Pitchfork Festival 2017: A Review

Festivals can be a truly polarizing experience. On one hand, there are a lot of unknown variables that can lend themselves to a bad time. Not so friendly weather, band cancellations, poor planning, and endless lines at food stands and bathrooms. On the other hand, there’s nothing quite like watching your favourite artists in the great outdoors, the freedom to be as much (or as little) part of the action as you like, and just the feeling of warm air and summer vibes that connect you with the rest of the attendees in a way you just don’t get inside a closed venue. While Pitchfork Festival has a history of strong line-ups and excellent organization, I still wasn’t sure what to expect, it being my first time attending. Happily, the 11th edition of the festival, held at its usual spot of Union Park in Chicago, superseded my already high expectations.

What I noticed right away was just how much the festival was geared towards making the experience a pleasant, accessible, and inclusive one for all. The shows flowed smoothly into one another, minimizing travel between stages. Facilities were easily reachable and services were very quick. Kids in the audience had designated areas and activities to entertain themselves. There were even cooling stations for anyone to take a break in if the heat ever got too bad (luckily, it didn’t). Given how much waste is produced at festivals, I appreciated its focus on sustainability, with composting and recycling being integrated into the weekend.

The festival also promoted the important, and sadly, all too-relevant, #wearorange campaign. Partnering with Everytown for Gun Safety and Mothers Against Senseless Killings (MASK), Pitchfork encouraged concertgoers and staff to wear orange and raise awareness and support for those affected by the city’s gun violence.

Additionally, Pitchfork had a bunch of cool features, including the CHIPR Record Fair (where you could find pretty much everything the site’s ever reviewed on vinyl), Flatstock, an impressive band poster sale hosted in part by the American Poster Institute, the roving and integrative book fair, Book Fort, the Renegade Craft Fair (the world’s largest showcase of independent craft and design), and The Saint Heron House, a multidisciplinary weekend event presenting art installation, poetry readings, artist talks, and film screenings.

And now, onto the concerts themselves. Before I begin, I must disclose that my main task was photographing the event (a last-minute situation meant I had to also review), so my summary of the festival is limited to the shows I was able to attend and actively experience.



The first show I caught was Danny Brown, whose set began with a DJ pumping up the crowd. Once the opening of “Grown Up” started and Danny Brown jumped onto the stage, the audience was fully charged. Brown himself had a very large and playful stage present, totally basking in the performative aspects of the live show. He would make eye contact with the photographers and enjoyed posing for us and the crowd. His energy made for a really fun set and great festival opener for me.

I was glad to catch Dirty Projectors next. I’ve been a fan of the band’s distinct vocal play and experimental harmonies since their early album, Rise Above (a disjointed reimagining of Black Flag’s Damaged), and was excited to hear frontman and longstanding member David Longstreth live. He didn’t disappoint. While the band played mostly from their latest album (S/T) which is a lot more subdued than their previous records, the set as a whole, which included a brass section, sounded amazing live, and Longstreth put on a soulful, poignant performance.

Although there were delays setting up Jesse Kanda’s visuals, Arca took command of the stage the second he strut on wearing heels. He immediately interacted with the crowd, getting one of the photographers to open up his bottle of champagne and calling out to the fans holding his hometown flag of Venezuela. He started things off with a DJ set, which incorporated his unique blend of South American rhythms and experimental flourishes. He then integrated his operatic vocals (prominent on his new album) into the mix, all while maintaining a connection with the audience, which really brought the show to another level. I was already been a fan of his work, but his performance made me appreciate it even more.

The final act of the night, LCD Soundsystem, was the show I was most anticipating and it ended up being my favourite performance of the whole festival. From the moment the band got on stage, it was a non-stop party. Playing their most danceable tracks off all their albums, James Murphy and the rest of LCD exuded so much energy and passion onstage, it was impossible to not to feel elated. Despite knowing they would be fantastic live, I was still mesmerized by Murphy’s dynamically emotive vocals and blown away by drummer Pat Mahoney’s ability to maintain exact beats mixed with subtle embellishments all while engaging with the crowd. There was a great moment when keyboardist Gavin Rossum started off “All My Friends” on the wrong chord. When she seamlessly corrected herself, Murphy joked that they were playing jazz. This type of light-hearted camaraderie really exemplified what their shows were all about. Other highlights included an extended version of “New York I Love You,” the incredible power of “Dance Yrself Clean,” and a perfect performance of “American Dream.”


I wasn’t able to partake in as much of Saturday’s shows as I would have liked. PJ Harvey didn’t allow outside photographers, so I unfortunately missed her set. Conversely, A Tribe Called Quest was the only headliner that did allow us to shoot during their performance, but as I was stuck in the mayhem that was the media pit, I wasn’t able to view much of their show beyond noting their compelling presence and the amazing response they received from the crowd. The only set I was able to watch in full that day was S U R V I V E, who garnered widespread recognition with their score for Netflix’s Stranger Things. The set consisted of each of the four band members on synths doing what they do best: creating dark and bass-heavy cinematic music. Something, however, felt missing from their performance. The members themselves felt a bit removed, which isn’t surprising given their predominant soundtrack and recording work. Probably more problematic (and completely out of their control) was the fact that they were playing while it was still daylight out. This made it more difficult to fully be immersed in the mood they were trying to create, which was unfortunate, because I’m sure their sound would be do well in a darker venue.


The third and final day was a solid and satisfying end to the festival. I got to watch two of the other acts I was eagerly awaiting, Ride and Nicolas Jaar. Ride’s show started off the day for me and it was amazing. Opening up with new track “Lannoy’s Point” and playing both classics and new releases, they touched on a sense that was both nostalgic and current. The band’s vocal harmonies were on point, elevated by the beautiful sunrays that were shining on them. I had questioned whether or not their recordings would translate well to a live setting, and happily, each song did.

Next up was Jamila Woods, who due to a cancellation from The Avalanches, was moved up to the larger Green Stage. Without missing a beat, the Chicago-based R&B artist captivated the audience with her bright presence and her poetic performance. She played an inspiring set, culminating in the significant song “Blk Girl Soldier.” I was glad to have been part of the crowd.

My night was capped off with a phenomenal set by one of my favourite artists, Nicolas Jaar. The experience was one that was visceral, as he managed to capture his signature disjointed electroacoustics along with his beautiful, broody melodies exceptionally well. Surrounded by synths and his laptop, he perfectly layered drum kicks and sub-bass with his vocals and looping saxophone, revving the crowd into dancing. He played tracks off of Sirens, as expected, but also pleasantly surprised me with songs off of his EPs Fight and Swim/Mistress. In general, his performance reinforced the fact that he is an impeccable producer and a master of texture.

Overall, my experience at the Pitchfork Festival was a memorable one. In addition to the fantastic bands I got to witness and the user-friendly nature of the event, the spirit and charm of Pitchfork was further emphasized by its audience. Though the crowd was no doubt made up of both tourists and locals alike, I could not help but be enamored by the people of Chicago during my stay. Whether at the festival or roaming the city, they exuded a sense of belonging that anchored Chicago as a home away from home in my mind. I look forward to making my way back for next year’s festival.