And just like that, the 2021 Pitchfork Music Festival officially kicks off tomorrow afternoon. It’s been a long road to get here, and things will certainly feel a bit different this year, but let’s appreciate the fact that it’s able to happen. My introduction to the Sunday preview guide always includes tips on how to enhance your festival experience, so here’s the 411. If this were happening in mid-July as usual, I’d say that your top priority should be staying hydrated. Technically that remains true in September too, just the temperatures will be more manageable and you won’t be sweating as much. Drink plenty of water and you’ll feel better every day. Wear sunscreen and bug spray. It seems obvious, but people forget. Bring a poncho, ideally one you can keep folded in your pocket. Rain is always a possibility, even if it’s just a pop up shower. And of course have your mask and either a proof of vaccination or recent negative COVID test at the ready because you won’t get in without them.
If you’re not interested in watching performances all day long and need a bit of a respite, there are other activities on the grounds of Union Park to distract yourself. There are lots of food and beverage options. You can stop by sponsored tents/kiosks with games you can play or free stuff being given away. The CHIRP Record Fair has plenty of vinyl and other music goods you can check out. The Flatstock Poster Fair brings in artists from all over the country showing off and selling posters they’ve created for concerts and other things. There’s also the Renegade Craft Fair, which showcases a bunch of handmade goods from artisan crafters. You may just find a cool little tchotchke to carry around with you for the duration of the festival and beyond. So yes! If you’re headed to Union Park this weekend, I hope you’ll have a blast and stay safe for this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival. For those of us focused on the music, here’s the guide to what you’ll see and hear on Sunday.
Tomberlin [1:00 – 1:40, Green Stage]
Unfortunately, Cassandra Jenkins had to cancel her tour at the start of September, which included her Sunday opening slot at Pitchfork. Tomberlin has been booked as a replacement, and if you ask me that’s a pretty strong trade off. If you’re not familiar with Tomberlin’s music, you could place it firmly within the traditional singer-songwriter category. Think Julien Baker or Soccer Mommy or even early Angel Olsen as a good comparison, though as with other artists of this particular ilk it’s less about crafting an original sound and more about amplifying an original voice that has something important to say. Sarah Beth Tomberlin grew up in the Baptist church, and turned to music as a way to fill the hole left when her faith began to erode away. Many of her songs are about that crisis and how she’s handled the fallout with family and friends. Her 2018 debut album At Weddings was a strong, personal statement, while a follow-up Projections EP last fall expanded her sound a bit with production work from Alex G. Her hushed and intimate songs may not get you going at the start of Sunday, but chances are you’ll be a bit tired anyway and could use her set to spread out on the grass and stare up at the beautiful blue sky with an emotionally stirring soundtrack.
Special Interest [1:45 – 2:25, Red Stage]
If Cassandra Jenkins is a soothing balm to start your Sunday, Special Interest are going to fuck up the vibe immediately after. Their record The Passion Of was one of 2020’s finest, an aggressive and unapologetic art-punk LP that managed to come across like a sound collage of industrial, techno, and glam rock. At the center of this maelstrom is Alli Logout, howling at the moon one moment and embracing vulnerability the next. There’s a very real chance Special Interest’s Pitchfork Music Festival performance explodes outward to match the chaos of their records, and if that’s the case we’re all in for a wild time with the potential to make a mark as one of the best sets of the weekend.
KeiyaA [2:30 – 3:15, Green Stage]
oso oso [2:45 – 3:30, Blue Stage]
Fans of R&B will find plenty to love with KeiyaA’s Pitchfork set. This will be a bit of a homecoming for her, as she was born and raised in Chicago before moving to New York a few years back. During her time here she collaborated with everyone from Vic Mensa to Noname. Her solo debut album Forever, Ya Girl landed last spring just as the pandemic was taking hold, and its woozy, lo-fi approach matched the collective haze we all found ourselves in at the start of lockdown. She produced the entire thing herself and released it on her own independent label, resulting in something that also felt fresh and wholly unique without any outside input or influence. Expect KeiyaA’s performance to embrace the relaxed, jazz-infused atmosphere of her record, which might not be super exciting to watch but will most definitely help you find a greater peace within yourself.
