The weather in Chicago the final week of the Red Bull Music Festival may have been overcast and frigid, but inside the Windy City’s favorite venues, the climate was entirely different. In fact, you could say it was worlds away because if there’s anything in which the month-long festival excels, it’s helping artists craft their artistic visions into their own little worlds where they set the rules for themselves.
That was the case for two of the shows I had the pleasure of attending in the lead-up to the festival’s finale at Pivot Gang’s John Walt Day concerts: Tierra Whack’s Whack Factory and Jamila Woods’ Legacy! Legacy! Unfolded. Both shows highlighted not only the festival’s commitment to craftsmanship, but also its support of female artists, both local to the festival’s historical environs and visiting from as far as North Philadelphia.
The benefits of an extended festival like Red Bull Music Fest Chicago are clear and stood out in sharp contrast to me after weeks of attending weekend festivals like Day N Vegas, Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival, and Adult Swim Festival. With individual concerts showcasing each artist’s individual vision, the artists were given more time to both light up the stage and invite fans into their respective projects, letting them play out their creative processes rather than packing them into scant, 15-minute sets amid dozens of other artists competing for space and attention.
It also gave them the opportunity to shine before established fans instead of trying to win over skeptical passerby. When I saw Tierra Whack at Adult Swim Festival, it was obvious that the audience’s lethargy bothered her. She spent much of her set facing away from them toward her DJ, seemingly miffed that the cartoon-loving crowd met her quirky enthusiasm and unicorn-themed ensemble (complete with her tightly-coiled bun piled high to resemble a horn) with as much confusion as welcome.
Not so in Chicago; despite her ostensible outsider status, Whack Factory packed the upper level of Concord Music Hall, a midsize concert venue that opened in 2013 to accommodate a wide variety of genres. The space was transformed into a surreal wonderland worthy of Whack’s dreamy, often bizarre aesthetic. Disembodied mannequin limbs jutted symmetrically from cranks and wheels surrounding the outspoken rapper, who wore what I can only describe as a glow-in-the-dark ghillie suit as she pranced across the stage.
— Adeshola Makinde (@adesholamakinde) November 27, 2019
Undaunted by her breathless recitations, the assembled Whack fans rapped along to every word, with all the expected pops in the setlist right where she wanted them when they recognized each of the off-kilter singles she sprinkled throughout the set, from “Mumbo Jumbo” and “Clones” to “Unemployed” and “Only Child.” Granted energy by the crowd’s enthusiasm, Tierra’s own excitement carried her right off the edge of the stage at one point, but even that literal slip-up couldn’t stop the fun. At the Whack Factory, Tierra churned out one thing: Fun.
By contrast, Jamila Woods’ showcase at The Geraghty might have seemed demure, but if anything, it was more deeply engrossing. Conceived as a multimedia liner notes of sorts for Woods’ critically hailed but somehow criminally overlooked album Legacy! Legacy!, Unfolded featured vibrant dance, fiery spoken word, and electric video clips projected on screens surrounding her circular stage, all employed in service of delving into the inspiration behind each of its songs.
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the ritual durag ~ i couldn’t get it out of my head that i wanted a floor length velvet/tulle durag for the show ~ constructed & brought to life by @simone.sullivan with custom beadwork by @jasminfire ~ jazzy also came up w the name! thank you @salsogroovy for pulling together the whole fit ✨ swipe for my original sketch ~ photos by @bradleyamurray & @thesupermaniak
Those songs, named for influential Black figures in art, literature, music, and political thought, already hum with ancient energy, like the revered ancestors Jamila evokes speaking through them. On stage, with an utterly dazzling band which included Social Experiment trumpeter Nico Segal (formerly known as Donnie Trumpet) and the most impressive do-rag I have ever seen in my life, the songs were magical and alive. Woods explained each track with a short introduction before launching into her impassioned deliveries, but she also filled the spaces between them with choreography, with loving Minnie Riperton covers, and with clips of Eartha Kitt denouncing the concept of compromising in romance.
It was her guest closer, though, who shook the house to its foundations, reciting a spoken word poem indicting the racial violence of America with a presence like a whirlwind. The presentation was exactly the sort of art that Kanye West seems to think he’s making; art that challenges, that instructs, that informs, and that, when needed, points a bloody finger at power to say, “No, you change.” That Jamila was given such a platform is no small wonder and only shows how many more like it are needed in these dire times. The day after her show was Thanksgiving; I was thankful that such spaces still exist, but in the spirit of the holiday, I would have loved to go back for seconds.
Uproxx was hosted for this story by Red Bull Music. However, Red Bull Music did not approve or review this piece. You can learn more about the Uproxx Press Trip policy here.