I’ve been going to Pitchfork Music Festival since 2016, but this year I finally had the chance to cover it as a young veggie. The festival features some of the best acts that you haven’t heard yet as well as legendary artists that have already solidified their place in music history. The people, the sounds, and the atmosphere always make for a unique festival experience, and this year was no different.
As fate would have it, my ambitious planning coupled with inclement weather resulted in a very late appearance at the first day of Pitchfork 2018. Though I did my best to scramble, asking friends and acquaintances to take notes and send me pictures, it was mostly all for naught. However, despite missing some of the lineup’s most notable acts (Saba, Syd, don’t make me go on), I was able to to catch the last two acts on Friday night, which were a welcome relief from a day of frustration and dismay.
Courtney Barnett’s set was a long exhale for me. Her sharp wit makes the depth of her music more accessible; like a terraced staircase, there is room to proceed along with places to rest along the way. Festivals are marathons, and there’s a reason why the big names go last. Fans braved wind and rain to inhabit this musical sunroom, and based on their enthusiastic appreciation it was worth the effort.
I would say that Tame Impala is like a gateway drug to psychedelic music, but that would be doing a disservice to their masterful technicality. Despite the success of Innerspeaker and Lonerism, the group pushed further with Currents, a project that features hints of universal appeal drenched in ambitious experimentation. The genre, after all, is naturally steeped in the unknownable, and the best of its proponents take what is comfortable and merge it with what is challenging. While I’ve been a fan for some time I had never before seen them live, and the set was every bit as energizing as the music has ever been.
I tried to make up for fashionable tardiness on Friday by getting to the festival early on Day 2. Zola Jesus was the first set I saw in earnest, partly because she had recently done a special performance at Assemble Sound, which turned out to be a great decision. The atmospheric music and jarring performative elements exemplified each other, resulting in an experience that was both soothing and exhilarating.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s set was the closest thing to Movement that occurred at the PMF, complete with live analog synthesizer manipulation layered with ambient vocal additions and further sculpted by psychedelic screenplay. Despite her modest stage presence, the music and the visuals made for an overall engaging set.
Moses Sumney was expectedly brilliant, carrying an aura of collected prowess wrapped in loose, dark clothing that gave every note an added significance. As the sun peaked in and out from behind a clouded sky, the crowd was left captivated by the work of an emotionally disciplined artist, revealing just enough while maintaining an intriguing level of mystery.
Sadly I had to miss Girlpool’s set (which received a generous reception from what I could tell) to get in the pit for Raphael Saadiq. I had done some research on this R&B legend for another piece earlier in the week, and I was grateful to have the chance to see him perform. His hard-earned comfort on stage was evident as he ran through his personal catalogue, and a long list of culturally significant collaborations that he’s done over the years. The whole time I was there, I couldn’t help but feel like I was witnessing something spectacular.
Blood Orange brought a different version of Sumney’s subdued evocation, with music that was romantic and tragic and delightful. Greeting the crowd with shades that were eventually removed, in tandem with an energy that built up and settled in ebbs and flows of intensity, the set was emotionally dextrous and consistently intriguing. He effortlessly captivated the crowd with his thoughtful selections and his playfully wordless communications with fans.
I was lucky to get a spot to shoot Kelela, and from the moment her collaborators graced the stage in preparation for her arrival, the multi-disciplinary experience that she’d worked so hard to create was on full display. Her presence was inviting yet powerfully self-assured, provoking excitement and awe from everybody in attendance. I couldn’t help but feel guilty about blocking the view of her fervent supporters, so I ended up leaving the pit early out of respect.
When I asked my friend what time she was getting to the festival on Sunday, she mentioned wanting to get there early to see Nnamdi Ogbonnaya. Though I’d never heard of him before I trusted her judgement, which ended up being a great decision. His set was loose and free, driven by impulsive energy and driving persistence, with the artist seamlessly changing between vocals and guitar. Early crowds are generally light and even slightly disengaged, but it was evident that those in attendance had made it a point to come see the performance, and after seeing it myself I understand why.
After spending a moment watching the raw and deliberate power of Irreversible Entanglements, I returned to the Red Stage to see Kweku Collins. Once again I was not overly familiar with the music, but the early parts of the lineup allowed me to explore without too many scheduling conflicts, so I figured why not. Little did I know that I would be seeing one of my favorite sets at the festival.