There’s something immensely familiar about oso oso’s sound, especially if you grew up listening to a lot of alt rock and emo in the early ’00s. Bands like Jimmy Eat World and Death Cab for Cutie could serve as reference points for this singer-songwriter project from Jade Lilitri, though he manages to carve out a space all his own thanks to smart lyrics and immensely catchy hooks. oso oso’s fantastic 2019 record basking in the glow was an energetic look at what happens when you commit to staying positive and upbeat at all times. It automatically puts you in a better mood, but upon closer inspection there are always a few cracks in the façade. If the live show manages to channel that same energy from the record, it’ll be a really fun early afternoon set over at the Blue stage. You’ll be able to jump around and everything, which we kind of need in these trying times.
Mariah the Scientist [3:20 – 4:10, Red Stage]
There are a lot of great artists making R&B right now: Solange. Amber Mark. SZA. Tinashe. Jorja Smith. Victoria Monet. I could go on. Mariah the Scientist falls right in line with that list, while utilizing strong production and vivid storytelling to carve out her own corner of the world. She’s exactly the sort of artist you can tell is poised to do great things and achieve massive global popularity, but it just hasn’t happened quite yet. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what might be holding her back, particularly since she’s signed to a major label and managed to secure guest verses from the likes of Young Thug and Lil Baby. But the fact that Mariah isn’t yet a huge name works to the advantage of Pitchfork, where her mid-afternoon set with no other real time slot competition should earn her a lot of fresh ears and eyes to convert. Check her out now so you can play tastemaker and say you saw her “back in the day”.
The Weather Station [4:00 – 4:45, Blue Stage]
Caroline Polachek [4:15 – 5:10, Green Stage]
One of the most difficult conflicts of the entire weekend arrives halfway through the Sunday lineup. The Weather Station’s Ignorance can easily be called one of the best albums of 2021, and seems likely to secure a spot near the top of many year-end lists (including mine). It’s a level up for the Tamara Lindeman project, which after four records of mostly ornate acoustic-based folk, expanded outward to incorporate saxophone, flute, synths, strings, and multiple drummers. Things are jazzier and more lush than ever before, almost reaching the amount of immense care and detail Lindeman puts into her lyrics, which are always the strongest parts of Weather Station songs. It will be a genuine treat to hear how the new material translates on stage, and given how many of the songs celebrate the natural beauty of our world, should feel particularly at home in the shaded tree-lined area of the Blue stage. I can’t say it’ll be the most exciting, fun, or intense set of the day, but it’ll definitely be one of the most emotionally meaningful.
Hopefully you’re familiar with the band Chairlift, however if you’re not now’s a great time to stop reading and pull up their music to enjoy a couple of their songs. Unfortunately Chairlift called it quits a few years ago, but singer Caroline Polachek has ventured out on her own and continues to make music very much in the same vein. She knows her way around a pop song and a strong hook, and has even contributed lyrics to Beyoncé in the past. Her debut solo record Pang arrived in the fall of 2019, and included a number of fantastic songs that are catchy, fun, and showcase her exceptional voice/vocal range. A couple of months back we were also gifted the standalone single “Bunny Is A Rider”, which is an absolute blast and should send a crowd into a frenzy when performed live. If you catch her Pitchfork set, it should be a very good and very fun time.
