By July, the festival season is in full swing. While Chicago may not have the media hype of Coachella or the hipster cred of Bonnaroo, it does have its share of culturally relevant music events. Namely Lollapalooza, Pitchfork Music Festival, and Riot Fest. Where Lolla caters to the wash of mainstream relevance, Riot Fest enforces the finest of punk rock academics. This leaves Pitchfork to rely solely upon its lineup and delivery.
Fortunately, this is something Pitchfork has done quite well for thirteen consecutive years.
Taking place near Chicago’s West Side, (a part of the city more cultured than Coachella and Bonnaroo combined) Pitchfork Music Festival prides itself in showcasing the best of indie music as well as seasoned icons without pandering to mainstream appeal or Instagram. The idea of being able to see an artist such as Lucy Dacus on the same bill as This Is Not This Heat speaks volumes about how passionate Pitchfork’s curators are about diversity.
Speaking of curation, I had a very difficult time trying to decide on an angle to take my coverage. Should I put the focus on the headliners, Tame Impala, Fleet Foxes, and Lauryn Hill? The nearly 20 Chicago-based acts from Paul Cherry to Chaka Khan? Or maybe I could talk about how the female-to-male ratio makes Pitchfork the most woman-centric festival of 2018? All worthy topics and all completely applicable. Every thematic direction leads to the same outcome: Pitchfork has their finger firmly on the pulse of what makes indie music so interesting.
Discussing the positive experiences at Pitchfork 2018 outweigh the negatives by far. In fact, the only negative I can think of would be the weather.
Despite raining 75% of the time during all 3 days, not a single artist was delayed due to weather-related issues. In some cases, it may have even elevated a few performances. Hearing Julien Baker sing of heartache and perseverance just felt right standing in the midday dreariness of day 1. DRAM being humbled by the presence of the sun, giving it shout-outs during his set was both hilarious and endearing. Even the psychedelic laser show of Tame Impala seemed to utilize the rain as added atmosphere, making it one of the most visually striking performances I’ve ever seen at any show by any artist.
On the topic of local artists, the best of Hip-Hop, Funk, Bedroom-Pop, to Psychedelica, came from Chicago-based artists. Both The Curls and Paul Cherry represented the fun side of experimental pop opening Day 1 and Day 2 respectively. Chance The Rapper collaborator Saba emerged with the confidence and poise of a seasoned pro. Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society went full-on psychedelic by building upon what seemed to be one song for the entire duration of their set. But it was oddball Nnamdi Ogbonnaya who stole Day 3 (and arguably the festival) with his bizarre mixture of Noise, Hip-Hop, and Fraggle Rock. Definitely an artist I’ve slept on over the past few years and something I plan on rectifying asap.
Pitchfork isn’t all about the hipsters though. The upper tier artists brought their A-game throughout the weekend.
Raphael Saadiq gave Day 2 a lesson in soul with his guitar-based R&B and stands among my favorite sets of the festival. Japandroids closed out 2018’s Blue Stage with the festival’s sweatiest set of rock n’ roll. Reminding us Pitchfork isn’t afraid to clench fists and crowd surf. While not a huge fan of The War On Drugs’ highway-rock, I’d be lying if I wasn’t at least impressed by how tight they are as a live band. Surprisingly enough, Fleet Foxes even managed to keep me entertained with their brand of pretty alternative folk.
The clear winners of Pitchfork Music Festival 2018 were the women though. Every single female-lead act completely killed it on all accounts! Japanese Breakfast’s infectious shoegaze pop had me pogoing just like frontwoman Michelle Zauner. Nearly in tears along with the back-to-back combo of Big Thief and Julien Baker. Mesmerized by the goth theatrics of Zola Jesus, and what more could be said about the legendary Chaka Khan? Packed with soul, funk, and empowerment, Khan has solidified her place among music history’s most important artists!
Although I can’t speak for Pitchfork’s curators, I’m willing to bet the decision to feature so many female artists wasn’t a timely gimmick. It just so happens the most interesting indie artists are in fact, women.
The usually passive Courtney Barnett was ferocious and focused on giving patrons the biggest dose of rock n roll of the weekend. Before her last song, the audience was chanting her name, begging for at least one more. We all know encores are completely cliche and planned and even more so in a festival setting. Nevertheless, Barnett nonchalantly thanked us all before ripping into a supercharged version of “Pedestrian At Best” (which was anything but). Although not the first time Barnett has played the festival, I’m sure this will be the performance further spots will be judged upon.
Closing out Pitchfork Music Festival was Lauryn Hill performing her legendary album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. With Hill’s track record reaching near Morrissey levels of being late, I was worried if she’d even show up. But when she did (albeit a half hour late) it felt completely worth it. With Miseducation turning 20 this year, its a testament to how good the album really is for Hill to be able to still tour it and sell tickets. The themes on the record are just as relevant today as they were back in 1998. And much like Hill herself, it hasn’t aged a bit.
During a year of lackluster lineups, Pitchfork stands as a shining example of what proper curation can do for a festival.
With its 13th-year, Pitchfork has once again proven itself as one of the most interesting festivals in the US. Each and every aspect of the event exhibits everything I love about artistry. Be it culture, experimentation, community or just straight up having fun, Pitchfork Music Festival is a celebration of everything music. I can’t wait to see how they top this installment next year!
All photography by Will Fenwick
Aaron (or Coop) is a freelance writer, multi-instrumentalist and overall lover of all things music. As an advocate for indie record labels and artists, he is passionate about local scenes and do-it-yourself artistry. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, he’s not afraid to explain why.