Pitchfork Music Festival goers expected the worst, their eyes watching gray clouds roll in as they flocked to Chicago’s Union Park, armed with rain ponchos and umbrellas. But something was looking out for us this weekend — only small spurts of rain dropped on the crowd of thousands and artists played as though sparked by the adrenaline rush of risking electrocution.
In place of thunder, the memorable booming, resonating sounds came from the powerhouse vocals of the women of this year’s festival. Lucy Dacus started off my weekend, her voice and quiet, friendly persona like that of a coffeehouse performer. The rich, Feist-like vocals heard on her 2018 album Historian were identical, if not better, live.
Dacus played the guitar like it was natural, like the axe was an extension of her arm. That trend continued throughout the day with singer-songwriters Julien Baker, Courtney Barnett and vocalist Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief. Barnett stole the show Friday as she blasted crowd favorites “Avant Gardener” and “History Eraser,” along with tracks from her new album, Tell Me How You Really Feel. She yelled and screamed and tore apart her guitar, and her electricity seeped into the audience as she lead us in continuous, synchronized headbanging.
Baker had a less pleasant time performing than Aussie rocker Barnett. The melancholic, miles-long-ranged vocalist seemingly failed to hit several big notes during her set — “big” in that they extend well beyond her small body and last (almost) forever, particularly during her popular tune “Appointments.” She was noticeably aggravated at the mishaps, shaking her head and gritting her teeth after she sang the words at a lower octave. She did still hit mostly beautiful notes, and my heart broke for the hundredth time listening to her lyrics.
Syd, singer of hip-hop group The Internet, appeared on a special day for her — her group’s album Hive Mind dropped that morning. She played one of the group’s hits, “Girl,” a crowd-pleaser, along with her solo records. The day was signed and sealed though by psychedelic rock group Tame Impala.
There weren’t basketball-playing gorillas, but the screens filled with gooey, neon-tinted visuals complete with a melting sunset. The lighting danced with the songs, flashing and shooting laser beams out like a dance club in space during their opener and most boppable jam, “Let It Happen.” They had the crowd moving and gluing their eyes to the stage until the night wound down.
Saturday, indie rock royalty continued to exceed expectations. First, it was in the saintlike form of Zola Jesus, a Wisconsin-raised singer, who waltzed on stage covered in a red veil and flowing clothes almost entirely concealing her. Her voice came from deep within her as she bellowed her dark, low notes with thunderous rhythms backing her. It’s like she was casting a spell on the crowd, her words summoning something as she stared into each of us. She even entered the crowd to thrash and crawl along the lower platform. She sang a “non-festival” song, as she said, about depression called “Witness” at which point she and the audience all seemed to enter another reflective space.
In between looking at the hundreds of locally-made posters, a book fair and a record sale, fest-goers bounced and sang along to lighter indie pop acts, soul-voiced guitarist and singer-songwriter Nilüfer Yanya and indie punk-pop duo Girlpool. Both were surprises; Yanya’s voice booming across the park and Girlpool’s sound felt slightly different than their older recordings, but smoother, lower and less like each song was a complaint. However, their shows were clouded for me by one of the most fun performances of the weekend.
That would be Blood Orange, comprised solely of producer and singer Dev Hynes, who brought his indie-pop dance music complete with layered, breathy vocals. After releasing an EP a few weeks ago that featured Hynes nearly screaming hard rock melodies, he only featured the things he’s known for — 80s-influenced, danceable tracks with storytelling lyrics.
Hynes set the scene for the following and final day of the festival. The lineup featured mostly upbeat artists, many of which were hip-hop or R&B influenced. It also featured the festival’s Chicago-hailing artists Noname, Ravyn Lenae and Smino.
Noname was her classic quirky self, attempting to showcase new tracks (which were highly anticipated, following several years without releasing anything new) but laughing as she forgot the lyrics. She then treated us to an a cappella performance and favorite tracks off the album. Smino and Lenae joined her later in the show, coming out for “Forever,” the song she’s featured in on Telefone, giving the city of Chicago many thanks.
DRAM, Chaka Khan and Ms. Lauryn Hill packed the park for the fest’s finale. Each closed with their most notable hits, “Broccoli,” “Ain’t Nobody” and “Doo Wop (That Thing),” respectively. Ms. Hill gave an emotional performance — she’s touring to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her award-winning album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, an album, she said through tears, she was unsure of when it dropped and is still in disbelief of its success. She flawlessly struck every note the way she first did 20 years ago, her backup singers layering seamlessly to create her silky R&B vibe.
Pitchfork is a bubble: an oasis in the center of a city filled with too much to see, where up-and-coming artists, like indie cuties (Sandy) Alex G and Japanese Breakfast, join legends, like Ms. Hill and Chaka Khan, in the same place. You go to Pitchfork and you find something new to love — a new band, book, graphic designer, record. But you also see artists you love, who have maybe even changed you. It’s where music has been and where it’s going and welcomes the people who are along for the ride all in one place. Each artist that performed showed how grateful they were to be on stage, joined by the other artists, by playing spectacularly. The weekend ended up being one of the best celebrations of music this summer.
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