Today’s musicians, more than ever, stand on the shoulders of giants, and the cacophony of influences that feed into the great and varied styles of modern music, make sonic categorization a nearly impossible task. This was made abundantly clear while attending Pitchfork Music Festival this past weekend, every act bled between genres, dipped their toes in sounds from various vintages and geographies, and wore so many of their influences on their sleeve.
Whether explicitly, like Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner introducing her special guest Jeff Tweedy as her “favorite songwriter of all time”, or Jeff Parker covering David Bowie’s “Soul Love,” the festival was a music nerd’s dream of inter-textual references.
Cincinnati based rapper Pink Siifu was an unfamiliar name to me upon entering the festival grounds Sunday morning, but immediately as the set began his name was committed to memory. A jazzy blend of neo-soul, rap, and R&B, the stage was packed with instrumentalists, vocalists, and MCs of the highest caliber. Having collaborated with the likes of The Alchemist, Nick Hakim, and Georgia Ann Muldrow, the rapper definitely knows how to surround himself with some of the best in the game, while allowing his own chops and antics to reamin the center point of the performance. Having various members of his band and crew dancing about the stage to the smooth, soulful instrumentals was a display of pure joy, Siffu rightly, though admittedly pettily, quipped that Pitchfork blundered in booking him so early in the day, rest assured they won’t be making that mistake again.
Among the greatest delights of the festival was the LA-based punk rock girl group The Linda Linda’s. To an unsuspecting spectator, the group’s young (ages ranging from 11-17), brace-faced, colorful impression might at first glance give the impression that you had wandered to a School of Rock Chicago show. Any doubts as to the band’s level of professionalism were immediately abandoned, however, as soon as the girls started rocking. The pure, genuine enthusiasm they displayed for the music they were making, choreographed guitar moves, and tight-as-can-be transitions delivered infectious joy to the entire park Saturday afternoon. Their brand of punk leaned heavily on girl groups of yore, (they were chosen to open for Bikini Kill at one of their reunion show at the Hollywood Palladium) covering the Gogo’s “Tonight,” and even writing their own theme song. And bringing that tradition into the post-pandemic era, the girls gave a short speech about the trying times we’ve all been living through and wanted to give everyone a moment of playful reprieve by having the entire crowd yell at the top of their lungs on their count. I’m not sure if it was the screaming, or their kick-ass performance, but at least for that set, the crowd was wholly relieved of every last drop of cynicism in their bones.
I could feel the Chicago arts community in full force at Pitchfork Music Festival this past Saturday as exclusive record, clothing, and craft fairs sprung up amidst music emanating from three stages across Union Park. I had arrived at Pitchfork just in time to catch synth-pop duo Magdalena Bay, who must have collectively run the equivalent of a mile as they bounced across the stage. All buzzing guitar and retro jumpsuits, Magdalena Bay electrified the initially gloomy day, setting quite the precedent.
The next performer, Lucy Dacus, didn’t disappoint. With a voice that is somehow smoother in person, Lucy Dacus’s one-hour long set felt like a long day out on a boat—silky waves, constant rocking, and the occasional slap of the wind. Though I left her set early to sprint to a nearby stage for Japanese Breakfast, hearing Night Shift in the distance was a transcendent experience.
Every aggressive elbow, nearly-spilled drink, and boot crunching down on my feet that I weathered to push my way to the front of Japanese Breakfast’s stage at Pitchfork was more than worth it to see Michelle Zauner sporting the head of a stuffed poodle on her shirt while gloriously banging on a gong. Halfway through her performance, when I thought things couldn’t get any better, she brought out Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy to sing “Kokomo, IN,” as well as Wilco’s “Jesus Etc.” with her—an unexpected but absolutely incredible duo.
A mere 10 minutes after Japanese Breakfast’s set ended, Mitski emerged, juxtaposing her flowy dress and fluid lyrics with sharp dance movements as she zig-zagged throughout her discography. Following gut-wrenching songs with upbeat, synthy melodies, it felt like Mitski was pulling the rug out from under you only to replace it with a pillow. Her emotional performance, somehow presenting as a carefully rehearsed act and an impulsive confession all at once, was an impactful end to the night.
Friday’s standout act for me was Spiritualized. It’s always a gamble to see a band that’s been around as long as they have (over 30 years), but Spiritualized quickly quelled any doubts about their abilities. They came ripping out of the gate with “Hey Jane”, a single from their 2012 album Sweet Heart Sweet Light, and never took a misstep for the next hour. Most of the material (five out of nine songs) they covered were from their two most recent albums, but that drew no complaints from the crowd, as those LPs channeled the same spirit and energy as the rest of the discography. The set ended with the closing track from Sweet Heart Sweet Light – “So Long You Pretty Thing”. The sun set as this song began, proving to be a magical experience.
Saturday started early with Chicago’s Jeff Parker and his band The New Breed. Jeff’s daughter, Ruby Parker, served as lead vocalist for the group – and killed it. They played a handful of cuts from Jeff’s recent releases, as well as a stellar cover of Bowie’s “Soul Love.” Later on in the day, danish art punkers Iceage blew me away. Halfway through the second day of a festival, I was getting pretty tired. Iceage’s set offered a much needed jolt of energy with singer Elias channeling Nick Cave on top of the band’s unrelenting grooves. They played mostly new material, which leans slower and moodier than the blistering hardcore punk they were known for in the early 2010’s, but they played one track from that period – which sent the crowd into a frenzy of moshpits and shouting.
I had a lot of fun on Sunday grooving to Erika de Casier, which was her first set at an American festival. While she wasn’t moving very much around the stage, her voice was pitch perfect, and her live percussionist made it even more exciting, despite an obscene use of chimes. The Roots headlined Sunday night, and capped the weekend off perfectly. The majority of their set consisted of covers – from Curtis Mayfield to 2Pac, they went all over the place. The set was consistently flowing, shifting, and always grooving, I don’t think Questlove stopped playing drums a single time. Everyone in Union Park was dancing for 90 minutes straight, even those who left early to beat the packed trains were strutting and singing their way to the exits.
Despite the weather, an undeniably joyful atmosphere permeated Union Park all weekend. It was great to be back, inspired by Pitchfork’s consistently vast range of music offerings. Chicago concert and festival goers are traditionally among the world’s most receptive and appreciative, but this weekend, their relationship with the artists reached a new plateau.
Highlights? Sure—plenty of them. Low. The National. The dynamics of Spiritualized. Mitski’s moving and movement-filled set—whose rare appearance we can’t take for granted. Jeff Tweedy, apparently a huge fan, joining Japanese Breakfast for “Jesus Etc.” Kaina, thrilled to be playing their hometown festival. Parquet Courts. Cate Le Bon’s Blue stage finale on Sunday. Toro Y Moi with their timeless set of cool grooves.
I was blown away by acts I’m calling the Three P’s on Sunday: from Peru, Puerto Rico, and Philly – Sofia Kourtesis, Xenia Rubinos, and The Roots, respectively. The latter’s virtuosic, career-spanning set, extrapolating well-worn hooks from “Jungle Boogie,” Soul Makossa,” and “Rockit,” keeping the crowd dancing ‘til the very end…
I’m still grinning as I recall Lucy Dacus Saturday evening, after requesting a show of hands, who pronounced to the crowd that “EVERYBODY HERE IS GAY! GREAT!!” The crowd roared! No place in the world I would have rather been.