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August 4, 2015

Pitchfork closes its first decade and stays in tune

Pitchfork is the kind of music festival that music lovers and snobs adore: cheap tickets, smaller crowds, and a diverse lineup. Although there wasn’t too much diversity in the audience—at one point my friend commented that she was “looking at three variations of the same hipster dude”—the artists at Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival (July 17-19) represented all of the biggest music genres and many levels of fame. Feel-good indie rock? Check. Riot grrrl punk? Check. Electronica, dance-pop, hip-hop? Check, check, check.

I was only at Pitchfork on Saturday and Sunday, but I didn’t feel like I got anything less than the full experience: I caught 16 sets, survived a thunderstorm, was an active participant in three mosh pits, and bought two records that (amazingly) made it through the aforementioned moshing unscathed. Despite the extreme temperatures, Pitchfork 2015 was quite worthy of being the 10th anniversary of the festival.

Here are six sets that sum up Pitchfork Festival 2015:

Future Islands

Future Islands’ frontman Samuel T. Herring may be the top contender for the title of World’s Worst Best Dancer. He boogie-woogied, he booty-dropped, he did a Russian squat-kick. Within the first five minutes, the last two buttons of his shirt had come undone, and he flailed about in all his dad-bod glory.

Their set was a choose-your-own-adventure: One could capitalize on Herring’s infectious energy and bounce around, or drift along to the melancholic choruses. Gerrit Welmers’s keyboard provided a shimmery overlay, although from where I was standing, Welmers overpowered William Cashion’s catchy bass lines. Future Islands completely disregarded the old festival adage “play the hits.” They opened with “Give Us the Wind,” from 2011’s mostly overlooked album On the Water, and even included “Haunted By You,” the B-side to 2015 non-album single “The Chase.”

Had Future Islands been fronted by anyone else, the set list choices would have tanked the performance. As it was, Herring’s stage presence was so captivating—he went from whispering to full-throttle throat singing in the blink of an eye— Future Islands probably could’ve pulled off a Norah Jones cover.

And of course, Future Islands have “Seasons (Waiting For You)”, the quintessential soundtrack for a summer night, in their performance arsenal. “Let’s do this shit!” Herring roared happily, as the band soared into “Seasons.” No one left without a smile.

Sleater-Kinney

Sleater-Kinney strutted on stage, said hello to the crowd, readied their instruments, and slammed right into a blistering rendition of “The Fox.”

Lead guitarist and Portlandia mastermind Carrie Brownstein air-kicked her way through the set, occasionally writhing on the floor or duetting with singer/guitarist Corin Tucker; drummer Janet Weiss banged on her kit, hard-pressed to keep up with her rip-roaring bandmates. Tucker and Brownstein were unhinged in the best way possible for most of the show, but they really uncorked one for “Dig Me Out”: Tucker’s vocals wobbled powerfully as Brownstein laid into her guitar. Sleater-Kinney took a break from kicking ass to sway to “Modern Girl,” while Tucker’s haunting chorus (“My whooooole life / Was like a picture of a sunny day”) raised goose bumps.

For the encore, Brownstein appeared to take audience input into consideration when she asked whether we wanted an unrehearsed version of “You’re No Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun” or “Little Babies.” After a mistake brought the former to a halt, she declared that she didn’t care what we thought, and that they were starting over because they wanted to. Start over they did, and they followed up with “Little Babies,” proving it wasn’t really our choice to begin with. The illusion of control was a nice gesture, but they weren’t fooling anybody: The show was Sleater-Kinney’s from start to finish.

Bitchin Bajas

There is a Bitchin Bajas at every good festival. They can be found at the beginning of the day, but you don’t find them; you happen upon them.

In the case of Bitchin Bajas, the people at the Red Stage waiting for Viet Cong to perform merely had to turn 90 degrees to where Bitchin Bajas was transfixing a small crowd over at the Green Stage.

