The A.V. Club goes to Pitchfork Fest 2017

A Tribe Called Quest closes down Saturday night in Chicago's Union Park. (Photo: Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
A Tribe Called Quest closes down Saturday night in Chicago's Union Park. (Photo: Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Day 1: Friday, July 14

Priests, 1:45 p.m.

Photo: Michael Hickey/Getty Images

It’s tough to make a provocative punk entrance in the middle of the afternoon, but luckily Priests were up to the challenge. The band’s minimalist riot grrrl-meets-Cramps swagger was in fine form, with singer Katie Alice Greer immediately getting the crowd of their side, thanks to an energetic set peppered liberally with tracks from this year’s full-length debut Nothing Feels Natural (one of The A.V. Club‘s best albums of 2017 so far). While many of the songs pair a surly ’70s surf-punk vibe to a four-on-the-floor thump, some of the best begin life as a rumbling dirge, exploding into cacophonies of ugly, assaultive guitar noise while Greer wails over the top. Indeed, Greer’s voice is such a powerful tool, it often threatens to push the music into the background when she really turns up the intensity—thankfully, she knows when to pull back as well, interlacing the bite with heart and measured moments of restraint. By the time they played their album’s title track as the set (and album) closer, riding a gentle ’80s new-wave groove that segues into a cathartic high, Priests had staked a claim as a welcome new addition to the festival circuit. [Alex McLevy]

William Tyler, 4 p.m.

Some acts have a rough time translating to the rowdy outdoor-festival mentality, and despite drawing a good crowd over to the smaller Blue Stage (all while competing with Vince Staples across the park), William Tyler struggled a bit to convey the gentle good vibes of his finger-picked folk stylings in that setting. It didn’t help that Tyler’s set was a bit off, derailed by a minutes-long technical delay not even 20 minutes in. He gamely rallied the crowd with a few more groove-oriented tracks, but he continued to pivot back to more somnambulant tunes, never quite finding the right pocket to build momentum—and the number of defectors to Staples probably didn’t help. Bonus points for trying, though; he never gave up the fight. [Alex McLevy]

Vince Staples, 4:15 p.m.

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Vince Staples raps on stage like he raps on record. If you could draw a heat map of his placement on stage, it’d trace a neat U from corner to corner; his body hunched over, writhing in sinuous attention to the beat, hand outstretched. And then he’s done: While beats play out and hooks spin, he stands stock still, glaring into the middle distance. At most he’d nod his head to the beat, or glance at someone backstage. It’s a studied—and electrifying—stage presence. Staples’ public persona, defined by pith and candor, carried over to the stage not via banter but its exact opposite. There was no DJ, no audience back-and-forth, no thirsty demands for cheers, no bullshit. When his last verse was over, he sauntered off stage, slowly, the beat still playing. He deserved better than a 4-p.m. Friday-afternoon set, but you get the feeling that every exact movement of his performance would’ve been the same either way. He is the fucking best. [Clayton Purdom]

Thurston Moore Group, 5 p.m.

For rock fans of a certain age, there’s something incredibly comforting about watching Thurston Moore play guitar, and that old affection was felt from the moment he greeted the crowd with the easy affability of an old friend. And though he stuck to tracks from his band’s new EP, the songs nonetheless instantly sound like Moore—and essentially like Sonic Youth, aided here by drummer Steve Shelley and the familiar way he interlocks with Moore’s angular guitar grooves. Moore offered a few moments of spiky stage banter: saying the orange wristbands they wore were because they support gun control; responding to a guy who yelled out, “Get a haircut, hippie!” by quoting Henry Rollins’ retort 30 years prior (“I’ll grow my hair to my waist before I satisfy you”). But mostly it was just noisy good vibes and Moore’s rumbling tenor, delivering a smooth and appealing set of nostalgic indie guitar swing. [Alex McLevy]

Danny Brown, 6 p.m.

