Chicago is a city overrun by music festivals. Around June, the options for multi-billed outdoor musical entertainment become almost limitless. There’s of course Lollapalooza, but you also have Riot Fest, Open Air, North Coast, Aaaah!, Mamby on the Beach, the Jazz Festival, the Blues Festival, the Taste of Chicago, and so on. That’s not even mentioning the various, smaller neighborhood events. Each one has its own distinct flavor and vibe; its own musical and demographic makeup that sets them apart from the others. You won’t see or hear the same things twice.
This last weekend was the music website Pitchfork’s own annual festival. Set in Union Park just outside of West Loop, P4k is decidedly more intimate than many of the other festivals that take place in the city. It’s generally laid back — you end up stepping over and around more than you fair share of attendees lounging on blankets in the grass — easy to navigate, and filled with chill people looking to either catch the next big thing back in the shady Blue Stage area, or more well-known commodities on the larger Green and Red stages set under the imposing gaze of the stately Sears (né Willis) Tower.
Every imaginable group of people is well-represented. Teens — though the ratio skews way less than you’re liable to see at say Lollapalooza. Ethereal hula hoopers. Hacky-sackers. Dads running down the Cubs’ chances this year. Twenty-something hipsters in ironic fashion wear (my favorite was the girl wearing a black Misfits tee with Beyonce’s name emblazoned over the top). Denizens of corporate America. Hippies. Seapunks. Drinkers. Smokers. Tokers. Midnight jokers.
On a personal level, I also really enjoy Pitchfork for the opportunity it presents to catch up with friends and peers in the music journalism community. It seems like almost half of the folks who write about music in some capacity converge on this one event each year. Someone I know called it summer camp for music writers, and that feels about right.
Pitchfork began in earnest for me with the arrival of Vince Staples late in the afternoon on Friday. A little backstory. Two years ago, I was riding the CTA into the festival, running late and in a full-blown panic that I was going to miss Vince’s set. His debut album, the sprawling and intense Summertime ’06 was far and away one of my favorite albums that dropped that year, and I was extremely eager to see him bring those songs to life. Then I checked Twitter and my heart sank. Thanks to some mix up with an airline, he wasn’t going to make it. Adding insult to injury, when I finally made it to the grounds that year, the skies opened and dropped buckets of water over everyone’s head reducing Kurt Vile’s set to a mere three-song cameo. It was the worst.
Even though I’d seen Vince a few times since that missed opportunity, Friday afternoon felt like redemption. It was also my first opportunity to hear material from his excellent second LP Big Fish Theory in the setting that it was tailor-made to be consumed in, and let me tell you, “Bagbak,” “745” and “Big Fish” knock live. Vince himself eschewed any onstage accoutrement or accompaniment. He didn’t even have a DJ. He was a lone guy in a black long sleeve doing his damndest to keep the attentions of the mass spread out below. In my book, he more than succeeded.
The crop of rap talent that the organizers booked for this year’s event was pretty tremendous. TDE stalwart Isaiah Rashad dazzled with an extremely nimble rendition of his “4r Da Squaw” and other cuts from The Sun’s Tirade. Kamaiyah brought funky ’90s vibes while airing out material off A Good Night In The Ghetto. The hometown kid Joey Purp got the crowd on its feet thanks to his infectious energy, clouds of confetti and a special Vic Mensa cameo. Not a single MC however, managed to surpass the superhuman display of intensity shown by Q-Tip during A Tribe Called Quest’s headlining set on Saturday night.
Because of a medical issue that forced the group to cancel a number of festival appearances in Europe this summer, Pitchfork turned out to be their first full live performance without founding member Phife Dawg, who died last year after a decade-long battle with diabetes. It was a bittersweet experience for myself, and many others out in that field who had long waited for the chance to catch Tribe in-person. I always imagined Phife would be there. In a certain sense he was. Though he was physically absent, his presence was felt.
Midway through, the three rappers, Tip, Consequence, and Jarobi all left the stage. DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammed pushed play on his computer and a recording of Phife’s voice came to life, rapping acapella to the song “Buggin’ Out.” An array of spotlights shone down on a single mic stand that had been left untouched and unused throughout the show. It was an overwhelming moment to say the least, and perfect tribute to their fallen friend.