The name Bitchin Bajas is misleading: They had the most punk name on the lineup, but the first sound that emitted from the Green Stage came from a flute (a drum machine, keyboard, tape loops, and a droning saxophone followed shortly after). Bitchin Bajas have clearly spent a lot of time listening to recordings by ambient godfather Brian Eno, but their melodies were unique. There were no distracting vocals, just gorgeous waves of sound drifting towards us from across the field. My friend was falling asleep—it was that low-key—but Bitchin Bajas’ noises were exactly what I wanted to hear first thing in the morning on the last day of a festival.

Jamie xx

Jamie xx, a solo producer and member of minimalist pop group The xx, is the opposite of big-name EDM megastars like Skrillex and Steve Aoki. In his live set, Jamie eschewed hedonistic beats and massive drops. Instead, he curated tastefully—pulling samples from ’70s soul—and built music that relied on airy dings, rather than on less-than-subtle grinding beats. Jamie’s love affair with vinyl kept him busy on stage—at one point he fanned himself with a record—but he didn’t miss a beat, shrugging his headphones on and off to add layers of sound.

Jamie didn’t just slam through the hits; they faded in and out, with the music stopping only three times in 55 minutes. He opened with “Higher Places” and drifted into bits of other favorites: “I’ll Take Care of U,” “SeeSaw,” “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times).” It wasn’t the amped-up rave I was expecting, but his commitment to old-school DJing rewarded the audience in a more intellectually satisfying way.

Run the Jewels

At Pitchfork, Mike and El’s raps crackled and boomed with energy; their set was more electrifying than Saturday’s thunderstorm.

They didn’t break often, but their stage banter wasn’t just filler. During one pause, they paid their respects to Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Walker Scott, and “all of the other black victims of police brutality,” and during another, they warned audience to “put away [their] motherfuckin’ phones…” I didn’t catch the rest of the sentence, but as RTJ launched into Run the Jewels 2 cut “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck),” I got the drift: this shit is about to get wild.

I somehow managed to keep ahold of my phone, and re-watching the video after the show is a trip: RTJ brought out Zack de la Rocha from Rage Against the Machine to do his guest verse, and an unholy noise comes out of my mouth when he walked on and bellowed “IT’S DE LA ON THE CUT.” It was easily the best moment of the festival.

They finished with “A Christmas Fucking Miracle,” off debut Run the Jewels, but even though they weren’t headliners, the crowd’s enthusiasm brought them back for an encore, “Angel Dust.”

Chance the Rapper

Chance the Rapper put on a stunning show, full stop. It was a carnival from start to finish: The lighting technicians were working madly, and at any given moment there were at least 10 people on stage, be it collaborator Donnie Trumpet and the rest of his band, a small gospel choir, or both.

Chance made sure that we knew it was a hometown show. He kept reminding us that it was our show, that he grew up on 79th and Princeton, that our mommas were from Chicago, that our daddies were from Chicago, that our granddaddies were from Chicago.

As he ran through favorites from mixtapes 10 Day and Acid Rap, Chance worked out a system with the audience to make sure everyone was happy. He would shout “OooOO” and the audience was supposed to parrot the cry back, the volume indicating the level of satisfaction with his performance. There was never a quiet “OooOO.”

But the loudest “OooOO” came after perfect set closer “Sunday Candy,” for which he brought out local musicians Jamila Woods and Eryn Allen Kane, as well as soul legend Kirk Franklin. Chance’s most famous collaborators were conspicuously missing. No Kanye—fair enough, he’s a busy dude. But no Vic Mensa? The dude played at Pitchfork on Saturday and roamed the festival on Sunday sporting a sick Bad Brains tee. Considering Chance lined up Kanye and Vic Mensa to perform for South Side high schoolers at the Logan Center earlier this year, their absence makes sense: Chance takes extra pride when he gives back to the community that shaped him.

Chance finished by telling the audience he was still “the same chain-smoking, name-droppin’, good-lookin’...” “Chain Smoker,” from Acid Rap, followed by four songs from the jazzy Surf, and it was an apt metaphor for the show as a whole: No matter how experimental Chance’s music gets, no matter how many days he spends in L.A. recording with Lil B, he won’t ever forget who he was, or where he was raised. He’s Chance the Rapper, and he’s from the South Side of Chicago.

“OooOO”s carried us all the way to the train station, kept going by a crowd who wanted more.

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