The first time I saw Danny Brown at Pitchfork he came bouncing out unexpectedly during a mid-afternoon Das Racist set at the side stage, scorching the place while hippies dozed off nearby. He’s performed after every album since then, and the crowd (mostly of jaw-grinding 23-year-old dudes in throwback basketball jerseys) has grown each time in size and enthusiasm. This year, he performed an almost completely chronological set—starting with a stretch of hot-shit XXX tracks, moving onto the intensely trashy electro of Old, and finally devolving into full dissonant noise-rap on a handful of cuts from last year’s Atrocity Exhibition. Longtime DJ Skywalker did his traditional little arm-pump dance move, and Danny performed with the sort of focused, professional insanity that has defined his late career. With three uncompromising, classic full-lengths under his belt, he and Skywalker are at a point where they can just play the hits and watch the crowd detonate. You have never seen so many happy, intoxicated young men in your life. [Clayton Purdom]

Kamaiyah, 6:30 p.m.

Though slated for the smaller Blue Stage, Kamaiyah was one of my must-sees this weekend. The 25-year-old Oakland MC has been on a quick ascent since dropping her first single, “How Does It Feel,” two years ago, with an acclaimed debut mixtape (last year’s A Good Night In The Ghetto) and a spot on XXL’s 2017 Freshman list. After her DJ warmed up the crowd with a few familiar West Coast hits, Kamaiyah stormed the stage with an energy that never waned in her 30-minute set of laid-back G-funk. Kicking things off with new single “Build You Up,” she ran through crowd pleasers like “Fuck It Up,” “Mo Money Mo Problems,” and “Freaky Freaks” with her DJ toasting a bottle of Hennessy and punctuating every other song with a “Hoochie hoo!” sample. Sound-wise, there could’ve been more Kamaiyah—both her hype man and her prerecorded vocals were too loud, often overpowering her in the mix—but overall it was a set to remember. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Dirty Projectors, 7 p.m.

Dirty Projectors’ self-titled 2017 LP is a sampled-and-looped gaze into frontman David Longstreth’s navel that retells and puzzles out his doomed romance with former bandmate Amber Coffman in mortifyingly specific terms. But those songs, so claustrophobic on record, breathed fresh air on the Pitchfork stage. With an audience in front of Longstreth and a band—including returning Dirty Projectors Nat Baldwin and Olga Bell and Battles’ Tyondai Braxton—behind him, the emotional content of “Keep Your Name” and “Work Together” lost some of its pettiness and gained a shot at commiseration; a little less Paula (Robin Thicke’s restraining-order-courting paean to ex-wife Paula Patton), a little more Blood On The Tracks or 808s & Heartbreak. Which means it still felt like a therapy session conducted in front of hundreds of people, but the blips from Braxton’s laptop and the boom of Baldwin’s bass distracted from the most embarrassingly personal details. Although, a quick scan of Twitter suggests I was in the minority there. [Erik Adams]

LCD Soundsystem, 8:10 p.m.

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LCD Soundsystem seems like it never really left, because it didn’t: Its “retirement” lasted about as long as the average restless senior citizen who winds up greeting at Walmart for want of something to do. But the headlining set from James Murphy and his sprawling cast of auxiliary players (including Shellac’s Bob Weston!) had the feel of a nostalgic comeback anyway, kicking off with early singles “Yr City’s A Sucker” and “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” and achieving its most transcendent moment as “You Wanted A Hit” melded seamlessly into “Tribulations.” Murphy’s evident joy at reviving his band was tempered by a few, gee-whiz-we’re-old(er) digs about bad backs and busted knees. Still, that self-effacement and free-floating anxiety over aging is what he built his career on, ever since “Losing My Edge” first kvetched over all those kids who are now pushing 40 anyway. If there was any indication that Murphy’s music was getting a little softer around the middle, it was really only felt in the late-period Bryan Ferry-Phil Spector mishmash of “American Dream,” one of only two new songs (along with the far more rollicking “Call The Police”) that slipped in near the end. Otherwise, it was just back to business as usual, from a band that obviously still has plenty of life left in it. [Sean O’Neal]

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Day 2: Saturday, July 15

Jeff Rosenstock, 1:45 p.m.

