Guitars and powerful voices were the two things that absolutely dominated Pitchfork on Saturday. There were great sets all around, but especially in the early and late parts of the day. Here’s a comprehensive summary of all the amazing things I witnessed during Day 2 of the festival.
Technically speaking, Chicago trio Horsegirl only have three songs to their name so far. It was enough to get them signed to Matador Records, but not enough to fill a 40 minute festival set opening up Saturday at Pitchfork. The great news is that Horsegirl do in fact have more than just three songs, and they played enough of them to prove there’s lots more greatness to come. Despite forming shortly before the pandemic and not having a lot of live shows under their belts, they still managed to sound better and operate more tightly than bands who have been around for a while. Their unique blend of shoegaze and post-rock might have felt more at home under cloudy skies and stormy conditions, but a sunny day with a cool breeze was almost as effective. Can’t wait to hear/see what they do next.
Speaking of up and coming talent, Bartees Strange came charging right out of the gate like he had something to prove to an early afternoon crowd at Pitchfork. Rest assured, if anyone there hadn’t heard of him prior to his set, they absolutely knew who he was by the end of it. The man is a multi-talented wonder, capable of thrusting his guitar into the air while tearing into a killer solo as well as singing with deep conviction through an energized rock song or a tender ballad. He played most of the songs from his debut album Live Forever, most of which sounded as good if not better than the recorded versions thanks to his beefed up band. He also covered The National’s “Lemonworld”, which was part of his early 2020 EP featuring five songs from the popular indie band titled Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy. “Boomer” wrapped things up and sent the crowd into an excited frenzy. Expect bigger stages and better time slots for Bartees Strange in the very near future.
A bit more local love showed up at Pitchfork with a set from Divino Nino. The Colombian-Chicago band brought their signature style and sound to Union Park, resulting in a performance that felt a lot like a celebration. The melodies bounced and twirled, and the boys did a bit of the same. It was a slight cool down from the more frenzied pace of Bartees Strange’s performance, but they upped the sexy factor significantly and included a fair amount of hip gyration and the occasional crotch grab. Don’t worry though, it was all above board and non-predatory in nature. After all, much of their set focused on their 2019 record Foam, which was all about love and relationships. The band also teased fans with new music from an album due out next year, and if the recorded versions sound anything like the live ones, we’re all in for a treat.
“Chicago is the only city I know where it can be windy as hell but still hot as hell.” Maxo Kream walked out onto the Blue stage in a yellow sweater and pants on a breezy day where temperatures were still in the mid-80s. He was covered in sweat by the end of his second song, so that sweater came off quickly and he performed the rest of his set shirtless. Soon enough, some of his friends that joined him on stage were spraying water bottles into the crowd as Kream tore into tracks from across his catalog. He reminds me a whole lot of Killer Mike in both his lyricism and performance style, so needless to say it was both a thoughtful and highly engaging show. He spent much of the time pacing back and forth across the front of the stage and engaging with audience members, who were more than thrilled to have some strong BPMs that encouraged plenty of jumping and moshing.
My favorite Amaarae song is “Fancy”, and she kicked off her Pitchfork set with it. While you might think it’d be all downhill from there, the strength of her 2020 record The Angel You Don’t Know along with her distinctive and powerful voice made it incredibly difficult to ignore or walk away. Pitchfork marked her first performance in nearly two years, and the first time she’s had the actual opportunity to sing many of her songs in front of a crowd that recognized them and knew the lyrics. You could tell she was surprised at the level of enthusiasm with which she was received, and incredibly grateful to be back on stage for the first time in forever. Amaarae may not be the flashiest live performer, and her music has ebbs and flows of energy that creates minor challenges when it comes to consistency, but none of that really mattered in the end. She let passion be her guide and the rest followed quite nicely.
Jay Electronica does things on his own time. Whether it’s waiting several years to record and release a debut album then immediately following it up with a second one months later, or agreeing to show up and perform tracks from said albums at Pitchfork then deciding at the very last minute not to do that. All this is a roundabout way of saying that Jay Electronica canceled his Pitchfork set on the day he was scheduled to perform. The only information the public was given said he’d no longer be able to make it due to “unforeseen circumstances”. Would’ve been nice to see him perform, especially given how rarely he does so. As a replacement, PItchfork quickly booked Chicago footwork pioneer RP Boo, then moved him to a mid-afternoon time slot. If you’re familiar with footwork as a subgenre of electronic music, then you know the main part of the fun is watching people dance to it both on stage and off. RP Boo brought a guy and a small girl with him on stage as he manned the equipment and they danced in the footwork style. It was a lot of fun, the dancers were quite talented, and it’s always wonderful to see RP Boo doing his thing.
