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Staged Haze Takes Pitchfork Music Festival 2021: Our Recap

September has been a busy month for Chicago: and it’s barely halfway over. At the beginning of the month over Labor Day weekend, Arc Festival made its debut in the same location as Pitchfork, promoted as “an immersive music event,” spanning two days. This past weekend, Pitchfork made its return to Union Park after a year off, this time taking place this month compared to its usual July weekend. This weekend, Riot Fest will return.

Pitchfork, which is arguably much smaller than the festival it tends to overlap with in terms of artist genres the most (Lollapalooza), seemed to be a bit more managed properly, considering that we’re still living through an ongoing pandemic. What struck me most about attending Lollapalooza about five weeks ago was the festival’s lax policies on checking vaccination records, compared to what I experienced over the weekend at Pitchfork.

At Lollapalooza, I simply showed a photocopy of my Vax Card, nobody asked for me to verify my identity by showing my ID. At Pitchfork, my ID had to match the name on the Vax Records and vice versa. You also had to have a negative covid test result for each 24 hours of the festival (if you were not vaccinated). Lollapalooza’s policy? You were required to show a negative test result within three days of each date you would be attending (if you went on Thursday, it needed to be negative by Monday, etc). More on this from our Lolla recap here.

While it was reported that Lollapalooza was not in fact a super spreader event, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who attended the festival herself, caught an immense amount of heat for holding the festival from Chicagoans. Only time will tell to see the results of Pitchfork being held: though it’s important to acknowledge the fact that I saw many more people actively wearing masks over this past weekend (I’d say 1 in 5?) Compared to the rarity of masked attendees back in Grant Park. Though masking isn’t 100% effective, and transmission is much lower outdoors, masking up does make a difference.

Though a lot of the festival lineup had to be changed due to its 2020 event being canceled, approximately 20 artists from the 2020 billing ended up performing in 2021: Phoebe Bridgers was bumped to headlining status (she was booked 4th on Sunday for the 2020 edition), and Run The Jewels landed on Riot Fest’s 2021 lineup after previously booked as Saturday’s headliner for Pitchfork 2020. It was also the festival’s first year ever having three female-identifying artists as headliners, with performances from Bridgers, St. Vincent, and Erykah Badu.

Check out our recap of the weekend below.

Like I mentioned in our pre-fest coverage, Pitchfork always does a fantastic job of booking local acts, and this year was no exception. Chicago-based band Dehd was the first act I saw of the weekend, and it was evident that they’ve also garnered a dedicated, (assumingly) local fanbase, because their crowd was fairly large for only the third performance of the day.

Dehd’s 45-minute set was energetic, rambunctious, and fun: getting the crowd moving despite the growing heat and dust starting to already circulate the air only barely two hours into the festival weekend. Band members Emily Kempf, Jason Balla, and Eric McGrady all had an easygoing presence about them, despite clearly being experienced performers, mastering the skills of commanding the audience’s attention without being too gimmicky. My personal favorite moment? Kempt (who I’ve been told via numerous Instagram DMs is also a skilled tattoo artist), asking the audience to shout their horoscope on “3.”

My first set on the Blue Stage, which is the smallest of Pitchfork’s three stages, went to Ela Minus, a Colombian music producer and artist whose 2020 album, acts of rebellion, received positive acclaim. It takes a very specific type of dance music for me to enjoy, and if you’re a regular reader of this publication, you already know this. So when I do see dance music live, I think it’s particularly interesting.

While I understand that seeing a DJ live is a different experience compared to a musician who plays a traditional instrument, I have seen artists like Elohim and Disclosure put on an equally entertaining show compared to artists in my usual genres. I felt like it took a few extra minutes for Ela to get comfortable onstage, but once she did, it was enjoyable to watch her leave her DJ set (or whatever you call it) to dance around onstage and interact with the audience. I didn’t see her entire set, so I missed a lot of the music I was familiar with, but I still think she put on a fun show.

