Live | Pitchfork Music Festival – Union Park, Chicago

Photo: D.J. Fish

Friday, July 20, 2018

In a light drizzle, Chicago’s own The Curls took to the stage at 1 p.m. Blending everything from the B-52s to Frank Zappa, this five-piece band didn’t even notice the weather as they played with abandon. Throwing out the rulebook, they proved a serious band needn’t take things too seriously. Despite the momentary dampness, they played the rain away, proving that good music played with verve and charm will always win out.

Melkbelly, another Chicago band, came on stage amid cactus cutouts, thrashing and trashing as the rain started up again. But the rain was no match for this punky four-piece ensemble. Assaulting their instruments while focused around the beats of James Wetzel, guitarist Bart Winters and bassist Liam Winters savage their instruments, while Miranda Winters unleashed withering vocals and guitar. Their alien cutout provided a visual cue to match their otherworldly musical beings.

The quiet strengths of Lucy Dacus are not easy to pull off on the main stage. Armed with a black Fender electric guitar, she took to the main stage amidst the puddles joking, “I’m really afraid of getting electrified.” Slowly getting her footing and initially forgetting her lyrics to “The Shell,” confidence grew as her set went on, offering more melody to the proceedings than the previous bands.

The harp on stage signaled that Julie Byrne’s set would be a little different than the typical Pitchfork fare. Wearing a full-length, sleeveless, cream-colored dress, Byrne took to the stage as a police-car with siren blaring, passed by creating a pause before a single note had been played. Her music provided a sense of intimacy often lacking on festival stages. After a solo version of “Sleepwalker,” she was joined by harpist Mary McDonovan, Jake  Faulby on violin, and Eric Lipman on synthesizer. While her music is an unlikely choice for an urban, outdoor festival, she and her cohorts delivered a surprisingly intimate performance despite the festival culture.

Photo: D.J. Fish

The mid-afternoon time slot for Joshua Abrams’ Natural Information Society was not the perfect choice for the contemplative music they produce. Playing a three-string guimbri  (an instrument usually used for healing and trance ceremonies), Abrams provided the bedrock for his band mates to take off on flights of fancy. Their focus on the improvisational form may make them more difficult to digest, yet there was plenty for those interested in meditation and contemplation to chew on.

Union Park serves as a splitting point between the upper crust to the east and those trying to get out of the urban decay to the west. Open Mike Eagle’s experience on the streets of Chicago was fully explored during his set, as he and his laptop attempted to set the social consciousness straight. Conversing and entertaining, he casually took the crowd on a journey to a part of Chicago where you needed an armed guard to go the parking lot on Chicago Avenue that has now been transformed into a Bentley Repair Shop. Between songs there was also sage advice like, “never buy weed from a guy named Mortimer.” Priceless.

The cancellation of Earl Sweatshirt left just the opening that rapper Tierra Whack needed. Her Whack World cd cycled through 15 songs and videos in the space of a slender 15 minutes. Suffering from AD/HD, Whack World makes perfect sense. When she lets it be known, “nothing to fear, the queen is here,” one is forced to believe her. Almost as catchy is the call and response of “Crack kills, If it don’t get ya Whack will.”

The sound gods were not kind to Julien Baker. While the house mix didn’t seem to suffer, she was clearly an unhappy camper, at one point early on she was ready to slam her fender into the ground. Thankfully she didn’t. While much of the gentleness of her album was replaced with fuzz and fury, songs like Turn Out The Lightsproved none the worse for it.

With little fanfare Big Thief took the stage and made it their own. Beginning with songs from last year’s Capacity EP, Adrianne Lenker’s voice silkily shared tales of family, survival, and wistful lost love. The sylvan, tree-lined stage was the perfect platform for their set, with Lenker’s lengthy guitar solo at the end of Not driving the hushed crowd to erupt in cheers.

Four years is a lifetime for some artists. In the case of Courtney Barnett, the time has been well spent. As usual, dressed in black, her set had the authority it needed, even while she casually commanded the stage. Hooks came one after the other, while her guitar playing had decidedly caustic demeanor. The literate blood-letting of I’m Your Mother, Not Your BitchSmall Poppies, and Pedestrian At Best left the crowd clearly wanting more.

Photo: D.J. Fish

Even a brief rain couldn’t stop the trippy music and light show of Tame Impala. Firing off a geyser of confetti that ended up coming right back in their faces as the rain came down, they remained unphased. Lasers shot through the darkened sky while the band stomped through “Elephant.” The more R&B flavored tracks from 2015’s Currents washed over the crowd tied into Kevin Parker’s psychedelic onslaught. It was the kind of sonic onslaught that  made a perfect ending to somewhat soggy first day.

Saturday July 21, 2018

Saturday’s opening sets had their own share of surprises. Fronting a band with two Roland players, 6 and 12 string guitar players, three percussionists, and a backing singer, Paul Cherry played a set that focused on the warm and breezy. There was also a bit of a funky tinge to the proceedings. The biggest surprise came when the band broke into a winning arrangement of John Martyn’s Couldn’t Love You More. They are a band well worth watching.

