Recap: Pitchfork Music Festival 2021

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The fifteenth edition of Pitchfork Music Festival took place in Chicago’s Union Park this past weekend, providing yet another return to festivals following the pandemic year. With an outstandingly diverse lineup that, notably, had three women headliners (an unfortunate rarity among the male-dominated festival scene) and artists that were sure to please anybody regardless of music taste, it felt like a return to form for the festival as you were likely to catch artists that would not typically play festivals. Though there were some logistical setbacks (notably, the entire park was an absolute dustbowl the whole weekend — I’m still blowing black dust out of my nose), Pitchfork went off mostly without a hitch, offering an impressive weekend of live music with one of the best lineups that you’ll find this year. Below are the most notable sets we caught at the festival, for better or for worse:

Day One:

Black Midi

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Known for their multi-genre tenacity, black midi brought their chaotic sound to the Green Stage where it was utterly impossible to escape the mosh. They sound exactly as they do on record, which is not a drag but instead a compliment to their impressive skill as individual musicians. Lead singer Geordie Greep moved from instrument to instrument between every song, while drummer Morgan Simpson put on one of the most engaging and impressive individual performances of the weekend. This show took off in a live festival setting — it should be intimidating to other bands to imagine what it will be like this fall when they tour smaller clubs and theatres in the United States.

 

The Fiery Furnaces

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There was a lot of hype behind this performance, and deservedly so — Friday’s appearance on the Red Stage marked the eclectic Brooklyn band’s first performance in ten years. Built around siblings Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger, The Fiery Furnaces became indie rock royalty in the mid-00s with their seamless fusion of experimental music alongside more traditional pop sensibilities. After watching Friday’s performance which featured a full band that included two synchronous drummers, it’s incredible to report that The Fiery Furnaces have not lost a beat in their ten years off the road. Deftly weaving new singles like the “Down at the So-and-so and Somewhere” alongside songs from their seminal album Blueberry Boat, the band put their foot on the gas and never let up. A set that probably shouldn’t have worked in the bright Chicago heat was instead a celebratory event for one of indie rock’s most beloved cult artists.

 

Animal Collective

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While we’re on the subject of acclaimed indie artists from the 2000s, Friday’s set from Animal Collective was an interesting departure from previous tours of the band. In a four-piece setup, the Baltimore quartet played a relatively straightforward set that leaned heavily on new, unreleased material. The new songs fell a little flat, only because AnCo has so strongly leaned on brilliant visuals and bright synthesizers for most of their career; instead, on the summer day, the new songs got downright jammy recalling Phish at some points. We should still eagerly anticipate whatever new music they have coming, but this was definitely an odd fit for the late festival day, no matter the cultural cachet they might have held at one point.

 

Kelly Lee Owens

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Tucked away on the Blue Stage (Pitchfork’s stage for up-and-comers and more niche acts), Kelly Lee Owens put on an electrifying set built on tracks from her 2020 album Inner Song. Armed with two synthesizers, a pile of smoke, and the most fashionable bodysuit of the festival, Owens consistently brought energy and had the entire crowd on their feet. This set was somewhat of a surprise to me, as I’d lumped Owens in with other electronic producers that took a more passive approach to their live performances; she was 100% into it, delivering her songs with an electricity that stretched across the festival grounds.

 

Big Thief

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Big Thief’s set on the Red Stage was supposed to be a coronation of sorts. After 2019’s dual release of UFOF and Two Hands paired with the legendary tales of their live show, this was their chance to take it to the next level with a sub-headlining set that could elevate them to headliner status at the next go-around. And to their credit, they absolutely delivered. Both sides of Big Thief were present on Friday night: the soft, folky stylings that played to the strengths of frontwoman Adrianne Lenker’s devastating voice and guitarist Buck Meek’s nimble fretwork, and then the guttural roar that the band can produce on songs like “Not”, or the unreleased “Dragon” that closed the set. They sounded absolutely fantastic, and there’s an argument to be made that they’re probably the best American rock band at the moment.

