Pitchfork Music festival 2018

Chicago, IL – 20-22 July 2018

 Photo by @sethunger

Photo by @sethunger

If only we could Choon Group for a living, we could have had this festival recap up the day after Pitchfork 2018. But alas, festivals are breaks from reality, a year’s worth of gigs binged in a single weekend, and then back to the day (and night) jobs. But the sore feet and backlog of laundry aren’t the only reminders of a festival experience, merely the odious ones, so we belatedly offer the following fond remembrances of this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, held July 20-22 at Chicago’s Union Park.

FRIDAY, JULY 20

It was an up-and-down opening day to the fest, with intermittent rains and an assortment of quiet/saddo/minimal acts alternating with more explosive sets, before headliner Tame Impala got the sold-out field fully on their feet with a solid collection of danceable hits. Let's take a tour through the day:

THE CURLS: The local 10 (?) piece party-for-your-right-to-fight collective made a great first impression on us, opening proceedings with high communal energy, choreographed moves and raucous grooves and a spirit of righteous resistance most exemplified by their stage callout and handwritten shirts against Rahm’s much-derided multi-million cop academy plan. We’ll be looking to see these talented, full-hearted Chicagoans in a club setting as soon as possible. (MP)

MELKBELLY: The Red Stage was opened with a bang by a second Chicago band, the three members of the Winters family plus a Wetzel who make up Melkbelly. The aggressive alt-rock of last year’s debut Nothing Valley has earned the Pilsen quartet a loyal following, and their strong musicianship given a sharp, driving mix definitely blew any remaining dust off the afternoon. For me, their ‘90s-indebted sound and Mirana Winters’s vocals make comparisons to The Breeders linger, but I’m certainly not mad at that. (MP)

LUCY DACUS: The wonderfully droll Virginia native managed to ably withstand some early afternoon drizzling (despite many verbalized fears of being electrocuted), with a gorgeous, if subdued set comprised mostly of songs from her excellent sophomore album Historian. Dacus’  voice, and her band’s well-honed proficiency, gave her fiercely introspective tunes enough weight to ensure they didn’t evaporate into the early afternoon air, and held a respectable amount of early festival-goer’s attentions; especially her climactic final two songs--the twin emotional powerhouses “Pillar of Truth” and “Night Shift.”  (DB)

Bummer that I missed that finish, Dan, but when faced with a desire to check out an act on another stage, multiple expressions in the vein of “I don’t want  wanna be here” from the artist make it hard for me to stay there. That being said, I do admire Dacus’s sad, truthful storytelling--it’s emotionally honest without being cloying. Among the many theoretical manage-and-ruin strategies we devised for artists over the weekend, one of my favorites was Seth’s for the performance-challenged Dacus--that she exclusively write material for the powerful pipes but lacking in the lyrics department talents of Florence Welch. (MP)

JULIE BYRNE: Nestled under the tree nook of the smaller Blue Stage was a pretty ideally idyllic setting for the seated acoustic/hey-there’s-a-harp-onstage elvish stylings of Ms. Byrne. The first of a few Blue sets that led to Seth developing a kickass smartassed baby-rockin’ dance. (MP)

OPEN MIKE EAGLE: I was very glad of my strategic set-sacrificing to get close for the Chicago-raised rapper, now affiliated with LA’s venerable Project Blowed, who I’ve been a fan of since his 2014 album Dark Comedy, and immediately after the festival have dived into absorbing his early stuff and many collaborative projects. Dude is deep, framing his set around a support group concept and daring to debut some brand new material, including one verse of the best explanation for materialism in hip-hop I’ve ever heard. Mike also delightfully demonstrated his MC credentials with a mid-set beach ball-themed freestyle. He’s cemented his status with me as an artist whose every project requires attention. (MP)

