I am writing this from a concrete stoop in Logan Square at 11:26 pm the Sunday night following Pitchfork Music Festival. Rain rhythmically spills off of the apartment roof in Swiss army triplets. A small group of twenty-something’s emerge from the basement next door dragging a cooler across equidistant sidewalk cracks at a tempo of 82 bpm. Somewhere an alarm sounds on random syncopated off beats. From a birds-eye view, Chicago is an angular assortment of square blocks and clogged streets slick with a thin sheen of human-generated grease. There is a constant functional movement of people and machines and people operating machines, and the natural and unintentional musicality of the city is inescapable.
The ponchos, plaid rain jackets, and sweaty t-shirts of Union Park became well acquainted with an audience of hovering clouds showering a consistent sheet of mist throughout the three days of Pitchfork Music Festival. The festival was relatively straightforward and minimalist in its structure: Three color-coded stages, staggered acts, one tent for drinks, one tent for eats, behind those tents were other tents occupied by local artists, labels, and band/fest merch. Unlike most summer festivals the tents, tables, and displays of corporate sponsors sat on the outskirts of the park functioning as an option rather than a distraction. Plain and simple, this is a music festival for people who care about music… and don’t mind blowing $12 on a sugary cocktail.
While Pitchfork was a 2018 dream line-up for me, I don’t want to spend time talking about the bands that I made plans to see. I want to talk about the bands that I changed my plans to see.
Moses Sumney graces the red stage positioning himself behind four different microphones and a Voicelive looping station protruding from a black and gold podium. Sumney straps up a cherry red modified Fender Stratocaster, and lazily finger picks the first chord of “Don’t Bother Calling.” By the time he has crooned out the fourth line of the first verse nearly every attendee in the thousand-plus mass of human beings has fallen silent. This audience was the quietest/most attentive version of the crowd I witnessed over the duration of the fest. Throughout his set, Sumney uses the looping station to assemble bone-chilling layers of lush vocal harmonies in the foreground of his four-piece live band. His violinist uses an effects pedal that produces the sound of an upright bass and the band follows his lead towards the eerie introduction to the climax of their setlist “Lonely World.” By mid-song Sumney has created his most massive stack of layered vocal loops in time for the mighty drum break that I can only describe as similar to the last scene of Whiplash. The energy of the crowd has swung a complete one-eighty now as everyone within a forty foot proximity of the stage is jumping and cheering in a manner that only occurs at major sports events. Excited strangers are looking around at other excited strangers with the sort of expression one would have if an extra-terrestrial spaceship has just returned Prince to earth and abducted the president instead.
Chicago is the sort of place I nostalgically associate with certain tunes and specific bands (i.e., Chicago dive bars = “Satisfied” by The Replacements or “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division.) My uncultured existence was not familiar with Japandroids before watching their set; the exception being a faint memory of someone spinning their first album sometime last year at the record store where I work. As Sunday was winding down, my former college roommate/best friend, whom I attended the festival with, made the executive decision that there were parts of the eighties we needed to leave in the eighties; so we left Chaka Kahn and gravitated towards the sound of monstrous guitar feedback at the blue stage. Picture four full-size Marshall/Orange cabinets (taller than me standing on my own shoulders) almost on fire amplifying feel-good power chord progressions via one vintage Fender Telecaster deluxe clad punk-rocker accompanying the happiest, angriest and most concise drummer I’ve ever seen, and they’re both melodically sing/shouting “ooooohhhh” in every chorus. This description sounds like I’m knocking them, I’m not. This audience was the happiest crowd I witnessed over the duration of the fest, and it was contagious. Japandroids were loud, and they were pissed off, but they were anthemically comforting. They sounded like Chicago. As a musician and a music-appreciator, I was nearly positive that the music industry had contrived and genre-deviated rock and roll into non-existence, but the memory of experiencing Japandroids for the first time will live on to me as proof they didn’t.
Lucy Dacus is a musician who I deeply identify with the songwriting and live performance of as a frontwoman of a rock band who perceives the world from inside a black cumulonimbus cloud of social anxiety. Being painfully aware of the attitude in a venue (often to a fault), I frequently make decisions to accommodate my perception of strangers (aka changing the order of setlists/cutting songs) and even occasionally forgetting the chords/words to a song I’ve written and played hundreds of times. When I watch other musicians experience this in a live setting, my empathy senses tingle hard, but I walk away having fallen more in love with them and their raw display of imperfect humanity. Lucy was the first show I saw at Pitchfork, and while the rain set a very appropriate mood for her music, it was just dense enough to damage expensive gear (and perhaps electrocute sentient human beings.) Inevitably, there were hiccups in the key of last-minute setlist changes, small moments of misfiring neurons, and the subtle lapse in judgment of a sound tech troubleshooting microphone feedback. These hiccups were no match for the second half of the set when Dacus and her band nailed their stride while powerfully and compassionately delivering the political remonstration piece “Yours & Mine.” The setlist adjustment worked in favor of the crowd’s vibes, and her group navigated a smooth and dynamic ascent to their final song (one of the few songs that have caused me to cry in public) “Nightshift.” I’ve learned over time that music preference is mostly just an extension for how we identify ourselves and how we want the world to recognize us. There are bands I’ve loved and never met that feel like family members because the emotions and inner dialogue they convey with music and lyrics draw dangerously close to my understanding of the world. With that in mind, Lucy Dacus kind of feels like the cool role-modelesque cousin of profound insight.