However, there was one crucial problem — they only sounded fantastic when you were able to hear them. Unfortunately, the Red Stage had sound problems for most of the day, with Big Thief’s set no exception. Meek’s guitar was completely lost in the mix, and on the softer songs they were completely drowned out by the booming bass of Yaeji who was playing at the opposite Blue Stage. The band seemed to be painfully aware of these sound issues, taking longer pauses between songs in an attempt to start the next one when there was a silent moment. It was a real shame that a truly incredible live set was marred by factors outside of the band’s control, but it’s all the more reason to catch them on their tour this fall where you can truly take in the Big Thief sound as it’s meant to be heard.

 

Phoebe Bridgers

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Skeleton costumes and various years of her merch were inescapable on Friday, signalling the arrival of Phoebe Bridgers to Union Park. After having arguably the greatest 2020 of any musician with the release of Punisher, this show was a stop on her Reunion tour that has her playing massive amphitheatres and sub-headlining festivals across the country. As possibly the most universally popular headliner of the festival, there was great anticipation among everyone for the set to close out day one on the Green Stage.

As she took the stage with her skeleton costume-clad band and immediately launched into “Motion Sickness”, the crowd went wild. Hers is a completely devoted fandom, dedicated to following Bridgers around every twist and turn of her career. From there, she pretty much played Punisher all the way through, allowing listeners to take in the soft beauty of songs like “Garden Song” and “Savior Complex” alongside the more upbeat material of “ICU” and “Kyoto”, which she dedicated to her dad with a clever “Fuck you, Dad!” Peppering in past material from Stranger in the Alps and a very serious take on Bo Burnham’s “Funny Feeling”, it all led to the grand closer “I Know the End” that took Union Park over with a mighty roar.

If there was one complaint about the set, it’s that it was a shockingly soft set for a headlining act. That’s not to speak of the weakness of her material — Punisher was my album of the year last year — but it was easy to zone out for periods at a time because the energy was consistently low. Moments like “I Know the End” or “ICU” were extremely potent because of their ability to engage with festival goers in a raucous way, which is somewhat necessary when you’re playing to twenty thousand festival-goers. It will be interesting to watch how Bridgers handles this extreme leap in fame over the next year, as these songs, despite how strong they are on record, struggle slightly when being played to thousands in the open air.

 

Day Two:

Bartees Strange

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Similarly to the aforementioned Phoebe Bridgers, Bartees Strange had an incredible pandemic year with the release of his debut album Live Forever. He seemingly had every single music outlet on his side, with the haunting blend of emo, indie rock, and RnB making one of the most impressive debuts of recent memory. His live set completely lived up to the hype, as Bartees was utterly electrifying with a five piece band that brought these songs to life. You can tell that this is an incredible time for him, as he frequently referenced just how mindblowing it was that he was playing Pitchfork. Songs like “Mustang” and “Stone Meadows” were exceptionally powerful given how early in the day he was (shockingly) playing, and his set served as a shot across the bow to festival headliners that he’s coming for their throne.

 

Waxahatchee

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2020’s Saint Cloud brought the wonderful folk stylings of Katie Crutchfield’s Waxahatchee project to a greater notoriety, and it was simply a delight to see her bring them to the stage for one of the first shows of her U.S. tour. Backed by the Detroit band Bonny Doon, Crutchfield commanded the stage with an impressive presence and an even more impressive voice, with songs like “Fire” and “Arkadelphia” allowing for a chance for her unique style to shine. It was impossible to walk through the crowd and see dry eyes — it’s clear that Saint Cloud meant a lot to a lot of people in 2020 (myself included), and this set was one of the greatest examples of being thankful for live music’s return in 2021.

 

Faye Webster

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Jay Electronica’s sudden absence on Saturday allowed for a later set for Faye Webster on the Blue Stage, which was probably a smart choice given her rise in popularity thanks to the release of this year’s I Know I’m Funny haha. Armed with a steel guitarist and an extremely tight backing band, Webster’s smooth voice was a salve for the intense heat of the day, allowing listeners to kick back and relax as they took in one of the brightest stars of 2021.

