This past weekend, Pitchfork hosted their annual Chicago-based Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park with headlining acts Beck, Neutral Milk Hotel and Kendrick Lamar. The auxiliary lineup was more than impressive though, with acts booked like the ever-elusive, London-based trip-hop group FKA Twigs, the Brooklyn hardcore band Perfect Pussy and the somber guitar musings of Sun Kil Moon.
On Friday, the first of three gloriously temperate days, the OWSLA act Hundred Waters opened the festival with introspective electronic music that swayed between wavering and delicate to violent and abrasive. Across the park, the industrial house act Factory Floor followed. The steely and reserved English trio broke the fourth wall when vocalist/guitarist Nik Colk cracked a wide smile at all the erratic limbs flailing in the crowd. Their set may have been the most physically engaging electronic act of the festival, save for Grimes. Sharon Van Etten played soon after, one of the day’s undisputed highlights. Showing off her chops on the omnichord, Van Etten jettisoned through songs like Taking Chances and Your Love Is Killing Me. Each song felt deeply personal, wildly emotional, impossible not to empathize with, and her voice, synched with her magnanimous stage presence, was absolutely chilling.
As the female rapper wunderkind SZA performed catty-corner across the park, Sun Kil Moon played the main stage in the late afternoon for an expansive, generally caucasian crowd (bandleader Mark Kozelek chuckled after on song and said, “Damn! That’s a lot of white people!”). Kozelek remained seated with his acoustic guitar during the set, even during the silent roar of Benji’s Dogs, until the final song. It was a simple, understated set that captivated thousands.
Giorgio Moroder queued up some deliciously campy late ’70s tracks like Hot Stuff, Call Me and I Feel Love, finger-wagging and beaming at the crowd. Before leaving the stage and playing a sped-up version of the Daft Punk collaborative track Giorgio By Moroder, he told the audience that the set was the best show he’s ever played. Beck headlined the night, delving deep into his diverse and straight-up weird catalogue of material. The band covered the Moroder-produced I Feel Love, and howled out that smash single Loser. But Beck also drifted to the melancholic, aqueous overtones of his most recent long-played Morning Phase.
Saturday was hot and bright. The Chicago-native band Twin Peaks kicked things off with frantic, feel-good guitar music. Following two seizures and a broken leg, Cadien Lake James took up the left flank on electric guitar, seated not-so-firmly in a wheelchair. Clay Frankle smashed his guitar on stage during one particularly flummoxed track, then hurled the severed neck piece into the hands of one extremely happy fan. Circulatory System played later in the hour, a densely arranged ensemble of dreamy chamber pop. During one beautiful and listless clarinet solo, I turned around and witnessed a young-looking boy in handcuffs being led out of the crowd by security. He looked scared.
The Empress Of set was stalled briefly due to some audio complications with the group’s equipment, but eventually everything sorted itself out. The utter frustration had frontwoman Lorely Rodriguez visibly worked-up and agitated, but after a few songs she shook the nerves loose and played an absolutely rousing set, showcasing a large amount of new, unreleased material that was well-received by the crowd. Cloud Nothings were next up, a raucous and hopelessly ambivalent set by the Cleveland-based punk-pop band. They played hard and fast, like every song might be their last. Tune-Yards performed later in the afternoon, putting on a visual performative spectacle that closely rivaled the inherent oddness of the music being played. The group sounded big: lots of BANG! BANG!, walloping, yelping, ebullient madness.
The R&B singer-songwriter Kelela sang wispy, wary melodies over low-end, psychotropic future beats, likely performing for her largest and loudest crowd to date. She exercised a cool, contained confidence on the opening number The High, but was quick to vocalize how shocked she was to see so many people responding to her music. Danny Brown followed. His vocal timbre was shrill and uncomfortable, but he fully commanded the attention of a few thousand presumably fucked-up individuals with his seedy electronica rap.
St. Vincent was astounding. Her cold, calculated choreography elicited squealing young fans to bellow out great audible swoons. The rendition of Digital Witness was definitively sexual, Annie Clark lingering a few moments longer, releasing a high moan on the line “I want all of your mind/Give me all of it.” FKA Twigs performed afterwards. The experimental R&B group played for a substantial crowd, most of which was helplessly receptive to frontwoman Taliah Barnett’s smoky falsetto and graceful and hypnotic movements. Neutral Milk Hotel headlined Saturday. It was a calm, serene closing to the day that reignited some long-forgotten adolescent angst.
The last day, Sunday, started out cloudy and balmy. Mutual Benefit and Speedy Ortiz played the first sets of the day; the former was pensive and funereal with elegiac strings, the latter restless and absurdist rock ‘n’ roll. Perfect Pussy put on the day’s most riveting performance. The group was sweaty and spent after their short but rollicking set; it wasn’t immediately apparent whether the bleary-eyed frontwoman Meredith Graves was sobbing or just profusely perspiring, but it seemed irrelevant.
All that reckless, haphazardly strung-out energy continued on the main stage during Deafheaven, piercing male vocals over beautiful sounding, nightmarish metal. Earl Sweatshirt changed up the vibe during his set, performing a new track after a malfunctioned rendition of crowd favorite, Orange Juice. Earl was enthralling and savvy, proving that the peripheral hype surrounding him and his music is well-deserved.
Jon Hopkins played a brisk set of cerebral electronic music. The British DJ and producer performed live beats that were volatile, supercharged and sexy. The experimental pop duo Majical Cloudz experienced a bout of misfortune during their set: the keyboard used to perform the majority of their songs died. After several minutes of stalling via. crowd participation like beatboxing and coffeehouse slam poetry, Majical Cloudz played a capella renditions of songs like Bugs Don’t Buzz and Savage.
DJ Spinn took the stage with a crew of 30 or so Teklife affiliates, a crew of dancers, rappers and a dutiful hype mob. A large portion of his set was a tribute to the late DJ Rashad, songs like Double Cup and the supersonic footwork hysteria that is his remix of Kanye West’s On Sight. Grimes followed; she looked simply magical under all those pink lights with her black dress and disheveled mop of hair billowing in the breeze. She closed her set with two tracks she collaborated with Blood Diamonds: the hollow, steel drummed Phone Sex followed by the boisterous banger Go.
Kendrick Lamar closed out the festival, adding an impressive live band and unreleased film footage for his ambitious set. He was a marvelous performer, a wildly energetic presence, and it seemed as if the entire park of festival-goers were belting out the lyrics to Bitch Don’t Kill Me Vibe. I definitely was.
Photos by Angel Eugenio Fraden and Nancy Musinguzi.