Photo: Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Punk agitator Jeff Rosenstock had a Pitchfork after-show Sunday night at a venue with a capacity of 300, but Saturday afternoon, the former frontman of Bomb The Music Industry anchored the festival’s headliner Red Stage—and he and his band were clearly floored by the spectacle of thousands of people spread out in front of them. “I’d like to give a shout-out to the person at Pitchfork who got fired for booking us,” Rosenstock said before launching into “I Did Something Weird Last Night,” from last year’s excellent Worry. Rosenstock’s wonder was a running theme throughout the set, which took a turn for the meta around the midway point for Worry’s standout track, “Festival Song.” Just before jumping into the opening “oh-oh-whoa-oh-ohs,” Rosenstock said in passing, “$7500 for us to play this festival.” But it wasn’t a bite-the-hand-that-feeds moment; Rosenstock and his band were clearly having a blast, though he assured the crowd that they shouldn’t feel any obligation to buy things from the festival’s sponsors. Not long after, a plane pulling a banner advertising $3,900 breast-implant surgery flew overhead. [Kyle Ryan]

Weyes Blood, 2:30 p.m.

Some artists, no matter how heralded by the festival’s namesake publication, aren’t well-suited for a mid-afternoon set in blinding sunlight and rising temperatures. Case in point: the hushed, minimalist songs of Weyes Blood, a.k.a. Natalie Mering, who had the unenviable task of following Jeff Rosenstock’s boisterous performance. Weyes Blood’s set began so quietly that the Blue Stage—located on the other side of the park—could’ve won a sound-bleed fight. In time, it grew livelier, but Weyes Blood is better suited for a more intimate venue. [Kyle Ryan]

Arab Strap, 3:20 p.m.

The Scottish sex-and-sadness band Arab Strap split up a decade ago after a run of mostly excellent records but not a huge reach—especially not in the States. That might explain why they’re only doing one U.S. show on this reunion tour. Tales of drunken carnal woe had to battle against a beautiful sunny day at the festival, but they won, with Arab Strap sounding as good as ever—and louder than any other band I heard at the notoriously sorta-quiet fest. The first and last songs were the best: “Stink” (from the band’s final album, 2005’s The Last Romance) opened the show with the career-defining lyric “Burn these sheets that we just fucked in,” and the classic spoken-word single “The First Big Weekend” closed it. Singer Aidan Moffat even updated his lyric about The Simpsons in a way that practically begs to be printed in The A.V. Club: “I used to love The Simpsons / It’s a bit shite now.” [Josh Modell]

Mitski, 4 p.m.

Photo: Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Some bands grow numb to the festival routine, the novelty of a big concert event having worn away long ago. But Saturday offered a couple of wide-eyed artists clearly thrilled to be there: Jeff Rosenstock and, in the late afternoon—and on the smaller Blue Stage—Mitski. Although she performed with a brow that seems almost permanently furrowed, Mitski Miyawaki repeatedly offered her heartfelt thanks to her packed audience, even getting choked up before she closed out her set, saying, “This has been my dream since childhood, since I was little, so thank you… I hope all your dreams come true as well.” Songs from last year’s excellent Puberty 2 dominated her set, with standout “Your Best American Girl” eliciting the biggest response from the crowd. Live, Mitski contrasts the achingly personal entreaties of her songs with a slightly timid, almost maternal presence between songs. But the ferocity with which she performed the set-closing “My Body’s Made Of Crushed Little Stars”—sans her two bandmates, swapping her bass for a tinny electric guitar—made it clear she’s hardly bashful. [Kyle Ryan]

George Clinton, 4:15 p.m.

Folks expecting a rainbow-haired George Clinton on Saturday would’ve been disappointed by the Parliament-Funkadelic bandleader’s relatively plain look; still, his set was nothing if not spectacular. Getting the party started with a cover of Lil Jon’s “Get Low,” Clinton and his huge band moved continuously from one jam into the next, working in new songs (“My Mama Told Me”) and old (“Give Up The Funk,” “Atomic Dog”). It was a kaleidoscope of soulful harmonies, sax solos, and synchronized dance steps that had the whole fest moving. There was a noticeable lack of Bootsy Collins and the late Bernie Worrell, but at least we were treated to an appearance by Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk, that Pinocchio-nosed character of P-Funk mythology. He’s supposed to be, well, devoid of any funk, but Saturday he quickly succumbed to it—finding all manner of platforms on and off stage on which to roll his belly and peacock in his fur pimp suit. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Francis And The Lights, 5:15 p.m.

