the festival circuit

The Highs, Lows, and Whoas of Pitchfork Festival 2021

St. Vincent, definite high. Photo: Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images

Six weeks after Lollapalooza barreled ahead despite rising concerns about the Delta variant and COVID-19, little seems able to get in the way of music festivals this fall save Mother Nature herself and poor planning. Last weekend saw one of the most anticipated of the season return: Pitchfork Festival, the three-day Chicago event that showcases critical darlings and rising stars (yet somehow no Peppa Pig!). Phoebe Bridgers, St. Vincent, and Erykah Badu topped a lineup full of artists to please most music nerds — and one that delivered many of the standout performances that a discerning showcase like Pitchfork promises. Here are the highs, lows, and whoas of what we saw over the weekend.

HIGH: Every kind of rock fan had a reason to arrive early.
A Friday-afternoon festival crowd can be thin, between fans still finishing up at work and those saving their stamina to last the weekend. But skipping this year’s early-Friday sets meant missing a block of the best rock music Pitchfork 2021 had to offer. That kicked off with emo rising stars Dogleg, who brought their standout 2020 debut album, Melee, to life with a ripping set rough enough to leave bruises, culminating in a closing performance of “Ender” where the band’s passion reached transcendent levels. Chicago heroes Dehd — whose 2020 album, Flower of Devotion, was among the best local releases of the year followed with a set of their groovy, offbeat rock, held together by enthusiastic singer-bassist Emily Kempf shaking her ass to “Haha,” getting the crowd to jump for “Flying,” and contorting her voice into new shapes.

The standout of the afternoon was Hop Along, a Philadelphia group that lately has been making the kind of crisp, sun-kissed rock music perfect for a midday festival set. Rather than test-run new material (the band’s last album, Bark Your Head Off, Dog, arrived in 2018), Hop Along stuck to what it knew: catchy catharsis anchored by the arresting rasp of singer Frances Quinlan, who made the biggest notes seem effortless, down to the tremendous closer, “Tibetan Pop Stars.” The noisy English rockers in black midi followed, and even if their music was a bit too dense for me, witnessing them twist wonky riffs out of their guitars and perform alongside one rocking saxophonist was undeniably impressive.

HIGH: Fiery Furnaces’ reunion was less ceremony and more dance party.
Possibly the biggest shocker of the 2020 lineup was a reunion set by Fiery Furnaces, the quirky, theatrical art-rock duo with roots in the Chicago suburbs. More than a year later, when that reunion finally got to happen, there was little pomp and circumstance about it. Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, outfitted with two drummers and two wildly dexterous keyboardists, performed loose renditions of songs throughout their playful early catalogue (sorry, Widow City fans), with 2020 single “Down at the So and So and Somewhere” seamlessly slipped in. After an afternoon of guitar solos and powerhouse vocals, Fiery Furnaces gave the indie kids a necessarily low-key dance break.

HIGH: Big Thief played like no one was watching.
The opening of Big Thief’s set, closing out day one’s Red Stage, felt like stumbling upon a private moment. The four members crowded into a half-circle at center stage, performing a gentle, gorgeous rendition of the unreleased song “Changes.” It was captivating. The band channeled palpable chemistry into the set, with the members gathering in the center to jam out a song or Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek locking eyes during a vocal harmony. They played more unreleased songs, including a rollicking take on “Spud Infinity” and a particularly hefty closer. Old hits like “Masterpiece” and “Shark Smile” rocked, while Lenker turned “Not” into an absolute fever dream, with possessed screams and a minutes-long guitar solo. The most spellbinding moment of the night came afterward, as the crew switched out James Krivchenia’s kick drum. Lenker performed “Orange” by herself — first accompanying on guitar but eventually just singing a cappella, commanding the stage over the bass from Yaeji’s Blue Stage performance and sirens on the streets behind. It reminded me of something Meek had said to the crowd earlier while the band tuned guitars: “My good friend once told me that real friendship is one in which you could share silence, so thank you for that.” For an hour, Big Thief treated a crowd of thousands like they were old friends.

LOW: Coachella desert, move over.
I returned from the first day of the festival with a layer of dirt covering my legs and an irritated, dusty nose (even after masking up!), owing to the late-summer dryness of Union Park. A high if you’d been missing the Coachella desert, but not for me.

LOW: Jay Electronica was nowhere to be found, again.
We’re used to being stood up by Jay Electronica at this point, but that didn’t soften the blow when the enigmatic rapper canceled his set hours before gates opened on Saturday owing to “unforeseen circumstances.” Not only did that mean missing out on one of Jay Elec’s first performances since finally releasing debut album A Written Testimony in 2020, it threw the Blue Stage into disarray, giving fans a whole new slate of set conflicts to plan around.

