Photography by Kris Lenz
Before this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival even started, it ran into a series of obstacles. With the Julie Ruin’s tour cancellation due to Kathleen Hanna’s ongoing bout with lyme disease, DJ Rashad’s death, Death Grips breaking up (probably for the best), and Earl Sweatshirt causing doubts about his festival appearance due to health concerns, the list of acts scheduled was bumped down from its usual 46 to 43. While the addition of Kathleen Hanna and D.J. Rashad would have obviously made any festival better, these weren’t insurmountable hurdles. Pitchfork overcame and mostly went on as planned over three near-cloudless days of pleasant weather. The festival, which is in its ninth incarnation (or tenth, depending on how you count it), has established itself as one of the most eccentric bills on the summer circuit. From Sun Kil Moon, Neneh Cherry, The Haxan Cloak, and Giorgio Moroder to Deafheaven and Pusha T, Pitchfork remains one of the most diverse festivals going. With its walkable three-stage setup and capacity capped at around a modest 20,000, it’s still an astoundingly manageable festival as well.
While eclectic, this year’s offering hardly had any surprises, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It relied heavily on 2012’s bill, with Kendrick Lamar, Grimes, ScHoolboy Q, Real Estate, Danny Brown, Cloud Nothings, and The Field all returning. Friday’s top bill had the still-thriving ’90s act Beck, after the U.S. return of Neneh Cherry and cathartic performances from Sharon Van Etten and Mark Kozelek. Neutral Milk Hotel sapped our nostalgia reserves on Saturday, while St. Vincent dazzled and Cloud Nothings shredded. Sunday was heavy on rap, with Kendrick Lamar headlining a day filled with good sets from his TDE-affiliates Isaiah Rashad and ScHoolboy Q, along with a vicious 50 minutes from Deafheaven, a triumphant Slowdive reunion, and a bittersweet, cameo-heavy slot from footwork legend DJ Spinn. We drank Goose Island beer (specifically Sharon Van Etten’s SVE Kolsch collaboration), tried to figure out what that Ray Bans stage was for, met people we only knew from Twitter, cursed Pusha T’s DJ for being 30 minutes late, and were thankful for the sun and lack of humidity. We were also thankful for these memorable sets, which weren’t always seamless but never failed to make big impressions.
– Josh Terry Staff Writer
10. Sun Kil Moon
“There sure are a lot of white people at this festival,” observed Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek towards the end of his hazy and quiet Friday evening set. It was a weird joke, considering Kozelek’s vanilla audience, and indicative of a pretty strange set. For one, I’m willing to bet this show was the only one where each band member spent the majority of the set sitting down. Taking from the dozens (yes, dozens) of albums released under Red House Painters, Sun Kil Moon, or his actual name, Kozelek’s music has always suited the quiet clubs and churches rather than the booming summer festival. When he played songs like “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” or “Clarissa”, which is about the death of his second cousin and was slightly reworked to suit his backing band, the volume was so low that chatty people around me were drowning him out. However, when he played “Dogs”, a revealing romp through Kozelek’s sexual history, which is one of his loudest songs, the crowd became rapt and the atmosphere was damn near cathartic. For an artist who thrives on intimacy, especially with his latest emotionally overwhelming and autobiographical album, Benji, still weighing on our collective souls, maybe Pitchfork wasn’t Kozelek’s best outlet. Sure, his voice might have had too much reverb, and yeah, he didn’t play “Ben’s My Friend”, one of the best songs of the year, but the problems plaguing his set weren’t just his fault. – Josh Terry
Her performance on the Blue Stage at Pitchfork’s 2011 incarnation was a huge one for Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, who’s now played the fest twice, both in years of a tUnE-yArDs LP. While her first won over scores of newcomers with the visual curiosities of striped facial makeup and Nate Brenner banging on empty coke bottles–not to mention the musical curiosities of charged-up ukelele dance rhythms and Nate Brenner banging on empty coke bottles–Garbus has revamped her outfit’s design for the current Nikki Nack tour, complete with all new outfits. While the bottles are gone, in their place were a new crew of vocally versatile backup singers/yelpers and a more vibrant wardrobe color scheme, which again won over newcomers in Union Park on Saturday, Garbus absolutely nailing a difficult visual manifestation for her new, darkly playful record. – Steven Arroyo
8. Sharon Van Etten
Scheduling Sharon Van Etten directly before Sun Kil Moon on a Friday night was a bold move for Pitchfork, or at least a move that ran the risk of being just too sad. However, while Van Etten’s music, specifically her latest record, Are We There, is tremendously raw and nakedly emotional, her set was fun despite the melancholic material. Onstage, Van Etten was genial and almost giddy, taking time between songs to breathlessly thank the audience and talk about her beer, a delicious collaboration with Goose Island, the SVE Kolsch. (Our review: Pretty good, but last year’s Run the Jewels Wheat Ale may have been better.) “Last time I was here was four years ago, and I didn’t have a band,” remembered Van Etten before jumping into “Save Yourself”, a country-infused standout from her 2010 album, Epic. Where she kicked off Pitchfork 2010 armed with just her guitar for a sparse solo set, Van Etten returned with a full band to beautifully render her oeuvre. “Serpents”, the standout single off the excellent Tramp, was menacing, with chugging chords and muscular distortion. Also ferocious was the booming “Your Love Is Killing Me”. “Tarifa”, one of Are We There’s best tracks, soared with its lush keyboards, and “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” ended the set fittingly. While it might seem weird to see an artist like Sharon Van Etten outside, she was more than up to the task of keeping the Friday night crowd entranced. – Josh Terry
