Day two of Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival was a sampling of the best of times and of the worst of times. The day started off with sweltering heat (again, near 100 Fahrenheit) and opening things up was Chai, the female Japanese punk-outfit. The foursome could be seen swinging and dancing around stage in their matching pink and orange outfits. The group’s nasally, almost abrasive voice soared across their punk-rock riffs on tracks like “I’m Me” and “Choose Go!” While the music didn’t appear to be everyone’s cup of tea, Chai’s enthusiasm for performing was something that was contagious among the audience.
Up next was supposed to be Tirzah, but due to a last-minute cancellation, Bitchin Bajas was added to that slot. The Pitchfork Festival-veterans mixed eclectic instruments like the flute or sleigh bells with pulsating synthesizers and lush ambient sound. Under the shaded Blue Stage, a small but curious crowd gathered up front to watch the trio go to work creating their soundscapes. While this electronic ambiance is perfect for chilling in a dark room or playing Mass Effect, the trio failed to draw much more than the most curious listeners at the festival.
It wasn’t until Cate Le Bon came on that it really felt like Saturday’s festivities were up to full speed. The Welsh singer strolled onstage with her slicked-back blonde hear and what appeared to be a bewilderingly heavy dress. Despite what had to be miserably hot stage attire (she later joked that the dress “did not breathe”), Le Bon’s gentle voice was in full display on breezy tracks like “Daylight Matters,” one of the standouts from her 2019 LP Reward. The five-piece behind her consisted of a horn section as well as the standard bass, guitar, and drums, and offered power and more walls of sound behind her more light and breezy music. The added volume was most welcome when she and the band upped the temp on tracks like “Wonderful,” which sparked impromptu dancing among the audience.
Jay Som kept up this same “breezy” vibe back at the Blue Stage. The bedroom pop singer drew the first large crowd of the day with her dreamy blend of rock and pop. Billowing guitar riffs and her toned-down singing rolled out across the lawn like a wave as the audience swayed back and forth. The sunny, dreamy vibes would soon be dampened however by the growing line of clouds making their way on the festival, prompting packs of the audience to start filing out.
As the sky continued to darken, Parquet Courts had completely taken over the main lawn on the Green Stage. Despite the grey sky, their fan-favorite “Freebird II” inspired plenty of headbanging, dancing, and crowd-surfing. “On a scale of Fyre Festival to Woodstock, I think we got ourselves a solid 8.2 here” lead singer Andrew Savage told the audience. The group slowed things down when “Before the Water Gets Too High” played, with Savage pulling out an omnichord to give the track its droning instrumental. As the band wrapped up, Savage informed the crowd that “old man weather” was going to cut their set short. The crowd, a diverse mix of ages ranging from teenagers to grey-haired couples, erupted in confusion and boos. “But we got one more in us” Savage said, before jumping into the jolting, funky “Wide Awake.” Halfway through the band’s performance, their mics were cut off for an announcement that the Pitchfork festival was closing due to incoming storms and that the audience needed to evacuate. Parquet Courts didn’t seem to care though. The band continued playing right through the announcements, their mics coming back in halfway through an instrumental break.
Once the song was over, the audience quickly made for the exit despite grumblings of the lack of rain or storms. That quickly changed. Just five minutes after exiting the festival, a downpour hit Chicago and lightening began flashing down. No more than an hour later, however, and there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky. By about 6:15, the festival had reopened and both Stereolab and Freddie Gibbs were set to take the stage.
After literally sprinting from my Uber to the Blue Stage, I was able to catch the last 25 minutes of Freddie Gibbs set. Even with the short notice, Freddie Kane was able to draw one of the largest audiences in the crowded Blue Stage area. Just a short drive down I-90 is Gibbs hometown of Gary, IN., so it’s no surprise that Chicago showed up for the local rapper. “Harold’s,” named after a local chicken staple in Chicago, earned a particularly loud cheer from the crowd. The local connection was noticeable, as Gibbs had a collection of friends and family on stage behind him, and there was a sheer sense of joy as he was interacting with the crowd. Fresh off the release his second Madlib-collaboration, Gibbs (deservedly) boasted he was better than fellow Madlib-collaborator MF DOOM. Following a monster run of critically acclaimed projects across 2018 and 2019, you could tell Gangsta Gibbs was eager to prove his technical prowess. The rapper frequently paused the beat during his rapid-fire verses so the crowd could hang on each word fully a capella, cementing his set as one of Pitchfork’s strongest performances. He was also the first artist to start a mosh pit, so points for that.
Belle and Sebastian were back on the red stage in the middle of their performance of If You’re Feeling Sinister in its entirety. Standouts like “Fox in The Snow” and “Judy and the Dream of Horses” aren’t typical festival fare, with vocalist Stuart Murdoch even admitting as much. “I hope this isn’t too much of a drag,” he confided to the audience, though he was met with disagreeable cheers. Almost as a surprise to the band, the crowd sung back every word of nearly every song. Crowd participation may have looked different under the boiling heat, but with cool temperatures and a generous breeze, Sebastian and Belle provided a show for all ages (there were a lot of parents there) to let loose and soak up the good vibes.
Last, but certainly not least, was Saturday’s headliner, The Isley Brothers, who were celebrating their 60th birthday. While they’re technically an oldies act, it’d be near impossible to find someone who isn’t familiar with at least one song from their extensive discography. The group’s influence spans across three or four generations and has touched nearly every genre of popular music. The Isley Brothers knew this, and after the funky intro provided by “Fight the Power,” the group showcased their influence across hits like “Who’s That Lady,” “Between the Sheets,” and “Footsteps in the Dark.” While these songs are all incredible on their own, the Isley Brothers intermixed popular rap songs that sampled them. Kendrick Lamar’s “i” started of “Who’s That Lady,” Biggie’s could be heard throughout “Between the Sheets,” and a full verse from Ice Cube’s “Good Day” played at the tail end of “Footsteps in the Dark.”
As a quick aside, Ernie Isley was the glue to this performance. While Ronald Isley is an untouchable legend, his age showed as he often couldn’t get through a full verse without taking a breath or his voice faltering. Ernie, however, led a group of top-notch musicians as he shredded on extended guitar solos, even taking a page from Jimi Hendrix (who toured in the Isley Brother’s backup band before he blew up), playing riffs with his teeth or behind his back.
Overall, the show was not only full of soul and joy, but it was testament to just how expansive the Isley’s influence is. Whether you’re a fan of the band itself, Jimi Hendrix, or Ice Cube, there’s no denying that Isley’s are one of America’s most influential bands.
Photo Credit Kalyn Oyer