Here's what you missed at Pitchfork Fest in Chicago's Union Park from July 21-23.
Lead singer Molly Rankin sang softly into the microphone during their most heartbreaking bridge off of “Blue Rev,” their newest album: “Moving to the country / Gonna have that baby / Wait tables in town / I know word gets around.” The young woman next to me, previously focused on a crossword puzzle book, joined in: “Moving to the country / Gonna have this baby / See how it goes / See how it grows.”
With lyrics reminiscent of The Chicks at their very best and with explicit references to Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth,” Alvvays’ creative vision is punctuated with nostalgia. While their dream-pop sound is current, the distortion on their guitar and Rankin’s angelic voice serve as something more like a memory than a dream.
Best Live Track:
It’s noise rock; you wouldn’t expect anything less from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke.
The Smile is almost exclusively for Radiohead fans. The people standing in the crowd weren’t really listening to The Smile. They were casually listening with Yorke’s new experimental music in the background. They were chatting, mostly poking fun at Yorke’s characteristic head bobbles and waving arms.
One man, wearing an oversized white Radiohead t-shirt and shorts past his knees, danced the entire night away with only two moves at his disposal. I hope he had a good night because he certainly made mine.
Best Live Track:
The silences of King Krule’s set were punctuated by hyperventilation.
A girl was standing in the crowd nearby, holding a homemade popsicle stick sign of King Krule’s face and crying uncontrollably. Her sharp-winged eyeliner was slightly smudged from the tears streaming down her face.
“I can’t believe it’s really him,” she said, breathlessly clutching her friend’s shoulder.
And yes, it was him, all the way from England. King Krule’s echoey voice, the clean tones on his guitar and the at-times-overwhelming thumping of the bass seemed like they emerged from a dark and otherworldly liminal space — more like a passionate busker on an empty Tube platform than a main-stage artist at Pitchfork Fest. The band seemed like a rough-and-tumble group of friends you would find in the back of a pub somewhere. The saxophonist, Ignacio Salvadores, was even barefoot on stage.
It felt like King Krule and his gritty, genre-defying, punk jazz sound had clawed his way out of the grimy London Underground — both the subway and the music scene — just to be here.
His fans fought to be here too, scraping together enough money to front the pricey $165 Saturday day pass. A fan, Seijii Robinson, said, “A lot of us bought our tickets just to see [King Krule] specifically.” Another fan even flew out from New York with the intention to see his set; it’s easy to see why.
King Krule performs like a man possessed. He constantly looks off into the middle distance while crooning into the microphone, sometimes blinking suddenly and rapidly. He would finish a song, put his hands on his head (as if he suddenly contracted a migraine) and sip casually at a 312 Lemonade Shandy (as if to dull the edge). Performing seems like it is simultaneously incredibly emotionally taxing for him and the only thing in the world he would like to do.
But truly, I think he does it for the fans.
A couple of young guys at the barricade were screaming lyrics and stealing the words right out of Krule’s gold-toothed mouth: “When positivity seems hard to reach / I keep my head down and my mouth shut / ‘Cause if you’re going through hell / You just keep going!”
Best Live Track:
Weyes Blood was unphased by the ladybug that interrupted her interview. She stopped mid-sentence, laughed and displayed her hand to a Pitchfork magazine editor and to the audience. The bug perched perfectly on the knuckle of her finger like a ring.
“Buck Meek [of Big Thief] gave it to me,” she said. “I think I’ll let it hang out here for a while.”
Then, her interview was interrupted once again by a force of nature, but this time, it was lightning.
Later in the day, after the storm had passed, I turned my head and tiptoed to see her on a monitor past the heads in the crowd. Her angelic and compelling voice — much like a modern-day Joni Mitchell — carried on the late July breeze. Donning a floor-length white gown with a cape, Weyes Blood gestured towards the sky and sang notes that nearly reached the heavens.
From my spot in the crowd, I briefly wondered if the ladybug was still delicately resting on her finger.
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“Can we stop the smoke?” lead singer and songwriter for Big Thief, Adrianne Lenker, asked meekly into the microphone. Then, she laughed softly and gestured to the audience in the dark. “Not you guys. We mean the fog machine.”
Big Thief didn’t take themselves so seriously at their Pitchfork Fest set, and neither did the audience.