TIERRA WHACK: Whoever At Pitchfork locked down the booking of Philadelphia MC Tierra Whack as a last-minute replacement for the enigmatic-but-predictable cancellation of Earl Sweatshirt must have been feeling pretty smug on Friday afternoon. The rising rapper/singer filled the field in front of the Green Stage, exuberantly prowling the length of the stage and getting the crowd hyped with rapid-fire call-and-response, while dispatching the one-minute hook-heaven delights from May’s Whack World visual album (one of our favorites of the year thus far). (MP)

JULIEN BAKER: On paper, Julien Baker’s fearless, heart-on-sleeve vulnerability looked like a natural fit for the more intimate Blue Stage. Unfortunately, the bleed from Saba’s booming set on the Red Stage threatened, and occasionally succeeded, in swallowing the more intimate portions of her emotive anthems. It wasn’t for lack of trying: At times, Baker seemed visibly frustrated, but cheered on by an adoring front row, she managed to channel the bulk of her dissatisfaction into her passionate, formidable belt; making for a performance that didn’t land as fully as it could have, but was filled with heart and defiance nonetheless--not coincidentally, two of the major reasons Baker’s fans love her to begin with. (DB)

SABA: Friday was announced as a sold-out day of the festival, and multiple acts seemed taken aback and humbled by the size of the crowd they drew, none so joyfully as Saba, leader of Chicago’s own Pivot Gang collective. Working through much of his acclaimed 2018 LP Care For Me and his previous Bucket List Project, Saba and co. grew in confidence as the hometown crowd cheered them on. His diaristic lyrics and the ‘70s Stevie Wonder keys of Care For Me’s backdrops are solid enough to earn him more than regional fame, but after Tierra Whack’s stunner of a set, it was hard for our enthusiasm not to dip a bit. (MP)

SYD: When Syd arrived to the stage sans band or even visible DJ, I knew this was gonna be a particularly hard sell for me, taking place on the day of release of her main band The Internet’s terrific new LP Hive Mind, but with a set focusing instead on the subdued, sensual slow jams of her 2017 solo debut Fin. Unable to get drawn in by her laid-back stage presence, I split for Big Thief on Blue before she rewarded the crowd with a couple Internet choons late in her set. (MP)

BIG THIEF: The ragged alt-folk of Brooklyn quartet Big Thief has been gathering critical acclaim, and a growing fanbase, over the past couple of years at the same slow-burning pace as their deceptively combustible vignettes, which was fully apparent by the packed  Blue Stage crowd on Friday evening. Throughout their set, the band’s blend of delicate Elliott Smith-like intimacy and damaged Crazy Horse guitar drama was on full display; keeping things loose enough to suggest implosion at any moment only to snap thrillingly back into focus, making for an early festival highlight. (DB)

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COURTNEY BARNETT:  Having impressed with an afternoon set at Pitchfork three years ago as she was breaking out with Sometimes I Sit..., Barnett was a very good fit to move up to the penultimate mainstage slot, again showing what a pro she is as songwriter, bandleader and performer. Clad in all black against the approaching twilight but giving off ample crowd-pleasing energy, she cannily arranged her set to lead with the amiable first-half tunes from this year’s Tell Me How You Really Feel LP, before using the harder-edged fulcrum of that album, “Nameless, Faceless” and “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” to transition to the back half of her set, featuring her now well-known earlier hits, setting up her countrymen Tame Impala with rousing closer “Pedestrian At Best.” A familiar but admirable set. (MP)

TAME IMPALA: The threat of a thunderstorm inhibiting Tame Impala’s performance was on everyone’s mind Friday night, including Kevin Parker. He joked about it midway through the set, saying that disastrous scenes played out in his head like a movie. Instead, the band rocked through a cinematic landscape of a set, complete with sharp lasers, confetti blasts, and stunning visuals to complement their neo-psychedelic rock. Parker and company churned out crushing hits from all three of their studio albums. While it did shower a bit, the light rain provided sweet relief from the evening heat as well as stunning visuals with the drops of water falling through those beautiful laser lights. (AB)

