Given the uncertainties of social life during the ongoing pandemic, it brings me great joy and relief to say that Pitchfork Festival 2021 went off, basically, without a hitch. Save for a late cancellation of Jay Electronica and a Danny Brown set going (hilariously) off the rails, the show went on almost exactly as planned. It was a beautiful weekend in Chicago, with clear skies and temperatures hovering around 80 degrees, a notable contrast to 2019’s Pitchfork Fest, where the heat was intense and a heavy storm nearly ruined an entire evening. This weekend, I arrived around 3pm each day, mostly failed to find free water in the press tent, and bopped around the three stages in Union Park.
Nascent Pitchfork Fest babes Dehd were really fucking cool, ceremoniously rocking out and bringing some much-appreciated youthful energy to the first day. I swung left and right to their fried-cowboy beat and felt ecstatic. This was a great primer for Philly’s Hop Along, who seemed in no way hampered by a touring hiatus. One of the most talented vocalists in rock music, lead singer Frances Quinlan got the crowd excited, especially during “Prior Things”. A back-to-back of “The Knock” and “Tibetan Pop Stars” closed out one of the weekend’s tightest sets.
After a brief trek south to the Blue Stage to check out The Soft Pink Truth, one of the more bizarre performances I’ve ever seen, my companions and I made our way back to Red to anticipate the return of The Fiery Furnaces. Their first show in a decade was uniformly excellent and very symmetrical-looking: two synth players (one of them Matt) and two drummers on either side of the stage, with a guitarist in the middle and Eleanor Friedberger singing front-and-center. Bridging the gap between pop and the experimental, they stuck to their guns, playing a set composed almost entirely of pre-2007 songs. Matt squiggled away on his Odyssey synth and we jammed to classics like “Benton Harbor Blues” and “Tropical Ice-Land”. I should also add that they had the trippiest background visuals this side of Flying Lotus, a sort of hallucinatory patchwork that progressively peeled off in funky three-dimensional shapes.
On their fourth night of a five-date mini-tour (their first shows since 2019), Animal Collective delivered the best set of the weekend. As Deakin’s stealie tee implied, they are my generation’s answer to the Grateful Dead. After 20 years, the group has mastered a psychedelic symbiosis. Despite a wealth of talent that overflows into worthy solo material, they have and remain best as a group. Like the Dead, their set featured extended jamming wherein one song morphed into the next, during an hour split evenly between new material and a range of career highlights. Some of the new material sounded as good as anything they’ve ever done, with Geologist grinding a hurdy-gurdy to gorgeous effect on “Car Keys”, the gloriously poppy “Prester John”, and Panda Bear providing some classic harmonies on the mellow “Soul Capturer”. To the delight of fans, they closed with Feels’ “The Purple Bottle”, as the sun set to a chorus of “awooo”s.
Heavy-hitters Big Thief delivered a pretty mellow set overall, with an early highlight in the as-yet-unreleased (but not new) “Spud Infinity”. Bandleaders Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek were beaming, clearly glad to be on stage again, and their chemistry shone brightest when they got close together and jammed out with their dueling guitars. Everyone got a kick out of “Not”, although the volume could have been a bit louder.
I really wanted to see Yaeji play “raingurl”, so I followed Roxette’s advice and listened to my heart, ditching Big Thief early. Though I had to wait around some minutes, I got my wish. Yaeji noted that it was her first time performing with dancers, and they were fantastic, twirling umbrellas during “raingurl” while I jumped up and down. I was pretty wiped out during Phoebe Bridgers, but she had a great band and played all her best songs.
On Saturday we hit the blue stage around 4 to set up for Faye Webster, only to find none other than footwork legend RP Boo crushing shit as a last-minute addition. As it turned out, Faye’s set was delayed an hour, and I found my schadenfreude in watching cutely-dressed, small, cute people retreat in overwhelmed confusion as banging 808s and a blaring sample of Juicy J repeating “I’M SO HIGH” filled the air. RP Boo and his amazing dancers brought some much-appreciated (by me, at least) energy to Saturday’s proceedings. Not the same vibe as getting all warm and fuzzy for Faye, but the fans would soon have their moment!
Faye Webster eventually hit the stage after a long soundcheck. This turned out to be worth every minute, because her band sounded impeccable. The pedal-steel guitar was delicious, and in the golden hour of late-summer, outside by the trees, the band slowed down time with “In a Good Way”. It was psychedelic, and the cute people finally got what they came for.
Georgia Anne Muldrow was an impressive one-woman show. What she lacked in stage design, she made up for in raw talent. Her hypnotic beats set a hell of a vibe as she sang “187 on a slavemaster!”
Then, back at Red, Angel Olsen took the stage in a dapper green suit and lit up the night with “All Mirrors”. Not forgetting her sense of humor, she trolled everyone by introducing a “new song” written “last night” in a burst of inspiration, only to bust out “Shut Up Kiss Me”. I will say that I was a bit disappointed she covered “Gloria” instead of “If You Leave” or “Forever Young” from her Aisles EP, but “Gloria” was the genesis of the project after all (“Gloria – she’s a hot mess!” she added afterward). The highlight of the set came when Sharon Van Etten came out to perform “Like I Used To” with Angel – the first concert performance of a classic-to-be.
It seems that Caroline Polachek woke up on Sunday and decided, “I need to be the hottest person at Pitchfork Fest”. Everything about her performance exuded confidence and cool, and she moved with the most extensive and impressive choreography I saw all weekend. Her singing, dancing, even her stage banter, it was all spot-on, proving that she is far from a newcomer. Joined by a drummer and guitarist, she played all the Pang highlights, her fabulous “Breathless” cover, and a couple new tracks. She is a superstar, and a brilliant one at that.
Thundercat was jazzier and less song-oriented than I expected, but I’m not complaining. Those expecting a more mellow or pop/R&B set might have been disappointed, but it was hard not to appreciate the technical skill on display. A track like “Tron Song” was spun out into a six-minute jam, sounding almost nothing like the original. And if anyone was thrown-off, he won them back with “Them Changes”.
Shortly thereafter, Danny Brown took the Green stage for what was the most unintentionally (and intentionally) hilarious set of the festival. After a rousing run of classic tracks, including XXX highlights like “Monopoly”, Danny began to forget much of his lyrics, explaining his rustiness with the tact of a master comedian. “I would’ve practiced during quarantine,” he said, “but I got an air fryer.”
Flying Lotus surprised me, coming in heavy with a mix of his Yasuke music. The first 20-or-so minutes of his set were dark, fast and loud. He was not fucking around. The pressure finally eased when he cued up the “More” instrumental with a Mac Miller verse in place of Anderson Paak’s. More tricks up his sleeve were revealed when he busted out a remix of Drake’s “Champagne Poetry” (it was awesome), before mellowing everyone out with “Do the Astral Plane”.
Erykah Badu was 25 minutes late, but you can’t really blame her. After all, it must take a while to get to Earth from whatever planet she inhabits. Videos of bees played to a massive crowd as her interplanetary band sat waiting, and then she herself appeared in that mf’n hat. And as effortlessly as Mz. Badu serenaded us with “On & On”, “Appletree” and “Soldier” (hell yeah), her band could turn on a dime and play “Mr. Telephone Man” or “Red Clay”. The proceedings were short and sweet: I guess they really had to shut shit down by 10, because she couldn’t stay for an encore. I was sad to reach the end of my weekend, but I couldn’t have asked for much more.