There’s no better annual music bacchanalia than Pitchfork Music Festival, which continues to expand every year from its original roots as a place to see a handful of randomly-assembled rock bands to a genre-diverse slice of What’s Going On in the general world of web-driven, critically-acclaimed music. Any time you can put R. Kelly and Belle and Sebastian on the same bill is a win for equal-opportunity listening and I had a blast floating around, catching as many acts as I could while soaking up the Midwestern mise-en-scene. It’s genuinely more fun every time I go; I imagine that within a decade I will eventually explode from a joyous heart attack. Anyway, here are some of the acts I saw and the thoughts I thought; hopefully, you will feel emboldened to plan a vacation for next summer.
Mutant Class – Bjork
Some of Bjork’s effects-heavy set, in which she utilized a weapon-grade light show and perfectly trained set of backup singers and dancers to maximize songs like “Army of Me” and “Cosmogony,” was cut off by the sudden appearance of a storm that eventually sent everyone scrambling for the safety of a bar or Chase bank where they could wait out the water. She was kind of dressed like Storm from the X-Men, so I’ll posit the theory that she unlocked a latent mutant gene and brought the ominous weather to properly set the scene. Her music does sound like a sentient rain cloud that’s eager to fight.
Chillest Vibes – Mac DeMarco
Being the dour, joyless shit I am, the first time I saw Mac DeMarco play I expressed a cynical appraisal of his wild rock n’ roller onstage shtick, saying that it wasn’t like we needed a new Wavves. But DeMarco’s stated in interview that it’s just a way to get the audience “loosey goosey” and eager to have a good time, which the rapt crowd was ready for as he zoomed through back porch guitar anthems like “The Stars Keep On Calling My Name” and “Ode to Viceroy,” the finest song ever written about disgusting Canadian cigarettes. DeMarco’s a goofball, but it’s impossible to keep a straight face unless you are a dour, joyless shit; he got everyone moving in spite of the heat, which is literally all you can ask for from a mid-afternoon festival act.
Best Nostalgia (Feelings Edition) – Belle and Sebastian
The rudest awakening came when I realized that asking anyone if they wanted to get up close for Belle and Sebastian was a pretty surefire way to get mocked for wanting to get up close for Belle and Sebastian. Did my friends have no feelings? Had they never felt fey and alit with shy wonder while gazing out the window as the dulcimer tones of “Seeing Other People” played at half-volume? “I’m not going to make fun of you for this,” said one friend upon hearing my intent to wait for the seminal Scots, “but yeah, I’m going to make fun of you for it.”
Enough with the “haters,” I declared; Pitchfork was born an indie rock festival, and it will die an indie rock festival. I did kind of get embarrassingly close without meaning to, but was thankfully joined by a friend whom earlier in the day I’d Inception’d with the possibility of feeling all the feelings. I guess B&S carry a rep as an impossibly sensitive band made for high school mixtapes, not an entirely unfair diagnosis. But over the course of their career, they’ve evolved their bedroom delicacy to bold stadium musculature, drawing out the tender moments of songs like “The Stars of Track and Field” and “Judy and the Dream of Horses”—yes, yes, that title—into big, festival-ready singalongs, while coasting on buoyant late period cuts like “I’m A Cuckoo” and “Another Sunny Day” for the heavy lifting as Stuart Murdoch bops and floats about the stage like a twee Freddie Mercury, somehow successfully bedecked in a fedora. The rain began to pour during “Piazza, New York Catcher,” a predictable storybook moment that nevertheless felt enervating. It wasn’t just a fun revival of one’s forlorn teenage self, but a power statement that indie’s not dead, man, indie’s not dead.
Fish in a Fucking Barrel – Solange
Solange’s sisterly status means she’ll never get the attention Beyonce does, but that pedigree also ensures her complete creative freedom in finding her niche. The watery, down-tempo vibe she found on late year’s True hit its mark on Saturday as she pulled out songs like “Losing You” and “Some Things Never Seem to Fucking Work” for a bouncy, backup dancer-driven evening romp, but it was the dusting off of her “Stillness is the Move” cover that had the hugest crossover appeal. Covering a popular song is the easiest way for an already beloved singer to get over at a festival, especially when it’s a band as universally right with this crowd as Dirty Projectors.
Slackest Jaws – Swans
I’ll let my friend tell it: “So we get up close for Swans, and they’re doing their thing [EDITOR’S NOTE: their “thing” being a relentless, swelling churn of orchestral doom noises to score anything from a funeral to a time lapse of the Grand Canyon being formed]. I turn around and just see this sea of indie bros—all of whom were clearly there to see Swans but just had no idea how deep it got—standing in slack-jawed, wide-eyed awe like someone had just punched them in the face and made them enjoy it.” Sometimes you just need to have your mind blown out by a wall of guitars turned up to 11, you know?
Most Poster Ready – Savages
Forgive a bit of inside baseball talk, but every year there are a few artists who seem to get a relentless push from out of nowhere, whether because of their art or their press connections. One of those acts this year are Savages, who walked straight out of a 1981 issue of NME and have their throttling post-punk revival act honed to its aesthetic apex, from the all-black outfits its members sported on a sweltering Saturday to the bass-heavy pummel they assaulted the crowd with during a lean set that drew heavily from their eponymous LP. Songs like “City’s Full” and “Husbands” are so tense, taut and perfectly delivered that you almost wish you still believed in bands like you did when you were a teenager.
