I came to a few realizations this weekend at Pitchfork Music Festival.
A$AP Ferg is secretly a pacifist. A good dose of adrenaline can help even the shortest person escape a ravenous and incredibly dense crowd of Chance the Rapper fans and Pitchfork Music Festival is dedicated to putting on amazing shows and celebrating music in its most pure forms.
Sucking down a Chicago style hot dog and watching my rock idols, Sleater-Kinney slay guitar riffs, it all came into focus. It’s not the excessive drug use or the mobs of well-tanned compatriots in floral attire, it’s the music that attracts tens of thousands of patrons. And now in its tenth year, with an insane line-up, Pitchfork solidified its brand as a music mecca void of the giant ferris wheels, silent discos and assorted frills other festivals use to attain the elusive festival experience.
The festival is located in tiny Union Park just west of the loop in downtown Chicago. It has three stages, two of which switch off set times, so festival goers can easily see every performer they are interested in. There were no wild assortments of animal shaped bongs or weird hemp products. And aside from a few food and jewelry vendors, the rest of the merchants sold records and music-related posters and shirts.
Watching the crowd, my impressions of the Pitchfork culture were fickle at first. There were stereotypical hipsters with septum piercings and red lipstick, older men in Blackhawks baseball caps and young tweens donning their favorite Wilco shirts. There wasn’t much of a pattern in the crowd, except that everyone genuinely cared about the musicians that drew them to the festival.
I had a deeply spiritual moment in the middle of Mac DeMarco’s set. As he grinned a massive gaptoothed smile at his mustached colleagues, I gained enormous respect for DeMarco. As a self-proclaimed loser and drug abuser he makes beautiful music and does it with his friends.
DeMarco powered through the middle of his set with “Freaking Out the Neighborhood,” a single from his second album 2. In it, DeMarco speaks directly to his mother about his complacent attitudes towards his shortcomings.
He sings, “Please, don’t worry, next time I’m home, I’ll still be the same.”
The words now feel like a sweet irony, things are changing and they are only getting better for DeMarco’s career. This isn’t the small stage at Bonnaroo anymore. Mac was singing to thousands of eager fans who chanted “Fuck me” and “I love you.” Although he may be a lazy strummer who records all of his albums in his house, he has become a sex symbol and a role model for wannabe musicians like myself.
Despite his adoring fans, DeMarco proclaimed his love for his long time girlfriend Keira McNally and had the crowd sing her “Happy Birthday.” He finished out the set crowd surfing over fans who were so eager to touch him, the already dense crowd constricted like a school of fish following their prey.
For an international synth pop trio, CHVRCHES owned the stage. Lead singer Lauren Mayberry danced, jumped and twirled the microphone wires like a jump rope. I couldn’t look away as she traversed the stage, mic held like a gun in her hand, singing about chasing people who wronged her. As a pettit woman singing in a soft high pitch, I could still feel her anger and her passion.
Still she stayed approachable, bantering in the 90-degree heat, “I’m way too British for this sunshine shit.”
Mayberry said it was their first American show in a long while and they revealed a song they had only performed once before in front of a live audience from their upcoming album Every Open Eye that’s coming out September 25.
Toward the end of her set, she kicked a quintessential festival beach ball out into the audience making a world cup reference before settling back into the next song. Despite their early time slot, CHVRCHES gave an entertaining and clean cut performance.
I approached Wilco’s set largely unfamiliar with their catalog. I love punk, short sweet and to the point. When Wilco began, their set felt like a jam rock palette cleanser after CHVRCHES high-energy, electronic dance fest. But as their set continued, they picked up momentum. The lightly descending icicle lights turned into flashing strobes as drummer Glenn Kotche went wild on his set and the familiar vocals washed over the die hard fans and bounced back to the stage in a many thousand person sing along.
Their music became a powerful uniting force and the people around me began to feel like brethren as they played “Via Chicago” in the middle of their set. They peppered the set list with the highlights from their new album, Star Wars that was surprise released the night before after a four-year hiatus from creating new material.
Their show was long for a festival set but they kept it interesting with fast-paced, balls-to-the-wall guitar riffs, syncopating drums and their token familiar lyrics.
Each song solicited a “Fuck yeah, man. I love this one.” from the post college frat stars to my right, whose faces were illuminated by the glow of waving lighters.
The feeling of other humans’ moist skin rubbing against you is usually not a welcome sensation, but standing at the fringe of young moshers at Bully’s show I appreciated it for what it was. It was an expression of the raw, unhampered rock that blared from the small stage speakers.
Alicia Bognanno, lead singer and guitarist, was cool and collected speaking out to the audience between songs. But when she sang and she opened her mouth wide to let out a beautiful scream, it was so natural and so mesmerizing. The music was dissonant and used a lot of feedback to create an edgy, grungy sound.
By A$AP Ferg’s set, it was time to let go of all inhibition. The skies had just opened up dropping lightning, thunder and panic into an otherwise calm crowd of morning Pitchforkians. After they scattered like mice from a storm during the evacuation, Pitchfork gave the all-clear 40 minutes later.
