Pitchforkfest 2016 Festival Journal

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This is an uncut version of the recaps that ran on Chicago Innerview.

Friday

A crackly, before-the-storm feeling was suspended in the humid air. Hordes of Chicagoans and travelers from further afield streamed in through the front gates, dropped off by Ubers and the Green Line, exploring the park before settling in clusters around the stages. Some munched on snacks from food stands with names like “Dia De Los Tamales” and “Big Delicious Planet.” A few swung their iPhones around in the air, trying to grab one last Pidgey on Pokemon Go before the music started. One of the emergency workers (trim, alert, her polo candy apple red against the lush earthtones of the park and concertgoers) whispered seriously into another’s ear, pointing to a couple who were billowing smoke as they headed to the red stage.
“It’s a cigarette.” her colleague said, dismissing her. “A hand rolled cigarette.” It started to drizzle, and a daydream and incense smell sort of smell wafted across the park as Car Seat Headrest took the stage.
“We’ve all had better times to die!” lead singer Will Toledo sang.

In defiance of the dreary weather, Whitney drew an unusually large crowd to the Blue Stage-audiences don’t generally get that big until later in the evening. When Twin Peaks finally took the Red, there was an almost audible sigh of relief. If there were a contest that ranked bands by how many people showed up in their T-shirts, TP might have won. Their hearty brand of throwback stoner rock was a beam of sunlight igniting the whole park for the duration of their set, keeping the storm comfortably at bay. On the same hand, if Union Park had a roof, Carley Rae Jepson would have torn it off-she effortlessly interwove her pop star persona with a more Pitchfork-friendly edge, and her song with Dev Hynes was incredible. Mick Jenkins’ set ended up starting a little late, but this was a minor hiccup (and, happily, one that gave many of us time to enjoy more Carley Rae). By the time heavy hitters like Broken Social Scene, Shamir and Beach House had their turn, it was clear that, sunshine or rain, Pitchforkfest was off to a stellar start. Their sets were predictably fantastic, but this year’s festival isn’t about the big names-it’s not underpinned by a Beck or a Wilco. Instead it’s about cult favorites blossoming into something more, their hardcore fans intermingling with the wanderers killing time between the shows.

Here’s to sunny skies on Saturday…

Saturday

The sun steadily fried the grass golden brown and legions of Pitchforkers glistened with sweat as they watched Circuit Des Yeux perform. At 1:45, Girl Band took the Red Stage in an electrical storm of frustration and confusion. The echo effects on their vocals were somewhat reminiscent of Smash-era Offspring as lead singer Dara Kiely strained for a sense of greatness (or maybe even just satisfaction of comfort) that felt just out of reach. “I don’t know what she wants!” he wailed, clutching his shirt, his face scrunched up and red. “I don’t know what she wants!” In a funny little nod to the festival’s diversity, the drumkit from the upcoming Brian Wilson set was visible in the background during all of this.

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Meanwhile, it was hard to tell whether RP Boo was really good at pulling people to the Blue Stage or if the crowd they drew was just trying to get a bit of shade.
“Can I have one?” a stoned-looking kid asked one of the beefy security guys forming the buffer between RP Boo and his fans. He pointed to the huge packages of bottled water lining the inside of the fence.
“Are you security?” the guard asked, knowing the answer. The kid shook his head. “Then no.” By the vendor tents, an artist was selling picket signs with messages like “Social Media Help Available-$100,000 a year, no references” and “Carley Rae Jepson Has Everything I’ve Ever Wanted”. They jutted over the crowd, wagging back and forth all afternoon. Back on the Red Stage, Girl Band finished strong, the roiling bassline underpinning their last song like a ready-to-blow volcano.

