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.
And we back, and we back, and we back…for yet another year of Lollapalooza. I haven’t missed a single day of the festival since it settled in Chicago back in 2005, so 2019 will mark my 15th year in a row of this madness in Grant Park. No, I’m not sure when I’ll finally decide to scale back and start skipping days or the festival entirely. Yes, I’ve slowly become older than most of the people who attend Lollapalooza these days. But the combination of age and experience leads to wisdom, which is something I’m happy to share with anyone planning to spend time at the festival this upcoming week/weekend.
The most basic advice I can give is to know your limits and practice rigorous self-care whether you’re in Grant Park for one day or all four. Drink lots of water (more than you want/need to), wear sunscreen and bug spray, and don’t be afraid to find a spot and sit down for a bit. The number of people I see collapse due to exhaustion, dehydration, or too much alcohol/drugs every year just makes me shake my head. Wear comfortable shoes (NOT flip flops). Avoid bringing a bag or purse if you can, because there are separate security lines at the entrance for bags vs. no bags and I’ll give you one guess as to which one moves at least 3x faster than the other. If you absolutely have to bring a bag, make sure you’re aware of the Allowed and Prohibited Items list before packing it. Also be very mindful of the bag’s size, shape, and number of pockets because there are restrictions on those things too. These might seem like a lot of things to remember, but the good news is that most of them are common sense anyway. Just be smart about it, and you should be fine.
But what about the music? Navigating sets from 180+ artists over four days isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, and the best advice I can give you for scheduling is to map out your day in advance and avoid going from one end of the park to the other too often. The walk end-to-end through Grant Park takes about 15 minutes wading through clusters of people, and you’ll exhaust yourself quickly by doing it more than 2-3 times per day. If you’re facing a difficult time slot conflict between two or more artists, you’d be best off just picking the one at the stage closest to where you are at that very moment. Simple enough! Not familiar with enough artists to fill your schedule for the day? Let me try to help with a list of five performances you shouldn’t miss on each day of the festival. Here we go:
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.
Now feels like a good time to cover some of the extra “things to do” at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival that don’t revolve around standing in front of a stage and watching an artist play their songs. Obviously there are food and drink tents where you can get all kinds of different delicious things. If you’re a fan of limited edition craft beer, you might want to check out the Goose Island booth, where they’ll be offering Wit Awake, a collaboration with the band Parquet Courts that will be sold exclusively at the fest. All proceeds from those beer sales will go to the Freedom for Immigrants charity. Other spots you may want to explore in Union Park include the Flatstock poster fair, where artists showcase and sell various concert posters they’ve designed. There’s the CHIRP Record Fair, where you can find a whole lot of limited edition LPs for sale. If you’re bringing young children under 10 with you there’s also a Kids Zone featuring some fun distractions. And new for this year, Pitchfork Radio will be broadcasting live from the festival grounds. You’ll be able to watch some special live performances, DJ sets and interviews with artists on the lineup, and a few other things. Check out the full programming schedule and drop by if you’re looking for a break from hanging out at the stages. Oh! One last thing. All weekend at the Blue stage in between sets there will be live poetry readings from the Young Chicago Authors Louder Than A Bomb Poets. I love a good poem, so that should be lovely. So there you go. There are plenty of distractions to be found at Pitchfork if you’re looking for them. And I’m not even including some of the clothing vendors, environmental activist booths, and sponsored free giveaways of food and merch. It all adds up to one unforgettable weekend. I hope you’ll be there! Here’s the link to buy tickets if you still need to do so. The Sunday lineup this year looks particularly special, and I’m excited to see and hear how it all plays out. Check out the hour-by-hour guide below, once again noting that any starred (**) artists are the ones I’m recommending most. In case you missed them, here are links to the preview guides for the other days as well:
If the weather forecast is to be believed, this could very well be one of the hottest Pitchfork Music Festivals ever. 97 degrees on Friday. 92 degrees on Saturday. 83 degrees on Sunday. When you factor in the heat index, two of the three days are probably going to feel like 100+ degrees in Union Park. Self care is so incredibly important, especially at a music festival where you’re outside in the heat all day! Dress for the weather. Always keep water close at hand, and drink as much of it as humanly possible. As security or medial personnel for water if you need it, and they will get it for you. Stay in the shade if you can. Whatever it’s going to take so you don’t wind up dehydrated or passed out. Yes, it’s fun to drink some alcohol and maybe even take a drug or two to make your festival experience more enjoyable, but don’t do it at the expense of your own health! Maybe wait until after the sun goes down and the temperature cools off a few degrees before having a beer? Just a thought. Okay, that was your moment of parental advice in this preview guide. Now let’s take an hour-by-hour look at which artists will be performing at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival on Saturday. As always, my personal picks will be starred (**), so keep an eye out for those. Here are links to other Pitchfork Fest 2019 guides in case you need them:
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!