Commanding the stage in the early afternoon, Atlanta’s Berhana had a special brand of soul on display. His love songs and odes to the ladies were a big hit, and he owned the stage. His smooth tone was especially good when he broke into a fabulous rendition of Wreckless Eric’s Whole Wide World. It was an incredible choice, but the single is well worth searching out.

The mid-afternoon set by Zola Jesus was something most people in the crowd hadn’t been expecting. Outfitted in blood red, with a red veil covering her knee-length raven locks, she was a woman possessed, prowling the stage like a feral animal. Nicole Hummel’s vocals at times possess a haunted Kate Bush quality, yet the music is much darker, electronics swirling about along with the guitar of Alex DeGroot and Michelle Woodward’s violin.  Fascinating and disturbing in equal measure.

Photo: D.J. Fish

With a small keyboard and a larger mixing board, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith transfixed the crowd on Saturday afternoon. Wearing a yellow tank top and a green skirt, with her hair pulled up, her synthesis of the electronic art form and vocals can sometimes be hard to take in during daylight hours. After a day full of clouds and drizzle, the sun shone down on her, almost as if she was willing it into existence. As the set went on the crowd warmed to her, especially when she went into the photo pit during the close of her show. Hers is an experimental art form, but one that had some exceptionally beautiful moments.

Nilufer Yanya definitely isn’t a name that most of this years attendees knew before she came on stage Saturday afternoon. One of the first real rock acts of the day, she came on stage with her electric guitar playing the first number solo before bringing on the rest of the band. With songs like Golden Cage and Thanks 4 Nothing, her act was a bit of a revelation. Playing with verve and passion she got the crowd up and moving, no small task.

Much was expected of Moses Sumney. Touted as an act going places, Sumney did not disappoint. His angelic falsetto was irresistible and playing a set with a full band instead of prerecorded tracks didn’t hurt either. Exposing his prowess on guitar and piano, while crafting beats slapping the palm of his hand on the microphone then looping it all together, his was a masterful performance, even walking off stage and down the aisle separating the main stage crowd, holding an audience member’s hand while singing. He transfixed the crowd with a kind of quiet power one usually doesn’t experience.

Haley Fohr of Circuit Des Yeux has an incredible vocal range and plays with passion. Brainshift which opened her set as well as her Reaching For Indigo CD in 2017, approached the microphone standing perfectly still with her arms extended, eyes closed, preparing to bring out something from deep inside herself. Featuring Cooper Crain and Rob Frye from Bitching Bajas, time and again the band matched her dynamics perfectly creating a cinematic accompaniment to her brand of beautiful, intense, and scary music.

There’s a magic to Girlpool that goes far beyond Cleo Tucker’s guitar and Harmony Tividad’s bass. The key seems to be the harmony between their voices and the simple, yet perfectly crafted guitar and bass playing. Creating a subtle balance between punk and relaxed indie rock, songs like 1, 2, 3 and Ideal World , theirs is brand of rock that works well on a somewhat soggy late Saturday afternoon.

Raphael Saadiq started off with a lengthy blues jam, showing his roots and giving the crowd a chance to see what  he’s been up to during the past seven years. He was also able to funk it up with Still RayGood Man and Go To Hell. Bringing out A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Sheed Muhammad really captured the crowd honoring J. Dilla by performing one of the late producer’s remixes. While all that was going on he had a visual artist painting an Afrocentric black and white mural.

Blood Orange, the brainchild of Dev Hynes, was clearly in control of the weather, with the drizzle ending as he walked on stage and began playing keyboard before the band entered. The crowd being all to ready to party, Dev and the band were only too happy to get them fired up. Dev’s guitar playing on Nappy Wonder, a song from his forthcoming album, Negro Swan was incendiary. Again and Again he showed himself to be an incredible performed deserving of a much wider audience. Tracks like Desiree and It Is What It Is went down especially well. Hopefully, Negro Swan will give Blood Orange the audience Hynes so richly deserves.

One of the hits of 2017 was the Grammy winning A Deeper Understanding by The War On Drugs. Leaning heavily on that album and 2014’s Lost In The Dream, Adam Granduciel let his music do the talking. They performed a tight set, heavy on the hits from In Chains, to the closing notes of Burning. Some interesting lighting effects were marred by the 6:30 time slot, yet the crowd loved it all.

With just two back up singers and a laptop DJ, Kelela could have had a hard time holding the interest of the crowd, but her set had been thought out and honed to a razor’s edge. Lush and virtuosic melodies illustrated her R&B roots, while the shared love between the performer and the crowd was all too obvious, telling the adoring audience at the end of her set, “If I weren’t brown I’d be blushing.