 

Ty Segall and the Freedom Band

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Over on the Red Stage, the thunderous roar of Ty Segall was an opposing choice to the relaxed melodies of Faye Webster. Speaking with a horribly cliched reference, this was a set that melted the faces off of every listener that was there. Playing songs off of his surprise 2021 album Harmonizer, it often felt like the second coming of Black Sabbath or T Rex was taking hold of the Red Stage. Segall’s been going at this for a long time and is known to be insanely prolific, but his set on Saturday was a reminder that he’s simply one of the best in the garage and psych-rock scene no matter how many bands rise up to challenge him.

 

Kim Gordon

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There was no greater indie rock royalty on the bill than Kim Gordon. The former Sonic Youth frontwoman was in prime form on Saturday, delivering a blistering set that blurred the line between experimental and garage rock. She commanded her band like a conductor, pushing and pulling with the tension between her and the audience to consistently deliver a satisfying payoff. If there were any questions of if she still had what it takes to own a festival stage, those were resoundingly answered with her outstanding set.

 

Jamila Woods

Jamila Woods had a rapturous return to her hometown of Chicago on the Blue Stage, unexpectedly becoming a headliner after Jay Electronica’s sudden absence. With her band that included backup singers, horns, and a tight rhythm section, all of it was held together with Woods’ remarkable voice — a soft powerhouse that was able to unite all of the listeners together. Playing through songs off of LEGACY LEGACY! Woods was one of the few artists over the weekend to be drawn back onstage for an encore, showing a hometown love that translated to her riveting live performance.

 

Angel Olsen

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One of the most highly-regarded artists on the lineup, Angel Olsen’s Red Stage-closing set on Saturday was an exercise in incredible songwriting that served as a great primer for St. Vincent. Donning a bright lime-green suit amidst a band dressed fully in black, Olsen smoothly worked through the songs of 2019’s outstanding All Mirrors in stunning fashion, with her voice echoing and carrying the performance on songs like “Lark” and “All Mirrors”. On the video screens adjacent to the stage, Olsen elected to have them play the set in black and white, creating the illusion that we were transported back to a sultry lounge era that was fitting for the moment. As the set wound to a close, the moment which had been teased all day through Instagram occurred — Sharon Van Etten joined Olsen for an incredible duet of “Like I Used To”, their immediate entry for this year’s song of the year. The two powerhouse vocalists joining forces was a remarkable moment on Saturday, and one can only hope for more collaborative material between the two as a result.

 

St. Vincent

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It seemed like everything on Saturday was pointed towards Annie Clark. Despite the tepid response to this year’s Daddy’s Home (which I personally feel is a somewhat misunderstood and very good album), St. Vincent’s spot on the 2021 lineup is an example of pure star power, as Clark has an ability to pull anything and everything into her orbit with her charismatic presence.

It became clear from the beginning that this was not your typical St. Vincent show. Opening with a jazzy, 70s-inspired take on the previously mechanical “Digital Witness”, Clark simply dominated Union Park with her set that touched on every aspect of her discography. There were the complete guitar god moments on songs like “Los Ageless” and “Down”, the softer, more introspective times of “At The Holiday Party” and “New York”, and the uninhibited funk of older tracks “Marrow” and “Sugarboy.” All the while, Clark strutted and preened across the stage like a total rock star, simply owning the moment that was laid out for her with a headlining set. 

 

Day Three:

Tomberlin

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A last-minute addition to the lineup after Cassandra Jenkins canceled her tour, Sarah Beth Tomberlin opened the last day of the festival with her moving blend of acoustic folk. The crowd was held in a stunned silence every time she opened her mouth, as her powerful and nuanced voice stirred listeners awake after a long, hot weekend of attendance. It’s incredibly bold to take a festival stage with just yourself and a guitar, but Tomberlin captivated the audience and proved that the moment was right for her.

 

Special Interest

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This band was arguably the most impressive surprise of the festival. With an early spot on the Red Stage, the New Orleans quartet turned in a set of insane intensity playing songs from their critically acclaimed 2020 album The Passion Of. Blending industrial, rock, and punk music together alongside singer Alli Logout’s vicious stage presence, their set was a shot in the arm to festival goers that weren’t expecting the intensity. Bringing to mind bands like Daughters or Algiers, Special Interest showed a lot of potential for them to become one of the greatest live bands in their genre.

