited to see her too. One of the best things I witnessed all day was the front barricade lined almost entirely with young women of color who were shouting every lyric right back at Rico Nasty with huge smiles on their faces. If her music can inspire on that sort of level, then more power to her. But her music also inspired something I didn’t expect: she convinced people to move around on an extremely hot and sweaty day. Her DJ kept yelling to “open up the fucking mosh pit,” and within the first few tracks everyone was going nuts while also being respectful to one another and mindful of the heat. There may have been just a little extra room to breathe in between those body slams as a result. The performance itself couldn’t have gone any better. It was packed with energy and ferocity, tapping into something pure and primal. Lines were delivered with grit and bile, and by the time “Smack A Bitch” showed up to close things out, nobody wanted to leave.
So few people wanted to leave Rico Nasty’s set in fact, that the crowd waiting for Valee was noticeably small. It was small enough to where I wondered where most of the people had wandered off to. His DJ came out and tried to get everyone pumped up by playing a few classic hip hop tracks, and when he yelled, “Make some noise!” the response back was tepid at best. Yet Valee still came out, and the audience began to grow as they drifted over from the other side of the park. Just because there were more people though didn’t mean they were automatically going to obey every command. About halfway through the set, the DJ said it’d be cool if someone started a mosh pit, but then nobody did. It’s not like Valee makes the kind of music built for mosh pits anyway. He’s a pretty relaxed rapper, and a lot of his beats work off that template too. Honestly I felt a little sorry for him, because by all accounts his performance was technically excellent but lacked the fiery magic to whip people into a frenzy. That sort of thing isn’t essential for any performer, you just need to know your strengths and play to them. Valee seems to get it, though I’m not entirely sure the people around him do.
In my preview guide for Friday, I mentioned that Grapetooth might just pull off one of the best sets of the entire weekend. You may be interested to find out that appeared to be the case. The trio came out on stage, introduced themselves (“Hi, we’re Grapetooth. We’re from here”), and then proceeded to pull off a slow launch into their single “Violent”. It was all a little bit of a tease, because the song quickly exploded as the pace surged, and soon enough both the band and the crowd were dancing while shouting the chorus at the top of their lungs. Exhilarating only begins to describe it. They were there to have the maximum allowed amount of fun, and anyone not interested could go somewhere else. When the energy wasn’t at the level of jumping around like a small child after a boatload of sugar, the band focused on their instrumental chops, throwing out complex solos with casual flair so you wouldn’t always notice.
Tragically I had to pull myself away from Grapetooth after a few songs in order to spend some quality time with Sky Ferreira. Upon arriving at the Green stage just in time for the start of her set, I noticed her band was still finishing up their soundcheck. That was a bit weird because they already had 50+ minutes to take care of it. Five minutes pass. The band looked like they were just standing around. Eventually they walked off the stage. Fifteen minutes passed. People around me were all wondering what was going on. Then I remembered Sky’s Instagram story from the night before. She basically posted a note saying that her stage fright was “back with a vengeance” in advance of her Pitchfork performance. The band came back out, 20 minutes after the set was supposed to start. A minute later, Sky walked on stage. The set began with “24 Hours,” but it was clear about halfway through that she was having some sort of issue with her in-ear monitors. She pulled the remote box from her pocket and signaled the sound guy while continuing to sing (and missing a few lyrics in the process). The remote box was switched out before the song ended. She followed it up with “Boys,” which sounded great. But by the third song she was holding onto her in-ear monitors again and looked unhappy with the situation. A short chat with the sound engineer between songs again, and the set continued. She covered Til Tuesday’s big hit “Voices Carry” and it was a delight. Dove straight into “You’re Not the One” and left me wondering if it was better than the original album version. “This is my first show in a really, really long time, and every step getting here, including the ones up to the stage, has felt impossible,” she lamented. The crowd cheered loudly and many yelled “We love you!” in support. A few minutes later, things went off the rails again. She introduced a new, unreleased song called “Descending” with the intention of playing it live for the first time ever. Her band launched into it, but she stopped them after a few seconds, saying her in-ear monitors weren’t working properly and she needed them for this song. They tried it again, but this time her microphone had stopped working, so they stopped and brought out a new one. The third time, she started singing but wasn’t on key, so she told the band to stop at the chorus. In-ear monitor issues again. She decided to skip the song and do “Everything Is Embarrassing” instead, which was a touch ironic considering the circumstances. I was told she finally made it through “Descending” at the end of her set, but unfortunately I had to run off to another stage before getting the chance to hear it. In short, Sky Ferreira started late due to stage fright, fought monitor issues the entire set, but for the most part sounded fantastic and was ultimately triumphant in the face of extreme adversity. Welcome back, Sky.