“I didn’t realize Tame Impala were that popular,” I said to my buddy as the crowd grew suffocatingly dense for the Australian psych bands’ headlining set on Friday night. The crew moved through a roster of virtual greatest hits from their three albums, resulting in a carefully cultivated performance in which every tune landed like either a crowd-pleasing sing-along or straight-up banger. The performance may have lacked a spontaneity that tends to accompany the most memorable live shows, but with a robust mix and eye-popping light show that managed to be trippy without being  corny, it was easy to walk away feeling satisfied. (DB)

SATURDAY JULY 21

The middle day of the fest floated by, less crowded and less inclement, and featuring artists less designed to elicit passionate responses. For our aging staff, it was a perfectly pleasant way to pace ourselves over the long weekend. Nonetheless, we all had personal highlights:

PAUL CHERRY: Louche vibes, Mac DeMarco swag: the Chicago singer-songwriter offered an agreeably low-impact soundtrack from his Flavour LP for the application of sunscreen and picking up your Day 2 drinks wristband and complimentary Clif Bars. (MP)

BERHANA: The blogged-about Atlanta R&B prospect, about to leave for an overseas tour, grew the early-afternoon audience exponentially with his classy and well-sung blend of electronic soul. A couple new songs, including single “Wildin’,” received their live debuts, and Amain Berhane quickly made a whole mess of new fans with tasty jams like “Grey Luh” and his sweet cover of Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World.” (MP)

ZOLA JESUS: Throughout a weekend that saw its fair share of rain, it was cosmically hilarious to see the clouds part just in time to reveal a pristine sky for an early afternoon set from goth pop priestess Zola Jesus. It’s a good thing that the woman otherwise known as Nika Danilova came prepared to deliver a performance of such raw power and commitment that it supplied its very own gloomy center of gravity. Danilova’s previous appearance at the festival was back in 2011 on the smaller, somewhat dwarfing Blue Stage; accompanied solely by backing tracks, and remaining firmly tethered to her mic, she relied solely on the power of her formidable vocals to convey the grandeur in her dramatic songs. Another seven years of touring and recording (not to mention more spacious surroundings on the Green Stage) resulted in a second outing that was more memorable, commanding and intense on every level; from the addition of live musicians, to Danilova’s emboldened presence stalking across the stage and making direct eye contact with audience members. Her every gesture seemed to effortlessly assert her credentials for an evening time-slot on her third visit. (DB)

NILÜFER YANYA: The hotly-tipped  young London singer-songwriter-guitarist, making her Chicago debut as part of her first US trip, led a fully-engaged and versatile four-piece through the songs she’s scattered over a handful of EPs and singles, with a full-length still a ways off on the horizon of record label red tape. Her subtle, jazz-colored pop, crossbred with some new wave spikiness, was chill yet punchy, and it wasn’t just her Pixies cover (“Hey”) that displayed her affinity for quiet-loud-quiet dynamics. Yanya still has a ways to go to come out of her shell and maintain focus live, but her compositions and lyrics hold strong potential for an impactful career, so it was a privilege to catch her at this nascent stage. (MP)

MOSES SUMNEY: If the key to real estate is ‘location’, then ‘context’ occupies a similar importance in effective festival placement. On last year’s Aromanticism, the baroque soul of Moses Sumney followed billowing, ethereal paths to reach ecstatic peaks of breathtaking urgency. However, during a mid-afternoon set that found Sumney sandwiched between other artists trafficking in either muted jazz or droning atmosphere, those slow-burning builds occasionally seemed to trail-off, losing their through-line before the big finish. There was no shortage of technical mastery on display (including Sumney’s stunning  falsetto, capable of raising chills in the desert), but it was hard to shake the feeling that, on this particular day, these compositions were missing a certain degree of vigor or heart. (DB)

