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Summer storms and sisterhood: Highlights from the 2019 Pitchfork Music Festival

Haim perform at Pitchfork Music Festival in July 2019. All photos Darby Ottoson/MPR.

Last weekend’s Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago was an intimate encounter with the elements. Each change in the weather — from blistering heat to storms that prompted a temporary mid-festival evacuation, to the restorative breeze that billowed during Robyn’s closing set — affected the way I internalized the wide-range of music.

Some songs, like those of Cate Le Bon, and Low, seemed to solidify in the humidity, sticking in the air and swelling until there was no room for anything but heat and sound. Others, like those of Chai and Haim, road the heatwave at a faster pace and metabolized sweat into trance-like dancing, in spite of temperatures that remained in the 90s even after the sun set.

In its fourteenth year, Pitchfork Music Festival included a variety of cooling methods to keep us music fans (who were not allowed re-entry) safe from heat-related fatigue. City buses idled with air conditioners on full-blast around the perimeter of Union Park; a mist tent dripped cool water on occupants; medics sprayed crowds who stood in direct sunlight, and several ice buckets affixed with signs that simply read “dunk” were scattered throughout the main field.

Despite the intensity of the weather this year, Pitchfork is known for being a relatively chill festival. There were three stages programmed across three days, all positioned within easy walking distance of one another, and acts were timed well enough to avoid music mixing. Like the taste-making site‘s minimal white backdrop, the aesthetics of the festival itself had a simple but curated approach. The three stages color-coded red, green, and blue matched the rotating colors of the over 21 wristbands on each of the three days. Small folded pamphlets with a map and schedule were the only free material provided, and there were no cheesy T-shirts or tote bags for the masses. I could sense that the organizers designed the experience to be as refined as its assortment of acts.

For an event put on by a publication with the tagline “The Most Trusted Voice in Music,” one anticipates an element of mandated chicness. Anyway, onto the music.

Day One

Rapper Rico Nasty regularly urged the crowd to sing along with her sanguine verses. “I’ve been touring internationally a lot and I love my fans over seas but we speak different languages, so if you know this song please sing it as loud as you can,” she said before launching into “Smack a B*tch.” Despite holding a slot in the middle of the hottest day, Rico skipped back and forth across the stage energetically performing hits like “Countin’ Up” and “Roof,” as well as her recent collaboration with Doja Cat, “Tia Tamera.”

Next up, Sky Ferreira and her intoxicating blend of cool-girl-angst emerged from a near six-year hiatus. Under glaring sunlight and clad in a weather-inappropriate black jacket, the singer-songwriter faced myriad of technical difficulties beyond her control, and ultimately was forced to cut the performance short when Earl Sweatshirt’s beats drowned out her voice from the adjacent stage because of her delayed start time. Despite the issues, Ferreira was still able to perform several hits off 2013’s Night Time, My Time and I was surprised to find myself singing along to lyrics that must have imprinted on my teenage brain. Near the end of the set, she debuted a new song “Descending,” which has a similar eerie tone to “Downhill Lullaby,” her single released in March. She promised more music coming soon.

Back in the shade, Soccer Mommy performed an unreleased song as well. “Lucy” characterizes Sophie Allison’s sweet and nostalgia-heavy sound with lyrics that deftly conjure both the emptiness and anticipation of long summer afternoons in suburbia. Allison thanked the audience for standing in the heat before performing “Cool,” and closed with “Scorpio Rising,” which she confessed is her favorite off 2018’s Clean. The crowd swayed and sang along, some with icy water pressed to their cheeks.

As the sun set, I sat eating a gyro in a patch of grass positioned between performances by Mavis Staples and Low. Dragonflies zipped around our heads and firemen meandered in clusters smoking cigars. As the two ostensibly disparate performers ended their sets simultaneously, I felt a shiver go down my spine. Over Low’s rising instrumental break, Staples sang “No Time For Crying,” which ends with the lyrics “we got work to do” chanted over and over again. The mixture was foreboding.

Haim rounded out day one with a vulnerable and powerful set. Sisters Este, Danielle, and Alana quipped back and forth with one another and the audience between songs, exchanging instruments as they exchanged stories. Este was the main comedian throughout the night. “We are literally sh*tting ourselves up here,” she said after informing the crowd that this was the first time the group had headlined a festival. Throughout the set, Haim performed like the versatile rockstars they are, covering Paula Cole (twice) in front of a screen projecting the “Dawson’s Creek” opening credits, and performing a new jazzy new song, “Summer Girl,” which they dedicated to Lou Reed.

“I was not prepared for this — they’re all sisters, they’re all talented, and they’re all drumming,” one friend said after the set concluded with a percussion instrumental. “I feel spiritually accessed,” said another.

Day Two

Day two began with another rousing performance by a band full of sisters. Chai is four women based in Japan: twin sisters Mana and Kana, and Yuna and Yuki who introduced themselves as “not sisters, but family forever.” I was so impressed with Chai’s stamina and I found myself jumping up and down despite being drenched in an amount of sweat I didn’t know I was capable of producing. “Who here has a body complex?” Mana yelled into the crowd. “I don’t like my legs, they are too short. But, they are cute!” “Neo-Kawaii, Neo-Kawaii,” the band chanted, and invited the audience to reframe our own “flaws” as cute.

