With Chicago’s other marquee summer festival catering more to the area’s youth, Pitchfork Music Festival has established itself as an ideal event for those who care less about the festival experience and more about packing as much music into three days as possible.
Spread across three manageable stages and with no more than two artists ever overlapping, the festival only forces attendees into the occasional painful choice because the lineup curation is consistently first rate. 2018’s bill was heavy on homegrown talent (Saba, Noname, Ravyn Lenae, Kweku Collins) and diverse, with none of the filler indie bands that populate many other festival lineups.
Headliners Tame Impala and Fleet Foxes were safe choices, enabling the festival to bet big on Lauryn Hill as its closing act, a decision that was largely validated. As festivals have reached a near mind-numbing level of saturation, Pitchfork continues to put together a lineup and experience that feels locally-flavoured and singular.
Without further ado, here are the highlights from this year.
The weather was especially foreboding when Lucy Dacus’ main stage performance began at 2:30, and when she said she was “really afraid of getting electrified” it was both a joke and a justifiable concern. Still, Dacus found a pleasing dynamic mix akin to her recorded music and her band fed off of her cues well on tracks like 'Yours & Mine' and 'Addictions'.
The potential for weather catastrophe seemed to spur a set change for Dacus, who dropped 'I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore' surprisingly early on, but the closing rendition of 'Night Shift' showed off her elegiac voice beautifully. Dacus also won points for being a true Pitchfork Festival diehard. “I was here four years ago as a spectator, I saw Kendrick Lamar on this stage,” she said. “You made me feel like I’m supposed to be here.” She certainly proved that she belonged on Friday.
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Saba dropped a heart-wrenching and masterful album at the top of the year with 'Care For Me', and was clearly charged up to be performing much of its material in his hometown of Chicago for the first time. A tremendous writer and technician, Saba reeled off rapid fire flows without compromising the clarity of his delivery, even on double black diamond records like 'Logout' and 'Church/Liquor Store'.
But for all the excitement, Care For Me is a record about the death of Saba’s cousin, rapper John Walt, and it was impossible not to be moved by the 'Long Live John Walt' chant in the middle of the set or Saba’s performance of the honest, unflinching 'Busy'.
The crowd was ready to boil over for the entire set, and his encore performance of 'Westside Bound 3' was perhaps the festival’s best moment of unbridled mosh pit madness.
A hard-driving, live instrumentation-oriented set made Mount Kimbie’s appearance feel more like a new wave or post-punk gig than an evening electronic set. Kai Campos and Dominic Maker were absolutely locked in, burning through tracks like 'You Look Certain (I’m Not So Sure)' and 'Made To Stray' with such bristling urgency that it makes you want them to put out a full live record.
They might not have released new music since 2015’s 'Currents', but Tame Impala has such a deep roster of hits that their set still managed to feel fresh. A killer lightshow (made better by the damp, hazy atmosphere) and tightly EQ’d sound kept the band engaging to those of us in the back third of the crowd, but the overall volume of the set left something to be desired. At times, it felt like you were hearing 'The Less I Know The Better' and 'Let It Happen' from the festival down the road, not the one you were currently attending.
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Having seen Nilüfer Yanya’s New York debut—an endearing and sparse set in which she was accompanied solely by sax player Jazzi Bobbi, I was eager to see Yanya with a full band. The rounded out versions of 'Golden Cage' and 'Baby Luv' hit surprisingly hard, with the snares on the latter popping and giving the track a pleasing bounce, while the latter was imbued with a kind of throaty, punk brashness that suits the subject matter.
Few young artists blend their instrument and voice as well a Yanya, who can stretch her voice and bottom strings to fill in the low end of tracks, as she did on 'Small Crimes', while reaching into her upper register for the brewing storm that is 'Thanks 4 Nothing'. Though still something of a reserved presence in between songs, Yanya proved that her sound scales impressively well.
For a musician who writes quiet songs about being alone, there are few performers who take the stage with the confidence of Moses Sumney.
Fully in control of his prodigious vocal and instrumental talents, Sumney isn’t content to simply recreate the delicate lacework of strings and harmonies that make up his recorded music, expanding and deviating in thrilling ways. He adds extra notes to already staggering vocal runs and builds out the outros and intros of his tracks by playing with dynamics in ways that few artists can in front of large crowds. There’s also a swagger to his stage presence that would seem flippant if he wasn’t such a perfectionist.
After performing 'Make Out in My Car', he informs the crowd that he did a version with Sufjan Stevens and James Blake that is “basically a wet dream for you people.” In addition to performing the best tracks off Aromanticism, Sumney also tested out a new track, 'Rank And File', that is among his catchiest and most dynamic to date.
