The Pitchfork Music Festival has always been a great place to see a few bands you love, a few bands you know, and a few bands you had no idea you would love. Pitchfork has been remarkably consistent at pointing to the future, giving new artists a platform, paying respects to past, and making room for their exemplars to do something spectacular—all in one weekend.
The first day of the fest was a study in contrasts. On the one hand, we saw Moses Sumney, Mick Jenkins, and Shamir, a trio of young African-American artists who defy easy categorization. Each delivered convincingly on the Blue Stage, and taken together, they presented a wide vista of music. On the other hand, there were the day’s headliners, Beach House and Broken Social Scene. The former specializes in loud lullabies and the other’s sound has seeped into so many oft-heard records (and television commercials) that their songs land on the ear like classic rock. On the Blue Stage you could look forward, but if you preferred comfort, the headliners were there for you too.
Smushed into the middle of that binary opposition were the heroes of the day: Twin Peaks and Carly Rae Jepsen (pictured above). Twin Peaks’ set was valedictory and deservedly so. They unleashed a spirited take on everyman rock & roll and won over anyone within earshot. Carly Rae Jepsen, meanwhile, may have been the biggest surprise of my weekend. I was indifferent to her sugary sing-along anthems (and boy did that crowd sing along), but I was utterly unable to take my eyes off her. Whatever star power may be, she has it in spades. Not only that, she genuinely seemed to be having the time of her life. Even those who tried to ignore her—the serious rockists staking out the perfect position for experiencing Broken Social Scene—were powerless to resist the siren song of “Call Me Maybe.” Bearded dudes all over the lawn, especially those with female companions, were bopping around for three and a half carefree minutes. It was an unforgettable sight.
Day two was a bit of a letdown. Few acts really got over with the crowd and made the most of their the opportunity. Not that Dev Hynes didn’t try. He showed up again and again all weekend, playing guitar for Carly Rae Jepsen, singing with Porches, and making his set with Blood Orange a display of his virtuosic talents. He sang and danced and played guitar and keyboards and led the band and moved the crowd. With the recent release of Freetown Sounds, his popularity with the public and critics alike is peaking. Only time will tell if his ambition is as big as his talent. Does he aspire to be a Prince-like, cross-cultural genius? Or would he be satisfied with the lot of Rick James?
Aside from Blood Orange, though, there were just a few times when the day felt elevated, when the right artist met with just the right crowd at just the right moment and made something memorable. It’s worth noting that persistent technical difficulties at the Blue Stage bruised the moods of artists and audiences alike all weekend long. Poor Holly Herndon who, closing out the day, was cursed with software crashes, leaving her just 15 minutes to piece together a sub-par version of her set from whatever pieces of sound she had lying around on her hard drive. And she wasn’t alone in her disappointment: revivals from Digable Planets and Super Furry Animals were pleasant, but failed to realize their potential; Jenny Hval and Royal Headache were off-putting (intentionally, in Hval’s case); and the less said about Brian Wilson and the fearful look in his eyes, the better.
On the upside, Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals further blurred the lines between hip-hop, R&B, and rock music. Paak raged like a punk and had the crowd bouncing. Sufjan Stevens made up for his music’s middle-of-the-road niceness with an extravagant display of color and light. Jlin and RP Boo furthered the tradition started by DJ Spinn and hosted full stages of footwork crews whose magic moves got the crowd worked up. The highlight of the day was the mid-afternoon set from the supremely charismatic Savages. Singer Jehnny Beth (pictured above), slick as ice in black dress pants and a jacket with the elbows ripped out, worked the crowd like no one else all weekend. With the tiniest gesture, she provoked the gaping fans to slam-dancing and crowd-surfing before she climbed off the stage and onto the barricade—in heels, no less—to further incite them to rebellion. The rest of the band was far more ferocious than I’d expected. There was a stark contrast between their cool demeanor (sunglasses, dress shirts, little sign of emotion) and the frenzied, thunderous sounds they created. Savages’ set was the first and last time I felt truly stirred that day.
I was most looking forward to Sunday, and the weekend ended on a high note. Festival closer FKA Twigs (pictured top) didn’t radiate the kind of extroverted, bombastic energy that we’ve seen from past headliners like LCD Soundsystem, Vampire Weekend, and TV on the Radio, but she wasn’t interested in that. What she did deliver was a phenomenally theatrical performance. From the moment she took the stage, her magnetic presence made it clear who owned the night. To gaze at her, to watch her work, was to submit to her vision. The costumes, the dancers, and the disquieting, pulsing sounds were always seductive and often unsettling. She was not a popular choice with the audience; most people left early to beat the crowds to the train, but I respect Pitchfork for shining their brightest spotlight on such a brave, inventive artist.
Much of the rest of Sunday was upbeat and ecstatic. The Sun Ra Arkestra’s energy belied their years. Porches’ set was notable for the sheer variety of moods it touched on. Holy Ghost was accompanied by a flash mob that enlisted the back half of the throng in some line dancing. Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo proved himself both the Hall and the Oates of his generation. The Hotelier made for the best sing-alongs of the weekend. Jeremih started way late, but made up for it by bringing out Chance the Rapper, albeit only very briefly. Thundercat’s spidery fingers, dancing all over his six-string-bass, produced the most fireworks of any single musician at the festival. And Miguel made a compelling case for himself as the pop star that everyone can agree on, with an inviting sexual edge, undeniable hooks, and an outsized personality that surely made converts of many.
The most euphoric performance of the day, though, came from Kamasi Washington (pictured above) and his group, The Next Step. I must have heard it a hundred times over the weekend, “I don’t really like jazz, but that guy’s amazing.” It’s bizarre to hear that said about a guy whose work is more a throwback than any sort of integration with mainstream trends. Suffice it to say, there was a lot of anticipation greeting Mr. Washington’s appearance on the Red Stage, and devotees rejoiced in one reward after another, all of them numbers from Washington’s triple album, The Epic. The set ended with vocalist Patrice Quinn taking the lead, and something amazing happened as Washington and The Next Step pushed “The Rhythm Changes” to ever more urgency. The band pushed themselves to the edge of control as Quinn scaled her words “I’m here” up the octaves, higher and higher, building to an almost unbearable catharsis. At that point, her voice broke, and the crowd jumped in, cheering louder and louder, clapping and hollering. Quinn took a breath and pushed further, reaching even higher for the last repetitions of her message. It was exactly the kind of rapture we’re chasing when we trek to Union Park in Chicago each July. Those moments are rarer in some years than others, but just one of them can make the whole festival worthwhile.
Pitchfork’s 2016 festival was, without question, a bit more subdued than the past few versions. It might simply be because it lacked a headliner who reflects the zeitgeist as thrillingly as Kendrick Lamar or Chance the Rapper. A certain electricity was missing from the atmosphere. But for those who consider themselves serious fans of serious music, Pitchfork’s offerings were as always, without question, bountiful.