I hate to admit that the energy radiating of the stage during Cate Le Bon‘s set was too much for me to handle, and I left my spot near the front for a shaded tree. Especially during the song “Home To You,” when the Welsh singer-songwriter repeats the phrase “Last time for all time gone” over a throbbing beat, I was overwhelmed by her uncanny lyrics and polyphonic melodies. “Last time for all time gone?” I wondered. Is she referencing climate change? Is this heat apocalyptic?  Cut to me fishing out a couple ice cubes from a nearby “dunk” bucket and rubbing them on my temples.

After enduring a swift evacuation amidst claps of thunder and torrential downpour, I re-entered Union Park intent on seeing one of my most anticipated artists of the day: Jeremih. After his DJ spun an extended set and scattered rose petals on the stage, the Chicago-native emerged in his signature sunglasses to perform a few early hits alongside two dancers. “Do you all want the new stuff or the old stuff? I don’t have a set-list,” he told the crowd at one point. “Old!” everyone around me yelled, and Jeremih launched into a silky rendition of “Birthday Sex.”

Like Jeremih, The Isley Brothers rounded out day two flanked by long stem roses. The legends took us on a decades-spanning journey through their influential hits like “Twist and Shout,” and “Love the One You’re With.” Ronald Isley took a casual and chatty tone with the crowd, often sitting down between songs to provide some historic context or reference a fellow musician. “Back in 1961, I ran into Bob Dylan and he wanted me to sing this special song,” Ronald said before performing “Lay Lady Lay.” That wasn’t the only Minneapolis reference, though. The group entered the stage to “Let’s Go Crazy,” and dedicated a Seals & Crofts cover to Prince. There were noticeably more folding chairs set up during the Isley Brothers, and an increase in partner dancing as the rhythmic tunes wafted in refreshed air. Outside the gates, couples stood holding hands and peered into the park through gaps in fence.

Day Three

On day three, rapper Jpegmafia, accompanied by only a laptop, thanked the organizers multiple times for inviting him to perform at “Condé Nast Fest.” “I thought y’all hated me, I guess not,” he laughed. Throughout the set, Jpeg went from writhing, moshing, and squatting on the edge of the stage rapping grueling verses about corruption and intolerance, to leisurely talking with the audience and scrolling to find his next beat. He closed with the track “Rainbow Six,” during which crowd became noticeably more still.

JPGMafia by Darby Ottoson for MPR

JPGMafia by Darby Ottoson for MPR

After Jpeg, I was tempted by the lo-fi pop of Clairo, but instead became entranced by Ibeyi who were in the midst of “No Man Is Big Enough For My Arms,” a song that samples a 2016 Michelle Obama speech in which she condemns Donald Trump’s treatment of women. The rest of their set was cathartic, and twin sisters Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz encouraged the crowd to chant “we are deathless” at multiple points throughout. In their music, Ibeyi often call upon Oshun, the deity of water in the Yoruba religion, and they sing in Yoruba, Spanish, and english. Maybe it was dehydration, but I felt my face grow warm with tears watching the sisters dance and encourage one another while singing in magnificent harmony. Like Haim, Ibeyi incorporated a lot of percussion into the set, especially during the song “River.” Something magical happens when sisters drum together.

“Make some noise if you think I am one of the 15 best pop stars in the world,” Charli XCX shouted into a roaring crowd. Recently, I have been fascinated watching Charli sample her experimental roots in the process leaning more mainstream. Her evening set was no exception when she opened with the closer on her 2017 mixtape Pop 2, the transcendental “Track10,” which quickly led into her recent remix of “Blame it On Your Love,” the song that features a verse from Lizzo. Charli seemed relaxed on stage but didn’t waste anymore time conversing with the audience. At several points she put down the mic to dance and sip a beer. I was happy with the amount she pulled from her catalog, everything from: “Vroom Vroom,” to a cover of the Spice Girls’ smash “Wanna Be,” to her latest single “Gone,” to Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” a song I remember her performing in Minneapolis back in 2012 when she accompanied Marina and the Diamonds on tour. Midway through the set, she welcomed Chicago rapper CupcakKe for a verse on “Lipgloss” and everyone in my immediate vicinity briefly rushed the stage.

Somehow, Robyn must have known that cooler temperatures would sweep Chicago by Sunday night. It is also possible that she brought the fresh breeze herself as she descended to earth on a stage draped in otherworldly white fabric and pulsing with synths. Robyn’s headlining slot is part of Pitchfork’s shift in recent years towards featuring more pop artists. It felt fitting she should close out the festival since, after observing her and a fellow dancer chase one another and twirl on beat, I had the  realization that Robyn’s songs are essentially about the experience of music. “I remember growing up as a little girl in Sweden,” she told the crowd near the end of the set, “I didn’t know a lot about House music but I knew it made me feel good.”

Robyn concerts have a reputation of being healing dance experiences, and I certainly felt that during “Call Your Girlfriend” and “Dancing On My Own,” when the music cut out so thousands of people could sing “I’m in the corner, why can’t you see me” in unison. But when the performance slowly built with longer numbers off 2018’s Honey, I felt myself lulled by the constant editorializing of the performance on the giant screen adjacent to the stage. The video feed was sleek, but it extracted an element of rawness from the experience like I was alienated from my own experience, or was somehow watching a documentary about the performance as it unfolded live in front of me. I even noticed a shift in those around me when the screen glitched and went black briefly midway through; at first there were groans, but after a couple seconds people started to dance more, I guess to entertain themselves in the absence of visuals.

The screen became so distracting and so distorted with ghostly effects, that I closed my eyes for several songs. When I opened them again, the ‘L’ glided cinematically behind the stage, and glowing white balloons bobbed amongst the crowd.

Lydia Moran is a music and arts writer in Minneapolis.