07. DJ Spinn
There was no elaborate tribute to the late Chicago footwork king DJ Rashad during his scheduled tandem set with DJ Spinn on Sunday evening, and only one pause in the music for an extended memorial toast. But Spinn’s set was still a flawless tribute, the best possible testament to exactly how good Rashad had gotten right before his untimely April passing at age 34: a set of relentless, highest-gear energy and cuts from Rashad’s 2013 masterpiece LP, the already iconic Double Cup, with Chicago’s Treated Crew and THE ERA dancers on deck to footwork the crowd into bittersweet exhaustion. Spinn opened with Rashad’s “Let it Go” before burning through their collaborative rework of Kanye West’s “On Sight”; delivering Rashad’s Double Cup standouts “Pass That Shit”, “Drank, Kush, Barz”, and (Rashad’s absolute finest and bull’s-eye set closer) “Feelin”; and walking off on the note of an entire Blue Stage crowd shouting “DJ Rashad, rest in peace” to the clouds over Chicago with arms raised.– Steven Arroyo
06. Isaiah Rashad
As the least known member of TDE, Isaiah Rashad, shockingly, stakes a very convincing claim as the label’s best performer. On second thought, it shouldn’t be that surprising considering his debut album, Cilvia Demo, is arguably the best out of the four 2014 TDE releases. Even though the LP was criminally overlooked both critically and commercially, you wouldn’t be able to tell because of Rashad’s physical charisma, his expert translation of rap verses to a live setting, and his infectious energy. Sandwiched between acts like Perfect Pussy and Deafheaven, he played the majority of Cilvia Demo to a sizable crowd evenly divided into diehards and the curious, uninitiated. While people were mostly singing along to “Heavenly Father”, Rashad’s most recognizable song, some of the best audience responses came from “Menthol”, a highlight off Cilvia Demo. On songs like “R.I.P Kevin Miller”, which featured an onstage cameo from his label mate SZA, Rashad raps with a Kendrick Lamar-on-“Backseat Freestyle” growl that is slowly becoming his own. Even though he still has yet to receive the same celebrity status as K. Dot or ScHoolboy Q, Rashad has the confidence and charm to push himself there. – Josh Terry
05. Neutral Milk Hotel
Jeff Mangum is a curious, uncommon sort of troubadour. His moving tributes to muses like Anne Frank and themes of youthful innocence push warm feelings along the notches of your spine. His cryptic obscurity and sojourns to record Bulgarian folk music, plus a total absence from social media, made Saturday’s headlining performance a jubilee. The video screens were switched off, cameras put away. Nothing onstage but the performers and 18 songs bathed in magenta and baby blue lights. The numbers sauntered between On Avery Island and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. But there were also cuts off the Live at Jittery Joe’s solo record, plus compilation releases. Mangum started the evening with a wondrous rendition of “I Will Bury You in Time”. Julian Koster, Scott Spillan, and the rest of the band then hurried out to deliver an uncoiled “Holland 1945”. It was a treat to watch the instrument swapping — be it banjo, accordion, or handsaw — as well as the rich segues between tracks like “Two Headed Boy” and “The Fool”, which paid tribute to a sleeper discography that everyone still managed to sing along to. The crispness of the sound made it feel as though the band had emerged from a time capsule rather than returning from a near-decade-long hiatus. The rare inclusion of “Little Birds” — one of only two tracks recorded since 1998 — was also a feel-good moment that hushed a swelling crowd of onlookers who basked in a gentle breeze. Mangum, reticent to say much, admitted he was nervous and didn’t know what to expect from the night. But the teary eyes and uproarious applause during set closer “Oh Comely” proved that he had plenty of friends, fans, and allies at hand. – Dan Pfleegor
Slowdive’s winning Sunday evening set was also their first North American show in over 20 years, and to those who waited, it was well worth it. The English shoegazers led by Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell played cuts from their three ’90s albums Just for a Day, Souvlaki, and Pygmalion. While they weren’t much to watch, the sound was cinematic, full-bodied, and enveloping. Apart from Beck, it was the best live mix of the weekend, with each feedback-laden guitar part, especially on “Souvlaki Space Station” and “Crazy for You”, finding the right balance between noisy and beautiful. “Alison” and “Machine Gun” were also highlights, with Goswell and Halstead’s voices dreamy and airy. The set ended with a cover of Syd Barrett’s “Golden Hair”, which the band recorded in 1991. It was patient but fulfilling listening, and despite playing the stage just graced by ScHoolboy Q and having a sizable number of festivalgoers not know who they are (call it the “Giorgio Moroder effect”), Slowdive were unequivocally excellent. – Josh Terry