As summer in Chicago (finally) starts to fully kick in, the Vans House Parties are just getting warmed up. The last couple of months have seen shows curated by everyone from Vince Staples to The Breeders to Julien Baker, with more on the way from Taking Back Sunday, Anderson .Paak, The Rapture, and Converge. Yeah, it’s a pretty stacked lineup. It all happens at the House of Vans Chicago location in the West Loop, and every show is 100% FREE based on capacity and advance RSVP.
Thursday night’s House of Vans show was headlined and curated by alt-R&B artist BANKS, who also happened to be celebrating the release of her new album |||. It marked her first proper show in close to two years, and she used that gap to recharge, write/record new songs, and compose a book of poetry with illustrations (that’s titled Generations of Women from the Moon and will be out soon). Some of her poetry and artwork was on display as part of a special installation at the venue, which was a nice addition (and complement) to the music itself.
All of us have two families in our lives: the ones we’re born into, and the ones we choose. The strength of each is determined largely by upbringing and instinct, though coming from a loving household doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll always have loving friends, and vice versa. What we’re all ultimately looking for in others is a shared connection, be it through blood, interests, or experiences.
Music often functions as one of life’s great connectors, because it’s easy to bond over a song based on the feelings it evokes when listening to it. Technology has made it easier than ever to not only find and share new music, but interact and make new friends with people from around the globe who share your passion. That wasn’t possible thirty years ago, yet music fans still found one another thanks in large part to places like concert venues and record stores.
One of the things I admire most about Avey Tare (Dave Portner) is his lack of complacency. At no point in his solo work or as a member of Animal Collective has he adhered to expectation or perceived boundaries, and that wild card nature has often resulted in brilliance (with the occasional misstep). You’re never quite sure where he’ll evolve to next, but can rest assured it will never be boring.
We’re quickly approaching the two-year anniversary of The Courtneys’ excellent sophomore album II, and they’re still touring in support of it. Their commitment is admirable, and the reward is hopefully a wealth of new fans eager to hear more from the Canadian trio. A stop at Thalia Hall in Chicago on Friday night actually marked the end of their tour with Cloud Nothings, so they celebrated with a wildly fun performance that perfectly balanced their winning charm and sadder sensibilities.
“I’m learning to like Chicago,” Protomartyr singer Joe Casey said toward the end of the band’s set at Thalia Hall on Thursday night. Protomartyr hail from Detroit, which has a storied Midwestern rivalry with Chicago, so the minor bit of animus is understandable. He also may have been kidding, but his detached demeanor on stage made it difficult to tell. That’s by design of course, befitting a singer and band that crafts songs so relentless and emotionally intense they often seem on the verge of total collapse. You can’t allow your feelings to become too invested when performing songs about the ails of the world, lest they hold you in a masochistic pit of despair.
In what should be (but isn’t) called the “PR Nightmare Tour,” two of the finest post-punk bands in recent years, Protomartyr and Preoccupations, are co-headlining dates around the U.S. from late November to mid-December. They’ll be in Chicago on Thursday, December 6th for a show at Thalia Hall, and it promises to be a night you won’t soon forget.
If you’re not already deeply familiar with Protomartyr, here’s a quick primer. Over the course of four excellent LPs and an EP, Protomartyr have distinguished themselves through densely packed arrangements and inspired yet obtuse wordplay. Their songs pound with noise and aggression, but also maintain a distinct air of humility that fits with their Midwestern (Ohio) roots.
This past summer Protomartyr unleashed the Consolation EP, which featured four beautifully destroyed tracks that focused on death and oppression, with some vocal and arrangement assists from Kelley Deal of The Breeders. Sure, it’s not the most upbeat music in the world, but post-punk as a genre very rarely is. The guitars swell into oceans of distortion as Joe Casey’s guttural vocals evoke powerful and poetic scenes of tragedy. This mixture is even more potent on stage, as the physicality of Protomartyr’s songs rise to the forefront and get spit out in fits and spasms. It’s intense, exciting, and cathartic all at the same time, which is one of the primary reasons Protomartyr remains such a worthwhile band in an ever-shifting climate.
