Our 4 Biggest Takeaways from 2017’s Pitchfork Music Festival
For whatever reason, time while on the grounds at Pitchfork Music Festival just seems to move faster. Before I knew it, the excitement and anxiousness I felt on Friday became a premature sense of nostalgia by Sunday afternoon. It was almost over already, and it seemed like I was only there for a day.
Here are our four biggest takeaways and thoughts about this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival.
1. The Headliners Were Worth The Money
For many, one of the most daunting elements to music festivals is the price; spending the money for a three-day pass (or two-day, four-day, etc.) can be hard to justify. Anyone who had a three-day pass to Pitchfork this year, however, you got your money’s worth on the headliners alone. LCD Soundsystem, A Tribe Called Quest, and Solange all brought incredible live shows to Chicago’s Union Park last weekend, each for their own reasons.
Friday – LCD Soundsystem
If you know me, you know my affection for LCD Soundsystem. I will do my best to stay unbiased, but let me say this: LCD Soundsystem’s show was stupendous on Friday night. Frontman James Murphy explained after around 4-5 songs that the band was a little banged up in their “old” age, with bad backs and Nancy Whang (keys, synths, vocals) reportedly was suffering from a knee injury. Their ailments became evident within the set, most notably in their lack of an actual set “break,” between “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down” and “Dance Yrself Clean”.
LCD’s set on Friday is everything a fan could hope for in their live set, fully embracing expectations and setting. Making sure the hits are in there to please casual festival fans – covered with staples “Someone Great”, “Dance Yrself Clean”, “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” and the new standard “All My Friends”. Tracks like “Yr City’s A Sucker” and “Movement” kept fans of their first LP moving.
But where this set really stood out was the Chicago debut of “Call the Police” and “american dream”, released earlier this year, the band’s first new (non-Christmas) songs in seven years. The group played the songs back-to-back at the midpoint of their set, and Murphy’s voice sounded incredible, particularly when hitting the drawn out note in “american dream” which touches the top of his range. The band places an emphasis on improvisation during their live sets, and the emphasis is clear in the ad-lib lyrics Murphy will throw into songs like “Yr City’s A Sucker” and “Dance Yrself Clean”. However, it was the guitar work from Al Doyle that really stood out, notably on “Home” which was the best performance I’ve heard of the song to date. Synths from Gavin Russom and Whang were both invigorating.
James Murphy may have implied the group were feeling their age, but on Friday they certainly didn’t sound it.
Saturday – A Tribe Called Quest
We don’t got no fuckin’ disco balls and shit
– Q-Tip, at the front end of A Tribe Called Quest’s headlining set on Saturday
Looking past the fact that this may or not be a dig at the previous night’s headliners and their choice of staging, Tribe’s set was nothing short of inspirational. The show bookending Saturday’s lineup – which featured some of the most animated crowds and performers of the weekend – was a fascinating way to close out the night, both sonically and emotionally.
Saturday’s show was the first full set ATCQ had played since the passing of founding member Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg, in March of last year. I was curious to see how the group would handle Phife’s integral verses in a live setting. The lineup is somewhat revamped: alongside Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad were previous Tribe cohorts Jarobi White and Consequence, who is also Q-Tip’s cousin.
While occasionally Jarobi, Tip, or Consequence would jump on the tail end of a line in Phife’s verses, for the most part the group would let the entire verse play without interruption. By the third song, the group had introduced Phife Dawg’s parts by simply placing a mic stand (set low to accommodate for his 5-foot stature) and shining a spotlight on it. Even knowing that this had been the set up on their television appearances, I still got goosebumps when I saw this with my own eyes and ears. At one point, a full Phife Dawg a capella verse played, leading into crowd favorite “Bonita Applebaum”.
Speaking of the crowd, Saturday’s attendees were possibly the weekend’s best; everywhere I went, nearly every person in eyesight was either dancing their ass off or showcasing their knowledge of every word to the song being played.
A Tribe Called Quest’s live show that night was just as touching as it was motivational. Throughout the set, Q-Tip led the crowd in chants of rebellion and solidarity. “WE THE PEOPLE! WE ARE EQUAL”, and the crowd followed suit. The track “We the People”, off of ATCQ’s 2016 album, was restarted multiple times, but we all ate it up. Q-Tip would enter the crowd and have people sing along throughout the encore, which also consisted of “Can I Kick It?” and “Award Tour”.
Through and through, the set delivered by Tribe on Saturday was perfect.
Sunday – Solange
By the time Solange hit the stage Sunday I was in full-on nostalgia mode, not quite believing that the weekend was basically done already. Luckily, Solange was just as nostalgic while performing on Sunday night.
Her nostalgia was far more expansive, obviously, and Solange’s incredibly artistic set was lined with glowing enthusiasm and graciousness from everyone on stage. Reminding me of Chance The Rapper’s set two years ago, Solange wanted to put on a show – a real show – at a festival which can lack in showmanship and stage setup from its headliners. Sunday’s performance solidified Solange as one of the top performers in the game right now. “Don’t Touch My Hair” stood out as one of the weekend’s single best performances; there was no Sampha, but his presence was more than made up for with the appearance of a full horn section, swarming the stage and adding necessary depth to the sound.