RAPHAEL SAADIQ: Thank you Pitchfork for providing something special for us grown folks on Saturday. Having loved Saadiq’s music since first hearing Tony! Toni! Toné! in 1990 but never seeing the man in person, this was probably my most-anticipated set of the weekend, and I felt a validated pride as the Oakland native pulled in a considerable crowd. His tight and tested band opened with a jazzy extended jam, all from a seated position, as my crew and I ogled a gorgeous (and likely hell-on-roadies) organ cabinet on stage left. With his most recent solo album Stone Rollin’ having arrived way back in 2011, his setlist after that was up for grabs. Two very solid songs from upcoming album Jimmy Lee fit in nicely among fan favorites like soul banger “100 Yard Dash” and tuba jam “Still Ray.” There was a surprise cameo from A Tribe Called Quest member and Saadiq’s Lucy Pearl collaborator Ali Shaheed Muhammad before Saadiq, who has stayed busy the past several years composing for film and TV as well as writing and producing for other artists, finished up by taking us through a hits medley with a twist. Instead of playing the choruses and most obvious hooks, he provided a trackspotter’s delight of snatches from his work on Erykah Badu’s “Love of My Life,” his D’Angelo collaborations “Be Here,” “Lady” and “Untitled (How Does It Feel),”  just the freakin’ bridge of the Tonys’ classic “Anniversary,” before serving up something more recent with Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky,” which the audience hilariously did not know the words to beyond “I tried to put one in the air.” Some novices around us felt a bit alienated by this ingroup test, but for a longtime fan, it served as a sly acknowledgement that this slept-on artist’s artist has a body of work uncontainable by a brief festival slot. (MP)

BLOOD ORANGE: On a day that was already heavy on mellow artists, it was both appropriate, and potentially treacherous, to showcase Dev Hynes, the Crown Prince of Soft, in an early evening slot on the Green Stage. However, Hynes came prepared: unlike his borderline disastrous set from two years ago that was plagued by chronic sound problems, Hynes brought a road-tested band to tease out the underlying bounce from his pillowy textures, providing a low-end hearty enough to elicit plenty of loose hips. Yet Hynes’ appeal has always been more elusive than his ease with a hook or considerable skill as a multi-instrumentalist; more than soft, his songs feel kind. They tackle extremely thorny subjects with a grace and gentility that would be corny if it weren’t so obviously hard won, making his cushy songcraft seem less like '80s FM playacting and more like something quietly radical. Technical improvements aside, it was this spirit of generosity exuding from Hynes and crew that led to the best crowd vibes I experienced all weekend. (DB)  

THE WAR ON DRUGS: Adam Granduciel's heartland rock project was made for music festivals such as these, and The War on Drugs' Saturday evening set was a pure lesson in rock and roll. The band spent very little time bantering in between songs, choosing to instead focus on the music itself, which was played loud. Every crisp guitar solo perfectly filled the warm air. (AB)

KELELA: Empanadas from Estrella Negra won the (limited, vegetarian) food battle for me again this year, and gave me a pre-Fleet Foxes opportunity to check out a bit of Kelela’s Blue Stage-closing set of icy, slinky R&B. While her recordings haven’t held repeat-play value for me, always ending up sounding kind of samey after a few minutes, her vocals were on point and she held her adoring crowd in sexy sway. This year I articulated a personal Proximity Rule that Kelela (and on Sunday, Kweku Collins and Smino) was certainly a victim of: that your enjoyment of a set, particularly if you’re not pre-invested in the artist, is probably going to be proportional to how much effort you’re willing to put in to get there early and spot up close (or if you’re a whippersnapper, just bull your way into the throng). Though Pitchfork has a reputation as the music-snobbiest of Chicago’s several major annual music fests, it’s still a hugely social occasion, and several sets this year were partially derailed for me by not getting deep enough into the Stan-Zone to avoid distraction from a pack of chatty Cathys nearby. (MP) 

FLEET FOXES: With a beautifully intricate and introspective new album, it was curious to see Fleet Foxes in a headlining slot at Pitchfork. While wonderfully executed in a theatrical setting (the band played Chicago Theater last fall), their new songs don't necessarily translate all that well on the festival stage, and it was difficult to grasp the entire grounds. That didn't stop the band from having a good time, though, and their appreciation of the opportunity was apparent. Robin Pecknold's intimate encore performance of “Oliver James” was especially captivating. (AB)

