For the first six and a half months of the year, I impatiently awaited Pitchfork 2019, captivated by a lineup that had me hooked at first glance. When the festival finally came to fruition in a sweltering weekend of exhilarating performances, it matched and even exceeded my high expectations. Here’s a recap of what might be the best iteration of the festival yet:
Arriving at the climax of this summer’s most dramatic heat wave, the opening day of the festival appropriately featured five scorching sets by an elite cadre of American rappers.
Early on Friday, MIKE’s booming voice conveyed deep confessional as his gorgeous beats surrounded the growing crowd in Chicago’s Union Park. Experiencing the power of songs from his recently released Tears of Joy was a perfect prelude to the heavy-hitting artists that followed.
Rico Nasty give the most fiery performance of the day from the comfort of the shaded Blue Stage, blowing the entire park away with an obscenely impressive level of energy, intensity, and confidence. As Kenny Beats’ handiwork hit the audience like bricks to the face, she often smiled between furious verses, reveling in the commotion she was creating with her pink hair flying in the warm breeze.
Not to be outdone in terms of vivid colors, local legend Valee walked onstage holding his tiny bright red chihuahua and proceeded to deliver a set of his uniquely minimalist flows over hard-hitting beats.
The 5:00 hour arrived with the hot sun still hanging heavily in the sky, bearing down on the massive crowd amassed to see Earl Sweatshirt perform a year after his cancelled Pitchfork appearance last year. Featuring tracks largely culled from his dense statement album Some Rap Songs, the rapt atmosphere caused by the abstracted soul samples and Earl’s stream-of-consciousness was so reverent that it felt like more like a spiritual gathering than a festival set.
Wrapping up Friday’s fantastic rap sets was the singular Pusha T, who gave the crowd all of the menacing classics they could have asked for.
Friday also featured performances by Soccer Mommy, who sounded better than ever with the addition of a fifth touring member, and locals Grapetooth, who rocked the hometown crowd with tireless energy.
Mavis Staples was the surprise of the night for me. The Chicago native gave an inspiring performance punctuated by gutsy, powerful anthems of change and moving calls for peace, including a resounding cover of the ‘60s classic “For What It’s Worth.”
Finally, headliners HAIM brightened the steamy night with blinding red lights and demonstrated the true power of pop as they opened with a thundering drum intro before settling into a set full of crowd favorites.
The city barely got a chance to cool off as Saturday started as another scorcher. However, the heat proved to be an apt setting for Lala Lala’s early set, which emphasized the festival’s Chicago roots. Singer-songwriter Lillie West assembled a veritable supergroup of luminaries from the local music scene, including Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, Sen Morimoto, and Kaina Castillo. West’s brutally confessional songwriting shone in the hot sun, establishing a high benchmark for the bigger names that followed her.
Next up was Ric Wilson, a rising Chicago artist who I’ve had the opportunity to see a number of times as an opener. Wilson looked elated to be playing to a huge hometown crowd, and his irrepressible joy was on display throughout his party-like set. In addition to Wilson’s soulful rap sound, he proved once again that he is one of the best artists in the world at working a crowd, employing a wide variety of chants and coordinated movements like a fun elementary school teacher.
Welsh singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon and her band sweated it out admirably while playing selections from her recent record Reward. Le Bon’s songs, especially album opener “Miami,” sounded remarkably close to the studio recordings, richly textured with prominent horns and her mysteriously enchanting voice.
I caught the beginning of Jay Som’s set, in which the band unveiled great new songs like “Superbike” from their upcoming record, before racing to see Parquet Courts’ set at the Green Stage.
By the time the band took the stage, huge fluffy clouds blanketed the sky and the temperature dipped, but the entire crowd, myself included, seemed to pay little mind to the change in weather. We were assembled to see the singular Parquet Courts, in my opinion the greatest actively touring American rock band.
Andrew Savage and Austin Brown led the band through a predictably solid set that spanned their discography from “Borrowed Time” (which still sounds great roughly 7 years on!) to a riveting rendition of “Total Football,” with Sean Yeaton deftly stabbing at his bass while shaking his head so vigorously that it looked to be made of rubber. Unfortunately, around the time of a hurried version of “Wide Awake,” a coming thunderstorm derailed a great set.