Solange’s smile could’ve been seen from the top of the John Hancock building miles away that night. She thanked her fans – both from day one and those who hopped on the bandwagon inbetween her latest album, A Seat At The Table, was released last year to rave reviews (including Pitchfork, who put the album at the top of their 2016 year-end list). It didn’t matter to Solange when you started listening, it just mattered that you were there at the very moment, watching her beautiful choreography (all done by Solange, herself) and hearing the notes she gracefully hit throughout the night.
2. Hip-Hop Won The Weekend
Pitchfork Fest’s 2017 lineup was riddled with amazing hip-hop acts. Outside of ATCQ on Saturday, high demand acts like Vince Staples and Danny Brown played Friday, while Chicago native Joey Purp and Kendrick Lamar’s Top Dawg labelmate Isaiah Rashad delivered worthy performances as well.
Vince Staples delivered an impressive set, fully stacked with songs from his stellar new album Big Fish Theory. Highlights included “Big Fish”, “Bagbak”, “Yeah Right”, “Rain Come Down”, and Summertime ’06 cuts “Lemme Know”, “Birds & Bees” and the now classic “Norf Norf”. “Ascension”, the song that Staples contributed to for the latest Gorillaz album, was a welcome addition to the setlist as well.
I’ve made it a point to tell everyone that will listen to never miss a Danny Brown show, and his set at Pitchfork on Friday did not disappoint. It was my first experience seeing Brown since his latest album Atrocity Exhibition dropped last year, and somehow the heavily experimental tracks translated even better to the live setting. Danny Brown is known for his swift vocal changes, swiftly going from his novel high-pitched voice to a punch-you-in-the fucking throat growl. Nothing gets me more hype than when DB makes this switch.
I’ve seen Brown 5 times now, and seeing him perform the throwback-styled “Grown Up” for the first time was a highlight of the weekend. The crowd didn’t miss a beat with the laid back vibe of the track, never losing their intensity nor their ambitious force.
Isaiah Rashad is Top Dawg Entertainment’s next star in waiting. Notable TDE signees include the mega-famous Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, and SZA, but Rashad’s flow and versatility will soon help him stand out amongst a crowded hip-hop scene. His verses are precise and rarely does Rashad waste a word. I wasn’t expecting a huge crowd for Rashad on Sunday, but to see the masses come out for Isaiah’s set that day brought a smile to his face multiple times. I’m sure the energetic movement the crowd showed to his songs didn’t hurt either.
We were also lucky enough to check out a couple of the events throughout Chicago that Pitchfork Fest provides. The city takes any and every opportunity to provide stuff to do after the festival clears out at 10pm each night. Virgin Hotels hosted DJ Sets/Performances each nights bringing in guests like Nancy Whang, Joey Purp, and Madlib to man the decks at their rooftop venue/bar Cerise. While the yet-to-open Ace Hotel near Union Park treated invited guests to a listening party for Vic Mensa’s upcoming album, The Autobiography, due out on July 28. Vic’s event was incredibly intimate, as he spoke to the meaning and inspiration for each song to a crowd of no more than 200 people. The album sounded incredible at full volume in the small space, and The Autobiography boasts enough hits to elevate Mensa to the next level, without lacking substance or passion that can disappear on more radio-friendly songs.
3. Club Shows Shine Through the Festival Setting
It can be a real buzzkill seeing bands at a festival who should be performing in an indoor setting. I can recall seeing Sigur Ros at Lollapalooza in 2012 and being the most let down I’ve ever been by a festival set. This year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, however, featured multiple outstanding performances from artists whom would normally perform at local venues like The Mid, Metro, The Empty Bottle, or any of the other smaller venues throughout Chicago.
Acts like Francis & The Lights, Vagabon, Nicolas Jaar, and Madlib were all sets I didn’t want to miss over the weekend, and all four of them made their stages feel like intimate settings.
Francis & The Lights‘ performance on Saturday was the most energetic set I had seen up until that point. He was eventually surpassed by headliners Tribe and Solange, but for an act slotted on the smallest stage at the festival, his commitment to vigor was more impressive. Francis was consistently flashing around the stage with his patented dance moves, and eventually the stage couldn’t hold him anymore, as he eventually took to climbing the rafters holding the stage up or a nearby tree that is usually hosting fans who want a better vantage point.
The crowd completely bought in to Francis’ energy, emphatically singing along to “Friends” midway through his set. There were rumors of Chance the Rapper showing up to Pitchfork for a guest spot during Francis’ set. But when the set came to a close with “May I Have This Dance”, Chance wasn’t on stage to join him for the song he is featured on. But it didn’t matter – as he sang Chance’s verses, Francis shined in the spotlight he rightfully earned with the performance he delivered Saturday afternoon.