Here I am, yet again, raving about Phoebe Bridgers. What else is new? It felt so unbelievably overdue to hear the songs from Punisher, an album we called the best of the year 2020, and I can’t even begin to explain the various emotions I felt hearing it live for the first time, from start to end. I first saw Bridgers perform at Lincoln Hall just about 3 and a half years ago, and it’s really wild and rewarding as a fan to see her at the level she’s at today and the status she’s made for herself. Just hearing thousands of people singing along to her lyrics was a weird enough experience on its own: I can’t imagine how she felt. As a fan myself, it was really special to witness the start of Phoebe’s performance up close, her sly grin as the opening notes to her song motion sickness began, and behind me, simultaneously hearing the crowd screaming and surprise she was opening the set with this song it was a very unique viewing and listening experience as a fan and honestly something I won’t forget.

Though I could hear her perfectly well in the pit during my time shooting her first three songs, it was unfortunate afterwards, because the sound was not carrying out into the crowd as much as a lot of the other artists I saw perform on the main stage throughout the weekend. I’m not sure if this is Phoebe’s team’s problem or Pitchfork’s, but I hate to say that it did put a damper on the experience. I’ll be catching Phoebe’s set at Austin City Limits in just a couple weeks: here’s hoping that sound is better!

Friday surprises:

1) I don’t believe I had heard Black Midi‘s music before: but I do think I listened to at least a snippet of all of the artists on the bill this past weekend, so I must not have understood the vibe from this short assignment. But seeing British rock band Black Midi live completely changed my perspective. The band’s sound is unlike anything else I have heard of going on in the current moment, and their theatrics are deliciously executed and so unexpected. What I learned from this? Seeing a band live can be a completely different experience than hearing their music recorded: in a good and bad way.

2) Big Thief!!!!!!! I’ve never had an “issue” with this band per se, but it is one I’ve never fully been able to get into or understand the hype around them. HOWEVER, hearing Adrienne Lenker’s vocals live was something indescribable until you hear them for yourself. I truly don’t think she missed one note. It was astonishing to see an audience so completely captivated by an artist’s voice. Hardly anyone was making a sound during each song, as if we were all in a deep trance. 10000/10 recommend catching Big Thief live if you can.

For an artist to perform as early in the day as Bartees Strange did, he sure had a lot of fans show up for his set. Do you know how many times I heard a fan in the front row scream “Yeah, Bartees!” during this set? An infinite amount of times: that’s how many. We’ve covered Bartees several times since Brittany intro’d him to the rest of the team when she was the sole fighter to include his 2020 album, Live Forever, in our picks for the best of the year, and I’m so happy she did!

It’s hard to explain the way his music sounds until you hear it for yourself: and the fact that he truly is genre-less was exemplified in the way that he seamlessly transitions from R&B, to pop, to punk through each of his performances. I can only imagine the confusion of some of the attendees who randomly attended this set because he was playing, hearing a song in one genre and then the next one being completely different sounding. His music truly sounds like nobody else’s out there at the moment, and that’s not a statement I can make about all of the artists who performed at Pitchfork this weekend (not a dig whatsoever, just the truth).

Similar to the way that I felt about Big Thief, I was never fully able to get into Waxahatchee’s music in the way that I can with other artists who exist in the same genre space. There are definitely some songs off of her 2020 album, Saint Cloud, that I thoroughly enjoy, but seeing them live definitely gave them an extra element that I feel like was missing. Another artist with near perfect vocals, Katie Crutchfield, who named this project after her a creek in her hometown, pulled a massive crowd on the green stage Saturday afternoon, one that arguably rivaled a couple of the headliners. There was something about her music that felt cathartic to hear live, especially because I would assume but a lot of the people in the audience were hearing the songs live for the first time. I had many flashbacks of first listening to this album during quarantine: considering it dropped in March 2020, aka the beginning of it all.

Does anyone else remember when a journalist was profiling St. Vincent earlier this year and her team asked said journalist not to run a story and the journalist ended up posting it anyway? And everyone was confused about why she seem so upset about the content of this article? I remember. The way that Annie Clark has contiuned to be criticized during her career has been interesting for me to learn about because, and I have no problem admitting this, I was unfamiliar with most of her catalog prior to her 2018 album, MASSEDUCTION, was released. I’m not sure if this is because this album was particularly hyped more than her previous albums, I had just become a more active music fan, trying to find new things to listen to, or the fact that Jack Antonoff was involved in the project, and I am a big fan of his. Regardless of what you think about her public persona, that woman could put on a damn performance.