SUNDAY JULY 22

The Lauryn Hill Day will certainly be remembered as one of the most notable in the history of the festival. After two days of sort-of-joking conjecture about how late she’d be if she showed up at all, her late soundcheck led to a significant delay in opening the gates to the attendees, which Pitchfork was able to blame on a noontime rain shower. But after a series of well-received sets from a mostly-female array of performers, we did indeed get Ms. Hill and band closing out this thirteenth edition of Pitchfork Music Festival with an appropriately complex and dynamic performance. 

NNAMDI OGBONNAYA: Showing no ill effects or resentment for the delayed start to his set, Nnamdi won my “And then I ran to the record tent and bought his album in appreciation” award this year, after Chicago’s musical omnivore and label owner ripped through a gleefully irrepressible set. Having built a reputation around town for performing in a wide range of contexts and genres, I found that 2017 LP I bought, Drool, to be a very solid exercise in Anticon-esque art-hop. But live, his songs encompass punk, new wave, Helmet-grooved rock, and even a little scatalogical ska, with his 8-piece band having a blast throughout. Nnamdi effortlessly moved from rubber-limbed dance gyrations to speed-rapping to speed-shredding, giving the proverbial 110% to cheer up the wet and mildly-inconvenienced crowd, and cementing my fandom for another brilliant undersung Chicago artist. What’s next? (MP)

KELLY LEE OWENS: We got to see our first deep-in-it rave-style dancing of the weekend as we squeezed up to the Blue Stage to catch the electronic one-woman show. Rather than just hunching behind her gear though, Owens bopped, grooved, and shed layers of outerwear, inspiring fantastically unself-conscious shape-throwing as she oscillated through songs from last year’s self-titled LP. Her music to me is reminiscent of her contemporary Grimes and electronica golden-era forbears Underworld, which are comparisons of considerable quality as a starting point for the Welshwoman. (MP)

RAVYN LENAE: Seth dubbed Ravyn “The Fairy Godmother of Chicago Soul” as her ebullient energy and nimble vocals blessed the rapidly-expanding midday crowd. Plus, she was wearing a tinsel-lookin’ stage costume, and her Steve Lacy duet  “Computer Luv” references "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” so there ya go. With her cheery charisma and big vocal range, my manage-and-ruin strategy for Lenae involves musical theatre, but I’d actually prefer her to keep making strong feature-length collaborations with talented producers and vibing with her deft live combo. (MP)

JAPANESE BREAKFAST: Dream-pop outfit Japanese Breakfast's set was a delightful Sunday afternoon surprise on the Blue Stage. Michelle Zauner's warm presence radiated as the band shifted from songs that were traditionally twee to straight-up synth-dance. Zauner led a perfect cover of the Cranberries' "Dreams" before they danced through the rest of a sunny set. (AB)

ALEX CAMERON: Given our current cultural moment, this was either the best or worst year to showcase Australian Alex Cameron’s glammy, satirical skewerings of sleazy masculinity; his music may have located the sweet-spot between Robert Palmer and Bryan Ferry, but judging from the half-filled Blue Stage area, his first-person lyrical accounts of predatory online behavior might run a bit straight-faced for some. But nothing draws in the crowds like an irresistible hook, which Cameron has in abundance, causing the audience to grow in size considerably as his set wore on. It didn’t hurt that Cameron’s amiable demeanor more clearly underlined the division between man and persona for any skeptics, enhanced by his banter with saxophonist as well as “friend and business partner” Roy Molloy, who treated the audience to a very Pitchfork-like review of his stool (“3.9 out of 5”). (DB)

