Arriving at the fest on time for the last day of this year’s Pitchfork Festival seemed to be a problem for a lot of people. It seemed like everyone was running a little behind including the over crowded buses straining to get everyone to Union Park. Between that, and the increased security checks on the day, many attendees barely made it in the gates to see the first act of the day.
The honor went to Chicago’s own Tree, bringing his “Soul-Trap” to the Green Stage. A small, but highly interested crowd jammed as he explained that he’d come from a very bad place to this particularly good one and thanked Pitchfork for the opportunity. With live drumming and group of back up vocalists, his set was very well rounded. A few songs in he announced it was time to “Take ya’ll to church” or “Chuch” as it’s titled. Heavy beats and thickly spoken lyrics create a clear picture of where he is coming from. “Y’all happy to be alive?” he asked, before launching into an a capella intro to “Die” and had the crowd chanting along. A hot and hyped set, well worth turning up to Union Park early to see.
Over on the Blue Stage for Autre Ne Veut, four men dressed like Aaron Bros. employees and holding up artless frames, stood on stage, mimicking the cover for the newest album Anxiety. As the opening synths and and clicks from a drum machine came to life, the crowd cheered in anticipation. Emoting through the mic, front man Arthur Ashin, belted out one of his catchiest singles, “Play by Play.” It was clear from the onset that the female vocalist on stage and in charge of everything but Ashin’s vocals, proved a perfect counterpart grounding his higher pitch with her own similarly intense tone. On “Ego Free Sex Free,” growling into the mic over minimal clicks building to a bigger beat there was more than a fleeting resemblence to 80’s era George Michael. By this time in the set the air was thick with all kinds of smoke. Sunday definitely had a different crowd energy than the previous two days, owing most likely to the fact that it was the only day to sell out. Those in the center of the crowd danced and swayed as Ashin was nearly crying out the lyrics of the emotional “Promises,” gave it everything he had, singing with his whole body. The vibe seemed however to somehow not reach to the outer banks of the stage area, where people still talked and planned their day. Overall the set was a strong collection of sultry electro dance songs, yet the material had potential that was not totally realized in this setting.
Back on the Green Stage, rapper Killer Mike, who seemed to have the demeanor of a teddy bear, started his set with the raw and in your face rhymes of “Big Beast.” As streams of people rushed over he let everyone know what he was all about. “I don’t make dance music this is R.A.P., opposite of the sucker shit they play on T.V.”. After a few sweaty tracks Mike took a moment to make the stage a pulpit to preach his “Ghetto gospel,” expressing his distrust and disgust for the government, and encouraging Chicago to take care of each other. Then he brought out his perhaps hardest hitting and well known track, dedicating it to its namesake, “Reagan.” The crowd stood in awe with fists of solidarity in the air. Receiving rapturous roars from the crowd, Mike let everyone know that he had been a bit nervous before the set, not knowing how he’d be received. His voice began to crack as he spoke about activism and working as a community organizer. He acknowledged that there are a lot of people out there working hard to change the world, and challenged the crowd to “have sympathy and empathy for other people.” The mixture of the blazing rap tracks and sincere artist emotion created a great experience for a crowd that stayed throughout, despite the heat.
Dev Hynes’ newest project, Blood Orange, had soothing and sexy vocals, which were the centerpiece over a vibey guitar and a slow yet dancey beat. The crowd was fully dancing and singing along to many songs, including his short cover of fellow Pitchfork artist Sky Ferreira’s “Everything is Embarrassing” saying she was awesome and should not be missed. While Sky was already on my list for later in the day, I must be honest and say I really like the quality of Dev’s voice on the track and wish he’d continue on. Though I didn’t get to see the full set, what I did see was very impressive to be sure.
New York’s El-P on the Red Stage had drawn a decent sized crowd , but by no means the largest of the day. He introduced his second song by saying that there was a lot of talk about how sensitive this song was, even calling it his “most sensitive song ever,” and garnering a great albeit uncomfortable laugh from the ground as he began “The Full Retard.” Despite the questionable title, the track is definitely one of his most solid jams turning the crowd into a dirty, sweaty, party. A few songs in he paused momentarily saying that he felt like something was missing and that he wanted to start over by bringing out a friend. As “Bad to the Bone” played over the speakers, El-P reemerged with his rap cohort Killer Mike to exuberant cheers from the crowd who obviously knew what was in store. Calling it his “Fucking rap fantasy” while running through a handful of rowdy tracks from their brand new collaboration album, Run The Jewels. The two rap raconteurs played off of each other’s energy making for a highly memorable set.
In need of shade and some rest, I headed back over to the Blue Stage to catch the slower Waxahatchee. Unfortunately by this point in a mostly muggy day, even the shade of the trees offered little relief. As Katie Crutchfield, in her calico quilt dress, played through her stable of songs, I couldn’t help but zone out a bit. The fuzzy humming guitars and steady bass made for a somewhat one note sound to a lot of the songs. A few of the up tempo numbers stood out a bit more, but it was hard to spot a real highlight. Not to say that the set was not competent and worthwhile, but it was a bit of a let down from what seemed to be expected.
