Smile Politely

Pitchfork Music Festival 2016 in review

Friday, July 15th

Friday at Pitchfork Music Festival opened up oddly cool and unfortunately overcast, but we would make the best of it. In spite of myself, a poorly-planned hotel arrival meant that I caught the first show, Car Seat Headrest, JUST in time, only missing half of the opening song. It’s hard to tell if the initial giddiness that comes with attending a music festival was propelling me through this set, but man was it fun. Even the fact that it started raining about three songs in and was on and off for most of the set didn’t detract. Will Toledo and co. even played a few minutes of David Bowie’s Blackstar, transitioning into Times to Die, which was an interesting choice. In spite of the rain and the earliness, there was a good handful of big fans there. CSH owned the stage as if they were evening headliners. I can’t wait to see their set at Pygmalion in the fall.

Car Seat Headrest by Kori McGraw

After CSH we decided to check out the sights and sounds, making our way towards concessions and the Blue Stage. We managed to catch a bit of Whitney’s set as we grabbed beer, and all were in agreement that we should’ve gotten over there earlier to catch their light yet reflective indie pop. Luckily, Whitney and a handful of other Chicago indie bands overlap and collaborate, and we got to catch some of them during the Twin Peaks set.

Whitney by Kori McGraw

I was able to finally shake the unseasonable coolness for a bit at the Twin Peaks set on the Red Stage. Twin Peaks have an “eternal party” motto. In spite of this, or maybe because of this, they hone the shit out of their craft of music. They sound better every time. This set was full of sweat and spit and goofy grins as they ripped through most of Down In Heaven, as well as favorites from Wild Onion and a couple early tunes. Their playing was far tighter than when I saw them in March, and I was surprised at the quick change. This is a perfect summertime band – even the forces that be would agree, because the sun peaked out for Twin Peaks. This cheesy phrase is forgivable because the sun went back in hiding for the rest of the day after that.

Twin Peaks by Kori McGraw

The great thing about Twin Peaks is that their particular level of fame coupled with their sociability means that you’ll probably find them mingling with fans. The Twin Peaks dudes signed merch and did some bartending on Sunday. Indeed, I even witnessed the guys cavorting around after their set. Guitarist and singer Clay Frankel helped himself to some pizza from the press table, and asked me if there was any more. That is part of what makes Twin Peaks a band to pay attention to. These fellas are great.

We had all worked up an appetite with this show, so we headed for some burgers. In the background we caught some of Carly Rae Jepsen’s bubblegum pop on the Green Stage. Although not my thing, it’s interesting to see how this type of musician fares when a bit out of her element. CRJ held her own, and even did a duet with collaborator and fellow Pitchfork performer, Dev Hynes (Blood Orange).

With everything in order, we proceeded back to the Red Stage for Broken Social Scene. Everyone has a favorite, and this is my favorite show of the event. At some point during this set, I counted twelve people performing. Broken Social Scene defined themselves for me here. I was aware of them as a collaborative project between a collective of musicians. I didn’t know quite what that meant until now. The cooperation between these people is electric – the sheer number of instruments alone makes for a BIG noise. To over-simplify it, BSS have an indie ambience reminiscent of Radiohead – so I never imagined that they could be so fucking heavy. Yes, they played their huge crowd favorite “Anthem for a Seventeen Year Old Girl.” And yes, that ballad about the naivety and fierceness of youth got me all misty-eyed. (It always does.) Other favorites like “Cause = Time” and “Shoreline” found me further hypnotized. This show was just magic.

Broken Social Scene by Kori McGraw

Let it be known that this wouldn’t be the last time over the weekend that an often quieter-sounding act got really big and loud.

Note: When Pitchfork was said and done for me, and I headed home, the act that left me wonderfully unsated was this one. I don’t know as much about them as I should, and now it’s my business to remedy that.

As we wandered around a bit shell-shocked after Broken Social Scene, we meandered over to Shamir for a couple of his hip-hop-pop songs. I got to catch “On the Regular,” so I was happy. It was a weird set, but weird for Shamir is completely normal. He’s a completely unique individual.

Friday’s closing act, Beach House, found us a bit further away from the stage than we usually are, but their immersive, ethereal dream-pop reverberated out far enough to touch the heavens. Victoria Legrand’s deep brown vocals were captivating. When they played “Myth,” I became entranced. It was really hard to tear myself away from this show at the end of the night.

