Pitchfork Festival Retrospective

Editor reminisces about summer music festival

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Phillip Brown

This past summer, I had the opportunity to represent the newspaper at Pitchfork Music Festival, a three-day celebration of all things indie music. Taking place in Chicago, the Festival is probably the biggest event of its kind in our little corner of the world, Midwestern America. While the weather was extreme and unpredictable, the experience itself was a memorable one, if not always the most comfortable.

It was my first big music festival. I’ve never been to Coachella or Bonnaroo. I don’t even go to that many gigs, although I’ve written about some very special ones for this section in the past, let alone an event of the magnitude of Pitchfork. I didn’t really know what to expect, and was a bit trepidatious after looking at the weather forecasts and going over the considerably long list of things that could go wrong in my head. But while the weather was not great, and a few things were checked off the list, I can say that the Festival was a great experience. As the first memory of its kind, it’ll probably be the measuring point for many musical experiences to come.

I arrived Thursday night in Chicago, caught a bit of sleep before the first day, and took it easy at my friend’s apartment in Logan square Friday morning. There weren’t really any acts I wanted to see in the early hours of the festival, so I lounged around until about 4:30, where we caught a bit of iLoveMakonnen’s set while waiting for Mac DeMarco. iLoveMakonnen, while derided by the friends I was with, wasn’t bad, although he teased his only memorable song, “Tuesday”, a bit too much.

DeMarco’s set was pure entertainment. The indie darling and “BBQ rock” impresario, seemingly constantly on the edge of super-stardom, played a chilled-out set to a comfortable crowd, his feel-good tunes and silly stage persona, backed up by some serious instrumentation, a perfect fit for the summer weather. Ever the indie rock populist, Mac surfed the crowd for a bit to the accompaniment of his backing band to top things off, and left us with a trademark twinkle in his eye.

Up next on the stage was CHVRCHES, and as we huddled as near the front as we could, we heard Panda Bear’s set drift over from the other side of the park. I had seen CHVRCHES last year in downtown Omaha, so I knew more or less what to expect. Still, I was disappointed to become violently sick and have to leave my prime location mere feet away from the Scottish trio, ending my first night early.

The memorable second day started off a little earlier, as we trekked to the park in time to hear Future Brown’s DJ set as we waited for Ex Hex at the Red stage. I had also seen Ex Hex last year at a gig in the city, and so when it began to suddenly rain torrentially, driving the girl group off stage and the audience stampeding to the train station, I wasn’t as disappointed as I could’ve been. The scenes of the park below as we reached the station were dramatic. A sodden mass of people, chaotically swirling about with the rain, shoving each other to get onto an already full bus, disrupting traffic, seemingly devoid for the soggy moment of all sense.

But twenty minutes later, we received the notification that the festival was going ahead, and, surveying our dripping clothing with a sense of quiet disillusionment, we headed back to the festival. And after an extremely short set from Ariel Pink, and a very predictable one from A$AP Ferg, I found myself queueing up for Future Islands, a band who I’ve been kicking myself for missing when they came through Omaha last year ever since discovering them. Their set was transcendent from the first notes. Frontman Sam Herring electrified the crowd, beating his chest and dancing like a madman, and singing, screaming his heart out to every song. Nothing could compete with this performance, but Sleater-Kinney were the next act, and they were duly impressive, closing out my night with remarkable presence and authority.

The one goal for my weekend was to catch Jamie XX’s set from as close as possible, so with that in mind, we camped out at Pitchfork’s Red stage for pretty much the entire afternoon on Sunday, catching about half of Viet Cong to start with, who were competent if not really my cup of tea. Freddie Gibbs came up next, and while I’d never been exposed to him before, his “real gangster” persona, charismatic stage presence, and blistering delivery quickly caught my attention. He was backed up by the legendary producer Madlib, and I spotted Future Islands’ Sam Herring backstage, head bobbing with the rest of us.

I forgot about Perfume Genius’ set, and while that’s a bit sad, it at least gave me an incredible spot for Jamie XX. While the wait for Jamie seemed interminable, at long last he came on stage, and began a beautiful set, that while more of a DJ set and less of a performance than I expected, was still a profoundly moving experience in a weekend full of them. Treating the audience to extended bits of the samples from the album tracks, Jamie kept the mood flowing, and the crowd responded enthusiastically. His sample of The Persuasions in I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times) reminded us all of what we were experiencing, and when the set was over, I felt the festival itself was done for me.

But there were a few more acts to go before the Good Times ended for good. Run the Jewels, another hip-hop group I hadn’t really listened to much, pounded through a set that included the likes of Zach De La Rocha and Gangsta Boo, drawing one of the biggest crowds of the weekend and making a big impression with the conscious rap lyrics coupled with heavy production and punctuated with riotous punchlines. Local hero Chance the Rapper ended the festival, and while his performance was good, it couldn’t really support the weight of hype and level of pageantry on his stage. Without a single studio album’s worth of songs to draw from, the set felt a bit thinly stretched when compared to previous acts. Still, the local crowd responded enthusiastically, and it was a fitting closer in many ways for the festival.

Pitchfork 2015 was a truly great experience, and one that’ll probably leave a deep impression on me. It was wonderful to see the Midwest put on this kind of show, and while Chicago is a bit different from Omaha, there are enough similarities to give me hope about Omaha’s chances of becoming a similar venue in the near future. The Maha Festival, which we covered earlier, is great proof of that. Until then, Pitchfork remains the fest to beat in the Midwest, and for this writer, will be tough to beat.

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