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Fresh off the announcement of his next project, Negro Swan, Blood Orange’s Devonté Hynes showed none of the rust typically associated with an artist in the depths of producing an album. His set was a perfect early evening energy boost, heavy on evocative imagery (including the video for Bow Wow and Ciara’s 'Like You' and clips of old OutKast interviews), excellent musicianship and a consistently danceable groove.
'Best To You' was enlivened by chugging piano chords from Hynes, while 'It Is What It Is' throbbed beneath its heavy percussion. While Hynes has worked with a starry list of guest vocalists from Empress Of to Caroline Polachek, his lead backup singer more than held her own, stealing the show with her rendition of the aching bridge on 'Best To You'.
Kelela took the closing slot on the smallest of Pitchfork’s three stages and made it hard to believe anyone was billed above her the entire weekend. Bathed in moody blue and purple light, the set design accented her music’s unique residence at the intersection of raw, intimate romance and technology-fuelled precision. She radiated confidence on the triumphant breakup anthem 'Frontline', and nailed the armour-piercing high notes of the vulnerable 'Take Me Apart'.
A bouncy, house-inspired take on 'Rewind' closed out the set with such propulsive energy it was almost a shame the crowd’s only remaining options were to call it an early night or sway along to 80 minutes of Fleet Foxes.
In what felt like something of a coronation, Evanston rapper-singer Kweku Collins was 2018’s breakout hometown star, a role previously played by Jamila Woods in 2017 and Twin Peaks in 2016. Collins, fresh off an intimate, sold-out set the night prior, revelled in every second of his time on the festival’s main stage.
“I see so many people I went to high school with,” he remarked to a giddy and knowledgeable crowd before cartwheeling through his impressive discography. He reeled off older hits like 'Lonely Lullabies' and 'Stupid Rose', while showcasing his singular singing voice, which is equally sweet and serrated. He also brought serious summer energy with the new single 'Sisko And Kasidy', featuring a boisterous guest turn from labelmate Ajani Jones. The track, humid, romantic, and a touch nostalgic, encapsulates the best of Collins and clearly had the crowd enthralled.
Also commendable: Kweku’s thoughtful comments on men in the crowd, in which he cautioned them to be aware of their space and the impact their presence could have on others.
Another young local star with serious chops, Ravyn Lenae’s eclectic R&B is unified by her stunning voice. She’s capable of delicate, lilting falsetto, powerhouse vibrato, and breathy, suggestive delivery all within the same musical phrase. Lenae shone in particular when performing tracks from Crush, her collaborative EP with The Internet’s Steve Lacy. '4 Leaf Clover' emerged as a delightful digital doo-wop track, with booming low-end bass and synths juxtaposed against Lenae’s airy vocals.
'The Night Song' was another highlight, as Lenae emphasized the track’s message of self-love and acceptance that’s tucked within its dusky, pre-game primed groove. Lenae has toured with SZA and has upcoming dates with Jorja Smith, but at Pitchfork she proved she’s already worthy of her own major headlining run.
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Coming off of strong performances from Collins and Lenae, there was a palpable buzz for fellow Chicagoan Noname when she took the stage in the late afternoon.
Noname, a razor sharp rhymer with more wit and insight than most TV writers’ rooms, has an understated delivery and nonchalant stage presence that were exacerbated by some unfortunate technical troubles. Her mic was consistently too quiet, and she seemed to have lost track of how long she had left on stage, which led to an awkward hiccup as she approached the finish line.
Still, she thrilled diehards with some new material off her upcoming 'Room 25', and ended a rocky set on a joyous note by bringing out Lenae, Saba, Smino, and Joseph Chilliams for what we could look back on in a few years as a monumental moment for Midwestern rap.
Rumours swirled all day that Hill’s lengthy soundcheck caused the opening gate delay, so in addition to perpetually ominous storm clouds the fear of turbulent Hill set also hung over Union Park. Hill emerged after a ‘90s-themed DJ set re-energized the crowd, and proved that she’s just as deft of a rapper as she was 20 years ago when 'The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill' was first released.
As a singer, she may even be stronger, ripping through tracks like 'Nothing Even Matters' and 'I Used To Love Him', capturing the latter’s message of resiliency beautifully. Unfortunately, Hill seemed to be out of sync with her band, frequently signalling them herself and often cutting bars short to look back and gesture exasperatedly.
It all came to a head during her closing soliloquy, in which she reflected on the legacy of 'Miseducation...' and the importance of younger generations to continue the fight of those who came before. During her speech, the keyboardist began plinking out the chords of 'Doo-Wop (That Thing)', letting some of the air out of what should have been an ebullient nightcap.
Still, Hill sounded splendid, and even if she lost one on the closer she won a lot more during her closing set.
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Words: Grant Rindner
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