Back in the early part of the 21st century. The online magazine Pitchfork was hailed as the Rolling Stone of the new generation because it was a hot place to discover new music. Pitchfork focused on independent releases and was known for its idiosyncratic reviews. Much has changed since then, some of it certainly the result of its being sold to the mass media giant Conde Nast, home of The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Wired, and sundry other publications. Pitchfork has become more corporate and regularly sings the praises of popular musicians along with the more obscure acts. Identifying what makes Pitchfork distinctive from other sites has become somewhat impossible.
Pitchfork began hosting music festivals in Chicago’s Union Park back in 2005 and in its early years hosted such adventurous acts as Yoko Ono, Sonic Youth, Os Mutantes, and De La Soul. Again, that was then this is now. The most dramatic thing about this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival (July 19-21) was the weather. The line-up was somewhat tame and featured heritage bands such as R&B’s the Isley Brothers (celebrating the 60th anniversary of their first hit, “Shout”), legacy acts such as the Scottish Belle & Sebastian performing the entirety of their iconic 1996 album If You’re Feeling Sinister, a reunion of the ’90s English-French electropop group Stereolab, and a host of other mostly familiar faces. There were no “buzz bands” or new performers that wowed the crowd and created a commotion. That said, there was plenty of good music with a receptive audience determined to have a good time.
The show opened on Friday noon to 97-degree heat. It remained hot and balmy the whole day and during the afternoon of the next day until a thunderstorm broke loose around five o’clock. That caused the organizers to cancel the event for more than an hour. Attendees had to fend for themselves off the grounds in the rain and seek shelter wherever they could; uncertain if the show would continue later. The good news was that the clouds cleared and the storm had cooled off the temperature. The performances went on as scheduled (except for those scheduled during the delay, Kurt Vile and Amber Mark). Rain remained in the forecast and on Sunday, the festival grounds opened late because of lightning, and the first act (Dreezy) was cut. Rain threatened the rest of the day, but except for slight drizzles and mud, things went on as planned. The heat and the rain took a toll on the crowd who intrepidly supported the music just by being there.
The performers good-naturedly put up with the resultant technical difficulties. Rico Nasty, Sky Ferreira, Neneh Cherry, and others referred to the sound problems on stage and conquered them through sheer force of will. They came off as heroes fighting the good fight for live music. Audience members cheered them on despite the audio setbacks. This reveals the determination of those who go to fests to have a good time no matter what the drawbacks. No wonder there has been such a growth industry in rock fests in recent years.
Pitchfork is a corporate entity, and the food and drink prices reflected the affluence of the audience with the most expensive ticket prices peaking at $400. There was even a special lounge available for those who held Chase Sapphire credit cards. One was not allowed to bring one’s own refreshments to the festival and had to purchase items there.
There were a diversity of musical styles represented including hop-hop, pop, jazz, alternative rock, electronic, folk, and sui generis artists that really don’t fit into a single category like the Japanese pop/punk Chai, the Houston instrumental trio Khruangbin, the experimental London band Black Midi, and others. However, there was no blues or country rock, which is strange considering the host town of Chicago is known as the home of such acts.
In terms of home-field advantage, Windy City native Mavis Staples offered a musical history tour by mixing in past classics with her newer material. Other Second City performers included rappers Earl Sweatshirt’s and Vallee as well as the softer and more beautiful singer-songwriter sounds of Tasha. Each act elicited cries of love from supportive audience members.
The biggest names did attract the largest crowds. Sister act Haim played their hits and two acoustic Paula Cole numbers to an appreciative audience. Danielle Haim, in particular, was especially energetic on stage. She seemed intent on getting a rousing reaction. UK’s Charlie XCX performed with, as she said, “the arrogance of the 15th biggest pop star”. She sang and danced her way through her hits with the demeanor of a diva who never doubts her authority over her subjects while provocatively shaking her butt. Swedish dance-pop diva Robyn went the other way and got on her knees to woo the audience as part of her heavily choreographed, atmospheric set. Her white outfit in addition to the special lighting effects made her difficult to see, but this just further encouraged the crowd to look harder.
On the other hand, Snail Mail had the unenviable luck of having to play at the most distant stage during the period between Charlie XCX and Robyn’s performances on the main arenas. Those who made it out there discovered the power of music without distractions. Snail Mail rocked as if they were performing for friends and neighbors who shared the same passions. There was no glitter in the grit. Other notable acts included the Welsh Cate Le Bon, the snarling indie rock of Soccer Mommy, as well as less familiar acts such as the Cuban-French twin sisters Ibeyi and YouTube star Clario.
Ironically, it was the oldest musicians who seemed to have the greatest impact. Ronald Isley told stories about his band’s past hits dropping names like the Beatles and Bob Dylan as if they were old friends—and indeed, they were. Meanwhile, his brother Ernie played the electric guitar as if it was 1969, even strumming the chords to “Summer Breeze” with his teeth then behind his back ala his old housemate and band member Jimi Hendrix.
While Pitchfork Music Festival may not be a cutting edge music festival anymore, it shows that festivals will never die as long audiences and artists believe in the power of the music.