With a deep British voice relaying the message to evacuate over the loudspeakers, I swiftly made my way out of the park, but only got as far as the Ashland Green/Pink Line station before raindrops of biblical proportion started falling. Within 20 minutes or so, the rain stopped and the sun returned, but it took over an hour for the park to reopen.
Luckily, the gates reopened just in time for Stereolab to play their first major North American show in over a decade. An abridged set was not ideal for a band with songs that stretch longer than 10 minutes, but it was still pretty incredible to hear Laetitia Sadier sing “Miss Modular” in a rainbow dress while staring directly into the sun, her voice ringing out across the muddy field.
While I had highly anticipated Stereolab’s American return, I was even more overjoyed to experience Belle and Sebastian play one of the best albums of the ‘90s, their If You’re Feeling Sinister, in full. Stuart Murdoch led the band through the record with each song, especially the beautifully wide-eyed “Fox in the Snow,” unfolding as perfectly on stage as they did in a Glaswegian studio over 20 years ago.
To close out the day, I was wowed for the second time in two days by soul survivors, as Ronald Isley belted out songs he had made popular as much as 60 years ago with a vitality that only a man confident enough to wear an all white bejeweled t-shirt could have.
Backed by a fantastic band and a number of backup singers and dancers, the Isley Brothers played songs from their lengthy discography, from “Twist and Shout” to a picture-perfect “Footsteps in the Dark” (with the oddly enjoyable addition of Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day” verse by an impersonator).
Ronald’s younger brother Ernie also showed near-Hendrix level guitar theatrics close to the end of their set, made all the more fascinating by the fact that Hendrix himself was an Isleys sideman before his solo career took off. Their timeless classic “Shout” was the perfect way to end a long and eventful Saturday.
After a rainy start to Sunday, the festival experience reached a fever pitch with JPEGMAFIA’s maniacally intense, wildly unpredictable mid-afternoon set.
Whether jumping into the crowd, writhing on the ground, or wryly commenting on about Pitchfork’s corporate ownership, JPEGMAFIA gave an incendiary performance that livened up a grey afternoon, with a massive mosh pit raging in the crowd. Especially on standout tracks like “Baby I’m Bleeding,” his intensity was a sight to behold as he contorted his body in order to wring out every last bit of emotion.
Seeing Clairo, who is still most famous for starting her career as a bedroom pop artist in a literal sense, with a live band was interesting, but she had the tough job of immediately following JPEGMAFIA and almost an entire weekend of other exciting performances. Her staid demeanor was not particularly engaging, though she drew a huge turnout that indicated her rapid rise to fame.
Amen Dunes delivered a truly satisfying set, with Damon McMahon belting out biting lyrics on subtly anthemic songs from his fantastic 2018 record Freedom. He did particular justice to “Skipping School,” drawing out and chewing on the evocative lyrics.
Sunday also marked Whitney’s return to performing ahead of their upcoming record Forever Turned Around. The band sounded in prime form, playing both beloved cuts from their debut and some new songs.
At one point, they even brought out a huge cast of backup singers from Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison to all four members of CHAI. The most poignant moment of the day came with a delicate performance of their newest single “Valleys (My Love),” which sounded like a warm embrace that enveloped the entire crowd.
As soon as Charli XCX hit the stage, she made it clear that she was a pop star to be reckoned with rather than passively enjoyed. Performing everything from her ageless Icona Pop collaboration “I Love It” to new material, her presence filled up the stage amidst massive yellow cubes, thrilling her screaming fanbase across the field.
Snail Mail normally stands out as a stellar live act, but Lindsey Jordan was one of the few performers at this year’s festival who sounded a bit hesitant, perhaps worn out from the previous night’s show at Thalia Hall. Regardless, festival-goers loved when Jordan brought out Clairo to sing “Speaking Terms” together, yet another artist collaboration of the weekend that felt natural.
Rounding out three very full days of great performances was Robyn’s thrilling show. On an all white set bathed in bright purple light, she captivated the crowd with a striking display of dance pop. Thousands on the muddy grass, including Ric Wilson, made sure that “Dancing On My Own” was joyously inaccurate.
By the end of the night, Union Park was engulfed in an ebullient celebration that perfectly capped off to an amazing weekend of dynamic performances.