Never underestimate the power of a potential drop-in from a hometown hero. Chance The Rapper wasn’t there to deliver his verse on Francis And The Lights’ “May I Have This Dance,” but he had enough surrogates in the audience—those in the MC’s signature headgear and those reciting his words out loud—to make up for it. Not that Francis Farewell Starlite should need celebrity co-signs to draw a crowd: The one-man synth-pop band has magnetism aplenty, apparent in his herky-jerky, Scarecrow-in-the-Wizard Of Oz dance moves and the intensity in his eyes (once he dropped the sunglasses). Throughout the set, he made the Blue Stage his jungle gym, first scaling the speakers during “Like A Dream” and later hopping into the crook of a nearby tree. It was the physical prowess of his limber-limbed hoofing on full display, though both times the climb was easier than the descent. Maybe that’s something Chance could’ve lent him a helping hand with. [Erik Adams]

Angel Olsen, 6:15 p.m.

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Squinting into a glaring sun, Angel Olsen and her handsome band (in matching gray suits with bolo ties) worked their way through the Asheville-based singer-songwriter’s back catalog in fine form. Though they touched on earlier cuts (“Acrobat”), the set was dominated by My Woman, The A.V. Club’s third favorite album of 2016, and that album’s tempestuous “Sister” in particular displayed Olsen’s command of her band and audience, held rapt for the song’s nearly 10 minutes. Maybe it was all the reverb (“Make it real wet,” Olsen requested mid-set of the engineer controlling her vocals) or dehydration or both, but it felt a bit like time stood still. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Madlib, 6:30 p.m.

Madlib’s crates are the deepest in the game, an encyclopedia of dusty esoterica that he weaves into endless beats within a miasmically dank L.A. bungalow referred to, mysteriously, as “The Bunker.” In 2010, he released a mixtape per month, each within a different incredibly specific sub-genre, and often containing several dozen tracks lasting just a minute or so each. Thus the question for a Madlib DJ set is: Which version of the mercurial, prolific talent will we get? Turned out it was a bit of all of them, as he cycled through reggae, tropicalia, hard-rock psych, and his own deep back catalog of work with Jaylib, Mos Def, and, of course, MF Doom. When he took to the mic, it was to mutter faux-Jamaican selector patois or to cup his hand over the mic and mutter an incomprehensible musing. I’m not sure exactly what the crowd expected, but it thinned out a little bit as it became clear that, yeah, this was what Madlib was gonna do. The people left were true-blue, head-nodding acolytes, diligently passing blunts and rapping along ferociously as things swung upward in intensity for the final minutes. He let Mobb Deep sirens sound out over some SoundCloud-core rap shit that everyone started moshing to and that I have never heard before in my life, dropped “Mask Off” and Migos to rapturous reception, and then faded out with Lord Quas. Everyone was very high. [Clayton Purdom]

PJ Harvey, 7:25 p.m.

Shortly after Angel Olsen’s set faded out, over at the shaded Green Stage PJ Harvey and her nine-piece band marched out single-file to the martial rhythm of a snare. For the majority of the show, they stuck to the dark chants of 2016’s The Hope Six Demolition Project and 2011’s Let England Shake; “What is the glorious fruit of our land? / The fruit is deformed children” is a hell of a refrain for a sold-out festival crowd to sing along to. Back-dropped by the golden hour of the day, Harvey presented as a sort of shaman divining global affairs, and moved with an intentional art-rock flare, her left hand gesturing dramatically as her right clasped her saxophone. Eventually, Harvey set down the sax and indulged the screaming crowd with three numbers from her iconic ’90s output—“50ft Queenie,” “Down By The Water,” and “To Bring You My Love”—before finishing with the baptismal “River Anacostia.” It was an unsurprisingly impeccable, moving performance from the career provocateur. [Kelsey J. Waite]

A Tribe Called Quest, 8:30 p.m.