Most Audacious – R. Kelly
There were a few things one could predict about R. Kelly’s festival-closing set: he was going to have a backup choir; he was going to play about one to two minutes of every song to get in as many as he could; half the crowd was going to look like they were at a religious revival. What I didn’t predict, though, is that he would open with “Ignition (Remix),” which might be his most popular song, period, and a clear sign that he felt no pressure to parcel out the hits. At most festivals, when an act plays their biggest song about half the crowd will vacate. You couldn’t have gotten the post-“Take Me Out” Franz Ferdinand crowd at last year’s Lollapalooza to stay if you handed out cocaine lollipops. But stay this crowd did, through a murderer’s row of burning ballads and slinky club jams reinterpreted as weekend denouement, which climaxed with the release of like 200 dove-shaped balloons that floated into the night. He closed with “I Believe I Can Fly,” which, yes. Most of the crowd left a little pregnant.
Ripped From Time – Merchandise
The members of Merchandise look like they’re stitched together from a lookbook of indie icons: the singer looks like Billy Corgan with a Morrissey haircut (and the moany vocals to match, too), and their guitarist was doing his best Mick Jones-in-a-billowy-blouse impersonation. But their best song is about time, so it makes sense they’d look and sound so familiar.
Best Rumor (Totally Implausible Class)
A writer I know successfully started a magical and highly fake Twitter rumor that the Obama daughters were backstage for Solange. I mean, no way.
Best Rumor (Totally Plausible Class)
There was also a minor rumor that a pair of Pitchfork critics got in a fistfight in the VIP area, which was eventually debunked as definitely fake but kind of believable, right? All of those strong opinions have to go somewhere when accented by free beer.
Deepest Love – Lil B
A deeply stupid running gag between my friends and I was the potential existence of #teenfork, a Pitchfork vertical for teens based on nothing but the fact that it’s really fun to say #teenfork. But the teens were out in full force on Sunday and never more present than for Lil B, whose presence they celebrated with pink bandanas and illicit signs. The Based God opened his set by freestyling over a Rihanna song; he ran through dadaist swag anthems like “Ellen Degeneres” and “Wonton Soup” to a totally hysteric reception, with skinny kids in streetwear doing their best cooking dances and turning the field into a giant joint circle. No joke: it was grey and pallid before he started, but the clouds parted one song in to shine a beaming ray of light on the stage. He filled the space in between with a bunch of call-and-response motivational koans, getting the thousands-deep crowd to yell things like “I LOVE YOU” and “I’M HAPPY TO BE ALIVE” with nary a trace of irony; he dropped a crescendoing cover of Drowning Pools’ “Bodies” (you know, the one that goes LET THE BODIES IN THE FLOOR x 1000); he closed with the deeply sincere “I Love You,” creating Based God believers out of all. As one friend of mine put it, “The Based God loves unconditionally and that’s a really reassuring thing.” Come, bask in His light.
Worst Innovation – Beach Balls
Sorry, y’all: I am a fucking dad because I couldn’t have been more annoyed with the constant presence of beach balls bouncing around during the weekend, turning every set into fucking Vietnam as the pleasant feeling of innocently swaying in a field was replaced by the wartime sensation of having to avoid each and every whizzing projectile. One ball fell near me and I elected to leave it on the ground like a total buzzkill. I was entirely annoyed when some dude picked it up to send it into the fray. Go away, balls; let me stand here in peace and not worry about getting bopped in the head.
Finest Guitars – Yo La Tengo
Some days all you want to do is stand underneath a baking sun as a breeze floats in and a righteous guitar solo kicks up for three to twenty-three minutes. Indie careerists Yo La Tengo didn’t play a ton of songs, but they shifted from understated, keyboard-driven gems like “Autumn Sweater” to electric freakouts like “Little Honda” and “Ohm,” off this year’s Fade. In my esoteric mind they’ve always been linked with Belle and Sebastian, but where B&S would keep a song rooted in restraint, YLT’s always been content to kick out a slow jam with a coarse guitar symphony, reminding the world that—say it with me, again!—indie’s not dead, man, indie’s not dead.
Most Supportive Parents – Waxahatchee
Confession: Despite loving Waxahatchee’s 2013 singer-songwriter master class, Cerulean Salt, I didn’t stay too long at her set because it wasn’t the right time or mood for emotionally piercing campfire music. (If you didn’t know all of the words, it wasn’t super engaging.) But I did meet Mom and Dads-a-hatchee by chance on the side stage when they overheard me asking a friend if he was going to stay; they posed for a photo and were obviously stoked to watch their daughter hold sway over a devout festival crowd, a pretty big contrast from the basement shows Katie Crutchfield’s made her bones touring through Waxahatchee’s gradual ascent to mainstream recognition. Whoever said parents don’t understand?
Just the Plain Coolest – Killer Mike
Whether it was shouting out his wife and grandmother or excitedly explaining how, because he doesn’t drink, he requested that the beer he helped create for this weekend (named after Run the Jewels, his recently-released collaborative album with El-P) smell like marijuana, Killer Mike was an affable counterpunch to an unexpectedly boiling Sunday. He held a church session, weaving through pointed, political jeremiads like “Reagan” and the rattling boom-bap of “Southern Fried” with conversational aplomb, keeping the mood light when it needed to be but closing with a thoughtful, acapella reminder to stay aware and stay alive. There was no one else this weekend you’d rather shoot the shit with.
Most Undermining – Blood Orange
There’s got to be some unspoken rule that you don’t cover a song that’s going to be played later that day, right? Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes wrote Sky Ferreira’s “Everything is Embarrassing,” so it wasn’t technically a cover—and yet, it didn’t feel entirely right to hear his languid, mournful take on what’s basically her best song. But hey, if your name is in the credits I suppose you can do whatever you want.
Photo by Aleia Murawski and Laura Bates.