There’s something about Julia Holter‘s particular brand of experimental music that hits me right in the feelings. I’ve seen her perform a couple of times in the past, but much like her music, her live show has evolved. Her band now includes a cellist, a violinist, and a horn player, in addition to some drums and an extra keyboard. You need to have the right people if you’re going to recreate so many knotty chamber arrangements, and honestly the full band really breathes life into those songs. The set began with “Turn the Light On,” which is the opening track on her latest record Aviary. It was a lovely welcome into her chaotic world, as all the instruments sounded like they were playing different songs all at the same time, creating a cacophony wrangled only by Holter’s soaring and dominating voice. Things only got richer from there, and the final trilogy of songs (“Feel You”, “Les Jeux to You”, “I Shall Love 2”) struck all the essential emotional centers to leave you genuinely moved. At least that was my experience. The crowd was sharp and attentive throughout, but a couple of guys near me had the bright idea to lie down on a blanket and cover their faces with hats. Realistically they were simply relaxing and taking a break, but I’d like to imagine they wanted to focus on the sounds while hiding the tears streaming down their faces.
Earl Sweatshirt is an exceptionally gifted artist, and his deeply personal lyrics are a reflection of that. Last year’s Some Rap Songs was a monumental achievement for a number of reasons, but perhaps most notably in the way it managed to set a mood. He took a lot of free-form jazz melodies and blended them with chopped up samples, off-kilter loops, and random audio clips to create something truly avant-garde yet meaningful. The interesting thing is how all of that translates into a live performance. Earl walked out onto the Red stage with very little pomp and circumstance. His DJ didn’t play a bunch of classic hip hop songs to get the crowd primed and ready. There was no hype man commanding people to “Make some noise!” over some air horn samples. It was just Earl, there to use his words and bring his tracks to life. As such, his set was a rather muted affair. He didn’t have much banter between songs other than commentary about the excessive heat, but he also didn’t need it. Admittedly his set wasn’t big on energy or powerhouse choruses, but the way he spoke every word made them seem important and valued. There wasn’t really any jumping around or hands in the air participation, just some really good rap songs. That’s all you could ever want.
As Pusha-T himself would say, “If you know, you know,” and he most certainly applied that mentality to the crowd at Pitchfork on Friday. He came in armed with an arsenal of hits, then proceeded to unleash most of them onto an overzealous audience. It was a pseudo greatest hits set, though there was plenty of material from his excellent Daytona EP as well as a couple of covers featuring songs he wrote with Kanye West (including “Runaway”). The beats were often heavy, the sing/shout-alongs were frequent, and Pusha-T worked the stage with the sort of professionalism you’d expect from an elder statesman of hip hop. Not sure what else to say except that it was one of the better, most high energy sets of the day.
The sun was starting to set and there was a nice breeze cruising through the shaded Blue stage area around the time Soccer Mommy took the stage, and honestly it created the perfect atmosphere for her relaxed rock music. Her band sounded great, and so did she despite apparently dealing with a cold. They sauntered into songs like “Your Dog” and “Cool” with a minor sense of detachment that fit the cutting lyrics. A new song “Lucy” offered up evidence that her last album Clean wasn’t just a one-time stroke of brilliance, and it felt perfectly at home with everything else. She closed with the song “Scorpio Rising,” and that’s when the soft center at the heart of her music finally revealed itself. It turned me and much of the crowd into a puddle of emotions, wandering away from the stage in a daze.