Every Big Thief member was dressed as if they were attending a different event — Lenker looked as if she had just taken a break from baling hay on a farm, guitarist Buck Meek donned a disheveled suit a la Matty Healy, drummer James Krivchenia matched The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album cover perfectly and bassist Max Oleartchik was dressed as a merman (which led to some minor complications when he tried to walk onstage).
Half of the set was completely new songs that the indie-rock band has been working on for an upcoming album. Some of them were played live for the very first time, leading Lenker to actually stop a performance mid-song, commenting, “That doesn’t feel right.”
They were later flamed on Twitter for doing so.
From my spot at the barricade, I couldn’t hear the people talking over Big Thief’s performance, but, allegedly, there were a lot of them. If I remain objective, I can understand why: the combination of new songs and the complex lyrics from the old ones made it hard to sing along.
But for me, I just sat there in awe with a huge smile on my face. I was about 30 yards away from Adrianne Lenker herself, watching her fingers flawlessly nail complex guitar riffs like it was nothing. A band nominated four times over for Grammys doesn’t need to take themselves seriously. They just want to play music and have people listen. Lenker wants to tug on the heartstrings of her guitar, as well as the audience.
Big Thief isn’t meant to be seen in a festival setting. They’re meant to play in a softly lit, crowded room, with friends and family surrounding them — people who get it. They’re meant to be so close that when I shout “You look so beautiful!” they respond with “Thank you.”
Best Live Song:
“Pitchfork got me lookin’ ghetto as hell!” JPEGMAFIA shouted into the mic.
His computer — containing all the self-produced beats that back up his rapping — had overheated in the mid-day heat. Apparently, the reflective tinfoil cover covering his set-up was not enough protection.
To give tech some time to boot his computer up again, he proceeded to sing an acapella version of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.”
JPEGMAFIA is infamous for doing this sort of thing — trolling, that is. In an interview during the festival, he said he owns KKK merch “because it’s ridiculous” and is disappointed he has “nowhere to wear it.” He also claimed that if he hosted a music festival, it would be sponsored by Viagra.
His unnerving disregard for the status quo may rub some people the wrong way, but ultimately, it’s what makes JPEG unique. He is incredibly refreshing amid the reserved natures of other Pitchfork Fest artists and is undoubtedly, authentically, unapologetically himself — even if that means taking his pants off mid-performance.
His music follows suit, intentionally going against the unspoken rules of the music industry. His unconventional DIY approach to music, mainly self-producing, is ”scaring the hoes” (And, he’s proud of this). After serving in the military and growing up in the projects, he thinks navigating the music industry “is like a cakewalk.” In short, he doesn’t care what other people think of him. He's got bigger things to care about.
JPEGMAFIA is a liberatory force. He says whatever he wants on stage and moves around frenetically. His fans don latex Shrek masks in 90-plus degree heat to throw punches in a dusty mosh pit. He single-handedly creates a world without laws, or rather, creates a world in spite of them.
Best Live Track:
The crowd waiting for Bon Iver’s performance to start looked like something out of an REI catalog. Many people had camped out at the barricade throughout the day to see the band, sporting actual camping gear to stay hydrated — too many Nalgenes hooked to belt loops with carabiners and Camelbak backpacks for me to recount.
Bon Iver fans straddle the line somewhere between nature-lover Alexander Supertramp and synth-lover Kanye West, as exhibited by the man standing in front of me. His yellow Columbia climbing shorts hugged his lovehandles. His nose piercing glinted slightly in the dark. He gestured rapidly to his friend as he was talking, sending bracelets flying up and down his arms.
But I’ll admit, I shed a tear or two (definitely more) at “Holocene” like the rest of them.
The bass was heavy enough to shake your heart out of your chest. The synths overpowered anything that you may have been thinking about. It was a meditative experience, much like going to church.
The best song of the set — by far — was “Blood Bank.” During the bridge, towards the end, frontman Justin Vernon turned his back to the crowd. The stage was filled with fog. Everything was white and blurry. All you can see is his silhouette, jumping up and down to the music, and it’s like catching a glimpse of God.
Sean Carey, looking up at frontman Justin Vernon from the drumkit, had so much joy on his face — how could he not? It’s a blessing to see a musician at their very best, transcending space and time and reason and even humanity, touching the edge of something greater and more infinite.
After the set, I was dumbfounded and wiping away tears.
“First time?” said the guy next to me.
Yes. Yes, it was.
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