 

The Weather Station

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With 2021’s Ignorance popping up on most critics’ best-of lists midway through the year, The Weather Station put on a hell of a show as one of their only sets of the summer. The project is led by singer Tamara Lindeman, whose soft voice on record betrays the complete power that the full band brings to their live sets. Whereas Ignorance could be subdued at points, their set crackled with energy brought on by an impressive rhythm section and the addition of saxophone and clarinet. Songs like “Robber” escalated into a chaotic fervor while still remaining grounded by Lindeman’s voice and tight songwriting; this is a band that is going to absolutely level clubs when the time is right to go on a full-on tour again.

 

Caroline Polachek

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Caroline Polachek is having a remarkable year. Coming off of sold-out appearances at the Hollywood Bowl and the announcement that she will be supporting Dua Lipa on her upcoming arena tour, the day was primed for a star-making set at the Green Stage. However, despite how impressive her voice is (which, goodness, she might be the most technically impressive singer in pop music today), her set on the Green Stage was slightly underwhelming as she worked her way through 2020’s Pang and a bevy of unreleased material. More than anything, I think Polachek fell victim to being in the middle of the day — being unable to rely on an exquisite visual production (like her Hollywood Bowl show) left the energy feeling a little lacking, as the songs kind of blended together after running through the hits at the very beginning. However, the final song, “Door”, was an absolute stunner that reminded everyone of everything that Polachek can bring to the table — pulsating bass, one of the world’s most recognizable voices, and airy synths that perfectly drifted across the festival grounds.

 

Yves Tumor

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Over at the Blue Stage, festival goers got to witness the greatest set of the weekend. We said in our festival preview that the charismatic Yves Tumor could launch themselves into headliner status given the strength of last year’s Heaven to a Tortured Mind, and that is exactly what they did. Wearing a tattered Slipknot crop top with leather knee-high boots, the artist took the stage with a frenzied fury that was absolutely unmatched among the other acts playing the festival. They gave everything to the audience, playing up their glammy, scuzzy version of rock and roll to maximum intensity and entertainment value. Opening with “Gospel for a New Century”, the band tore through their set almost in an almost feral manner; Tumor stalked the stage like a mechanized Mick Jagger or David Bowie, swinging the microphone like a lasso, diving into the photo pit, and bending over to let out howls that echoed across the field. The band behind them was simply awe-inspiring, featuring a guitarist that leaned fully into the 80s hair metal stylings of Tumor’s latest work to unleash some of the greatest guitar solos I’ve ever heard at a festival.

This performance felt akin to Bob Dylan going electric at Newport, or the shock and awe of seeing Little Richard or Prince for the first time; it was a nuclear-level introduction to an artist that has the potential to become the greatest rock legend of our generation. It might feel like hyperbole, but the truth is this: see this show immediately this fall when it comes to your area.

 

Andy Shauf

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The Canadian singer-songwriter’s set was quietly one of the best and most beloved sets of the weekend, with the Blue Stage crowd knowing every single word to every single song. Shauf looked energized and thrilled to be there, seemingly caught off guard by the love shown to every one of his songs. Beginning with latest single “Spanish on the Beach” and then proceeding to play through most of The Neon Skyline, Shauf and his band offered a way to satisfyingly end the festival by diving into the stories he writes through his songs.

 

Erykah Badu

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One of the questions asked throughout Sunday was “Is Erykah going to show up?” The mercurial RnB legend has made a habit of appearing late to her own shows, and with a tough Chicago curfew of 10 PM, many questioned what kind of headlining set we were going to get from the Fat Belly Bella.

After a thirty minute delay, Badu took the stage and instantly transported us back to 1997. She was delightfully eclectic, taking the stage with a full band and a set that touched upon every aspect of her career. After nearly thirty years in the spotlight, Badu is still essential to our music landscape, and performances of “On and On” and “Tyrone” were highlights as the crowd grooved and swayed to the beat.

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