WHOA: Bartees Strange took us to rock church.
Bartees Strange’s 2020 album, Live Forever, was one of the most assured of the year, pulling from arena-rock, emo, worship music, country, and rap for something truly singular. He took the Red Stage on Saturday with that same confidence, running through a set that showed all sides of his musicality, from rock rippers like “Mustang” to the low-key bars of “Kelly Rowland.” As great as the guitars and synths sounded, the true draw was Bartees’s voice, which commanded attention on stripped-back ballads like “Going Going” and stadium-level songs like “Stone Meadows” and “Boomer,” which he performed with near-spiritual fervor. It was the sort of set that could make you a believer — if you weren’t already among the Bartees faithful.

HIGH: Waxahatchee and Faye Webster chilled out in the afternoon sun.
The biggest upside to Jay Electronica’s cancellation? Fans of sun-kissed, easygoing folk rock could catch both Waxahatchee and Faye Webster, with Faye’s Blue Stage set pushed later into the evening. For Waxahatchee’s Green Stage set, singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield brought the jangly ramblers and contemplative ballads off her 2020 album Saint Cloud to dazzling life, backed by members of Detroit band Bonny Doon. Webster followed up with an even more low-key set in the shaded Blue Stage, crooning the lazy love songs off I Know I’m Funny haha, released in June, alongside a band that included live pedal steel. Either set made for the perfect moment to stretch out on a picnic blanket and roll a joint or sip a beer — like the refreshing peach lager that Webster created with Goose Island exclusively for the festival.

HIGH: Chicago showed out on Saturday.
Pitchfork tends to do a better job than Chicago’s flagship music festival, Lollapalooza, at actually booking local talent. In particular, Saturday emphasized all the city’s music scene had to offer. The rising teen rockers of Horsegirl kicked the day off with their skillful no-wave, which sounded especially huge outdoors in Union Park. Colombian American rock band Divino Niño followed shortly after with a spaced-out set that sounded vibey in the best way. Jay Electronica’s dropout opened up a slot for last-minute addition RP Boo, a pioneer of the city’s transcendent footwork scene, who brought two dancers as agile as his beats for a set of pure entertainment.

Later, ahead of St. Vincent’s headlining set, fans couldn’t go wrong with two of the city’s best singer-songwriter exports, Angel Olsen (who moved to Asheville, North Carolina, in 2013) and Jamila Woods. I caught the early part of Olsen’s set, which opened with a massive performance of her song “All Mirrors,” complete with strings players; she also played rousing takes on “Shut Up Kiss Me” and “Forgiven/Forgotten,” along with debuting her brooding cover of Laura Branigan’s “Gloria.” Then I ran to Woods’s set, which she held down with a band that stayed eternally in the pocket as they ran through songs off her 2019 album, LEGACY! LEGACY!, covers of Nirvana and Tracy Chapman, and a tender new love song called “Headfirst.” She and her band seemed to leave everything on the stage after their finale performance of “SULA (Paperback),” yet they obliged the crowd with an encore performance of “MUDDY” that sounded heavy enough to please its namesake. As disappointed as I was to miss Sharon Van Etten’s surprise appearance to close Angel Olsen’s set with their duet “Like I Used To,” Woods’ performance was worth sticking around for to the end.

WHOA: Phoebe Bridgers and St. Vincent played past the headlines.
Phoebe Bridgers’s Pitchfork-headlining set was a coronation. Over the past year and change, Bridgers’s second solo album, Punisher, rocketed her from rising singer-songwriter to indie icon, leading to a Saturday Night Live performance, top-tier collaborations, and accolades like Grammy nominations and best-of-list spots. Even with a larger, six-piece band behind her and pop-up-book projections accompanying her Punisher songs, Bridgers’s headlining set wasn’t too flashy — often, a few members of that band sat idly as she played faithful renditions of the quiet songs that got her to this point. There were a few huge moments, largely courtesy of strings and horns on the outro to “Scott Street” and the bridge to “Moon Song.” But while the more intimate songs, like “Smoke Signals,” sounded pretty, they didn’t quite command a headlining set (especially after following an act like Big Thief). The explosive closer, “I Know the End,” was more than worth the wait — there’s truly no match to experiencing that scream in person — although it also showed that Bridgers is more than capable of the bigness she’d been avoiding for the past 70 minutes.