Preoccupations have been riding high on a similarly dark and punishing wavelength since their debut EP Cassette back in 2013. Born from the figurative (indefinite hiatus) and literal (RIP Christopher Reimer) ashes of Calgary experimental band Women, they immediately struck a nerve thanks to a confrontational performance style and a so-controversial-it-was-later-changed name Viet Cong. But it was their songs that deserved and ultimately attracted the most attention. Their approach might best be described as angular, because so many of their tracks veer off in compelling and unexpected directions. You’re never allowed to get too comfortable in the world of Preoccupations, and that’s a big part of the fun. Then again, don’t let my use of the word “fun” give you the wrong impression of a band that has been known to cover goth legends Bauhaus and have an 11-minute kick-to-the-face track appropriately titled “Death” as part of their catalog.
A current of nervous yet ferocious and focused energy runs throughout each of Preoccupations’ three albums so far, as they’ve become more confident and detailed with every new release. You can detect subtle nods toward ’80s post-punk and bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain, Echo & The Bunnymen, and The Psychedelic Furs blended seamlessly into many of their recent material, pulling them away from the heavier drones that marked their earliest pieces and into more melodic visions of darkness. It’s been a fascinating transformation, and one that’s enabled them to remain vital since their auspicious beginnings. Their live show is no less impressive, hitting the gas on their Motorik stomp by using noise and passion for fuel. It’s entirely possible you’ll walk away from a Preoccupations show in a daze, unsure of exactly what you just witnessed, but that it was amazing and profound.
If you’re a fan of post-punk and haven’t already made plans to see Protomartyr and Preoccupations on their current tour, do yourself a favor and buy a ticket to one of their shows. As we sink ever deeper into the holiday season amid the extensive retail crowds, the stress of finding that perfect gift for a friend or loved one, and the forced cheer of non-stop parties and get-togethers, here are some live performances that will allow you to lean into the turmoil and (emotionally) exorcise your darkest impulses. Consider it a bit of a reprieve and a way to treat yourself to some music self-care. In Chicago, Thalia Hall next Thursday night. Be there.
One of the primary purposes of this site is to expose you to new and rising artists from around the globe, which is why I feel just a little bit terrible for not bringing Stella Donnelly to your attention sooner. Donnelly’s debut EP Thrush Metal was released to critical acclaim in the spring of 2017 and even won the inaugural Levis Music Prize, which is awarded to emerging Australian artists poised for success on an international level. Recent winners have included Alex Lahey, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, and Hatchie, all of whom have been featured in some capacity on this site in the past year. But for whatever reason, Donnelly has been a bit of a blind spot here on the site and to a degree in the U.S. Thankfully Secretly Canadian reissued Thrush Metal this past June for American audiences, and she’s now on tour with Natalie Prass that includes a stop at Lincoln Hall on Wednesday, September 19th. More details on that below.
You may be curious as to what Stella Donnelly is all about and why she’s been attracting attention. The short answer is her razor sharp lyrics and ability to craft a memorable hook. Take her EP opener “Mechanical Bull” as an example. From a purely instrumental perspective it’s a gentle, acoustic folk song, but her words tell an entirely different story as she rips into the sexist and overly aggressive guys who have harassed her over the years. “I’ll be your darling, tits, legs, honey, sweet pea,” she says, listing off some of the catcalls men have said to her. “But I’m a fucking arsehole if you ask me,” she immediately cuts back. Even more powerful is the memorable chorus of “I need to be alone / You’ve been at my throat,” where her vocal inflection goes from calm and measured at the start of the song to frustrated and angry by the end. Powerful stuff.
Equally powerful is “Boys Will Be Boys,” which addresses rape culture and how women are often blamed or feel guilty when they are sexually assaulted. “Why was she all alone, wearing her shirt that low? / They said ‘Boys will be boys,’ deaf to the word ‘no’,” Donnelly mourns in the chorus. There’s a personal side to this song as well, as she directly addresses a man responsible for raping one of her friends and vows to “never let you [him] rest.” That line may read like a threat, but the eerily restrained way she sings it, with all the gentleness of an acoustic lullaby, turns it into something truly terrifying.
The remainder of Thrush Metal focuses on the destructive power of toxic relationships, from the spread of negativity and carelessness (“Mean to Me”) to the confusion and stifled growth caused by a lack of communication (“Grey”) to the regret and heartache that results from two strong personalities trying and failing to make things work (“A Poem”). When they’re all put together it might seem sad and depressing on the surface, but the actual listening experience is rich, rewarding, and unforgettable. The dark subject matter is inventively paired with beautiful melodies and addictive hooks that draw you in, make you feel seen, then offer comfort and strength. These songs are worth your time and effort to seek out, and they’re what make Stella Donnelly a force of musical nature worth paying attention to.
