Pitchfork 2016 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

Despite some growing pains, the successful Chicago festival keeps shaking things up

Pitchfork Fest

    All live photography by Kris Fuentes Cortes.

    After a string of sold-out, largely critically successful years, this edition of Pitchfork Music Festival felt like it had some growing pains. The fields felt a little emptier, the sound a little muddier, the schedule a little rushed. In fact, two of three days failed to sell out. Festivals live and die by their headliners, and this year’s choices were solid. There’s not a stinker among Beach House, Sufjan Stevens, and FKA twigs, but there’s also very little sense that there was a “once in a lifetime” feeling to be experienced. The big reunion get, Broken Social Scene, were fantastic, but not big enough to headline. The big legacy act, Brian Wilson, similarly held down an early evening slot well, but not even John Cusack could push that into a headlining spot. The surprise return of Chance the Rapper proved a boost to Jeremih’s set, but that celebration didn’t push into legendary territory either, more ad-lib fun than jaw-dropping.

    Crowd // Photo by Kris Fuentes Cortes

    That said, the next set of headliners could be picked from elsewhere in the lineup: Anderson .Paak, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Blood Orange all delivered massive, compelling sets full of energy. In fact, the lower part of the card featured plenty of amazing sets and big moments. From relative youngsters like Twin Peaks to the throwback rap of Digable Planets to 92-year-old Marshall Allen leading Sun Ra Arkestra, there was a little bit of something for everybody. In fact, the reintroduction of jazz into the lineup was a step in the right direction, even if other genres faded some. (A top-tier metal act would’ve been nice and maybe another rap act or two.) That’s kind of always been their M.O., however, chasing a blend of artists and genres that represents the current moment and the allure of posterity alike, something they’ve been largely successful at. One thing’s for certain: Pitchfork Music Festival will continue to shake things up, and next year’s festival will look pretty different.

    –Adam Kivel
    Executive Editor

    Holly Herndon

    Most Ill-Behaved Computer

    Holly Herndon // Photo by Kris Fuentes Cortes

    Poor Holly Herndon. When we set about ranking the performances for this year’s Pitchfork Festival, this one was unfortunately a no-brainer and through no fault of Herndon’s own. Already pushed by the Blue Stage’s seemingly perpetual delays, a computer malfunction rendered her set seemingly inoperable. Luckily, her trio’s shows include messages typed onto a large projection screen, straight from the stage. “The computer is green right now wtf,” went one. “This is gruesome,” went another, only exacerbated ironically by the word gruesome being misspelled, erased, and retyped a few times over. “It’s funny as I was just having a conversation about how I abhor seamless electronic music shows where there is so little risk involved and I guess this is what we get for that,” felt particularly telling. After waiting and sending requested positive vibes to the machine, the crowd were offered a few tracks played from iTunes with backing vocals and a sincere apology, as well as a promise that the following night’s after-show would go off without a hitch. Here’s hoping. –Adam Kivel


    Most Frustrated 20 Minutes


    LUH make ballads for the bitter with a hint of pride. Ellery Roberts, former Wu Lyf frontman, and Dutch artist Ebony Hoorn perform together as LUH — an acronym for Lost Under Heaven. A fitting title during their Sunday afternoon slot, which found the pair wrongfully treated when their allotted time of 45 minutes shrunk to just over 15. As you and I know, it takes longer than 15 minutes just to get a beer, but the constant delays on the Blue Stage forced their set into some sort of soundcheck-ish performance. “If the power gets cut halfway through this, come see us next time when we play a real show,” Roberts stung, clearly frustrated. “We came all the way from Amsterdam.” Considering their disappointment, the delivery felt timely. Gothic pop-drenched anthems weaved into Springsteen balladry, the pair sang as if to expel every hint of grit left coursing through their bones. When it was over, the clang of Roberts spiking the mic burst through the crowd — reminding everyone that it felt over before it even began. –Adam Kivel

    Moses Sumney

    Most Unfortunately Overpowered

    “Well, this is the quietest song in my set,” Moses Sumney smiled while introducing “Plastic”. “Feel free to lean in.” Having Sumney and the rambunctious Twin Peaks overlap became the sonic equivalent of a Smart Car and a pickup truck smashing together. The former’s often fragile, beautiful songs were overpowered by the brash rock from across the park. But come close enough to the stage, and you’d hear the black-caped Sumney’s magnetic voice reach stunning emotional heights. Standing behind a veritable candelabra of microphones, his looping voice reached the sorrowful grit of Nina Simone and the ecstatic falsetto of Prince, all in moments. But even Sumney seemed in good enough spirits to not be affected: “How does that other band sound? I love them, no shade.” –Adam Kivel