At 3:30 it was seventy five degrees in Union Park, but in the direct sunlight if felt much hotter. Digible Planets arrived with a welcome breeze, and within a few songs actually managed to get the usually stoic Pitchforkfest audience chanting “it’s good to be here!” Pretty impressive in and of itself, even more so considering that at least a third of us were suffering from sunstroke. (The festival organizers had posted some telltale symptoms of dehydration that on their Twitter page that read a bit like an angsty poem:

Thirst,
Sleepiness,
Rapid heartbeat,
Rapid breathing,
No tears when crying,
Fever)

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Saying that one has “commanding stage presence” is sort of a cop out-it’s one of those stock compliments music journalists sling when they don’t have anything interesting or substantial to say. But damnit, the second Savages’ Jehnny Beth stepped onto the Green Stage she owned the place. Within minutes she was soaked with sweat, flinging her hair out of her face and alternating between a wail and a whisper. There was one seriously fucking breathtaking moment when she waded out into the crowd to finish a song like some biblical prophet preaching among the people.

After that it was almost time for Blood Orange and hoo-boy were we on a roll. This set came with a short but sweet second helping of Carley Rae Jepson, and it got crazy whenever Dev Hynes got ahold of a guitar or spun around in circles like the needle of a compass dropped down the shaft of an iron mine. As the sun began to set, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys took the Red Stage. Wilson needed a little help on vocals here and there (he’s in his 70s) but it was still great to stand among the strollers and lawn chairs watching a Legend in motion. As he finished with classics like Barbara Ann and Surfin’ U.S.A., the festival’s attention was drawn to the upcoming Sufjan Stevens set on the Green Stage. Over at the Blue, things were about to get weird.

The trouble started when ANDERSON .Paak & the Free Nationals went late, cutting fifteen minutes into Holly Herndon’s timeslot. It’s pretty frustrating to see one artist step on another’s toes so blatantly, but in Anderson .Paak’s defense the crowd was whipped up into a pretty respectable frenzy. It must be tempting to play on when you’ve got the entire Blue Stage audience losing their collective shit, timeslot be damned. And anyway, it didn’t end up mattering.

About twenty minutes before her set was scheduled to end, Holly Herndon and her team started to set up. The Sufjan set was already well underway and could be heard easily from across the park since, at the moment, he was the only one playing. Then, just when it finally looked like we were almost ready to begin, technical difficulties.
“The computer is green-WTF.” Herndon wrote in a text document projected on the back of the stage. For another fifteen minutes Herndon and half a dozen desperate looking technicians scurried around looking haunted. With a sudden wrenching gurgle, a pink haired girl puked over the railing by the front of the stage, splattering greyish chunks all over one of the security guard’s backpacks. Her friends hoisted her into a standing position as the emergency workers in their red polos made their way over. The security guard whose backpack had been caught in the worst of it took pity and cracked one of the bottles of water to help her rehydrate.
“So that’s how you get the water.” said a half lidded man as he finished a cigarette.
“Lifehack.” said the woman in the crook of his arm, intercepting the last drag.
“Thank you so much for sticking with us through this!!!” Herndon wrote up on the screen.

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The crowd started to get restless and ornery, a select few hurling abuse up at the stage. This was pretty disappointing to hear. Yes, ideally we’d have all just gone to Sujfan Stevens and not ended up standing around in the dark watching a security guard swear and clean puke off his backpack with an impromptu squirt bottle (made, rather ingeniously, by stabbing a water bottle with a pocket knife and squeezing its base to create pressure). But Herndon’s equipment was not working, and Holly Herndon can’t play a show without that laptop any more than Sufjan Stevens can build a cold fusion reactor out of beer cans and cigarette butts. No one could have seen this problem coming, and Herndon and her team did all they could to fix it in time.

Unfortunately, time was limited.
“I’m sorry everyone-” Herndon wrote up on the screen. “We couldn’t get it to work and now we have to leave…” There were some shouts of anger, but they were drown out by decency.
“We still love you Holly!” one fan screamed. That sentiment was echoed on Twitter, where a few attendees (your humble narrator included) earned spots on the guest list for her Sunday night aftershow by showing their support.

These things happen. On to Sunday…

Sunday

In some ways, the day three morning slot is the worst place to be in a festival. It’s the time window in which hangovers are at their most severe on the day when it’ll be most difficult to pry even the most dedicated concertgoers out of bed before noon. And even if you do get them going in the A.M., it’s usually a few hours of Bloody Marys and cigarettes before they can actually be tottered out to the train and into Union Park. (This is what Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo will later jokingly refer to as “the brunch shift.”) So respect to Porches for managing to draw a decent crowd to the Red Stage at the small hour of 2 P.M.-it’s well deserved. As Sun Ra Arkestra took the Blue Stage and began to fill the festival air with their stardust-and-salvia blend of cosmic jazz, Pitchforkfest rubbed it’s eyes, wiped the toothpaste from the corners of its lips and caught its second wind, the finish line of FKA Twigs visible in the distance.