Beach House by Kori McGraw

Saturday, July 16th

As fate would have it, I found myself late to Saturday at Pitchfork as well. I busted onto the scene at about 2:30 and aimed myself towards the Blue Stage and Royal Headache. On my way, I paused at the Green Stage to catch Kevin Morby play “I Have Been to the Mountain.” Morby really harkens back to the folk music of the 1960’s, and that is the kind of stuff with which music festivals were originally forged. It fit well.

The second day of the fest featured much more July-like weather, with a high sitting around 80 degrees and some good, clear sunshine. Royal Headache seemed to balk a little at the full daylight, or at least their crowd did. Their amps weren’t quite right, either. This is a band that could’ve benefitted from the cover of darkness and the full fuel of alcohol, both for them and their fans. But they couldn’t have totally helped that, and they still killed the set, playing the best tracks from High and some new ones as well. May no one be dissuaded by the detriments mentioned here – This is still a phenomenal band that deserves a listen.

Royal Headache by Bethany McAnly

Next up for us was Digable Planets back at the Red Stage, whose jazzy hip-hop chilled out the audience a bit. Because they’re “Cool Like Dat.” Sorry. Before playing that song, “Rebirth of Slick,” they made sure to poke fun at the young audience for not having been born when it came out (1993). My group then commenced a discussion about the average age of our fellow concert-goers, meant to make us all feel younger.

The next set we saw obliterated that positivity. Savages just decimated the Green Stage. Like, holy shit. We were up all the way against the speakers, which is fine in most cases, but I definitely wish we had been farther away. I am very reluctant to whip out the ear plugs at any show, in spite of how irresponsible that is. To me, they might as well have “OLD” scrawled on them in Sharpie. It took two minutes of this set before I had my ear plugs in.

Savages by Bethany McAnly

These women SHRED. I definitely think that the base was turned up waaay too high, and it drowned out most of their other music. But they’re a very bass-centered band, and that’s part of the experience. Front woman Jehnny Beth is massive. She swaggers and sways and plays with the crowd, telling them to mosh harder. At one point, she approached and was held up by the crowd for a bit before dipping into the median. She ended up all the way at the back of the crowd, and had to be walked around the stage pit to get back up. As she passed us by, I realized with a start that that formidable force of a person has a stature of something like 5’3 and 100 pounds. On stage she may as well have been seven feet tall.

Since the Savages set broke my face, I didn’t catch as much of Blood Orange as I might have liked, although I did enjoy the jams that I heard. Dev Hynes exhibits such versatility as an artist that no track sounds quite like the other. The power of his messages in his latest album Freetown Sound was fully justified through the force of his set.

Super Furry Animals hit the Green Stage next, and they confuse me a little. They’re meant to confuse, to a certain extent, but I think I just may not fully understand it. So much of what they do reads Flaming Lips to me that it’s hard to differentiate. This Welsh psychedelic pop band is a contemporary of the Lips, and they also have elements of electronica and punk running through their music. However, SFA are popular across the ocean, and it could just be that they fill a need there that is filled by the Lips here. SFA’s set on the Green Stage included space suits and weird sound effects, and it was fun, but only just. But honestly, Flaming Lips feel a bit tired nowadays, so maybe it’s just that general sentiment that’s tired.

We had to cut this set short because Brian Wilson was getting ready to play on the Red Stage. We wound up a bit further back than desired, but it didn’t end up making a huge difference.

So, it seems to be a general consensus that this was not the best show. Brian Wilson, in recent television appearances, has always seem rather propped up. We all know that the legendary musician has suffered through profound mental illness compounded by drug abuse, and nowadays we can’t help but be reminded. Wilson had the assistance of long time Beach Boys guitarist and co-founder Al Jardine to help him out, as well as other accomplished backing musicians, and all in all, the show was a success. John and Joan Cusack even came out to sing along for “Sloop John B,” and realized the movie Love and Mercy in a strange way. Wilson got through Pet Sounds well, and this wasn’t completely because of his backup musicians – he also had the backup of the fans. This show wasn’t really a celebration of Brian Wilson. It was a celebration of Pet Sounds. And that’s okay, because it’s still one of the best albums every recorded, and I would celebrate it any day.

This leaves Sufjan Stevens on the Green Stage to close out the evening for my gang and me. As I mentioned, there were more surprises to come on this Saturday. There were at least two times over the weekend that I overheard someone say,”…Yeah, but Sufjan live?” Don’t underestimate a great singer-songwriter in a live outdoor setting.