However, Tribe didn’t come to Union park only to look back. They truly put the work in, and it’s a credit to their abilities as performers and music-makers that the songs from their latest album We Got It From Here… Thank You For Your Service fit in seamlessly with some of their most beloved material off classics like Midnight Marauders and The Low End Theory. Tip was a force to be reckoned with. Three songs in and he was dripping with sweat but he never let the heat get to him. By the time they left the stage with one of their newer singles “We The People,” echoing out across the city, it didn’t even occur to me that this was a group supposedly on their farewell jaunt. There’s still plenty of gas left in that tank.
Pitchfork wasn’t only about hip-hop of course. There were plenty of fantastic up-and-coming and established rock bands eager to make their mark as well. Pinegrove brought near-perfect alt-country/emo vibes to a jam-packed blue stage area. Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore came out strong with doom-laden guitar soundscapes and hilarious anecdotes: “Someone just said, get a haircut hippie,” he said. “The last time I heard that was at a Black Flag show in the ’80s.” Though they aren’t strictly a rock band, Friday headliners LCD Soundsystem got the people moving with an effervescent collection of ass-shaking grooves. “Dance Yrself Clean,” “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down,” and “All My Friends” have all reached anthem status by this point, and were received with wide smiles and waves of applause.
All things being equal, punk rock and ska enthusiast Jeff Rosenstock brought more raw ferocity and cheeky irreverence to his set of anyone I saw across all three days, which is no easy feat to pull off at two in the afternoon either. Amid raucous takes on some of the best material from his most recent album Worry, including of course, “Festival Song,” he made the eyebrow raising decision to reveal how much he was being paid to perform — $7,500 — then he threw a rather large Donald Trump piñata out in the crowd, which the audience to ripped to shreds, before ultimately joining them with saxophone in hand to shut the whole thing down. “Thanks to the person at Pitchfork who got fired by letting us play here,” he deadpanned.
More than a lot festivals, Pitchfork does an admirable job of booking women artists in prime slots. The lineup this year was filled with incredible female entertainers who made the most of their time in front of the masses. Mitski was a clear favorite, drawing the most densely packed crowd I saw all weekend to the blue stage. She seemed pretty affected by the generous outpouring of support. “I can’t thank you enough” she told the crowd who then turned her biggest “hit” “Your Best American Girl” into a full-blown singalong. PJ Harvey was also performing — as she’s been on tour this year — and as the woman standing next to me said while she plowed through tracks from The Hope Six Demolition Project while holding a saxophone, “She’s still just as f*cking weird.” It was a total compliment I assure you.
Solange was tasked with closing the entire thing down as the Sunday night headliner, and I promise you, she did not disappoint. Plenty of people turned in amazing performances over the weekend, but as far as I could tell, Solange was the only one who put on a show. Backed by an astonishingly tight live band that included live horns and a damn keytar player, she owned every inch of that stage and the entire park beyond it. From the choreography, the blocking, the stage design, the flow of the setlist, and her smooth, acrobatic vocals, everything just clicked. I don’t know if was the cool night air or her lithe voice, but I got actual goosebumps as soon as she began singing “Weary” from her stupendously great LP A Seat At The Table.
“You’ve all been along for my journey. It ain’t always pretty, acting a fool in public and sh*t,” she said near the end of her set, referencing the infamous elevator incident between herself, Jay-Z and her sister that took place a few years back. “I thank you so much for allowing me to live my truth through this album. There’s a lot of f*cking work to do. I just feel so grateful ya’ll are allowing me to do the work.”
By the time it all ended with an electrifying performance of “Don’t Touch My Hair” into “Rise (Outro),” Solange had turned into whirling tornado of limbs flailing all around, before dropping to the floor and gasping for breath. An appreciative crowd could only scream with encouragement. “I hope you leave a little better than you came,” Solange said after regaining her feet. Then she disappeared into the night.
As I made my way to the exits, I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation taking place behind me that I’ve been thinking about ever since. “That was so much better than Tribe or LCD,” a dude said to his friend. “Better than Beyonce,” the friend responded.