At this point it’s difficult to know what to say about Waxahatchee. I mean that in the best, most complimentary way. I’ve seen Katie Crutchfield perform four or five times before, and honestly there hasn’t been a bad one in the bunch. The songs are always lovingly rendered and match the quality of her albums, and her vocals stay on point too. While there’s typically no real standout moments, it all flows in a pleasant and summery way. The primary draw for this particular Pitchfork performance was the chance to hear songs from her 2020 record Saint Cloud in a live setting. She and the band delivered on that promise, playing nearly the entire album with a few detours along the way. We were gifted covers of songs by Great Thunder, Bonny Doon (who were her backing band), and Dolly Parton’s “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” to close things out. I found a nice spot to sit in the grass and relaxed for an hour with Waxahatchee as my soundtrack. It was very nice.
Those familiar with Ty Segall knew exactly what to expect from his Pitchfork set, and were clearly prepared for the insanity. The sheer enthusiasm from the crowd near the front of the stage was immediately palpable as soon as he stepped out and strapped on a guitar. Simply put, the man knows how to shred. And his current cohorts in Freedom Band (basically a number of friends/collaborators from over the years) are all talented in their own right as well, leading Segall to occasionally cede his title of guitar hero to one of them so they had the chance to shine. Half the set was dominated by Segall’s recent surprise release album Harmonizer, while the other half spread things out pretty evenly across other areas of his catalog. Anything that was slower or somewhat sedate on record was almost always transformed into a louder and more visceral cog in the machine thanks to some fuzz pedals and intricate solos. It was a great time if you love rock and roll, and judging by the thunderous applause and constant “WOO!”‘s coming from the crowd, just about everybody came away satisfied.
Pushing Faye Webster further down the Saturday schedule to accommodate the addition of RP Boo eliminated the difficult female singer-songwriter conflict with Waxahatchee, instead putting her soft melodies up against the fierce solos of Ty Segall. It was a better dichotomy, and I think ended up with a better split between crowds. The Blue stage was pretty packed for Webster’s set, from plenty of outright fans and others just looking to relax a bit in the shade. While I was initially concerned that the general introverted nature of her songs wouldn’t translate well in an outdoor festival setting, she appeared to fare just fine. “Right Side of My Neck” and “In A Good Way” are wonderful singles but very much slow jams, to the point where I saw one couple dancing and another making out while they were being performed. “Cheers” has more of a groove to it, and people bobbed their heads along with it. Basically the crowd was quiet and respectful of the material, and for her part Webster rolled with the vibe.
Kim Gordon is not here to be pleasant. She has no desire for mainstream success or pandering to a large crowd. All she wants to do is create art in ways that motivate her. It’s inspiring to have that level of conviction, but I guess when you’ve been doing it all your life it becomes second nature. If you’ve heard her official “debut” solo album No Home Record, then you’re aware of its discordant and experimental nature. Not sure how many in the Pitchfork crowd were familiar going in, but judging by the looks of minor annoyance I spotted on people standing far from the stage, some were none too pleased watching her bellow out lyrics against obtuse guitar riffs. The real fans were up front though, soaking in every second of this odd spectacle. No Sonic Youth songs were played. Neither were any Body/Head songs. It was all pure solo Gordon. Great, but not for everybody. Wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I see the best in you. I wish the best for you. I want the best for you!” This is how singer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Georgia Anne Muldrow began her set – with an affirmation. She ended her set with one too: “One word – love yourselves more than you do!” She blew kisses into the crowd. To say that her performance was a strong blast of warmth and positivity would be an understatement. Clad in a colorful sequined cape, Muldrow took the crowd on a journey through the worlds of synth-pop, R&B, soul, and blues using a collection of mostly beats and synths. You could dance to just about everything, and people were more than happy to oblige. Critical to this equation was her voice, which soared with power when it needed to and hit staccato emotional beats with the occasional spoken word poem or rap. The level of talent on display was astounding, and made for one of the best sets on Saturday.
