Words and Photos by Erin Dickson
After a shorter than normal break as a result of last year’s COVID-induced September placement, the annual Pitchfork Music Festival took place this summer in Chicago, bringing some of the biggest and most up-and-coming names in music today together on one lineup. Despite the weather (it rained off and on pretty much the entire first day), the festival was a success, bringing a variety of genres across the three stages and making sure there was something for everyone across the weekend.
KAINA, who performed on the final day, described Pitchfork as “the Chicago indie Met Gala” in a tweet and she’s right. It seems like every year, Pitchfork seems to draw the coolest, most borderline pretentious people from all corners of the city and beyond into one place over one jam packed weekend in the middle of the hottest month of the year. And it obviously rules.
Keep reading for a sampling of some of the weekend’s top performances and make sure to check out the full photo gallery HERE.
After a morning full of rain, Ethel Cain’s set was like the sun cutting through the clouds (literally. It had finally stopped raining by then…at least for a little bit). She performed songs off of her recently released album, Preacher’s Daughter, all from the safety of the back end of the stage. Dressed in sweats, her haunting vocals washed over the impressively large crowd as she, along with a guitarist and drummer, brought the album to life.
It was a little obvious that she was nervous but she had a powerhouse of fans to encourage her lining the barricade, wearing her merch and singing along to every word. After the Pitchfork show, her tour has continued into August and she’s only gotten better. If you haven’t gotten on the Ethel Cain train yet, it’s time to.
SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE
This is a crazy band. I missed out on the opportunity to see them with Deeper this past year so I wanted to make sure not to miss their Green stage performance. All I can say is wow. They absolutely powered through their set, playing songs from their newest album, ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH, as well as material from previous projects Hypnic Jerks and Pleasure Suck, creating an absolute wall of noise that hit the crowd straight in the face in the best way possible. If that’s what they’re like outdoors in the middle of the day I can’t even imagine what they sound like in a smaller venue.
Ok I’m going to talk about the rain ONE MORE TIME because even though it made a pretty dramatic return for SPELLLING’s set, it also made it absolutely magical. I was terrified the entire time of ruining my camera but something about hearing her haunting vocals in the middle of a downpour is positively otherworldly. Not only did she look thrilled to be there, but her audience seemed to be just as excited. She primarily pulled material from her stand-out 2021 album, The Turning Wheel, with enough theatrics to put anybody into an entirely different world. It was magic and if you were there and happened to miss it, I’m so sorry.
Indigo De Souza
I had seen Indigo once before opening for Lucy Dacus back in February so I already knew she was a phenomenal performer but I really wasn’t prepared for her Pitchfork set. I don’t know if it was the exhaustion already prematurely kicking in, the weather or both but something about her performance had me and everybody within a mile radius absolutely mesmerized and even a little teary-eyed. She flew through songs like “Real Pain” and “Take Off Ur Pants'' while really making a point to thank her audience for sticking with it despite the elements. Her voice is simultaneously soothing and powerful and she wields it with an overwhelming element of control. Her backing band provided her with the perfect accompaniment as well. If her beaming smile throughout the set was any indication, it’s safe to say she knew she had created something special.
This was my second time seeing this band at Pitchfork but this time it was personal. After witnessing half of their infamous 2019 set (there was a torrential downpour that caused an evacuation and subsequent canceling of the last half of their performance), I was bound and determined to make up for lost time. Although I wasn’t the biggest fan of 2021’s Sympathy for Life, Parquet Courts knows how to put on one hell of a show. The band doesn’t say a lot when they’re on stage, choosing instead to let the decade-spanning discography do the talking. Ripping through hits like “Freebird II”, “Stoned and Starving” and “Human Performance” with some pretty lengthy jam-band esque interludes sandwiched in between, they are an absolute force.
Side-note: my camera battery died two songs in despite being fully charged that morning. I blame the rain but I can’t be too mad because it meant I got to ditch my gear and jump head first into the pit for the remainder of the show. Work hard, play hard ya know?
