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Pitchfork 2016 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

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

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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


    LUH

    Most Frustrated 20 Minutes

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    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


    Whitney

    Most Growing Pains

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    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

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    “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


    Thundercat

    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

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    “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


    Julia Holter

    Most Gentle

    “I just wanted to start with some kind of response to the recent horrors and hopefully something peaceful.” Those were Julia Holter’s atmosphere-shifting first words while taking the stage, before stepping into her extra-deep cut “Why Sad Song?” and imposing a tangible hush across Union Park. Minutes later, the sun made the most perfectly timed 30-second cameo of all time, emerging from behind the clouds for the only time all day right as she began the sunny but sun-disavowing “Feel You” (“You know I love to run away from sun”). Though better fit for a more intimate setting than a fest’s main stage, Holter was focused, locked in with her upright bassist, and comfortable in her heavy-heartedness. –Steven Arroyo


    Jeremih

    Most Anti-Climactic Use of Chance the Rapper

    Jeremih // Photo by Kris Fuentes Cortes

    Jeremih felt like a trip back in time. “J, you got a lot of records,” DJ Cuzzo shouted, before asking the crowd for some help with what to play next. “Y’all wanna hear some old shit?” Unsurprisingly, that call was regularly met with demands for old shit, the epitome of which was “Birthday Sex”, of course, especially considering it was the Chicago singer’s birthday. The field erupted into a sensual dance party for that one, as well as “Somebody”, “Planez” (perhaps the best song featuring an invitation to get busy in a blimp), and more. But a surprise appearance from Chance the Rapper trumped it all, people running nearer to the stage by the hundreds.

    Chance danced along to a bit of “No Problems”, rapped along to a bit of “Angels”, and mostly ad-libbed and celebrated along with Jeremih for a few tracks before leaving. (He seemed to be having monitor problems, but who knows if he’d have done more had that not been the case.) An appearance from G Herbo followed, and while “I’m Rollin” is a great track, that and the rest of Jeremih’s set felt a little anticlimactic after Chance. But then again, this was his celebration, and he could do whatever he wanted, including dancing with his mom to R. Kelly’s “Step in the Name of Love”. (It was her birthday, too, and Jeremih had us all sing along.) Concluding with a celebratory dance-along to Desiigner’s “Panda” proved we were at Jeremih’s birthday party as much as his set. –Adam Kivel


    Circuit Des Yeux

    Best Mid-Afternoon Drone

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    Circuit Des Yeux work on record. Haley Fohr and co. work incredibly well in clubs as well. (Her spot opening for Jenny Hval at a Friday night after-show proved that.) But Fohr’s music translated surprisingly well to a huge stage in the early afternoon. Maybe it was the cowboy hat or perhaps the disco balls, or more likely it was the weight and magnitude that the experimental artist’s voice and songs can produce, large enough to fill any stage. That said, the bigger songs worked better than the quieter, more subtle ones — the grand “Fantasize the Scene” remains an absolute wonder, Fohr’s enigmatic vocals leading the way. There was even an appearance from Fohr’s alter ego, the cocaine country star Jackie Lynn under which the Circuit Des Yeux singer released a solo album. The woman in a red wig and respirator mask added keyboards to a droning number — though Fohr was standing center stage with her guitar. Maybe Jackie Lynn has become more than an alter ego, a fully realized entity of her own. –Adam Kivel


    Woods

    Best Summer Afternoon Band

    Woods // Photo by Kris Fuentes Cortes

    It’s a known fact that the extra real estate of a festival main stage paired with a comparatively thin, early-afternoon crowd in hot weather is a tough position for any band to inhabit, but Jeremy Earl’s gracefully sustaining band, Woods, might just be the closest thing to a great fit. The songs on Woods’ past three albums are made for sunlight, best heard when just a little sweaty, a little burnt on the back of the neck. “Moving to the Left”, “Sheperd”, and “Cali in a Cup” landed nice and easy like a hand-held spray fan, while the woozy horns of their new, more hallucinatory “Sun City Creeps” felt like an oasis mirage in the desert. –Steven Arroyo


    Miguel

    Most Bold Tone

    Miguel // Photo by Kris Fuentes Cortes

    By serving as the link between Jeremih and FKA twigs’ main field sets on Sunday evening, Miguel officially completed, sans hyperbole, the single most sexual three-act succession in the history of live music. “Coffee” and “Adorn” secured that honor, but this wasn’t all that Miguel came prepared to say; in the middle of his set, he paused for a lengthy statement on recent tragedies, lamenting the increasingly shorter lifespans of public mourning. “Two weeks ago, everybody gave a fuck,” he said in reference to the depressingly short cycle between tragedy, grief, recovery, and back to tragedy that played out once again just this weekend. “I’m tired of human lives turning into hashtags and prayer hands.” –Steven Arroyo