Kamasi Washington kept the momentum going on the Red Stage with the rich roar of a trombone and squealing sax. He even brought his dad up for a cover of Ray Noble’s Cherokee, and the way the wind kicked up just in time for the song’s finale’ was perfect, one of those one-in-a-million concert moments. Trees shook and swayed. Plastic cups scurried around our ankles and shivers ran up our spines. Akira Kurosawa was famous for using weather (rain, wind, smoke) to give his cinematography texture-this performance could have been a scene in one of his movies. The wind only grew stronger as Washington transitioned from Cherokee into The Magnificent Seven (incidentally a song named for a movie based on Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai”).

Was Holy Ghost!’s guitarist dressed as a Ghostbuster, or was that just your average everyday jumpsuit? This was never made one hundred percent clear. Still, their set was still pretty compelling, despite the fact that a butterfly stole the show and gave the festival its most blatantly Woodstocky moment by spending three full minutes lavishing attention on a blanketful of delighted twenty year old girls. To be fair it would be tough for any band to compete with that. It was pretty magical.

Holy Ghost!’s sound is beat driven in an LCD Soundsystem sort of way. They’re a little too funky and loose for that comparison to be perfect, but a few of their songs definitely had a sleazy appeal in line with that of Drunk Girls. They worked themselves into a finale’ worthy of a glitter cannon and then, tastefully, declined to use one. It was a little early in the day for all that, and anyway, it was almost time for Neon Indian.

Good gravy this set was incredible. Although it’s debatable whether Palomo is technically a “good” dancer he’s enthusiastic enough for it to not matter. (The most impressive moves of the set were definitely performed by the woman in the audience doing a Tai-Chi inspired dance with a full cup of beer balanced perfectly on her head.) He soundly topped Digible Planets accomplishment from the day before (getting everyone to chant “it’s great to be here”) by convincing the massive crowd he drew to do that back and forth hand-wavy thing usually only seen at concerts with far less trendy attendees. Even Palomo seemed surprised it worked.
“Thanks for sticking that out with me!” Palomo said at the end of the song. “Not every city will do that!” Hearing Deadbeat Summer back to back with Polish Girl for the closer was an absolute thrill-it seemed like it would be impossible to top. Then a miracle happened.

You can’t imagine the unbridled joy that overtook the entire park when Chance The Rapper got onstage with Jeremih. He only stayed for a few songs (No Problem and Angels) but the mere presence of the rising Chicago icon was enough to almost double the size of the crowd clustered around the Green Stage.

After that, things started winding down. Vendors were slashing prices on posters and t-shirts, trying to avoid shipping their inventory back to New York or L.A. or wherever they’d come from to sell bits of their soul for fifteen (then ten, then five) bucks a piece. The sun set. FKA Twigs took the stage, silhouetted against a backdrop of twisting hands and curling fingers. Watching was like weaving in and out of a dream. The tight, hypnotic choreography meshed perfectly with the tripped out music. As the set wrapped up, people began to steadily stream to the exits, thrilled, sad, exhausted, and maybe just a little relieved.

Epilogue

Later that night, Holly Herndon took the stage at Constellation in Roscoe Village. Her equipment was back online, and the shattered rhythms of her avant garde electronica were whipping the audience into a frenzy.
“This feels so much better!” she wrote in her text doc. “This morning we were all considering looking for another line of work… Seriously…”

In my drained, sunbleached state, I had what felt like a revelation. This was what it was all about. The true believers in the front in rapture and the wanderers in the back-wide eyed blank slates discovering something entirely different from anything they’ve ever heard before. Herndon took a sucking breath into the microphone, and it filled the room, amplified and warped and metallic like a message from another world. We are all so lucky I thought, dimly.

Then it ended and we all went home.

Thanks to Pitchfork for the pics

WillKosh

Writes primarily as a means of avoiding eye contact.