NONAME: Another big turnout and fan adulation for a Chicago artist, as Noname (formerly Noname Gypsy, but apparently she got the memo not to use that name) brought out associated artists and Sunday bill-sharers Ravyn Lenae and Smino for energetic features. But energy is my prime quibble with Noname, no matter how much connection her fans feel with her confessional spoken-word stylings: her delivery feels mumbly and thrown-away, and her arrangements don’t distinguish themselves, so there’s very little that strikes and moves me, both vocally and musically. She fell victim to the Proximity Rule as we set ourselves up for bigger and dumber with DRAM. (MP)

DRAM: DRAM is all infectious, endearing self-belief, and he came equipped to this festival with three brand-new crowd-pleasers in the form of his just-released That’s a Girls Name EP: the ‘80’s pop-funk of “Best Hugs,” the seeming Camp Lo “Luchini” homage “WWYD?”, and the Lyrics Born-worthy stomper “Sundress.” Add these to previous singles “Cha Cha,” “Cash Machine” and “Broccoli” and DRAM is quickly building a really good party-album greatest hits set of libidinous dancefloor hip-hop jams. Plus he got us all to pledge love to our mothers between every song, so there’s very little to get mad at there. (MP)

(SANDY) ALEX G: The DIY, bedroom pop beginnings of Alex Giannascoli had me expecting to see a solitary kid tinkering with a guitar and laptop for his early evening set on the Blue Stage on Sunday. Instead, I was surprised to stumble upon a well-rehearsed four piece ably making their way through Mr G’s sturdiest, most melodic offerings. Alex G is easily one of the most eclectic artists in indie rock at the moment, running the gamut between rustic folk, ‘90s alternative, lounge-singer cheese, vocoder-drenched ballads, and thrashing punk rock. Which is why it was slightly disappointing to see the bulk of his set devoted to the most straightforward material in his catalogue. But in the long-run, that seemed like a minor quibble when faced with a loose and likeable performance from a fascinating songwriter. (DB)

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CHAKA KHAN: What a brilliant booking. Again, the old guy perspective, but when a multigenerational field full of people is belting out “I’m Every Woman” and pulling out deep-rooted disco moves, someone’s done something right. At 65, Ms. Khan is no longer belting and wailing every single note herself, but with three glorious backup singers twenty feet from stardom and some scene-stealing session players, including a guitarist with all the right Hendrix gimmicks down pat, you’re gonna have a good time. Yep, we got “I Feel For You” and “Ain’t Nobody,” and she had the men and women trade off lines on “Tell Me Something Good,” and everybody got properly revved up for the closing act, paying homage to a Chicago soul legend along the way. (MP)

JAPANDROIDS: With their third Pitchfork performance to date and third Chicago visit in less than a year, Japandroids were confident and loud as they closed the Blue Stage on Sunday night. Ripping through power punk song after song, the two-piece outfit were tight; they played right on top of each other, both figuratively and literally. The crowd was joyful and rowdy, beers spilled while limbs flew, and crowd surfers took full advantage of the rambunctious set. The band announced they are taking a much needed break from touring to focus on a new album; many are already counting the days until their anthemic return. (AB)

MS. LAURYN HILL: Whatever faults people can point out about Lauryn Hill’s Pitchfork 2018-closing 20th Anniversary commemoration of The Miseducation--the nervous 20 minutes of her hype man’s introductory DJ set of on-the-nose hip-hop classics, her massive band and mid-song arrangement tinkering turning tunes indistinguishable and hard to sing along to at times, or her rapping sometimes landing behind the beat, the fact of the matter is we should consider ourselves lucky to have received such an impassioned performance of the revered, generation-defining pop masterwork. Lauryn was in strong voice, and people were having a rapturous good time. (Smoke clouds, pervasive all weekend, were at their thickest, driving my wife and me to the back of the field.) In an emotional monologue near the end of her curfew-defying set, shespoke about the travails of getting te album made, and the post-success realization that the music no longer belonged to her, but to the culture at large, a near-impossible achievement in the internet-fractured era since. I can’t imagine anyone who’s heard this album that doesn’t count themselves a fan, and on a warm Sunday night in Chicago, it was wonderful to be among their number. (MP)