Angel Olsen, a fantastic and always magnetic talent, took to the Red stage under cover of darkness and delivered a stunning set packed with great moments and a stunner of a finale. Decked out in a lime green suit, she led her extra large band (which included two strings players) through much of her All Mirrors album along with a couple of classic cuts and covers. It marked Olsen’s first live show in front of an audience since 2020, and she couldn’t hide the joy all over her face when the first notes of “All Mirrors” rang out. The 1-2 combo of “Shut Up Kiss Me” and “Forgiven/Forgotten” brought some real energy to the set early on before things settled into a softer and quieter groove. Her slowed down cover of Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” was nice but dragged things down a little. It was great that she payed homage to Chicago artist Marvin Tate by covering his song “Sidetracked in Miami” in the second half of the set, and Tate himself was in the crowd singing along. “Sister” and “Chance” are two of my personal favorite Olsen songs, delivering some of her most memorable lyrics while making the best use of her incredible voice. Those were back-to-back leading into one last surprise, the first official live audience version of new single “Like I Used To” with special guest Sharon Van Etten. It’s one of the best songs of 2021 so far, and hearing it performed as intended was nothing short of breathtaking. As soon as the song finished, the two friends embraced in a hug and walked off stage holding hands. The best!
Over on the Blue stage at the exact same time as Angel Olsen, Jamila Woods was holding her own clinic on how to put together a powerful performance. She came out to extremely enthusiastic cheers from a large crowd eager to hear songs from her records LEGACY! LEGACY! and HEAVN. Backed by a four-piece band and backup singers, the songs burst to life with more vigor and intensity than their recorded versions. Much of it was interspersed with audio clips from the actual historical figures that inspired each track, a helpful guide when deconstructing the lyrics and searching for meaning. At the center of it all was her voice, which was smooth as silk through everything from “BETTY” to “GIOVANNI” to “MUDDY” and beyond. She included a slowed down cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which was fascinating in its novelty. After finishing the set and running out of time, she ultimately obliged the loud chants for “one more song” by doing a wonderful version of “MUDDY”. The last time Woods played Pitchfork, a last minute cancelation caused her afternoon Blue stage set to be moved to the larger Green stage with no competition since a replacement could not be found in time. She stunned everyone back then, and stunned everyone again this year.
Closing out Saturday was a headlining set from none other than St. Vincent. If you’ve ever attended a St. Vincent show before, then you know there’s always something a bit magical about them. Annie Clark is a born performer, and every album cycle brings us a new character and slight shift in musical style to match that persona. When it works it’s great, but when it doesn’t the whole enterprise becomes a bit of a double-edged sword. Her latest oeuvre is Daddy’s Home, a collection of ’70s era glam rock songs. The reviews of the record have been mixed at best, with even Pitchfork handing it a paltry 6.7. Instead of lashing out at her critics, Clark chose a path best described as “living well is the best revenge”. She came out to Union Park with something to prove, and managed to succeed on every level.
First there were the design aspects. A large cityscape had been set up across the back half of the stage, the idea being to evoke some of the grit that dominated much of New York City in the ’70s. There was also the soft lighting, and costuming that included polyester suits in faded colors. Clark wore high waisted black shorts with a matching suit coat, a shirt buttoned almost all the way down that had an ultra-wide collar, and a scarf tied around her neck. She looked like a chic airplane flight attendant, but operated more like a pilot in total control of the proceedings. Kicking off with a funkified retro-sounding version of her anti-technology song “Digital Witness”, it was immediately clear that many St. Vincent songs would be re-worked to fit the current aesthetic, rather than the other way around. The latest Daddy’s Home single “Down” felt comfortable and lived in on stage, transitioning seamlessly into the 12-year-old “Actor Out of Work”.
One of my least favorite things about the last couple of St. Vincent albums has been the lack of guitar shredding. Clark established herself as a virtuoso guitar player across her first four albums and even has a custom line of guitars through Ernie Ball, so to move away from mindblowing solos felt like a waste of talent. Thankfully, Clark had a guitar slung over her shoulder for much of her headlining set on Saturday night, resulting in plenty of instrumental spotlights. “Birth in Reverse”, “Los Ageless”, “Marrow”, and “Cheerleader” all came across like triumphs, though none moreso than the revival of “Your Lips Are Red” from her debut album. Even the newer songs like “Pay Your Way in Pain” got some extra guitar work thrown in for good measure. No matter what form she takes, Annie Clark: Guitar Hero will always be my favorite. She even managed to make me like Daddy’s Home songs that initially felt weak on record. All hail St. Vincent, for continuing to play live shows that consistently blow just about everyone else out of the water.