Vagabon (the pseudonym of Lætitia Tamko) is quite possibly the best rock artist that not enough people are talking about. Her songs are resonant and visceral, delivered in a simple and modest form of rock music. Tamko reigned victorious over her 1pm slot on a hot Saturday afternoon. Looking back at it now, the scheduling seems like a crime against the people who weren’t lucky enough to see her. If you haven’t heard Vagabon’s latest album, Infinite Worlds, I suggest you remedy that immediately.
Nicolas Jaar was featured in a heavily desired time slot, serving as the “opener” to a nightly headliner on the neighboring stage. When The Avalanches cancelled on Sunday evening, it opened up an even larger desire for the electronic music many of that day’s guests were longing for. Jaar created an atmospheric soundtrack that could only be developed with intense precision behind the scenes. His set was a slow build: beginning intimate and close to the chest, but eventually becoming an immersive and flabbergasting experience, with the visuals on the screen behind Jaar matching the energy throughout. To call this a “set” discounts what he accomplished on Sunday: Jaar was intensely focused on the components of the music coming through the speakers, opening up a portal to his mind and giving an hour-long glimpse into the artist’s world to any of those lucky enough to witness it.
- Madlib’s set was a surprise pleasure. I expected to love the set – that wasn’t the surprising part – but the content was what I wasn’t anticipating. I envisioned him running through deep cuts from his Medicine Show series or any of his collaborations with J Dilla, MF Doom, or Freddie Gibbs, and while we all got that, there was an added bonus of hip-hop that’s currently dominating radio airwaves. Migos’ “T-Shirt”, Future’s “Mask Off” and others were all presented with a special Madlib-ian twist, leaving me wondering: why doesn’t Madlib just produce everything at this point?
- S U R V I V E’s set, although engrossing, deserved a better stage for its delivery. Much like the aforementioned Sigur Ros Lolla set of 2012, the performance became bogged down by the atmospheric noises not coming from the stage. A solid booking by Pitchfork Festival’s organizers, but their good intentions were no match for the inevitable noisiness the festival grounds produces.
- Another area where Pitchfork Music Festival exceeds any competition: the schedule can serve as a festival equivalent to a Spotify “Discover” playlist. Performances like Dawn Richard’s lively R&B, Mitski and Vagabon’s DIY indie rock, or Hamilton Leithauser and NE-HI’s throwback rock all likely won the hearts of new fans. But no matter where you go or what you see, you’re guaranteed to see some diehards front and center.
- Even if you have zero-to-little interest in a chunk of the festival’s schedule on any given day, it’s recommended you don’t miss any of it, or you’re likely going to miss out on a set like the one Jeff Rosenstock delivered on Saturday. Being heralded as “the stuff legends are made of,” missing Rosenstock’s set that day really has me kicking myself even days later.
4. Despite Its Flaws, Pitchfork Fest Gets It Right
There is no doubt Pitchfork Music Festival has its flaws. Each and every year, something goes wrong or contrary to plans, but each year the organizers think on their feet to adapt and remedy the situation to the best of their ability. A quick list of how Pitchfork improved over last year, or even how they adapted to day-by-day issues:
- On day one, if you were not lucky enough to show up at or around gate opening (12pm), you were likely stifled by an excruciating wait time to enter the festival. There was a confusing line structure, where 21+ patrons had the same number of entrance queues as 21-under patrons… guess which one was busier. By the second day, Pitchfork opened up a brand new entrance at the south end of the festival, helping alleviate this wait time immensely. As someone who has worked events even 1/10th of this size, let me tell you that organizing this on the fly is a feat.
- Yes, the Beverage Ticket system is still a pain. But this year, the beverage ticket booths all took credit/debit cards – something that seems like a no-brainer, and helped quiet complaints and lower ATM fees on your bank balance.
- One area I was most surprised with, was the Goose Island special release tent, which features special brews that are frankly tastier and higher ABV content than the standard 312, Pilsner, and IPA offerings throughout the grounds. The best part, is that in 2017, these tasty libations were the same price as any other beer you’d buy on the festival. You won’t find that at any other music fest, much less at any Chicago bar. Bravo, Goose Island.
- I did some “market research” on the food offerings… and by that, I mean I ate at the festival and compared it to local pub lunch deals. My average meal cost on the grounds was $8, and Leghorn’s chicken sandwich became a new favorite, followed closely by the empanada food truck tucked away by the Blue stage. Average cost of my comparable meals outside of the grounds: $13. Winner: Pitchfork Music Festival by a long shot.
- I heard minimal feedback to the +Plus feature that was added this year, so I’ll assume everything went smoothly back there – no news is good news on this front, but to be honest, I hope that next year this area is either cheaper or done away with all together. It’s too much like the rest of the massive festivals, and Pitchfork Music Festival is too good for that.
So that’s it! Another Pitchfork Music Festival in the books. We’re sad to see it go, as always, but it warms our heart each and every year we’re invited back. The festival has done nothing but gotten better every year, and we look forward to what next year brings.
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