So at around 6 p.m. when the hordes of turnt fans gathered by the small stage to see the lord of trap, it was time to let go. To embrace my sweat/rain soaked friends as we swayed back and forth to the music and collectively screamed, “Fuck the hoes” with our middle fingers up, as Ferg instructed us to.
During the set, several people crowd surfed, a dance circle/mosh pit formed to my left despite the density of the crowd and somehow a festival trash can was crowd surfed into the center, spewing banana peels and beer cans as it travelled.
It was a misogynistic interlude in a day otherwise filled with powerful female role models, but it was wild.
In the least clichéd way possible, Sleater-Kinney’s hour long set plus encore was deeply heartwarming for me. It felt so powerful and so righteous to watch the women of Sleater-Kinney jam in such a clean yet raw set.
Carrie Brownstien’s cool and subtly hilarious banter contrasted with her wacky stage theatrics and commanded my attention. When she dedicated a song to one of my personal idols, Tina Belcher of Bob’s Burgers, I knew I was in love.
As Brownstien dropped to the ground while playing a guitar riff and Corin Tucker belted into the mic, the crowd responded with screams of “I love you.” Even the toddler to my left bounced and swayed in enjoyment despite her proximity to the huge blaring speakers.
Since their riot grrrl years in the ‘90s, Sleater-Kinney hasn’t lost an ounce of their energy and power. It felt like watching a more experienced, mature version of their fresh out of college, energetic sound. I left with a strong desire to take guitar lessens from Brownstien and a profound appreciation for how riot grrrl rock has changed music.
The Julie Ruin
Kathleen Hanna and Kathi Wilcox have been idols of mine for some time. The raw, heart-pounding, adrenaline rush-inducing music from their ‘90s riot grrrl project Bikini Kill still makes me want to stand up to all the people who have wronged me in my life and then become a bass player.
Seeing them both perform in Hanna’s latest project, The Julie Ruin, was a bit surreal. The crowd was modest. Their sound didn’t feel quite as punk rock and angry as I was expecting, but Hanna doesn’t care. As she said, it’s not about being popular, it’s about being your own person and trying to improve the world for everyone.
Hanna spoke unabashedly about feminism, her life, her music and what she hopes to see from the world. When her mouth opened like a lioness and the vein in her neck popped in defiance, it felt awe-inspiring.
There was a dank, muddy smell in the air like summer camp moldy towels and cow pies. The beer-saturated mud was up to the tops of my blue and white Keds. But when Courtney Barnett started slamming twangy guitar riffs while writhing in happiness, I started sloshing around in the stinky mud.
She said it was the second time she ever wore shorts on stage, but she also said she had played in heat three times as intense in Australia. Clearly the heat didn’t hamper her rock sensibilities. Her loose hair flailed in all directions and her vocals maintained the same calm and clear feeling they have on her recorded material.
I came in knowing she was amazing lyricist, but watching her live, I could tell how passionate of a musician she is. However, her live show did lack the full sound an additional guitar could add. And it didn’t have the performance pizzazz that CHVRCHES and A$AP Ferg brought to their pre-headliner programs.
Chance the Rapper
With a passion reserved exclusively for his once-a-year Chicago festival show, Chance went all out at Pitchfork. With a multi level stage for the Social Experiment, elaborate stage production and an unwavering pride for his home city, the show felt as he promised, historic.
I was eagerly positioned in the front of the crowd, about 10 rows of squished and quickly dehydrating youths from the stage. Packed tighter than sardines, the people surrounding me quickly felt like one giant mass of sweaty elbows, grain alcohol and excited anxiety.
When Chance began, the mass ebbed and flowed like a gargantuan wave. For a few songs, I felt so close to my neighbors and part of such a close knit community that I literally could not move with my own free will (pitfalls of being the shortest person up front).
After a harrowing and muddy escape, I settled comfortably by a mother and her daughter who felt just as passionately about Chance. In a more relaxed space, I could watch as Chance rapped, danced and bounced through his hour and 15 minute set.
He shared the love, bringing out trumpeter Nico Segal, gospel composer Kirk Franklin and a gospel choir for a heartfelt “Sunday Candy.”
In resolute appreciation, the mother next to me said, “This is some straight momma stuff.”
But his biggest success was connecting with the crowd of primarily Chicago natives. As a native himself, he said Chicago fans are the best fans. He brought out the Chicago bucket boys and his fourth wardrobe change landed him in a Bulls jersey and White Socks cap. He talked a lot about where he came from, his family and that he has big things coming up in the future. As the second hip-hop artist to headline Pitchfork without releasing his own full-length debut album, it felt like big things were happening in that moment.
It’ll be hard to top this year’s lineup of up-and-coming artists, rock legends and A$AP Ferg at next year’s festival. But with a reputation like Pitchfork’s, there is always hope for a better list of performers and maybe a surprise Kanye appearance.