So yeah, Donnelly is opening for Natalie Prass at Lincoln Hall, who has her own amazingly great music to play as well. Prass’s 2015 self-titled debut helped establish her as an immensely talented artist with a sound that balanced baroque pop and soul into songs that were as catchy as they were gorgeous. There’s an incredible sweetness and optimism that seeps through her voice as buoyant melodies swell up around it, even as she tackles tough topics about heartbreak and misunderstandings in relationships. Her new record The Future and the Past shifts things in a bit of a different direction, paring back some of the strings from her debut and focusing instead on funky grooves provided by the bass guitar and synth. You can dance to more of these songs, but they’re also a bit darker in their overall subject matter.
In some ways the record is a response to the Trump administration, though it’s more about the issues than the President himself. For example, “Sisters” is all about gender solidarity in the face of a wage gap, bad relationships, and generally being regarded by society as “less than” men. “Ain’t Nobody” goes to bat for reproductive rights, while “Ship Goes Down” addresses the shock of watching your country head down an unexpected and negative path. But there’s some fun stuff on the record too, like the super catchy love song “Short Court Style” and the hopeful “we’re in this together” vibes of “Hot for the Mountain”. Overall it’s been heartening to watch Prass grow as an artist and songwriter, and I can’t recommend her records enough. Wednesday night at Lincoln Hall promises to be something special, so come on out Chicago!
There’s something different about Will Toledo these days. It’s not so much a look as it is a feeling. He seems freer, happier, and more energized on stage than he ever has before – or at least compared to the couple of other times I’ve seen Car Seat Headrest perform. And while there are any number of reasons why this might be the case, my sneaking suspicion has to do with Naked Giants. Specifically, their presence as openers and additional members of Car Seat Headrest has shifted dynamics in a very exciting direction.
What’s most fascinating to me about Damon McMahon’s work as Amen Dunes is how it’s evolved over time. His 2009 record DIA provided an introduction to the project that was a little similar to Bon Iver’s origin story in that he recorded the songs on his own while locked away in a cabin. But the music of Amen Dunes was much more obtuse and experimental in comparison to Bon Iver’s, with a psychedelic and occasionally aggressive edge that pushed it into the territory of bands like Spacemen 3, Robyn Hitchcock, and The Velvet Underground. A couple of years later, he’d pull together an actual band to help fill out and sharpen his sound while further evoking classic influences.
Each new Amen Dunes release has also gotten bigger and more accessible than the one before, and with the expanding palette has come contributions from members of Iceage, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor to help add new wrinkles while also cutting into the beating heart of the intimate and familiar. Even the simplest of melodies somehow manage to come across as a dynamic undertaking, and that sense of large-scale drama is at least partly owed to McMahon’s dynamic voice, which stretches and contracts according to the needs of the track. It’s the biggest reason why 2014’s Love was such a critical darling, and plays an essential role in helping to make Freedom one of this year’s best records. His voice is clearer than ever on the new record, and feels oddly familiar yet entirely unique, like a combination of Kurt Vile, Adam Granduciel (The War on Drugs), Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, J Spaceman, and Mick Jagger. You can’t always understand every single word he’s singing, but somehow it all makes sense, particularly in an emotional context.
Part of what makes any Amen Dunes record a compelling listening experience is that every song feels like a self-contained journey in service of a larger whole. You can drop in just about anywhere and find fulfillment, despite a minimal number of hooks or an overarching theme. Freedom does this best by crafting a seductive atmosphere of songs that shimmer like sunlight catching a piece of tin foil. The songs are slightly hazy, remarkably smooth, and politely insistent. You can dance to some of them, though they mainly hang out in a sort of mid-tempo range that at the very least leave your toe tapping. There are stories in these songs, packed with minor details to make them feel lived-in and real, but simultaneously withholding enough other bits of information to prevent it from coming across as too autobiographical. These things may have happened to somebody, just likely not McMahon himself. Many of the themes, including grief and family, stem from the struggle and emotional wreckage that resulted from his mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis a couple years ago. Instead of wallowing in sadness however, the record is more propelled by the emotional tension and relief that can be wrung from the instrumentals rather than the words themselves.
Seeing as how we’ve reached a point where Amen Dunes has never sounded better or more confident, now feels like the perfect time to see these songs performed in a live setting. It just so happens that McMahon and his band will be playing a show at Lincoln Hall next Tuesday, August 21st. It will mark his first time in Chicago since Freedom was released back in March, and promises to be a special night. Tickets are still available, so check out the details and come on out for what promises to be a great night of music!
Amen Dunes / Okay Kaya Buy Tickets
Tuesday, August 21st
8PM / $15 (advance) / 18+