Thundercat [5:15 – 6:00, Red Stage]
Yves Tumor [5:15 – 6:00, Blue Stage]
A little jazz, a little soul, a little R&B, and a little pop all come together in Thundercat’s (aka Stephen Bruner) music. If you’ve heard a few of his songs, then hopefully you already know that he’s an exceptional bassist who writes and sings poetic songs about everything from cosmic forces in the universe to hanging out with his cat. Most everything is fun or funky in one way or another, and even though his most recent record, 2020’s It Is What It Is, felt a little unfocused and lackadaisical at times, there were still enough strong tracks on it to make it thoroughly enjoyable and worthwhile. He’s carved out quite the place for himself in the music world as well, from working with Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington to collaborating with rappers like Ty Dolla $ign and Lil B, not to mention convincing superstars like Michael McDonald and Ariana Grande to guest on some songs. Thundercat previously performed at Pitchfork back in 2016, and if I recall correctly it sounded like a cool breeze on a hot day, which is to say it was very nice and kept a strong groove going the whole time. Expect more of the same in 2021.
Yves Tumor thrives on defying expectations. When something sounds a bit “off” in a song, that’s a feature and not a bug. It starts out with an air of familiarity, like something you’ve heard before but can’t quite place it, but then slowly degrades into repetitive and rote nonsense. But then just as you’re ready to give up on it, the song transforms into a bastardized version of itself. Tumor has starved it to the point of near death, then unleashed its ravenous hunger upon us where it will do whatever it takes to survive. You get the extended metaphor here. Things get weird and experimental and somersault through genres with the ease of an Olympic gymnast. A couple of months back Tumor released The Asymptomatical World EP, which played around in the worlds of goth rock, dream pop, and shoegaze. It felt like a natural follow-through on many of the rock sounds explored on last year’s Heaven Is A Tortured Mind, a loud and obtuse record that oozed with sex and charisma. If you’re into flashy costumes and leaning into the idea that a person can be called “A LOT” but also incredibly awesome, Yves Tumor functions as a refreshing shock to the system. At times you may want to turn and walk away from Tumor’s Pitchfork set, but hopefully it’ll be so engrossing you’ll feel a little disgusted with yourself. And a little turned on too.
Danny Brown [6:15 – 7:15, Green Stage]
Andy Shauf [6:30 – 7:15, Blue Stage]
Every couple of years like clockwork, Danny Brown returns to Pitchfork Music Festival. The man has become one of the few mainstays at Union Park, and we’re probably all the better for it. Danny Brown makes fun, funny, and occasionally weird rap records. He’s got a ton of energy on stage, and knows how to strike a pose for the cameras (tongue out as much as possible). Most importantly, he’s got a personality. Brown is a lovable scamp who causes all kinds of mischief, but you always forgive him for it because he’s so damn charming. I am certain he wouldn’t punch anyone in the face, but if he did, seconds later he’d have his arm around that same person offering to buy them a drink. So yes, Danny Brown doing Danny Brown things is the main source of attraction for checking out his set. But the music itself is pretty damn good too. Brown is a bit of an outlier in the rap world, mainly because he carves his own path and doesn’t care about styles or trends among his peers. None of his records sound outdated or from another era, but they also don’t feel completely at home in the present day either. That’s kind of the vibe of Pitchfork in general anyways, which may be why he seems so at home on the lineup every couple of years.
Canadian singer-songwriter Andy Shauf is a born storyteller. His songs feel immensely personal and detailed, aided by the inclusion of names, places, and even (sung) pieces of conversation. Simply listening to the strummed melodies on his acoustic guitar and his soft vocals is pleasant and rewarding enough, but the lyrics create new depth and meaning that help to set him apart from his peers. He reminds me a bit of Sufjan Stevens. Less “states albums” Sufjan, more Carrie & Lowell Sufjan. Shauf’s 2020 album The Neon Skyline was one of the year’s best. It’s a concept record that takes place over a single night where our narrator discovers his ex is in town and eventually ends up running into her. But the stories and reflections on their past relationship come from a place of distance and understanding, so that final meeting between the two is less about the hope of reconciliation and more about acknowledging their time together was a meaningful part of a larger journey. The whole thing comes together quite nicely. No clue how it’ll play out on stage at Pitchfork, but for those tired or in need of a break from a long weekend of live music, Shauf’s set might be a welcome respite for you to find some shade and relax a bit.
