The first day of Pitchfork’s 10th annual music festival started with brutal weather. Concertgoers at Union Park experienced temperatures above 90 degrees with a healthy haze of humidity. Though the extreme conditions persisted through the day, Friday’s lineup was full of impressive acts. From spaced-out punk to glitched, blippy electronic music, artists ran the gamut and beat the heat — for the most part.
Natalie Prass opened the Red Stage at 3:30 p.m. with silky pop jams. Her powder blue dress and eye-popping pick guard shimmered as she serenaded the modest crowd. The backing band offered tight support for her set — she gave off the vibe of Norah Jones but with a pop sensibility and a bit more style, like a hip crooner. With all the praise her latest album received, Prass has momentum on her side and may earn a higher spot on the line-up in a few years. Set highlights included "Violently" and "Why Don't You Believe In Me."
Jessica Pratt’s set was subdued and moody. Her folk didn’t match the energy of the growing crowd, but dedicated fans mobbed the front of the stage. ILoveMakonnen’s hype (provided by the promise of his breakout single “Tuesday”) drowned out Pratt’s haunting coo. His set was a gorgeous, terrible mess of bullhorns and hip-hop clichés. "I Don't Sell Molly No More" conjured as many laughs as hoots of affirmation. Enjoying ILoveMakonnen is similar to enjoying Lil B or Turquoise Jeep — the performance is earnest, the music is laughably bad, but you can’t deny the honest joy Makonnen Sheran exudes. When Sheran stopped the music to FaceTime his mom and show her his hollering fans, everybody loved Makonnen.
Audiences drifted away from ILoveMakonnen within seconds once Mac DeMarco took the festival by storm. DeMarco drew the largest crowd of the day at that point and delivered an energetic set. His playful demeanor, Nirvana t-shirt and trademark grin won people over instantly, and he milked every second of his hour. The band of goons chatted often between songs and got plenty of laughs, letting listeners know that the Red Hot Chili Peppers would be “playing next” and DeMarco didn’t “give a shit” if fans illegally downloaded his new record. "Chamber of Reflection," a Steely Dan cover and "Still Together" stood out in the slick setlist.
A welcome wall of clouds rolled over Union Park as DeMarco’s set came to a close. Panda Bear followed and cranked out a compelling sequence of electronic music. His transitions jarred and satisfied festivalgoers; ranging from quick blips to noisy explosions or classic synth builds. An oddball sense of timing and powerful vocals allowed his set to sustain energy. Iceage picked up Panda Bear’s noisier moments and ran them headlong into walls. The Danish post-punks resembled a slobbering beast onstage: their vocalist slurred each lyric and the guitar sounds pounded the audience. More than any other band, Iceage showed off an arrogance (equal parts charming and irritating) that carried on until their singer announced that the festival had “cut them off” and their set concluded.
Montreal’s Ought brought the most engaging performance of the evening. Sure, it’s just guitar music, but the band’s infectious energy and report put them on another level. Unconventional song structures, screwy, intelligent lyrics and a penchant for eccentric swaying earned Ought a riotous crowd. Even though the evening’s headliner, Wilco, started playing during their scheduled time, folks stuck around. Ought, perhaps as a gesture of thanks, closed with an ear-shattering thrash session that culminated in a perfect call-and-response chorus. Broken guitar strings scattered across the stage when the band said their last goodbyes.
Wilco concluded Day 1 strong with a smattering of hits and the entirety of their new album "Star Wars". Since they’re a Chicago mainstay, a hometown hero feel swept over the swooning crowd. Jeff Tweedy smiled and said, “It’s good to be home.” He immediately followed up with a sentiment that echoes the near-universal stereotype that Wilco is dad rock — Tweedy mentioned that waving glow sticks around is cool, until somebody gets hurt.
Day 2 of the fest began with the threat of intense heat. Friday was uncomfortable, but the one-two punch of humidity and temps rising into the '90s seemed unbearable. Instead, the Chicago skyline welcomed thunderous clouds and heavy rain. The festival closed for a short period around 4:00 p.m. and reopened in time for most acts to continue as scheduled. Thankfully for attendees, Saturday’s line-up offered an experience even better than the day before.
Our first stop of the day was at the Blue Stage for Nashville garage rock outfit, Bully. Their ‘90s grunge aesthetic and rousing tempos sounded crisp under the afternoon sun. Vocalist Alicia Bognanno’s signature howl cut through the air with power -- she led the band through a setlist of six-chord punk’n’roll tunes, each sounding grittier and catchier than the last. With her hair in her face and seafoam green guitar positioned directly in front of an amplifier, Bognanno closed out Bully’s set with the crunch of feedback. Highlights: "Sharktooth" and "Trash."
Future Brown took the Green Stage at 2:30 p.m. and put on a self-congratulatory show. There were 15 people onstage and only two of them operated the MacBook and soundboard -- the rest settled for taking photos with their phones or yelling to hype the next track. Brown’s trap beats and polished production stirred up a dance party for a while, though the crowd diminished as hip-hop convention after hip-hop convention bumped from the subwoofers. Ex Hex brandished badass rock hooks to save the day at Red Stage, but the storm came as soon as they settled into the performance. High winds and fat drops of rain pelted festivalgoers as Pitchfork evacuated Union Park. Everything reopened about half an hour after the inclement weather.
Unfortunately, Kurt Vile and the Violators had their set cut short because of a long soundcheck and general chaos after the storm. Vile’s powerful, rootsy guitar magic won the audience over and it was clear people would’ve enjoyed more. The sun came out after they left the Green Stage and Parquet Courts plugged in on the Red Stage nearby. Their sharp brand of self-aware punk made for one of this year’s most memorable performances. Parquet Courts churn out tunes that both flail and focus; eloquent lyricism and infectious riffs trip over themselves from section to section, somehow always landing on their feet. When the Brooklynites blasted through "Sunbathing Animal" and "Ducking & Dodging," the crowd exploded and even chanted the band’s name.
The New Pornographers lit up the festival with pitch-perfect harmonies and huge guitars. All of their songs, "Twin Cinema" in particular, provoked the audience to dance in the mud. Later, Shamir took the stage 50 minutes late and SOPHIE canceled on the festival. Future Islands pounced on the Red Stage on the other side of the park, peddling their wild combination of deathcore grunts and soulful singing. Their frontman, Samuel T. Herring, is a force of nature onstage. His dance moves and energy alone could’ve carried an entire set. Herring wailed, boogied and thrashed without resting, winning over everyone in attendance.
Headliners Sleater-Kinney boasted gymnastic guitar duets and enough power to fuel an Indy 500. The group played tracks from all over their discography, charming listeners with varying knowledge of the music. "Oh!" from 2002’s “One Beat” kicked the performance into a high gear that never downshifted. From Carrie Brownstein’s antics (which included a Hendrix-style backbend) to drummer Janet Weiss’ electrifying fills, Sleater-Kinney rocked the house. When they came on for an encore, Brownstein let the audience know that they were about to play "You're No Rock N Roll Fun," but that her memory of it was foggy. They had to restart the song, but it didn’t matter -- the crowd still erupted for the bop-y tune. "Little Babies" closed out the festival for the night, rocking us all to sleep and into the streets of Chicago.