I was blown away by to get the theatrics of her set, especially her entrance. I won’t get into specifics in case anyone is avoiding spoilers, but she definitely fooled me. And I’ll leave it at that. She was definitely one of the best acts I saw all weekend, simply because of how dedicated she was to the performance and bringing her vision from Daddy’s Home, the album she released earlier this year, to life. I’m not a super big fan of this album, I definitely preferred MASSEDUCTION, but I really don’t think it mattered, because the performance was that incredible. St. Vincent is touring this fall and I definitely recommend checking her out.

Saturday surprises:

I have been a fan of Faye Webster’s music in the past, but I wasn’t super thrilled with the album that she released earlier this year. However, I definitely still wanted to catch her performance and was super curious to see the kind of crowd she pulled. Going into this weekend, I was expecting to have to choose Waxahatchee’s performance over Faye Webster’s, but one of the artists on the bill ended up dropping out, so the schedule got moved around ultimately pushing Webster’s set later in the day.

She ended up pulling a massive crowd on the Blue Stage, one that seem to be particularly full of younger people, at least in the front row. I don’t necessarily know if Faye’s fans are primarily younger, because I know a lot of people my age are fans of hers, but it is interesting that I was able to recognize the difference in demographic at this set.

While Mariah the Scientist came on about eight minutes past her scheduled start time and finished an entire 15 minutes early, leaving her with about 25 minutes of her 50-minute allotted time, I realized that in this genre of music, it’s easy for the artist to quickly transition from song to song, and Mariah did just that. It was only her and a DJ onstage, who would quickly transition her into the next song almost immediately after the previous one ended, so often to the point where she’d ask “wait, what’s next?” and before anyone could realize what was coming, the next track would begin.

Mariah arguably had the most “Stans” of any performer of the weekend (only coming second to Phoebe Bridgers, at least what I saw), as fans eagerly grinned at Mariah onstage as she continued to make her way up and down the stage, waving to her fans in the audience as if she was a member of the royal family: someone in attendance even had a handmade sign for her and another gave her a gift. I feel like Mariah has a certain element of star power that’s a bit bigger than a lot of the artists I saw at Pitchfork, and I have a feeling she’s going to skyrocket to a more mainstream artist in the next year or so.

I saw Caroline Polachek back in 2020, living in a pre-pandemic world, when she was apart of Chicago’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” festival, headlining Lincoln Hall. This was a few months after Polachek’s breakout album, Pang, was released, and though it was certainly one of my favorite albums of the year, I didn’t feel like the show particularly connected with me in the way that many artists’ shows do when I have a special relationship with the album they’re primarily performing.

It may be because I was watching the show from the balcony (I prefer and almost always watch from the main floor), but I also didn’t feel like Polachek’s vocals were as strong as they could have been. It goes without saying that I was going into this second performance with high standards, and Polachek absolutely met those, if not exceeded them. Her vocals were eons stronger, theatrics felt a bit more toned down, though they still were very much the focal point of the performance. Polachek has a confident ease about her that’s very enjoyable to watch as an audience member: it’s almost like she moves like a model who’s decided to take on a singing career (this is a good thing). But, can someone tell me the meaning behind the song “Bunny Is A Rider?” – cause I still really don’t get it.

After shooting the first three songs of Thundercats‘ Sunday afternoon performance, I was truly concerned for those around me watching the show without earplugs. I am a new user of earplugs myself (though I know I should have been wearing them for the past five years), and the bass was still completely rattling my bones.

This was the vibe of Thundercats’ entire set: a jam session of epic proportions. When I’ve seen artists in the past who essentially play guitar riffs for 10 minutes at a time, I’ve gotten bored (see: John Mayer), but Thundercats’ energy exists in its own lane entirely. He completely captivated the audience (one so large, I am still really curious to see what size crowd Yves Tumor pulled on the Blue Stage during the same time), and gave them what they wanted as the final song, performing his TikTok hit “Funny Thing,” to an already bouncing crowd.

Sunday surprises:

This doesn’t really pertain to Sunday only, so I guess I’m cheating, but this is my website so who cares! Overall, I was blown away by the caliber of artistry I saw during my three days at Pitchfork. It’s usually quite easy to be critical of an artists’ performance at festivals, at least for me, when you’re seeing 6-8 artists a day. But I truly don’t think I saw one bad performance this past weekend, which isn’t an easy feat for a festival production team to achieve. 

Keep up with our Pitchfork coverage here.

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