Mavis Staples is a Legend with a capital L. Not just in Chicago, but around the globe. The first time I saw her perform live, several years ago at Lollapalooza, it was an extremely hot 90+ degree day just like the one at Pitchfork on Friday. Back then, when she was in her early 70s, she needed to take breaks every couple of songs to sit down in a chair and rest. Her band, complete with backup singers, would take over for a few minutes, either playing an instrumental or a gospel classic while Mavis wiped her face with a cold towel. Last month, Mavis turned 80 years young. When she took the stage at Pitchfork, she was fully energized and ready to go. There were no backup singers around to take over, just a handful of musicians to play her classic songbook. And she sounded GREAT. She always does. No breaks needed, she just sailed right on through her entire set as if nothing could faze her. She started with a classic Staple Singers song, brought gravitas to covers of Talking Heads and Buffalo Springfield, and included a few moments from her more recent albums as well. What a joy it is to have Mavis Staples still around, making music, and playing shows. Each one is a treasure.
“I’m not sure why you’re here right now. You should be over watching Mavis,” Low‘s Alan Sparhawk told the crowd at the Blue stage. He was clearly a little upset at being scheduled against Mavis Staples, and I’m not going to argue with him on that point. It didn’t prevent me from sticking around to watch a couple of songs though, because Low is a remarkably great band with an exceptionally strong catalog. What I loved about the three songs I saw from their Pitchfork set was their ability to craft a mood. They used white lighting and smoke machines to play around with shadows and strobes that matched their haunting melodies. The sun had gone down and it was still very hot outside, but chills ran down my spine as they turned “Always Up” into a cold and unforgiving monster. If it was this effective at an outdoor festival, I can only imagine what happens inside an actual venue.
Many people balked at the idea of Haim headlining a music festival. There’s this idea that they’re not popular enough yet to have reached such heights. But Pitchfork is known for taking chances on artists, and after two strong albums they’ve largely proven themselves worthy of such a promotion. Even if you were unsure about whether or not they could live up to expectations, the trio were intensely eager to prove themselves. If you’ve seen a Haim performance before, particularly in the last couple of years, then you pretty much knew what to expect: they were going to come out on stage one at a time, then play drums together in choreographed unison. It’s a showstopper, or a showstarter in this case, and people go nuts for it. After that, they launch into one of their first hits, “Fallng”. At various points throughout the set, they would incorporate one of their singles to keep the crowd engaged and having a good time. One minor change that Haim added to their first-ever festival headlining performance was a sit-down acoustic session. They introduced it by basically saying, “we’ve seen a lot of other festival headliners do this, so let’s have some fun with it.” They dusted off an old favorite “Go Slow,” and then followed through on a social media post from a couple of weeks ago in which they threatened(?) to cover Paula Cole’s hit “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” The minor surprise was when they chose to make it a double cover by also tackling Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait” aka the Dawson’s Creek theme song. They had the credits sequence from that show displayed on the giant video screen behind them, which was pretty hilarious. Toward the end of the set Haim also played a new song called “Summer Girl,” which got an official sneak preview a couple of days earlier at a last minute festival warm-up show in Los Angeles. “We’d like to dedicate this one to Lou Reed,” Alana Haim told the crowd. “R.I.P.” The song did bear some resemblance to Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” complete with some stand-up bass and a couple of extra instruments/musicians. Tough to say if it’ll be a hit, but I guess we’ll find out once the studio version is officially released. The band closed out their set with an extended version of their single “Right Now” that included another triple drum attack to help bring everything full circle. Haim fared exceptionally well as a festival headliner, and they put on a better show than some of the bands you’ll find at the top of a few major league fests this year. Can’t wait to see what festivals they end up headlining in 2020.