Closing out the first day was a band that I’ve wanted to see for what seems like forever. This was The National’s first festival appearance since pre-COVID and it was obvious that they were excited to be back. Opening their set with “Don’t Swallow The Cap,” the band effortlessly moved through songs from all corners of their discography, briefly pausing to address the audience who was wrapped around their collective finger. They focused primarily more on rock-leaning songs as opposed to their more subdued material and even chose to debut a handful of unreleased new stuff, leaning into almost 80s sounding territory. All corners of Union Park were glued to the stage, dancing and singing along to every word without a care in the world. It was the perfect way to close out the first day and get everyone excited for what was yet to come.
There is absolutely nothing in this world that can prepare you for a Cupcakke set, especially one at 1:45 in the afternoon. The park was absolutely packed as the laughably-explicit Chicago rapper took the stage and tracks such as “CPR” and the now TikTok-infamous “Deepthroat” had the audience in a frenzy singing along to every word. Despite her raunchiness and obvious shock appeal, Cupcakke holds her own as a rapper and made her mark as one of the strongest and most surprising sets of the entire weekend.
Ok I love this band. They were a last minute addition to the lineup but one that I’m personally so thrilled happened. There is something so overwhelmingly heartwarming about a bunch of kids with guitars and cat-themed stage makeup absolutely DESTROYING the Pitchfork Green stage with tongue in cheek lyrics and synchronized shimmies. Not to mention they had my angsty riot-grrl heart screaming when they closed their set with a cover of Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl.” Keep an eye on them. They just might be huge one day.
The only other time I’ve seen Dry Cleaning was at Empty Bottle, a tiny bar in Chicago’s Ukranian Village, at the very beginnings of winter so to say that their Pitchfork set (hot, sunny, huge stage, insert other opposite adjectives here) would be a different experience is an understatement. Despite a change of scenery, they still stand as one of my favorite new post-punk bands to come out in recent years. Lead-singer Florence Shaw performs more of a monotone stream of consciousness than normal singing but the witty and often sarcastic lyrics delivered over a driving guitar and punchy bass line have an almost hypnotizing effect. I’m sure there were plenty of people who walked away from their set happily surprised.
This was probably my most anticipated set of the fest and it didn't disappoint. Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner has been touring her newest album, Jubilee, for what feels like a century but I’ve somehow managed to evade any of the shows. Now I can say with full confidence that the band is in their prime. Opening with the first track from the album, “Paprika”, Zauner danced across the stage in a pair of platform boots and a little white dog shirt, periodically hitting a gong to the beat as the crowd danced and sang along. Fans clutched copies of Zauner’s best-selling memoir, Crying in H-Mart, along the barricade as she twirled her way through songs spanning her career. She even brought out Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy towards the end to help her cover “Jesus, Etc” in what might have been one of the most heartfelt moments from the entire weekend. Despite having to periodically halt the show so fans could receive medical attention, the energy from this show was electric and was the perfect way to segway into Mitski’s headlining set.
If there’s one thing about me it’s that I love the Chicago music scene and one essential member of that is KAINA. I’ve seen her perform with other Chicago staple Sen Morimoto but her Pitchfork set marked my first time seeing her solo. Her newest release, It Was A Home, as well as 2019’s Next to The Sun, have been on heavy rotation in my headphones and were both represented equally during her Sunday afternoon set. KAINA incorporates R&B with her own Venezualian and Guatemalan heritage to create a sound that is gentle and filled with a sense of community that radiates through all of her songs. She is an absolute light to witness and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Noname is a force and her Sunday set cemented that. Despite previously expressing dissatisfaction with the industry as a whole, Noname’s performance reminded everyone why she’s one of the most prolific names in rap today. She beamed through her entire set and incorporated so much audience participation it felt more like a hangout with an old friend than a major festival performance. Noname can come across as intense but her work is essential and I, for one, am honored to have been able to witness her return to center stage.
Cate Le Bon
If you’ve had any sort of conversation with me this year, you know that I’m obsessed with Cate Le Bon’s latest album, Pompeii. It helped get me through a Chicago winter (the highest form of praise honestly) and has, in my opinion, shaped up to be one of her strongest albums. She strolled across the stage sporting her signature dayglo-orange, custom-built guitar and letting her almost operatic vocals carry across the field. Her set was sweet and simple and happy. Exactly what you need to help close out a whirlwind festival weekend.