The 10th annual Pitchfork Music Festival stands as one of the few Chicago festivals that celebrates the city as much as it celebrates its hyper-curated lineup. Each stage offers a different facet of contemporary music with minimal conflict, so you’ve got as good of a chance of finding your niche stage as you do discovering an off the beaten path artist that vibes just as well with Beck as they do with Factory Floor. Add to that a vinyl marketplace, the fine offerings of Goose Island Brewery and a surprisingly affordable spread of food that even includes a mini Whole Foods Market with fresh fruit and you’ve almost got yourself a small township linked primarily by the love music and all that is quality.
Walking into Pitchfork, it was clear that Friday would be the only outlier in terms of crowds. Fans trickled in at a slow pace with numbers never to the point of overwhelming. Kicking off the festival was London band Factory Floor, whose electronic grooves sound more reminiscent of a single producer but are made all the more kinetic by an actual band. Not to knock the many DJs of the EDM movement simply rocking a laptop, but with a rather minimalistic stage like the ones at Pitchfork one would be hard-pressed to really get a crowd moving through laptop alone. Unless, of course, you’re Giorgio Moroder. Moroder’s performance before Beck was a parade of hits played at a surprisingly quiet volume.
For that reason, many of the stages felt rather subdued. Union Park lies in a sleepy, residential part of Chicago which means Pitchfork is ever-mindful of its neighbors. More mellow acts like Sun Kil Moon absolutely blossomed as audiences leaned in to watch mastermind Mark Kozelek strum and harmonize a set played with himself and his backing band seated. Most festivals can’t handle that type of mellow when, with such short set times, bands are basically forced to play loud, hard and fast lest they bog down the whole operation and harsh the collective mellow. In that regard, Sharon Van Etten can even almost seem a risky artist to book. After a standout performance at Pitchfork, the only real risk any festival runs is not booking her and missing out.
Van Etten was breezy and confident on stage, moving effortlessly between acoustic guitar, modulator and electric guitar as she played from her latest and greatest LP, Are We There. Many in attendance will recall her 2010 performance at the festival when she was just starting out as an artist. The growth in Van Etten’s sound and general demeanor shows that she is here to stay as far as singer-songwriters go and that’s a very powerful thing to see. Van Etten can just as easily commandeer the Red Stage as she can move an entire audience to a damn near catatonic state.
Strong females were in abundance on Friday. Neneh Cherry continues to reinvent herself as a more electronically inclined, experimental artist and the mystifying SZA provided one of the strongest vocal performances, turning the Blue Stage into an outdoor lounge with the chill beats of her many EPs, making fans clamor all the more for a full-length release. SZA was backed by a rather sparse band, and really she didn’t need much to fill the stage with sound. Definitely the highest crowd, the Blue Stage offered the weird and wonderful of Pitchfork, including the jilting Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks.
You’d think with a band like Avey Tare that there would be hazers blowing and wild costumes on display, but the band itself looked entirely subdued compared to the sounds emanating from their instruments. Avey Tare had the kind of sinisterly pleasant abrasive qualities that presumably led the church to deem certain songs as evil and tritones as the Devil’s Chord. Yes, that’s a far reaching description of their music, but it’s entirely indicative of how that which borders on unpleasant is usually the most innovative. Soon after, hype built over Moroder and lights dimmed for the headliner of the night, Beck.
With the release of Morning Phase, it seemed that Beck would be all set to turn down, so to speak. Starting things up with opener “Devil’s Haircut” proved that he had other things in mind. Hits were touched upon, of course, and so was Morning Phase but Beck kept the variety up just enough to keep fans interested and, ultimately, himself hard at work entertaining the largest crowd of the day. It’s rare to see a Beck set and see him not simply going through the motions and yet, despite egregious errors on the audio team’s part, Beck had a fucking blast and so did the entirety of Union Park.