Pitchfork Fest 2023 Review

Pitchfork Provides Portal to Sounds of Summer

Music festivals used to offer a wide range of musical experiences, presenting talent representing multiple genres and even eras; some already with a loyal following, as well as lesser known and overlooked artists seeking to make a strong impression on the uninitiated. In recent years, too many festivals have become less ambitious, catering to a public more interested in the flavors of the month and the distant past than the future. Thankfully, the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago’s Union Park continues to maintain a higher standard. This year’s impeccably curated weekend offered a number of longtime favorites as well as the thrill of exposure to acts that will henceforth be part of our lives/minds/hearts. Here’s some of our staff’s favorite moments from the weekend.

Alvvays performing on the first day of Pitchfork Fest ’23

Let’s go backwards, starting with two of Sunday’s highlights: the great Mdou Moctar, Tuareg guitar hero, singer & songwriter from Niger. His powerhouse 4-piece set a blistering, unrelenting pace. Reminiscent of the power of Billy Cobham’s drums driving the original Mahavishnu Orchestra and the telepathic group improv of Jack White’s live jams.  Quite an experience. And a new personal fave. 
Also worth noting is Koffee, a Jamaican singer/songwriter who won a 2020 Grammy for Best Reggae Album, becoming the first woman & youngest person to ever do so. Her set closed strong, with a stage full of dancers and a solid band inspiring the crowd to get totally involved.

Saturday’s rain delay led to an audience reboot, and two of the most eagerly awaited performances of the weekend. Both artists I’d never seen live – but whose recordings elevated my expectations. Big Thief completely blew me away, as I witnessed them connecting to and reaffirming the soul of America. Considerably more dynamics than I expected. Adrianne Lenker: a tour de force!
Standing through an earlier downpour to experience Weyes Blood was magical. An evening of earth(l)y and celestial delights. Truly remarkable.

Weyes Blood, by Neil Krug

Friday’s headliner was arguably the weekend’s most highly touted: The Smile is the scaled down combo comprised of the creative nucleus of Radiohead, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, with producer Nigel Goodrich collaborating on their 2022 debut LP. Those gents were joined by drummer Tom Skinner, though to my ears, Greenwood’s guitar and percussive bass, keyboards and synth soundings contributed more to the primal pace of this rhythm section. Talk about propulsion! The intricate instrumental interplay with Thom’s vocals – plus an occasional sax/bass clarinet player – filled the air with the essence of Radiohead, whose characteristic ethereal embellishments weren’t missed in this setting. Fulfilling and inspiring!

-Norm Winer

On Friday, Youth Lagoon’s set drew a surprisingly large crowd, filled with nostalgic souls. The soft, firm voice of Trevor Powers, the lead singer and songwriter, enthralled the audience as they began playing “Rabbit”, a highlight from this year’s Heaven is a Junkyard. The keyboard collided with casual bass tones and a steady drumbeat, captivating the crowd. The musicians showcased their talents, with the drummer switching to the guitar later on. “Prizefighter” resonated with deep bass, while “Deep Red Sea” enchanted with its synthesizer magic. Technical glitches don’t deter their spirit. The crowd swayed to the dainty tune of “Afternoon.” The night culminated with “Trapeze Artist” and fan favorite “17,” an emotional reflection on life’s challenges.

35 minutes before Alvvays started, eager fans gathered by the stage to secure a good vantage point. As the Canadian indie rockers started their set, the crowd instantly joined in singing along to their music. Lead singer Molly Rankin shined, showcasing impressive bass skills, while guitarist Alec O’Hanley matched the intensity. “After the Earthquake” kicked in, and the upbeat rhythm contrasted with the poignant lyrics, igniting the crowd’s enthusiastic response. The flashing lights added to the energetic ambiance. Skillful synthesizer use from Kerri MacLellan elevated the performance further. “Adult Diversion” fostered a joyful atmosphere, with everyone singing along and beaming with happiness. During “Baby,” Rankin’s clear, mesmerizing voice captivated Union park as the song built up to a powerful, emotive climax.
Palm performing Sunday afternoon at Pitchfork Fest ’23

Despite a weather-related cancellation on Saturday, Palm’s rescheduled performance early Sunday burst with an explosion of noise and overlapping beats. Their songs, filled with harmonizing vocals and unpredictable time signatures, captivated the crowd, who bobbed their heads in rhythmic delight. The band’s otherworldly and sonically discordant sound blended harmoniously, creating a mesmerizing experience. The intensity of Hugo Stanley’s drums and the beautiful vocals from guitarist/vocalist duo Eve Alpert and Kasra Kurt added to the allure. As they played their acclaimed songs like “Dog Milk” and “Composite,” the audience was entranced. Yet, a tinge of sadness filled the air, knowing it was the last time anyone would see Palm in Chicago – they’re currently on their final tour as a band. When the final song concluded, the crowd let out a deep sigh and was left with mixed emotions.

Despite the chaos from the lightning-ridden weather, Pitchfork was a delight this year, and from what was seen, the crowd was fully immersed, singing along to every song they knew, drinking and smoking, and overall having a wonderful time.

Sarah Panahi

Big Thief, by Noah Lenker

Two major highlights of the weekend for me happened on Saturday evening, as the sun was setting.

Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul, a duo from Belgium, make electro pop that is equal parts danceable and intelligent. After an extended weather delay, the crowd reacted so well to their upbeat, dancy vibe and Charlotte’s sarcastic yet ultimately grateful lyrics and commentary. The majority of their set consisted of music from their only release as a duo, 2022’s “Topical Dancer”, although they also performed a handful of tracks from past Charlotte Adigéry releases. Some highlights were the slow grooves of the Talking Heads-reference “Making Sense Stop” and the commentary on cat-calling in “It Hit Me”. The last song of the set, “Thank You”, started as Adigéry sarcastically thanking armchair critics for their two-faced “compliments” (“Oh, I prefer my first EP too!”), but morphed into a genuine giving of thanks to her fans, who spent the last 45 minutes dancing with her.

 After calming down from the dance-fest that was Charlotte Adigéry/Bolis Pupul, the crowd wandered over to the Green stage for Big Thief, Saturday night’s headliner. Big Thief went for a bare-bones approach on stage: no intense lights, like The Smile had the previous night, just the four members side by side on stage with simple white lights. The one thing to note of the group’s stage presence was bassist Max Oleartchik, who was inexplicably dressed as a mermaid…he even hopped back and forth between his upright and electric basses. Musically, the set was stellar. Both guitarists (Buck Meek and songwriter Adrianne Lenker) shined in their own ways, while the rhythm section of Oleartchik and drummer James Krivchenia held down the groove. Krivchenia especially was a delight to watch, his drumming being deceptively intricate. The set consisted mostly of cuts from 2022’s album “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You”, some highlights including “Simulation Swarm”, “Certainty”, and “Spud Infinity”, the latter of which featured a guest jaw harp appearance. 

-Carlton Cook

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