Sky Ferreira brought a bit more energy onto the Blue Stage. Opening with the electro pop beats of “Lost in My Bedroom,” she had her angst affectations of full display. With her red lips and short schoolgirl skirt she looked every bit the rebellious teenager which seemed somewhat incongruous to her sound. The crowd was excited and on their feet with a chunk of dedicated devotees down in front, and the rest were clamoring for a spot with a good enough view. “24 Hours” was up tempo and catchy, showcasing her strong throaty vocals. The amount of love she was getting from the audience down in front caused a pout to come to her face and a rush of tears to her eyes. For someone who says she never talks between songs, it seemed as though she couldn’t help but talk today even if it was to apologize for a vocal being weakened by her emotions. During the moody ballad “Ghost,” still wiping tears from her eyes, she began singing directly to a young fan with bleach blonde hair matching her own and singing back every lyric she sang to him. Picking the pace back up with “On Top,” backed up by a bunch of boys in black, she crouched down and hunched over and did her best to fend off feedback issues… “Mics do that!” Blood Orange vocalist Dev Hynes who had given her a shout out during his set earlier came out to duet on “Everything is Embarrassing.” The catchy and ever so angst dance jam was worth waiting for as the two sang face to face keeping the crowd going throughout. As they finished, Sky thanked the crowd once again and kicked everyone out to go see Lil’ B since she wasn’t able to do so herself.
Lil’ B, already sweaty and shirtless only a few songs into his set, was in full control of the crowd, whipping them up into a frenzy. He encouraged everyone to make new friends and refrain from fighting, saying this was beautiful time to bring everyone together, “We alive, America!” he yelled. After a bit of cloud cover and rain earlier in the day in seem Lil’ B brought the sun back and kept everyone blazing through the set finishing up with “Bitch I own swag,” prefacing those by saying that he respects everyone despite the curse words he might use. For Lil’ B I guess we can be ok with that!
Bringing the chilled out electro soul to a packed Green Stage, in shorts and trendy tortise shell glasses, Toro Y Moi was up next. Starting off with “Rose Quartz,” the audience seemed ready to dance. He then thanked Lil’ B, while he introduced his bandmates as R and Kelly, however that was about all he said throughout the set. A solid and straight through jam session varied from airy synths to more funky disco jams. Closing out with “Say That,” the somewhat looser vibe of the day took effect, with everyone around the Green Stage making the most of their last time to dance.
The next set however seemed to have absolutely everyone’s attention as the Red Stage and the field itself was a full as it could be all weekend, for the fierce and fun M.I.A.. Chanting her name before she even took the stage, the audience was ready. Dancing on stage in a gold tunic and bare feet, she joined a team of dancers. Despite some pretty bad feedback issues of the first few songs she was definitely able to bring the noise and energy with “XR2” & “Bucky Dun Gun.” It was all an immense cacophony of sonic intensity. Bells, whistles, horns, simulated gunshots, dancers, and lights all served to simultaneously amaze and overwhelm. Many in the massive crowd were inspired to dance in a more organic way to her pseudo tribal and multi-cultural rhythms. Large light installations that looked like ornate paper snowflakes early on, but more like a carnival show later on once it had been fully lit up, provided for a pleasant viewing experience despite more technical issues throughout the set.
As much as it pained me to pull away from everything happening during M.I.A, my disco heart was calling me over to the Blue Stage to check out a little bit of Glass Candy. They do however have the amazing ability to pull you right in to their synthy dance jams, creating a different kind of dance party. They definitely had a much smaller crowd than they deserved to have, but I was somehow glad to be able to run right up and get myself in the mix. Those of us that made it a point to show up for this one danced along to Ida No’s ecstatic screams and cooing vocals on “The Beat is Alive,” “Feeling Without Touching” and “Beatific Visions”. While the whole set would have been amazing, I was happy to have gotten at least a small sampling.
By the time I walked back over to place myself at the Green Stage for the main event, M.I.A. was still going strong finishing her epic set with mega hits “Galang,” “Paper Planes” and “Bad Girls.” “This is our fucking sound!” she declared before leaving the stage and leaving everyone spent.
Looking above to the sky, a noticeable clump of clouds coming from either side of the park seemed to collide over head, raising concerns of rain once again. A few soul classics started to play on the PA and as everyone in the fest took their spots we were notified that the show would start in R minus 2 minutes. A little lightning kicked off as the crowd counted down from ten in unison to herald the arrival of hometown favorite, R. Kelly. A full choir lined the stage and lasers shot out and blanketed the trees on the opposite end of Union Park with a plethora of colors. As everyone clapped, R. Kelly finally emerged to huge roars. Launching into “Ignition (Remix)” the party in the park began instantly with bodies bouncing all over the place and absolutely everyone singing along. While everyone was busy dropping it, a few rain drops made their way down from the clouds. Powering through “Fiesta,” R’s voice was deep and raw, and never once seemed out of tune. Dropping a little sample of Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights” everyone cheered and watched in awe as the light show intensified and an extra, but unexpected element came into play as now heavier rain drops sparkled in the beams of light, like magical multi colored crystals. The set continued throughout the night with selections from his entire catalog, stopping occasionally to freestyle about sweat towels and how the producers of the show asked him to refrain from doing anything “naughty” on stage. He did not comply, prompting one listener to state that he was just a little too raunchy as he sang the pretty literally sexual “Sex in the Kitchen.” As he rounded out the set with “Feeling on Yo Booty,” the crowd seemed to have thinned a little, but those who stayed were treated to a few chapters of “Trapped in the Closet” and the religious finale number, “I Believe I Can Fly” complete with the release of doves, albeit the fake balloon kind. It was a fun and interesting way to end a fest that is quintessentially Chicago and as you exited the venue it seemed half of the city was outside listening. For those who argued R Kelly might not have been the best of booking choices for the fest, after this performance, many would beg to differ.