Pitchfork Music Festival @ Union Park 7.21.13

by Ben Stas (English/Journalism), published July 30th 2013

photos by Ben Stas


Pitchfork’s expansion beyond the sphere of indie rock has seen their coverage reach toward pop, dance and hip-hop in recent years, which has reflected in their increasingly diverse festival bookings. This year, it was Sunday that best represented that diversity. From underground rap to major label R&B, with a dash of good old rock and roll, this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill spread.


The ‘soul trap’ of Tree and glitchy, sample-heavy mixing of DJ Rashad opened the festival’s final day. Rashad kept things interesting by reworking skeletal fragments of familiar songs (including the ghostly piano loop of Wu-Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.”), while Tree put a backing band to good use but failed to deliver any particularly distinguishing rhymes.


Over at Red, the spazzy psychedelia of Foxygen was the day’s first great set. The band is retro throwback through and through, from their 60s indebted sound to their vintage equipment. Songs from their breakout record We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic sounded great in the sun, and vocalist Sam France was agreeably unhinged. Scaling the stage-side scaffolding didn’t get him tackled by security this time, and he kept the energy remarkably high for an early afternoon set.


Up next was Killer Mike on the Green Stage, who opened his set with a body-slamming set of songs from his latest: the excellent R.A.P. Music. Mike was positively on fire through “Big Beast,” “Untitled” and the righteously pissed-off “Reagan.” He did lose a bit of momentum as the set went on, and began to do more preaching than rapping, but the man’s convictions are admirable. He was audibly choked up when speaking about his days as a community organizer and encouraging the crowd to improve their own communities by simply being decent people and looking out for their neighbors.


As Mike’s set wrapped up, partner-in-crime El-P was gearing up for his set on the adjacent Red Stage. Contrasting Mike’s bare-bones live setup, El had two instrumentalists as well as a DJ, giving the cuts he performed from Cancer 4 Cure an added punch. It wasn’t long before he retreated backstage and reemerged with Killer Mike though, to perform the Run the Jewels set that we all knew was coming. The two MCs played on each others’ strengths for songs from their new LP as well as collaborative tracks from their solo records. Sporting admittedly fake gold chains and exchanging fiery verses, they were clearly having just as much fun as the crowd was. As they sipped their own custom-made Goose Island beer (brewed specifically for the festival) between songs, it was clear that El and Mike were having a triumphant day.


For a pleasant mid-afternoon change of pace, Yo La Tengo took to the main stage in the next timeslot. The Hoboken indie rock veterans touched upon most of their trademark sounds during a set that drew most heavily from this year’s Fade and their 90s classics I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and Electr-O-Pura. From the gentle strums of “I’ll Be Around” and the quiet arrangement of “Tom Courtnay” to the noise-pop “Nothing to Hide” and their fuzzed-out cover of The Beach Boys’ “Little Honda,” this was a crash course in why Yo La Tengo are still one of the best bands around. The epic, set-closing “Blue Line Swinger” was one of the day’s best moments. YLT also got one of the day’s biggest laughs as Ira Kaplan thanked Pitchfork for the opportunity to “catch up” with R. Kelly, who he claimed to have opened for in the 90s.


A good-sized crowd had gathered for Yo La Tengo, but as they wrapped up an even larger one had formed to attend the church of the Based God at the Red Stage. To call Lil B an enigma would be an understatement, but if there’s one thing that can be said for sure about him, it’s that he inspires a genuine fervor among his fans. The BasedWorld Taskforce’s numbers were strong in this crowd, which was populated by kids in pink bandanas with homemade “Thank You Based God” shirts and banners. For the hour-plus that Lil B was on stage (which would have extended even further had his mic not eventually been silenced), the crowd went absolutely insane. He played the hits of course, such as they are – “Ellen Degeneres,” “Wonton Soup,” “Pretty Boy,” etc. – and led call-and-response chants of “I love life!” and “I love you!” between songs. B is a competent MC when he wants to be, and capable of babbling totally inane nonsense when he wants to do that as well. He spent most of the set bouncing back and forth between the two, before closing with the heartfelt “I Love You” (whose video famously depicted him crying in a pet store). It was ridiculous, of course, but also weirdly uplifting. Lil B was eager to emphasize that he respects every human, even if the cursing in his songs might not suggest so. He bombarded the crowd with as much self-help advice as rumbling bass and ridiculous rhyming. As he climbed down from the stage to embrace various members of the front row once his mic was silenced, it was difficult not to feel at least a little caught up in the hyper-positive sentiments.


Even follow-up act Toro Y Moi, who rocked the Green Stage with a set of funky early evening synth jams couldn’t help but thank the Based God. Their set sounded more propulsive and danceable than I expected, based only on a limited knowledge of Chaz Bundick’s earlier material. Like Washed Out, who also muscled up to outrun the ‘chillwave’ tag, Bundick has taken Toro Y Moi in a more band-oriented direction that worked well as an appetizer for Sunday’s final two sets.


Fittingly, perhaps, the weekend’s final two sets were likely this year’s most divisive bookings. As for M.I.A., who headlined the Red Stage with a booming, kaleidoscopic set, not even Pitchfork themselves can reach a consensus on whether she’s brilliant or obnoxious at this point in her career (after championing her first two records, they slapped 2010’s Maya with a brutalizing 4.4/10). Her Pitchfork Festival set certainly had energy and style to spare, but whether it coalesced into a good performance probably depended on where you were standing. With carnival lights, dancers, bright yellow beach balls and M.I.A.’s own gold-glowing dress, it was undeniably eye-catching. She also spent much of the set on the edge of the stage’s speaker stacks, performing as close to the audience as possible and working the crowd into a frenzy. From anywhere outside the dancing mass in front of the stage though, the set ran together into one indistinguishable blur of skull-rattling bass by its conclusion.


For a whole variety of reasons that should be patently obvious, R. Kelly was Pitchfork’s weirdest and most talked-about headlining act ever. The man responsible for Trapped in the Closet and “Ignition” in the Sunday night slot previously occupied by the likes of The Flaming Lips, Vampire Weekend and Pavement was perhaps the weekend’s best demonstration of the festival’s all-encompassing attitude. Despite certain critics’ attempts to pass off the booking as purely for irony’s sake, it was pretty clear that the massive crowd gathered for Kelly’s 30-plus song set was having some genuine, irony-free fun. Even for an R. Kelly novice such as myself, it was quite an experience. Kelly worked the crowd with his myriad of hits and the occasional acapella workout, and closed the evening by releasing hundreds of dove-shaped balloons into the sky during a massive singalong rendition of “I Believe I Can Fly.” It was a fittingly over-the-top way to close out another amazing weekend in Chicago.

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