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    Brian Wilson

    Best 50th Anniversary Showcase


    I didn’t get word that Brian Wilson would start his Pet Sounds set 10 minutes early, which means I missed out on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “You Still Believe in Me”, but fortunately not “God Only Knows” — arguably the best song ever written. Wilson isn’t exactly at his sharpest these days, and while he still gets by on stage, his iconic voice is effectively his lone contribution. But with a 12-deep band, which included Blondie Chaplain, a ‘60s Wilson doppelganger on drums, and original Beach Boy Al Jardine and his son Matt (who effectively co-led the band with impressive composure), Wilson’s set delivered on everything that could be reasonably expected of it — namely, the pet sounds — plus a few more Beach Boys essentials, including “Good Vibrations” and “Help Me, Rhonda” for good measure. Oh, and they were joined on “Sloop John B” by Wilson biopic star John Cusack and sister Joan. –Steven Arroyo


    NAO

    Biggest Smile

    NAO // Photo by Kris Fuentes Cortes

    The only thing as bright as NAO’s jazz-tinged voice was her smile; the young alt-R&B singer is the epitome of neo-soul. The English vocalist commands the space between FKA twigs and Kelis, but preaches a different kind of electronic gospel, one with a hefty helping of elastic power. That was particularly true on “Apple Cherry”, as the airy R&B bass surrounded her fixed, yet smooth, hip-swivelling dance moves. “I always worry that no one is going to turn up at the show,” she eagerly grinned, “but you guys made it all worth it.” It was that exact humility from which she draws her charm, just blessed to be able to perform. As her set sunk into ballads in the middle, the crowd started to thin, though that could be a coincidence due to scheduling. Overall, NAO thrives when there are equal amounts of passion and drive. –Adam Kivel


    Oneohtrix Point Never

    Most Tweaky

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    Never has Daniel Lopatin’s music as Oneohtrix Point Never felt timelier than this month, a time that saw the biggest spike of pedestrians wandering streets with eyes deadlocked on screens. Pokemon Go surely wasn’t the specific inspiration of Lopatin’s aggressive, synthetic-industrial set to close out the festival Sunday night, but it felt like some kind of response nonetheless. OPN has also never sounded so brutal; while “Sticky Drama” was blowing everyone’s hair back, I realized I’d been subconsciously crushing my empty beer can in my hand to a flattened disk. Lopatin’s modulated vocals brought an extra degree of violence to his screams, paranoia-inducing enough to cause listeners packed into the leafy Blue Stage area to immediately delete all the data from their phones — a mental image I now associate with the phrase Garden of Delete–Steven Arroyo


    Carly Rae Jepsen

    Most Saxy

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    Carly Rae Jepsen // Photo by Kris Fuentes Cortes

    Most pop star-supporting sax players get their moment once or twice per show, and they have to wait around for it with jittery knuckles, hanging in the shadows and trying to focus on just doing their job in the meantime. Which makes me wonder whether Carly Rae Jepsen’s saxophonist is very lucky or unlucky that his moment comes in the literal first notes of the show, a few forte blasts to announce that “Run Away with Me” is here and Carly Rae is taking the stage.

    Surely the biggest name on Friday’s bill — possibly the whole weekend’s — Jepsen was curiously granted second-opener slotting, a less than ideal dinnertime set starting at 6:25. She was unfazed, however, delivering every hit with endearing sincerity and digging from her gut for that extra gear of “Emotion”-al resonance as deeply as sax man did. She also secured a very temporary claim on Cameo of the Weekend when she brought out Blood Orange’s Devonte Hynes for rhythm-guitar support on “All That” — a cameo later matched countless times, including by Carly Rae Jepsen at Blood Orange. –Steven Arroyo


    Broken Social Scene

    Least Rusty Reunion

    Broken Social Scene

    It had been six years since the last time Broken Social Scene graced the Pitchfork Fest stage, most of that time spent inactive. (Well, inactive as Broken Social Scene, though still plenty active in their various individual projects.) And yet, somehow, the Canadian indie rock collective sounded just as fresh as ever, Brendan Canning high-kicking his way across the stage without any hint of rust. The slow-burning, hushed “Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl” might not logically be a festival highlight, but Stars vocalist Amy Millan and newcomer Ariel Engle more than did the trick. A similarly gentle new song, however, didn’t fare quite as well. More traditional high-energy stunners “Fire-Eye’d Boy” and “KC Accidental” more than made up for it, the group seemingly thrilled to be back together and getting it done. They might not have been headliners, but as the requisite “reunion” act, Broken Social Scene left long-standing fans happy and eager for whatever comes next. –Adam Kivel


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