Pitchfork Music Festival 2015 – Day One

by Ben Stas (Journalism/English), published July 22nd 2015

photos by Ben Stas

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Ah Pitchfork Fest, how I love thee. The Chicago festival celebrated its 10th anniversary this past weekend at Union Park, offering up another stacked and diverse lineup that once again cemented its status as one of the finest musical gatherings around. From veteran rockers to up-and-coming talents of just about every genre imaginable, there was predictably no shortage of must-see sets, and not even alternating doses of the city’s least hospitable weather were enough to kill the weekend’s good vibes.

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Natalie Prass’ vintage-styled pop was a pleasant intro to Friday’s festivities, carried largely by her charismatic stage presence. Across the field at the appropriately tucked away Blue Stage, Jessica Pratt cast a spell in the opposite direction, seated and rarely speaking between her hushed and haunting folk songs. Unfortunately, Pratt’s style is more naturally suited to an indoor setting, which became painfully clear as ILoveMakonnen took to the main Green Stage midway through her set and tended to overpower music you would’ve already had to strain to hear from afar.

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The greatest takeaway from Makonnen’s set on its own terms is that we can probably stop booking him for things now. His underwhelming performance at May’s Boston Calling was repeated nearly note for lifeless note here, proving that no matter how good a song “Tuesday” is, it’s not enough to make up for its creator’s lack of star-power.

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New Yorker Steve Gunn fared better on Blue, with his expansive folk-rock arrangements fitting perfectly in the shady corner of the park under the afternoon sun. Mac DeMarco, next up on the Red Stage, offered a welcome boost of energy with a typically goofy and rapturously received set of his throwback jangle-pop, complete with an extended crowd-surfing session at its conclusion.

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Panda Bear’s main-stage set was perhaps Friday’s most polarizing. With the brain-frying visuals that have surrounded him at this year’s club dates reduced to the side-stage screens, Noah Lennox alone at his podium of knobs and switches was indeed not much to look at, but his seamless set of electro-psychedelia proved as hypnotizing as ever for fans of the style.

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Back at Blue, dour Danish punks Iceage delivered a typically uncompromising set of tunes largely sourced from last year’s still-excellent Plowing Into the Field of Love. Vocalist Elias Bender Rønnenfelt howled, scowled, whipped his mic cord around and stalked the stage with a restless fury while his bandmates churned stomping punk-blues instrumentals. It was another set that benefitted from the reclusiveness of the small stage, much more effective than the band’s broad-daylight turn on Green a few years back.

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Friday’s headlining set from the great and powerful Wilco could’ve been a total success by playing it straight and surveying the many highlights of the long-running band’s back catalog, but instead offered up a surprising run through their equally surprising new album Star Wars. With the record having appeared without warning the previous night, a few new tunes were expected in the set, but taking it all on front-to-back was a bold move for Tweedy and company. Thankfully, it’s a strong set of songs, and the band came across excited to be playing them live for the first time. “Random Name Generator” and “You Satellite” proved standouts, even among a set which concluded with a run through some of the band’s best-loved classics. Guitarist Nels Cline was on fire throughout lengthy takes on “Impossible Germany” and “Art of Almost,” while a mournful “Via Chicago” performed with lightning visible on the other side of its titular city’s skyline was one of the weekend’s most transcendent moments. It was a fine hometown showing for the band, proving that even two decades into their career, they can still keep us guessing.

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