top of page

Feature: Pitchfork Music Festival, A Day-by-Day Live Review

By Jane Dickerson, Contributor

Mid-July brought some of the worst heat Chicago had but also its annual Pitchfork Music Festival. Pitchfork is a festival that, at its best, is an alternative to Lollapalooza, being more affordable, communal, and easier to navigate. However, at its worst, it may be considered almost laughably “hipster.”

It's a great opportunity to discover new artists and brush up on your knowledge of obscure electronic music. I went into the weekend pumped for all three headliners: Beach House, Sufjan Stevens, and FKA Twigs. I was also interested in smaller acts such as Car Seat Headrest and Whitney, looking to see what they brought to such a huge festival.

FRIDAY: Car Seat Headrest, Whitney, Twin Peaks, Beach House

While sprinting into Pitchfork Music Festival Friday afternoon to catch the rest of Car Seat Headrest's first song, I was greeted with a light drizzle and a huge crowd of people. Their ages ranged from five to 50, all with one thing in common: the hope for a great show.

The crowd radiated energy. The rain didn’t even damper the set; instead it amplified the angst-y voice of front man, Will Toledo, as Car Seat Headrest got right down to the music with their song, “Fill in the Blank.” Toledo’s vocals echoed, "You have no right to be depressed, you haven’t tried hard enough to like it." Their sound, a perfect clash of loud garage rock and emotionally packed, lyrically heavy songs sounded something like a mix between The National and Pavement. Car Seat Headrest perfectly captured the fear in growing up while doing it more eloquently and powerfully than most could. Finishing out with the song, “Something Soon,” Car Seat Headrest’s set put a sweet taste in my mouth for the rest of the weekend.

After Car Seat Headrest’s performance, I did my best to politely push against the slightly damp crowd to run across the baseball field to an obscurely placed blue stage. I was on my way to see Whitney, a folk/alternative band that takes plenty of notes from classic bluegrass sounds, including Bob Dylan.

Whitney proved themselves to be a crowd pleaser, incorporating a mash up of a few different acts including guitarist Max Kakacek from Smith Westerns and Julien Ehrlich, the drummer for Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Featuring a trumpet, and later a string quartet, Whitney’s set solidified the jazzy element they are known for. "No Woman," their most popular song, was a highlight of the set alongside the band’s final song, “Golden Days.”

Although Whitney’s set was neither disappointing or surprising, the day soon took a more energetic turn. I looked around to see a rosy-cheeked blonde girl, no older than five or six, sitting atop her father’s shoulders, beaming out at the crowd. Behind me a person held a sign that read, "The whole world can fuck off because I'm listening to Twin Peaks."

Twin Peaks got everyone off their feet with their carefree attitude and garage band sound. “Flavor,” one of the highlights of the set, had lyrics on the verge on satire at times, "I searched and drifted and grieved, man, just trying to decide who to be."

I couldn’t help but think, “Ah yes, another band full of misfits and hooligans, smoking weed and smashing beers in their music videos.” Impressively, they did add a keyboard, organs, and a horn section, evenly rounding out their noise rock essence.

Making my way to the main stage, along with the majority of Pitchfork's festival goers, the sun soon set and the midsummer heat subsided, as we anxiously awaited Beach House. The crowd seemed fidgety and chunks of people seemed to be filing out early. Even I, a pretty committed Beach House fan, was wondering if I could handle their ambient, dreamy, pop set.

Front-woman Victoria Legrand's voice was raspy in just the right way; dream-like, but also deeply evocative and strong. Legrand seemed to be in an other-wordly state. She came out wearing a black hooded shawl, while making scattered, but emphatic urgings, refusing to allow fear to overcome love. The combination of heavy bass and ethereal keyboard inserts created an atmosphere that was poignant and full of life, in the midst of a long day. A cover of The Korgis' "Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometimes" immersed a deep feeling of community underneath the flashing patterned lights and haze of smoke.

I almost floated away from the crowd. I left feeling as refreshed as one could have and ready to brave another long day in Union Park.

SATURDAY: Circus Des Yeux, Martin Courtney, BJ the Chicago Kid, Sufjan Stevens

Saturday started off with one of the more obscure acts acts of the weekend with the experimental indie group Circus Des Yeux. For what it's worth, the lead's voice, though strange, was emotionally driven. Cowboy hats and hair covered the faces on stage and warped instruments, along with deep vocals, made an interesting set, but it was hard for me to say there really was a "high point."

After having enough of the strange set, I skipped out a few minutes early, making my way across the grass towards the opposite side of the festival. I opted to check out the large white tents with hundreds of records, hand-made mugs, personalized prints, t-shirts, jewelry and coloring books, all spread across multiple fold-out tables.

Budgeting the festival was rough (especially with ridiculously overpriced festival food). I had just enough for transportation and sustaining myself over the three days. I found myself gaping at all the stone-adorned pendants and then forcing myself away.

I then moved to another table, noticing that the poster sale proved to be fairly amazing. Prints lined booth after booth. I soon caved after rummaging through a few five dollar bins and came away from it with some sick new wall art.

After checking out the tents, I was pumped to check out Martin Courtney, the former lead singer of Real Estate, and see his solo project. I had yet to listen to his solo music and perhaps it should have remained that way. Song after song, unimpressive guitar riffs and lyrical content similar to that of every indie song, ever, strung out over the crowd.

I anxiously awaited BJ the Chicago Kid as a hopeful pick-me-up from a day that was turning sour. BJ greeted the audience with a promising acapella intro.

