Pitchfork Music Festival 2023 brings the best to Chicago

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Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival, celebrating its seventeenth year, has become somewhat of a cultural institution of its own separate from the eponymous blog it is named after. West Loop’s Union Park transforms over the span of three days into a tastemaker’s paradise — its manageable size allows guests to generally see every set they want to see. Those sets are remarkably diverse in genre and vibe, and the smaller Blue Stage often provided the chance to see acts up close and personal with its size and intimacy.

And man, the sets themselves — I spoke out loud no less than seven times over the weekend that “this was the set of the day.” Bands I’d hardly familiarized myself with vaulted themselves to the top of my personal leaderboard. Not even a rain delay on a cloudy Saturday could dampen the vibes of the festival — whether it was Nation of Language’s infectious 80s fever dreaming on Friday, Weyes Blood embracing a pouring rainstorm and creating an all-timer of a festival experience, or Mdou Moctar ascending to the pantheon of festival god-dom at the Blue Stage, Pitchfork 2023 had something for everybody.

Read on for our favorite sets of the best summer weekend imaginable in Chicago:

Friday’s opening day of the festival was hot. That provided an accidentally-perfect atmosphere for Youth Lagoon to take listeners on a dreamy ride through this year’s Heaven is a Junkyard. Armed with a multitalented trio that shifted between live percussion, modular synths, and a couple of tasty guitar licks that accentuated the western, hazy feel of the new songs, the songs were a salve for the heat that entranced listeners across the park in the early day. 

Over at the Red Stage, Brooklyn’s own Nation of Language turned the early evening into their own personal dance party for a massive crowd. Frontman Ian Devaney is a superstar in the making — it felt as if we were watching the second coming of Ian Curtis or David Byrne onstage with his expressive and enthusiastic stage presence. Band members Aiden Noell and Alex MacKay kept the train going with their own engaging presence, and it kind of feels like this band is a surefire shot to close out the festival in years to come; songs like the thundering “The Wall and I” stood alongside the band’s impeccable new material, and the forthcoming Strange Disciple is going to be incredibly strong based on the unreleased tracks that the band performed here.

On the topic of artists who are simply electric performers — enter Mike Hadreas of Perfume Genius, stage right. After a run opening for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in massive amphitheatres on the west coast, Perfume Genius took over the Green Stage with an precise, theatrical fury that took listeners throughout their entire photography. With a backing band that included Meg Duffy of Hand Habits on guitar, Hadreas came out in vivid-red arm-length gloves and prowled around the stage, eventually enveloping himself in a yellow gauze material that decorated the keyboardist’s stand. 

I feel as if every indie buzz band has used Alvvays as a reference point in the past ten years. They come armed with three pitch-perfect albums, and last year’s Blue Rev felt like a distinct step up in public profile for the Canadian indie-poppers. This set reminded me that Alvvays has an arsenal of bangers that is unmatched in indie music today; every song felt like a massive sing-along hit, and frontwoman Molly Rankin’s voice echoed blissfully over the festival fields to help conclude the heat of day one.

Chicago’s Deeper felt like the pinnacle of the host city’s abundance of talent that existed on this year’s lineup. The band brings 80s post-punk to life with reckless abandon, granting listeners songs that are as angular as they are danceable. Vocally, Nic Gohl is a dead ringer for The Cure’s Robert Smith, and this was one of the most pleasant surprises of the weekend to see the city show up early for their hometown favorites.

Dudes rock. That’s the simple gist of the MJ Lenderman experience — with one of the largest daytime crowds of the festival, the Asheville-based musician and his band took listeners through last year’s Boat Songs, making for a perfect mid-afternoon festival set for slacker-rock fans everywhere. The addition of Spencer Tweedy as a second drummer was a welcome one, giving Lenderman’s material a propulsive weight that led to several jam sessions.

Indie kids really love King Krule. As the British auteur took the Green Stage, I saw a level of intense fandom that wasn’t matched by any other act; it felt like everyone in attendance had camped at the stage all day, ready to sing along to every word. To me, King Krule’s art doesn’t really scream “accessible” like that — I know him as the experimental rocker with skronking saxophone and shouting.

Reader, I was wrong — this felt like the defining set of the weekend. For sixty minutes, Archy Marshall and co. brought the greatest rock show of the weekend to the Green Stage, keeping it experimental and weird while also creating a cohesive show experience that was simply mindblowing. This is a show you can’t miss when he brings the Space Heavy tour to massive venues this fall.

The Red Stage welcomed Weyes Blood to close it out on Saturday night in the near-pouring rain, which honestly gave Natalie Mering the chance to build out her technicolor, 70s-infused dreamworld even stronger. Mering floated like a fairy on stage, dancing in the rain and lifting the spirits of listeners as she travelled through the songs of last year’s And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow. Mark my words — she’s a festival headliner in the next three years.

Sunday’s Blue Stage turned into an intense mosh when Philly punks Soul Glo brought their 2022 epic Diaspora Problems to life. For 50 minutes, it became absolute mayhem with crowd-surfing and a marked intensity by lead singer Pierce Jordan. The songs electrified the smaller Blue Stage crowd, kicking up dust that led into a beautiful day three.

Enter this show as the most surprising, enjoyable set of the festival. I was completely unfamiliar with Koffee walking into this, but the singer’s Jamaican singer’s good vibes and dancehall-infused set had the entire festival field grooving as the festival came to a close. Koffee’s set breezed by with nothing but joy — she seemed grateful to be there to introduce her style to the Pitchfork audience, and this set honestly exhibited the diversity of sound that Pitchfork brings to Chicago.

Mdou Moctar: festival rock god. The Saharan guitarist remains one of the most entrancing live acts around, and his closing set on Sunday electrified the largest crowd of the weekend at the Blue Stage. To call him a guitar prodigy doesn’t do it justice — it feels like we’re watching Jimi Hendrix in the flesh when he picks up the six-string, and his band acts as the propulsive spirit that keeps his set going…and going…and going. Any chance to see Mdou Moctar is a delight and as he continues to make his way onto festival lineups, he should continue to take listeners by surprise to become one of the most talked-about acts of any festival.

 

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