Closing out Day 2, Fleet Foxes upped their game considerably. Besides playing eight of the nine songs on Crack Up, they covered virtually every phase of their career. In addition to the full six-piece band, Robin Pecknold and friends brought out an array of quests to capture all the tonal shadings of the songs in their catalog. There were brass players, string sections, even bowed guitar. No stone was left unturned in translating Pecknold’s material to the stage, creating a performance worthy of its headlining slot.

Sunday 22, 2018

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya combines everything from punk to Zappa. He fronted a band with 3 horn players and 2 female backing singers, leading to a somewhat muddy mix that was exacerbated by the lack of a sound check, thanks in part to Lauryn Hill’s own sound check running until 1:15. Coming on stage with just a sound mixer, the entire band filtered on for the second song. His show featured a blend of hard rock, horns, as well as everything in between, including a final tune sounding almost classical.

Free jazzing up a storm, Irreversible Entanglements free jazz featuring Aquiles Navarro on trumpet, altoist Keir Neuringer, Luke Stewart’s bass playing, and Tcheser Holmes on drums, were relentless in their approach to musical exploration. Camae Ayewa also known as Moor Mother deliveed searing poetic narrations focused on the black experience. At times the vibe was almost Colin Stetson-ish, especially when Neuringer is playing a host and Navarro plays his trumpet without the mouthpiece.

In an age when liner notes have almost disappeared, Kweku Collins has created  a major name for himself both for his production work and his rhymes and raps. He handles the mainstage as if he had lived on it all his life. He used every inch of the stage wearing a Stupid Fucking Rose hockey shirt, enjoy every second in the spotlight. Bringing up fellow rapper Ajani Jones they perform his latest single, Sisko and Kasidy. The Evanston native enjoyed every minute in the spotlight, rewarded handsomely by a crowd that could not get enough of him.

A native of Wales, Kelly Lee Owens offers an approach to music that has incorporated both her background singing in choirs and her dabbling in bass and drums. Yet the music she produces is often quite ethereal. She defies easy categorization, combining prerecorded tracks from her mixing board with otherworldly vocals. Oleicand Arthur served as two examples of indefinable blending of electronics and vocals she produced on stage.

Photo: D.J. Fish

Another Chicagoan wise beyond her nineteen years, Ravyn Lenae worked the stage,and the crowd. Outfitted in silver, backed by a bassist, drummer and a guitarist/keyboardist, her smooth and sexy style was perfect for a crowd that was on her side every step of the way. Playing tracks from her two EPs, 2017’s MidnightMoonlight, and her current 2018 release Crush. Her hit Sticky may have pushed the limits of her vocal range but no one seemed to mind one bit. Ravyn also showed she is wise beyond her years, telling the crowd, “It’s ok to outgrow people who don’t share the vision.”

Born in St. Louis but rooted in Chicago, Smino recorded his 2017 debut album Blkswn on the city’s West Side. His band featured funk bass, twinkling keyboards from a 17-year-old, and two backup singers. The subject matter veered from weed to women, as Smino also dropped in wordless harmonies with his vocalists. He owned the stage, gliding around with fingers snapping. It went down easy, Smino didn’t even seem to make it look like work.

Photo: D.J. Fish

With Union Park filling up in anticipation of Lauryn Hill’s headlining performance, D.R.A.M. took to the stage. He didn’t disappoint the swelling crowd, performing the hits, including Broccoli while at least one man in the crowd waved his own broccoli stalk in hopes D.R.A.M. would acknowledge him. While that didn’t happen, D.R.A.M. was in top form enjoying the moment. He may well be one of the bravest performers in the world, going into the crowd without a phalanx of bodyguards during his set.

Legendary Chaka Kahn held an adoring crowd in the palm of her hand on Sunday evening. Starting off with This Is My Night she gave a performance that went down as smooth as silk. She may not have the moves of old, and instead of going over to featured soloists they came over to her, she did not disappoint. Playing Tell Me Something Good it was obvious that her vocal chops were still there. Chaka even paid tribute to Prince with her version I Feel For You. Going back in time for her encore, resurrecting Ain’t Nobody, it was obvious she had pleased her audience.

Photo: D.J. Fish

Notable for her late entrances, Lauryn Hill made the crowd wait, building the tension and anticipation. Her set started 15 minutes late, and it was another 23 minutes before she actually took to the stage after her DJ had warmed up the crowd with Nas’s If I Ruled The World with her vocals replacing the hook from Kurtis Blow’s original version. The DJ continued with numbers from DMX and Sister Nancy before Hill finally took to the stage in a wide brimmed Oakland A’s sun hat, plaid top and flowing white skirt.

Photo: D.J. Fish

Doing The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in its entirety made perfect sense considering that it’s the 20th anniversary of her only solo album. Reinterpreting virtually every song, Hill led her band, extending passages as she saw fit. Huge video screens were used to maximum effect, with Forgive Them Father featuring clips of the aftermath of Oscar Grant’s shooting and other examples of police brutality. Her passion was on complete display, illustrating why hip-hop will always remember Lauryn Hill.

Words by: Bob Fish

Photos: D.J. Fish