Sufjan opened up his set with a statement. To paraphrase, he said, “I’ve spend the last year travelling the world playing songs about death. I’d like to play something else tonight.”

Sufjan Stevens by Kori McGraw

His set was immense, bombastic, and colorful. He opened with the foreboding dirge “Seven Swans,” and as the song reached crescendo, he and his performers unfurled massive white wings. This set the precedent for something different. Wearing different neon outfits equipped with balloons, Sufjan played several tracks from his more upbeat, techno-flavored album, The Age of Adz. This wasn’t for me as much, but I appreciated the sentiment. What he did play from Carrie and Lowell (2015’s album about the death of his mother) was dialed up to ten and viewed in a new light, in an interesting way. I didn’t even initially recognize his anthemic “Chicago” until a few bars in. To close out the set, Sufjan brought out Moses Sumney, and made me regret missing the rapper’s set on Friday. The two did a duet tribute to Prince with the song “Kiss,” ending a strange show on a fun note. Sufjan may have alienated some fans with this show; I admit I felt a bit slighted myself. But, what did we expect? No one should close out a festival with an hour of elegies, and I appreciate what he did. It also enabled me to see one of my favorite musicians in a whole new light, and experiences like that are why Pitchfork is great.

– Julia McAnly

Sunday, July 17th

The longer I go to music festivals, the longer I realize that spending three days outside in a row in Chicago in the summer is an extremely difficult feat. On Sunday, I sought the shade and water more than anything else, but that is not to say the quality of music was not up to par with the rest of the festival.

Chicago-based band Homme opened up the day (for me) at the shady Blue Stage, tucked into the woods at the south end of Union Park. While the band, which features former-Kids These Days pianist Macie Stewart, has been steadily building a buzz in the city over the past year or so, and their late addition to Pitchfork Festival brought out a fairly decent crowd, even given the early slot which they were presented. Given Stewart’s ability to succeed in such a variety of arenas from hip-hop (Kids These Days) to indie (Marrow) and now experimental, it is clear that she is an extremely talented musician who is primed to explode on a national scale.

One of the best parts about the early hours of a music festival is being able to see the next wave of artists who may (or may not) enrapture music fans in the future, and Homme was a great example of this. They’ve got a bright future.

After chilling out for Homme, it was time for English singer N.A.O., who actually had my favorite set of Pitchfork this year (with Carly Rae Jepsen being a very close second place). Featured on BBC’s Sound of 2016 list, N.A.O.’s rise over the past year has been meteoric, and the pleasant surprise in this newfound fame was evident from the first note.

Photo by Kori McGraw

Playing through nearly all of her debut EP, as well as this banger with Mura Masa, after here third song, she stopped, looked out to the crowd with a huge smile and said “Thank you, Chicago! I’m always worried that people won’t come out to the gig, but you’ve made it all better.”

Seeing this type of genuine surprise out of artists playing the Pitchfork (or any festival) for the first time is always amazing, especially when the artists are so legitimately humbled by how many people love their music. It was refreshing to see that from a profession that is notorious for being self-centered.

My shady, Blue Stage Sunday continued on following N.A.O., and into LA-based songwriter Empress Of, whose debut album on XL Recordings (the world’s best record label, IMO) was one of the most pleasant releases of the year.

Continuing with the dance-able theme on the Blue Stage for the entirety of Sunday, Empress Of wove complicated electronic melodies into high-energy tracks. A little too, high-energy for my third-day-at-a-music-festival self, so I decided to go grab some tamales.

Always grab the tamales.

I concluded my Sunday by setting up shop at Jeremih and praying that Chance the Rapper would be brought out for a set. A huge crowd of millenials in White Sox hats crowded the Blue Stage on Saturday because they figured BJ The Chicago Kid would bring out Chance, but he didn’t. Jeremih was our final hope.

Photo by Kori McGraw

Sure, I like Jeremih. I think his last album was good. Not great, but he’s certainly talented. With energy levels running close to empty, and Jeremih’s set winding down, suddenly all of my weekend prayers were answered, and Chance came out to perform a medley of his own tunes, including “Angels” and “No Problem.” Sure, seeing Jeremih’s set wasn’t really about seeing Jeremih, but Chance is one of the biggest artists in the world right now, and to see the entire crowd of thousands go nuts when he came on stage was one of the best feelings of the entire Pitchfork Festival.

After this, I had to head out to get out of town in order to beat some pretty nasty storms, and maybe sleep for 24 hours in a row.

-Boswell Hutson

Related Articles