Photo: Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The legacy ’90s acts that play Pitchfork—De La Soul, Pavement, Built To Spill, etc.—generally get an appreciative audience peppered with performative superfans. I am living proof that if you go to Pitchfork long enough, eventually the appreciator becomes the superfan. The rest of the crowd here knew a few of the hits off Tribe’s stretch of four (depending on who you ask) classic golden-age LPs, but responded most strongly to tracks from last year’s reunion record. Still, Q-Tip remains one of the great live performers in hip-hop, an almost evangelical figure here clearly giddy to be cutting it up on stage alongside his cousin Consequence, the back-from-retirement Jarobi, and original Tribe DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, who looks like he has spent most of the 2000s doing calisthenics. All of Phife’s verses were played in their entirety, the camera tastefully focusing on an empty mic, while the rest of the troupe nodded their heads, pointed to the sky, or interacted with his photo on the screen behind them. Like last year’s album, the set itself served as an appreciation for and remembrance of the late rapper’s titanic talent. [Clayton Purdom]

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Day 3: Sunday, July 16

Hamilton Leithauser, 4:15 p.m.

The former Walkmen singer has put together a solid band—featuring players from Spoon and White Rabbits—for his on-the-road-solo mode. What he lacks in producer Rostam Batmanglij (his musical partner for last year’s excellent I Had A Dream That You Were Mine), they more than compensate for. His mid-afternoon set was warm enough that Leithauser had to remove his natty white suit jacket about halfway through, and there was a bit of sound bleed from the much more bass-centric Blue Stage, but he still made “A 1000 Times” and the gentle “The Bride’s Dad” sound intimate. [Josh Modell]

Ride, 5:15 p.m.

Equipment problems delayed the British shoegaze legends in Ride a good 15 minutes, which never bodes well for the tightly regimented schedules of a typical music festival. The band had time for “only” nine songs—but considering “Leave Them All Behind” clocks in at eight minutes, “Seagull” at six, and the new “Lannoy Point” just under six, there’s only so much they can do. But Ride did plenty, nicely mixing the better songs from this year’s Weather Diaries—the band’s first new album in 21 years—with hits, including back-to-back unimpeachable classics “Taste” and “Vapour Trail.” The band closed out its set with “Drive Blind,” which included a long interlude of swirling noise that cohered back into a chorus before Ride walked off stage. It’s good to have them back. [Kyle Ryan]

The Avalanches, 6:15 p.m.

The announcement that The Avalanches would be playing their first-ever Chicago show—their first show period where I could conceivably see them—was one of the main reasons I wanted to attend his year (and the primary reason I left my crying daughters to miss their third bedtime in a row). So to arrive at Union Park and find out they’d just canceled their set was a letdown to say the least. The decision, apparently due to an illness in the family, was obviously beyond their control and also very last-minute; there were still equipment cases marked “The Avalanches” on the side of the Green Stage, never to be opened. But man, what a massive, massive disappointment. (Especially since, let’s face it, they could have sent a couple of random dudes out to mime along to a CD and no one would have been the wiser.) [Sean O’Neal]

Solange, 8:30 p.m.

Solange used to have the air of an underdog, bucking her obvious familial comparison and early prepackaged pop work for the surprising indie-pop of “I Decided” and the low-key brilliance of the True EP. But after years of fine-tuning, A Seat At The Table announced her as one of the pivotal figures in modern R&B full stop, and her performance here had an appropriate sense of newfound grandeur. Bathed in red light and backed by close to a dozen musicians, it was a tight set, at once displaying the power of her singing voice and the cohesion of her growing body of work. I had wondered beforehand whether she’d lean into the musicality of her past two releases, leading her band and working the crowd into a loose dance session, or do something more choreographed and fussed-over. Instead, showing the incomparable tastefulness that is sort of The Solange Thing at this point, she did both, syncing up with her band for some geometric dance formations and pulling out a handful of show-stopping performative moments. That martial horn line the underscores “F.U.B.U.” was supplemented by the sudden appearance of a few dozen supplemental band members, a glorious underlining of one of last year’s most sublime musical moments. [Clayton Purdom]