His R&B and soul infused rap music proved to be both insightful and enjoyable. Soon BJ lurched into "Church." When he could focus, he provided, but unfortunately, he lost focus quickly, as I did. I found myself uneasily waiting for Chance the Rapper’s rumored guest appearance. (Chance did show up, but I was so far away, it didn’t enhance the experience.)

All in all, it was a lackluster performance on BJ's part. He spent the majority of his set sampling other artists, high-fiving his DJ and guitarist, and making sure we knew that Chicago was his hometown.

Fortunately, what happened next was somewhere between miracle, enlightenment, and a full on religious experience. I made my way to the Green Stage, opting to skip both Brian Wilson and Anderson .Paak to arrive an hour and half before Sufjan Stevens was scheduled to perform. This was a sacrifice I knew I had to make, but that didn’t make the decision hurt any less.

Like an angel appearing from heaven, Sufjan emerged from the smoke, donning a neon zig-zag adorned jacket, pants resembling the funkiest pajamas known to man, a snapback and oversized sunglasses, with a literal set of massive feather wings.

I had awaited his performance like a giggly middle-schooler who just got asked out by their crush.

Sufjan played all of the famed, 25-minute track, “Impossible Soul,” which genuinely felt like an uplifting experience apart from the line, "With a broken heart that you stabbed for an hour." The track went through all the stages of grief and heart ache leading up to renewal (with numerous costume changes to match). At one point, he wore what resembled a silver helmet with balloons attached and an entire silver body suit with huge silver pillows attached to his back. He then ascended a stairwell mid-stage. Accompanied by background singers and performers, this song was downright epic live. In the final hook, "In the right life it's a miracle, possibilities," I felt saved as a member of the audience. The crowd went wild. Everyone was smiling. Everyone was dancing.

"I Want to Be Well," was another song from The Age of Adz that absolutely connected the audience with commentary on that all too familiar yearning for normality.

Sufjan Stevens, the king of sad songwriting, ironically turned out to be the most uplifting set of the day.

SUNDAY: Porches, Kamasi Washington, Neon Indian, Miguel, FKA Twigs

Day Three rolled around and I found myself breaking a sweat on sight of the festival gates. After another routine backpack check (and smuggling in a granola bar), I found my way to the first show of the day, Porches.

They played a show that felt like it belonged in the 80s - full of synth pop with undertones of a raw, acoustic sound, leading to a set that was equal parts danceable and genuine.

I saw a lot of people around me in the crowd love this show, while I settled for amiable appreciation. One girl wore a skin tight, grey body-suit, a bold choice in that 85-degree weather, with booties made out of pom poms.

Kamasi Washington, a gentle giant, had the talent of half the acts on Sunday combined. Jazz with nuances of pop and R&B turned out to be the perfect cure for a headache possibly caused by seeing too many synth pop acts. His album The Epic seemed like an appropriate fit for it's contents with songs ranging from six to 15 minutes.

If I'm being honest, I rarely looked up at the stage from my comfortable seat on the grass because by the end of his set, I had filled up an entire page of my sketchbook. What I mean to say is, his new wave jazz was not only work created from genuine passion and creativity, it also proved inspirational. Washington resembled a ray of sunshine on a day that quickly got cloudier.

After a point in the day, it became a “pick one” between maybe six or more electronic acts. I ended up going with Neon Indian.

Neon Indian shone through, incorporating an art pop dynamic with psychedelic twinges. They got downright groovy and put on a fun show, but unless you are a "superfan," after three or four songs, the set got repetitive.

I found myself eagerly anticipating a much needed break from electronic pop, a common theme I found in the entire weekend. Somehow this led to me to stand front row for R&B sweetheart Miguel's set.

Miguel urged us to stand in unity before playing “Candles in the Sun.” Five minutes later, he was on to playing “Coffee” and grinding on stage. Miguel had a voice that didn't fail to impress. His band backed it sufficiently, with maybe the most enthusiastic back-up guitarist ever. His set at Pitchfork was a performance that reflected Miguel well; downright sexual, and somehow never sleazy.

FKA Twigs was next. Known for strange R&B with vocals that range from soft and subtle to intense and pleading, FKA Twigs induced a mood that was provocative and maybe even slightly uneasy. Her dance moves were on the verge on seizure-like at times, yet she also managed to be incredibly beautiful and sensual. It was the type of visual performance that you almost feel weird to be turned on by, but then you look around and everyone else in the crowd is just as entranced as you. “Two Weeks” was the highlight of the performance, invoking both her unusual song writing with pop-like hooks and bass.

Embarking on my very first music festival, I didn't know what to expect, but I left with both bitter disappointment and absolute fulfillment in my heart. There were moments were my legs ached, sweat dripped down my neck, and my stomach was a pit of hunger. There were acts like Martin Courtney, BJ the Chicago Kid and Circus des Yeux that I might've been better off not having seen.

Despite these acts, there were moments of utter redemption too. It was like taking that magical feeling concerts give and just overdosing on it for a few days. In fact, I think I have enough dopamine going for the next month. Sets like Car Seat Headrest and Beach House were near flawless for me, but Sufjan easily came out on top.

Within the truest moments of this festival, I can’t begin to explain what did for me, or for everyone in the audience.

Sufjan said it best, "There is nothing more incredible and moving and appealing than good music, and it cannot always be reduced to a story, to exposition. It's so much more abstract and brilliant."

(Cover photo curtesy of Pitchfork, all set photos by Jane Dickerson)

Recent Posts
Featured Posts
bottom of page