    Most Growing Pains


    Whitney // Photo by Kris Fuentes Cortes

    Julian Ehrlich’s voice: It is the conversation’s dividing line when talking about Whitney — who, in a way, made their second straight festival appearance after performing as Jimmy Whispers’ backing band last year. Pinched and wobbly, it works in certain environments. One of those environments is on record, amidst the contrast of full, warm arrangements as heard on their recent debut album, Light Upon the Lake. Another is in the disarmed confines of bars like their home base, Empty Bottle. An outdoor festival stage in the daytime is not one, at least not yet — but to the band’s credit, those strings and brass were right at home. –Steven Arroyo

    Beach House

    Safest Headliner

    Beach House // Photo by Kris Fuentes Cortes

    Beach House are the definition of a safe headliner. They were never going to do anything remarkable or offensive and will be considered pleasant to the vast majority of attendees. Best case scenario, you’ve formed a personal attachment to the band and will remember this as an evening of epic indie pop songs under the setting sun. Worst case scenario, you’ll think it sounded nice but a little boring. Songs like “10 Mile Stereo” will always sound fantastic, Victoria Legrand’s lush vocals and Alex Scally’s crystalline guitar swirling into a silver magic. That said, Beach House’s sets are starting to drift into a same-y haze, in serious need of a change-up in tempo or energy. The only trick up their sleeve was a cover of “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime”, a song I heard multiple people call “the one from Eternal Sunshine.” Compared to explosive headliners at other festivals — or even surprise guests and high-energy thrills in sets earlier this same weekend — that’s just not going to win over anyone on the fence. –Adam Kivel

    The Hotelier

    Most Enthusiastic Pogoing


    “I see the moon and the moon sees me,” Christian Holden sang on “N 43° 33′ 55.676″ W 72° 45′ 11.914″”, over a gentle guitar and the ubiquitous rap air horn. Or wait, that was from the other stage across the park. That’s the danger of a festival, though, the bleed between stages ruining more tender moments. That didn’t stop the teens and thirtysomethings alike from living in their emo moment, pogoing and moshing to “Soft Animal” and “An Introduction to the Album”. The moment was not lost on Holden, either: “Can someone take a picture of me on the Jumbotron so I can put it on my Instagram?” he wondered aloud, in the midst of the latter. When The Hotelier hit their stride, they proved they’re worthy of an upgrade to the bigger stages next time around. –Adam Kivel

    Empress Of

    Most Courageous Solo Set

    Empress Of // Photo by Kris Fuentes Cortes

    Empress Of was the first performer on Sunday — though definitely not of the weekend — to feel the burn of the Blue Stage delays, starting over a half-hour late. Her live setup is pretty bare-bones, leaving her alone up there to carry a little too much of the substantial load that her 2015 debut album, Me, suggests of an Empress Of show. Still, Lorely Rodriguez poured every ounce of herself into that microphone, capitalizing on the few extra fans that she earned one day before at her brief cameo with Blood Orange — and throwing in a jarring, but fun “Under Pressure” sample near the end to boot. –Steven Arroyo


    Most Notes Per Second

    Thundercat // Photo by Kris Fuentes Cortes

    Another victim of multiplying delays at the Blue Stage that caused it to eventually fall behind schedule by exactly one full set, Thundercat kept calm and professional, greeting his (surprisingly teenage?) audience, lightly teasing them for smelling weird, and thanking them for their patience while his band completed sound check. The “Thun-Der-Cat!” chants came and went twice over as fans waited restlessly to be razzle-dazzled by the most technically gifted six-string bass player ever hosted here, who still managed to uphold the excitement surrounding the jazz-heaviest Pitchfork roster in several years, executing a few songs with just enough jam extension on each to leave everyone satisfied. –Steven Arroyo

    BJ the Chicago Kid

    Smoothest Reference to Grade School


    “In case you didn’t know I was on these songs, let me take you to first grade,” BJ the Chicago Kid offered in the midst of teasing small chunks of a bunch of big collaborations he’s been involved in. As someone who’s worked with Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, ScHoolboy Q, and more, that’s a top-tier school. But despite all of those big personalities, the true highlights of the set came from BJ’s own tunes, especially the satiny “Love Inside” and the dizzying “Church”, the R&B star hammering away at a kettle drum and crooning for all the ladies at the Blue Stage. –Adam Kivel

    Kevin Morby

    Best Psych-Folk Career Relaunch

    This was Kevin Morby’s first Pitchfork appearance under his own name, but actually his third overall; he’s performed twice here in the past as the bassist for Woods, who would make appearance number three on the same stage as him exactly 24 hours later. Morby and his band showed no signs of roughness around the edges, having perfected the subdued psych-folk of his recent Singing Saw on their current world tour. But it was his responsibly wide-brimmed hat that stole the show, right up until it flew off his head as he bounced a little too zealously mid-jam. –Steven Arroyo


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