The late summer sun beat down on those lined to enter Pitchfork Music Festival 2021 for the first time in over two years, creating a sense of anticipation not only to enter the gates, but to find a spot to take shelter from the unusually warm September afternoon. As soon as the doors opened, any thoughts of discomfort were instantly curbed by the excitement of the return of the veteran indie festival.
During the three-day event, thousands of music lovers were reminded of the collective euphoria of what the pandemic made us sorely miss; the cathartic, joyous, and albeit at times frustratingly claustrophobic experience of witnessing your favorite band perform to a crowd of equally-dedicated fans. And with more band tees than designer outfits seen at the event coupled with headliners Phoebe Bridgers, St. Vincent, and Erykah Badu, music is still at the forefront of the Chicago festival.
Pitchfork Music Festival’s 15th iteration took place over the weekend of September 10-12. While the canceled 2020 event was slated to be their anniversary celebration, this year was still made special. The annual Chicago festival takes place in West Loop’s Union Park and has always made music their top priority. This year was no different, with the festival being one of the only in the country to achieve 50/50 gender equality in their lineup. For a band, playing at Pitchfork also acts as a caliber for “making it” in indie music, a sentiment early afternoon bands would often remark on stage. Bartees Strange was one of the first to perform on Saturday. Drawing an impressively-sized crowd for an early spot, Strange announced it had always been a dream of his to play the festival, a feeling echoed by Chicago’s Divino Niño, who noted they have aspired to take the stage at Pitchfork for over a decade.
The weekend was jam-packed with amazing performances from Faye Webster to Caroline Polachek. But Danny Brown’s Sunday set perfectly encapsulated the experience of returning to a large-scale festival after being confined in our homes for a year. He was, as we all were, a little rusty. Brown no doubt put on a wildly fun show, but because he hadn’t performed in a while, there were times he would stop his set after forgetting his lyrics. He joked that while his fans may have sat around in quarantine listening to his songs, if he had done the same we should “call a therapist.” Despite the hiccups, the rapper constantly reminded the crowd how overjoyed he was to be there, proving that enduring discomfort was well-worth the experience.
And endure discomfort we did. After being around no more than a handful of people at a time for over a year, getting thrown into a tightly-packed festival full of thousands was jarring to say the least. Excitement about the idea of spending three days seeing live music shrouded the reality that it would also mean three days of using unsightly portable bathrooms at a time when we’re constantly reminded of the danger of germs. The dirt-covered grounds of Union Park coupled with a constant stampede of people lent itself to an incessant layer of lingering brown dust, turning unlucky festival goers’ white t-shirts to a mousy brown in the matter of a few minutes. Lines for the water bottle refill stations were never less than 15 minutes long, and the small handful of food vendors providing meals to the entire festival created such long wait times that going without dinner was not uncommon.
But the lack of creature comforts aside, the dusty, sweltering, three-day event was a reminder of the connective power of live music — and proved what people will endure for the collective joy of seeing their favorite bands on stage. Though we were all covered in a thin layer of dirt, people still simultaneously thrashed to Dogleg and Oso Oso, danced to Kelly Lee Owens and Yaeji, swooned at Jamila Woods and Erykah Badu, cried at Big Thief and Waxhahatchee, and were stunned by rock goddesses St. Vincent and Kim Gordon.
Pitchfork’s lineup is curated with the website’s editorial coverage in mind, but although the publication now calls NYC its home, Pitchfork Music Festival is still a Chicago event through-and-through. Ubiquitous Chicago beer company Goose Island cleverly turned a CTA train car into a walk-up bar, and even collaborated with Faye Webster for a peach-flavored lager inspired by her Better Distractions album. Local radio station Chirp FM hosted a record fair inviting local record stores and indie labels to sell vinyl and merchandise. A section of the grounds were even dedicated to local and national poster artists, who displayed their concert poster art and conversed about their favorite indie bands.
The only mention of Pitchfork’s website itself came in the form of a tongue-in-cheek comment during St. Vincent’s show-stopping headlining performance inspired by the ‘70s, flower child world of her Daddy’s Home album. A ringing vintage phone was answered by St. Vincent on stage, who pretended she was talking to her sister on the other line. The singer said she was at Pitchfork, then held the phone up to the crowd so the other line could hear the shouts of thousands watching her set. St. Vincent told the crowd that their screams were only “rated a 6.7,” and could be better, a brazen nod to the score Pitchfork rated her Daddy’s Home album.
After a full weekend of incredible music, Erykah Badu’s magnificent voice serenaded Pitchfork Music Festival 2021 to a cathartic close. Once the doors had officially shut, attendees left Union Park exhausted but still buzzing from the experience. Now left with sore feet and a camera roll full of precious memories, fans are already anticipating next year’s event — as long as they remember to bring extra hand sanitizer.
Check out Uproxx’s full 2021 festival coverage here.