Kweku’s blend of hip hop and R&B was disarmingly genuine. He had the swagger of a rapper, the tenderness of a singer, and the spiritual inclinations of a reggae artist rolled into one, adorned with a custom jersey courtesy of The Stitchgawd (who styled several artists at the festival). I was enamored by this unexpected experience, and as I watched rows of fans and longtime acquaintances cheer every lyric, I could tell that Kweku’s success was built upon a foundation of authentic support.
I first saw Ravyn Lenae perform when she opened for Noname at El Club in Detroit, and I was so impressed by a young artist displaying so much potential. Her soulful sound and heartfelt lyrics (which touched on the dangers (and potentials) of internet love, for example) have resulted in a dedicated respect for her work, which was especially apparent as she performed for her hometown crowd. With her reputation preceding her like a walk-up song, the crowd erupted as she gracefully approached the mic, appropriately garnished with bright red feathers, welcoming her to her well-earned spot on this year’s lineup.
I always thought that Smino was from Chicago. Even if I hadn’t had that misconception, the crowd’s anticipation for his performance would have seemed appropriate for a local artist. When he first asserted that his roots were in St. Louis, Missouri I was surprised, but only for a brief moment before the show pulled me back into the moment. Similar to Collins, his confidence seemed consistent with what we expect of most rap artists, but his voice instead produced smooth harmonies that maintained aspects of hip hop delivery while expanding the presence of his message into the realm of R&B and beyond.
Chicago is known for being the birthplace of some incredible music, and Noname is a prime example. Her eyes flashed with bewilderment when she first entered the stage, witnessing masses of fans ecstatically celebrating her arrival, which is a testament to her gratitude for the opportunity. Her humility and talent speak for themselves, and when she respectfully asked the photographers to leave so that the fans up front could see, I was more than happy to oblige. Her tone meandered between playful and serious, much like her musical catalogue, and when she brought up Ravyn Lenae and other guests for a few songs I knew that we were all witnessing an artist in her moment. It was easily one of the best sets of the weekend.
DRAM’s rise to fame was an intriguing one; though he has made music for some time, the “Hotline Bling” controversy was partly responsible for his meteoric rise to the spotlight, but he has managed to turn that short-term boost into a long-term career in a way that many artists have not. His set was upbeat and full of gusto, riding on the strength of his voice and his way of working the crowd.
As I mentioned in the introduction, Pitchfork Music Festival’s appeal comes not only from their efforts to host the best of what’s new and exciting in music, but also from their ability to secure some of the biggest names in the industry. Tame Impala and Fleet Foxes of course, but when people asked me who was playing the festival, the most enthusiastic reactions came from mentioning the last two performers on Sunday.
I can’t claim to know all of Chaka Khan’s discography, but I knew I had to be there. I couldn’t help but think, longtime musicians must always face some of the most difficult aspects of the profession: How do you navigate the ups and downs of a career that spans decades? How does the nature of performing and creating work change as the times do? How do you stay relevant in an industry that changes on a daily basis, much less over many years?
While I know that Chaka and her team have definitely grappled with these impossible questions (she would not have been performing at the festival if they had not), I will say that her performance was not overshadowed by any of those complexities. The crowd was there for her, a collection of people from different generations and with different connections to her music, and they were all enamored by her presence. She performed with such grace and assurance, backed by musicians that knew her work inside and out, to an audience that felt lucky to be witnessing such a special set. I was certainly grateful for the opportunity, and despite not being able to recite the lyrics as many others were, I periodically had to set down my camera to simply take in the moment.
Lauryn Hill is more than just an icon in music. Her journey embodies so many themes that persist to this day: the continuing struggle for proper female representation in music, the potentials and dangers of music business, and perhaps most importantly, the ways in which a project, made by a person or group of people, can be relevant and meaningful to the experiences of so many. She is known for her uncompromising commitment to quality (dates on her current tour were cancelled a postponed due to “issues with production”), which has earned her a reputation that is not entirely positive. But would this be a different story if it was a man demanding that his work be represented properly? Isn’t it fair that a woman who has spent much of her career continuously working to earn things that she has long deserved carries a certain amount of disdain for the world of music? On her 25th Anniversary Tour of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, at Union Park in the city of Chicago, I witnessed an artist stake yet another claim for what is rightfully hers.
In her own words:
“It’s been a crazy ride, it’s been a beautiful ride…We are a part of the magnificent continuum…Life, God, the Universe, blessed this endeavor…Thank you for sharing this important moment with us. Thank you for your love. If this album touched your soul, the Universe gifted you this album. I was just the vehicle.”