Pitchfork Music Festival made its glorious return to Union Park on Friday afternoon, two years and two months later than usual. In that time, some things have changed.
The pandemic is the main point of concern, as it resulted in the festival’s cancellation last year and could very well have canceled it again this year were a number of safety precautions not in place to help prevent the spread of the virus. Among those precautions? Requiring all attendees to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test taken at an approved vendor within 24 hours of entry. Masks are also strongly encouraged. By all accounts, everyone in attendance followed proper procedure, and there were no major hiccups at the entrance gate (outside of a very long line). Once inside, I was pleased to see that close to 50% of people were wearing their masks when not actively eating or drinking. Unfortunately that percentage dropped significantly the larger the crowd got throughout the day. By the end maybe 25% of people kept their masks on, which honestly is still better than Lollapalooza back in July, where fewer than 10% of people were masking. Lolla didn’t result in a super spreader event (that we know of…), so hopefully the same holds true at Pitchfork.
Outside of the pandemic, everything else was nearly exactly the same as previous years. There’s a basketball court behind the Green stage that typically has snacks/fun booths from sponsors and such, but this year that area is covered by a large tent and has picnic tables inside instead. In fact, there appear to be far fewer sponsors this year overall. No booths giving out free bottles of antioxidant flavored water or kefir ice cream or custom screen printed shirts. Goose Island is the beer sponsor. White Claw has their own area, as does Door Dash. Not a whole lot else beyond that. Same goes for food vendors. There are about 5-6 booths when there would normally be a minimum of 8-10. It’s a bit weird to see things stripped down that much.
Lastly, there are fresh signs of gentrification in the area. Right between the Red and Green stages, you can see three brand new high rise buildings under construction, located about 2-3 blocks away. Let’s hope it doesn’t have any effect on park business such as the multiple music festivals (including Pitchfork) that happen there every year. I get the feeling new residents might not like loud music blasting up to their balconies for multiple weekends each summer.
So that’s the basic outline of what’s new at Pitchfork this year. Now let’s get to the music. Here’s a recap of the performances I witnessed over the course of Friday. It was a pretty solid day overall, with a couple of real standout sets.
I arrived about 30 minutes into the opening set by Armand Hammer. The hip hop duo of Billy Woods and Elucid only had about 3 songs left in their set, but it was enough to catch the vibe. Over some inventive and jazz-adjacent beats, they used rap to tell stories of life in the projects and violence in the streets. Woods has such a forceful voice it lends gravity to everything he says, so the Pitchfork crowd appeared to be deeply impacted yet supportive of the points he was trying to get across. Wish I’d been able to arrive earlier to see the whole thing.
Dogleg came out of the gate firing on all cylinders. They blasted through opening song “Fox” with the same energy as a human bursting through a brick wall. There were jumps, high kicks, the thrusting of guitars toward the sky, and vocalist/guitarist Alex Stoitsiadis pulling off a cartwheel with a guitar still slung over his shoulder. The band essentially maintained that same level of controlled chaos throughout their set, with a couple of quieter moments thrown in to add balance and depth. Of course the amped up crowd loved every second, as the moshers and crowd surfers were plentiful and highly active. Absolutely one of the better sets on Friday.
Chicago’s own DEHD finally made their big festival debut at Pitchfork this year, following a Best New Music review of their 2020 album Flower of Devotion. I’ve seen DEHD before and they tend to put on a pretty great show overall, though they’re not the flashiest band in the world. They sounded great, and their riffs in particular frequently had a summery, surf rock groove to them that felt right at home in the warm sunshine. Unfortunately, the heat and the promise of a DJ Nate footwork set sent me off in a different direction after a few songs. Still, I remain excited to see DEHD again soon as they continue to grow as a band.
The promise of a DJ Nate set was not to be realized. After hanging out by the Blue stage for 30 minutes during his scheduled set time, it became likely he wasn’t going to show up. A folding table covered in a black tablecloth just sat on stage empty instead as the crowd that had gathered chatted among themselves. Eventually I gave up and chose to explore the grounds a bit instead. Right as Hop Along was starting their set, I heard noise coming from the Blue stage speakers in the distance. If DJ Nate finally did show up, I didn’t see him.
Hop Along make great records, then do a fantastic job bringing them to life on stage. By all accounts they’re simply a band that knows how to play, particularly with a voice as strong and emotionally impactful as Frances Quinlan’s. But similar to DEHD, Hop Along aren’t the most exciting band to watch live. Each member of the band carves out their little area on stage, they play each song with gusto, and then exit with a wave once their time is up. They did an equal amount of songs from Bark Your Head Off, Dog and Painted Shut, their two most recent albums, and seemed to be having a great time. The crowd did too, as evidenced by a few fun sing-alongs.
If Friday at Pitchfork could have used another white hot dose of energy following Dogleg’s insanity earlier in the afternoon, black midi was more than ready to provide. The Green stage was adorned with a couple of house plants, a wicker chair, and a clothing rack with a bunch of empty hangers on it. The band walked on stage dressed in business suits and carrying a large couch, which was placed in front of a keyboard. Suit jackets were removed and placed onto the empty hangers with care. Then they launched into “953” and all hell broke loose. The guitars were atonal, and the drums pounded with all the fury of a hurricane. It was the equivalent of auditory violence, and while it turned a number of people off, those that were into it flung their bodies around like a fish out of water. black midi are a force to be reckoned with on stage, and it’s a true pleasure to watch them inflict their chaos onto an unsuspecting festival crowd.
It finally happened! The long-awaited return of The Fiery Furnaces. They’ve been gone for a decade, and Pitchfork was their first performance back in action. Brother-sister duo Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger remain the primary core of the band, as he plays synths and she sings. There were a number of other musicians on stage with them, helping to recreate songs from all across The Fiery Furnaces catalog. Apologies to Window City, which didn’t get any love, but Bitter Tea, Gallowsbird Bark, and Blueberry Boat were represented by at least a couple of songs apiece. But their first song right out of the gate was “Single Again” off their 2005 release EP. It’s one of their most popular and easily digestible tracks, so it makes sense they chose that to ease people back into the band. From there it was “Two Fat Feet” and “Benton Harbor Blues”. Honestly, the entire set felt like a bit of a hit parade, especially if you knew the band’s records extraordinarily well. The thing is though, The Fiery Furnaces love to be tempramental and contradictory. In the era before their break, most of their shows were like one long song sustained for an hour, as they’d blend tracks together and transition between them seamlessly while also twisting them in new and different directions compared to the recorded versions. This time there were breaks between songs and many of them sounded quite similar to how they did on the original albums, though there were still plenty of moments that diverged from the straight and narrow path. In a lot of ways it felt like a return to form or as if no time had passed other than the fact that Matthew’s hair now has a bit of grey. The crowd seemed to enjoy the set and for their part the band seemed to be having a good time as well. There wasn’t any fanfare or overexcitement by anyone involved, but it ended up being the ordinary pleasantness that stood out the most. Welcome back, Fiery Furnaces. We’re glad you’re here. You were missed.