Saturday closer St. Vincent, meanwhile, is classic Pitchfork fare, having previously headlined the Red Stage in 2014. But her most recent album, May’s Daddy’s Home, was largely forgettable, dwarfed by the rest of her singular discography. So if the question for Bridgers was whether she was ready to headline, the question for St. Vincent was whether she was still worth seeing as a headliner. She answered with a resounding yes, presenting an arena-level stage show complete with a set, background singers, and a stellar band that lived up to the expectations of the ’70s rock she channeled on Daddy’s Home. New songs like the title track and “Pay Your Way in Pain” crackled live, fitting right in with rocking renditions of hits like “Actor” and “Cheerleader.” The set wasn’t without some melodramatic moments, such as when Clark put down her guitar to sing a karaokelike “New York” or performed a dragging “Live in the Dream” late into the set, but all it took was a quick guitar solo on the next song, and things were firing on all cylinders once again. For a performer who has always traded in shock and awe, Clark delivered both in spades.

WHOA: Live bands bring visionary albums to life on day three.
St. Vincent’s Saturday-headlining set kicked off a trend for Sunday: Live bands absolutely killed it. Early in the afternoon, Chicago-born soul auteur keiyaA channeled the hazy songs on her debut album, Forever, Ya Girl, with renewed clarity, reimagining them to fit her three-piece band while still keeping the focus on her, thanks to huge, impassioned vocal performances. Later, Tamara Lindeman debuted a fuller version of her band the Weather Station to realize songs off her provocative climate-change concept album, Ignorance, which sounded alternately groovy and haunting thanks to uneasy percussion and free-jazz saxophone.

On a record, Yves Tumor makes similarly provocative rock music, but when they took the Blue Stage after the Weather Station, they were simply ready to impress. On their 2020 album, Heaven to a Tortured Mind, and recent EP The Asymptotical World, they pivoted from enigmatic experimentalist to avant-garde glam rocker, and their performance was the full realization of that rock fantasy. The fuzziness of the guitars at the beginning only added to the feeling that this was a sweaty, rowdy bar set; Tumor’s mulleted guitarist deserves special credit for performing some of the grimiest solos I have ever heard live. Although the star was, of course, Yves Tumor themselves, playing utterly captivating diva-rocker as they scowled and shrieked through their songs, clad in a Slipknot shirt with short shorts and knee-high boots. They rocked to the last seconds of their set, with production eventually cutting them off to everyone’s disappointment. I’d call it a star-making performance for Tumor, but the set made clear they already were one.

WHOA: Yves fucking Tumor.
Just in case you missed the previous blurb, because I cannot say it enough.

LOW: The number of rappers.
Even before Jay Electronica dropped out, this year’s Pitchfork lineup had a record low number of rappers, few enough to count on one hand — disappointing at a festival that, while it holds a reputation for booking great indie rock, tends to be one of the most omnivorous of the season. I’d guess the festival struggled to compete with Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash, the Gen-Z–oriented Chicago hip-hop festival that expanded to three days this year, along with the usual competition from Lollapalooza; rappers like Freddie Gibbs (who played Lolla) and Benny the Butcher (who played Summer Smash) would have fit just as snugly in the Pitchfork lineup. Still, the rappers who did take the stage proved to be highlights, like Maxo Kream, the Houston big talker who spit a set of hard, energetic bars while getting the crowd to kick up some dust and mosh a little at the Blue Stage.

HIGH: Danny Brown, Cat Power, and Erykah Badu close the weekend with nothing to prove.
This year especially, the stakes for the performances were high, with many artists debuting material live for the first time since the pandemic. But the final sets I caught on Sunday entertained with no expectations. That began with Danny Brown, who warned the crowd in between laps around the stage that he had forgotten some of his lyrics after spending quarantine toying with his new air fryer rather than practicing. He still managed to put on a high-octane, hilarious, crowd-pleasing set, complete with standout appearances for his Bruiser Brigade Records signees ZelooperZ and Bruiser Wolf and just four (4) bars off his highly anticipated album XXXX. Then, closing the Blue Stage, Cat Power abandoned her guitar and piano for a loose, moving set, lulling the crowd into a trance with old cuts from Moon Pix and The Greatest, along with a particularly affecting closing cover medley of the folk song “He Was a Friend of Mine,” Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” and Boys Next Door’s “Shivers.” She even returned to sing “The Moon,” accompanied by just her guitarist, telling the crowd, “I don’t do encores, so this is just another song.” And it all built toward closing-night headliner Erykah Badu — 25 minutes late but immediately in the zone, running through her soulful classics alongside her nine-piece band. Of course she sounded amazing and was wildly entertaining, but with no expectation of new music (and none delivered), her set was the perfect celebration to close the weekend: an hour full of dancing, singing, and grooving for minutes after she was told to wrap.

The Highs, Lows, and Whoas of Pitchfork Festival 2021