Flying Lotus [7:25 – 8:25, Red Stage]
Cat Power [7:45 – 8:30, Blue Stage]
Flying Lotus has built his reputation on being a bit of a musical polymath. His records always start with an electronic base, but he incorporates so many different styles and genres into them that sometimes it’s just fun to play spot the reference. For example, his album Yasuke from earlier this year functioned as the soundtrack to a Netflix anime series about a Black samurai in Japan. He’s worked on music for video games and crafted bumpers for Adult Swim. He directed a film in 2017 called Kuso that inspired walk-outs at Sundance because of the amount of gore and body horror in it. Yet he’s also worked with and even produced a lot of music for rappers over the years. There’s plenty of jazz influences in his work as well, often using brass sections to punctuate melodies and venture out into psychedelic directions. Despite the constant evolution of his sound, it all manages to coalesce as part of the Flying Lotus live experience. You’ll dance a lot and generally have a great time while watching him mix together tracks from across his vast catalog. And while watching someone stand on a stage and essentially DJ for an hour isn’t the most exciting visual, he deploys all sorts of projections and lighting techniques that will leave you tripping whether you’ve taken drugs or not. Let’s be glad the sun is mostly set by 7:30pm in September so things can really pop at Pitchfork. Maybe he’ll even have a guest or two join him on stage for what will hopefully be one of the more exciting sets of the weekend.
Every Cat Power show that I’ve ever attended has been a gamble. Chan Marshall has notoriously bad stage fright, and how good her set is always depends on how she’s feeling that particular day. Performing with a full band absolutely helps however, as she deflects focus onto others and understands that they have her back should anything go wrong. That mostly leaves her responsibilities to just singing rather than playing guitar or piano, which often acts as an additional stressor. I guess what I’m saying is that we’ll be getting the full Cat Power band experience at Pitchfork, which bodes well. And when Marshall is operating at her full capacity, the show is always great. She moves around a bit and engages with the crowd, uses her legendary voice to sing a bunch of classic songs from her vast catalog, and may even throw in a couple of covers for good measure. A lot of her early material was written and recorded solo, so the full band version definitely enhances the arrangements quite a bit. Her more recent records like Sun and Wanderer explored some new sonic territory with elements like synths and Auto-Tune, which also boosted the energy a little bit as a majority of her records are sleepy slow burners. The set may wind up being a bit boring for the festival type atmosphere (it works like magic at a smaller indoor venue), but if the band boosts the energy of the slower stuff and the more upbeat material gets a spotlight, this could be a great start to wrapping up this year’s festival.
Erykah Badu [8:30 – 9:50, Green Stage]
Like Ms. Lauryn Hill before her in 2018, Erykah Badu holds the status of a neo-soul legend headlining the final night at Pitchfork Music Festival. Also like Ms. Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu has a reputation for not always starting her set on time. I’m not going to get into any speculation about that, except to say that I hope she’s on stage before 9:00pm so we can get at least an hour of music. Unlike Ms. Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu has a moderately large catalog of music to pull from. Almost all of her records are great too, meaning there’s a strong chance she’ll shine no matter the set list. A quick glance at some of the festivals she’s headlined in the last few years seems to indicate she selects a pretty even mixture of songs across her albums, but you can count on my level of excitement to rise significantly whenever anything from Baduizm or Mama’s Gun gets played. What else can I say? I’ve never seen Erykah Badu perform before, and am immensely looking forward to the experience. We should be grateful she’s still around and performing. I don’t know that she’ll blow the proverbial doors off of Union Park, but it should be an absolutely lovely way to end the weekend. Find an open spot in the grass somewhere and let Ms. Badu pull you into her world.