Words and Photos By Erin Dickson
The fifteenth installment of Pitchfork Music Festival took place in Chicago’s Union Park from September 10-12, 2021, marking another triumphant return to live music amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Pitchfork is known for always having a pretty stacked and diverse lineup and this year was no exception. Each day there was a little bit of something for everyone, including artists old and new that spanned across multiple genres. With three woman headliners (an unfortunate rarity in the festival world), an impressive amount of local talent, and plenty of incredible people watching, this year's Pitchfork weekend was an overall success.
Check out our recap of some of the most notable sets we saw over the span of the festival below.
Dogleg - Opening up the Red Stage for the weekend was the Detroit-based post-hardcore band Dogleg and they did so with authority. Their loud and crashing sound had the audience up and ready to go for the day and was the perfect opening to a great weekend.
DEHD - Despite living in Chicago for half a decade, this was somehow my first time seeing Chicago legends, DEHD, live. Their 2020 release, Flower of Devotion, was one of my most listened to records of last year and their fun and energetic performance was an absolute joy to witness. Leaning into their surf-rock influences, DEHD’s set was full of their signature simplistic and moody sound, and the feel-good nature of their music was the perfect setting for the sunny Chicago afternoon.
Hop Along - Philadelphia indie-rock group Hop Along played to an absolutely sweltering Red Stage Friday afternoon. Led by singer and guitarist Frances Quinlan, Hop Along played a solid set of their own brand of folk-rock. The undeniable grittiness of Quinlan’s vocals is what really sets Hop Along apart from their peers and it comes across beautifully in live settings. It was also undeniable how happy the whole band was to be playing live again, and that’s something that is always wonderful to see.
black midi - Anybody who is unfamiliar with black midi’s sound was probably in for a huge shock when they took the Green stage on Friday. They ripped through songs from both their earlier release and their new 2021 album, Cavalcade, with all of the intensity of their studio recordings. Each of the members put on a stellar performance but, by far, the standout was drummer, Morgan Simpson. His energy absolutely carried the band and his proximity to the front of the stage really made sure his personality shone through. The audience was absolutely captivated and, although a little bit rough at times, they completely matched the bands energy. I was so into the music that I ended up running headfirst into the crowd and joining in on the fun, camera gear and all.
Fiery Furnaces - After fighting for my life in the black midi pit, I made it back over to the Red Stage just in time for Fiery Furnaces. This iconic reunion was ten years in the making and it felt like no time at all had passed since this indie-rock powerhouse had played together. Built around siblings Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger, Fiery Furnaces make what I overheard one person say was “haunted clown music,” which honestly is probably the most accurate description you’re going to get. Their set was full of old material as well as the live debut of their 2020 single, “Down at the So and So on Somewhere,” and it had the audience up and dancing in no time.
Animal Collective - Going along with the trend of iconic indie artists, Friday’s set from Animal Collective was a natural cause for excitement among festival-goers. This four-piece Baltimore group played a jam-filled set that relied primarily on newer material. Their performance fell a little flat at points, especially with the lack of visual accompaniment thanks to the blinding late afternoon sun. At points, their songs all seemed to blend together in a psychedelic haze that was fun for awhile, but seemed to drag on for too long at points.
Kelly Lee Owens - Kelly Lee Owens was an act I wasn’t planning on seeing but I’m so glad I did. Clad in an electrifying bodysuit and a long dark cape, and surrounded by plenty of smoke, Owens brought an energy that had the entire audience hooked. Her set focused primarily on tracks from her 2020 release Inner Song and was absolutely electric.
Big Thief - Closing out the Red Stage, Big Thief had some pretty big shoes to fill and they absolutely blew it out of the water. After the dual release of UFOF and Two Hands in 2019, they certainly don’t have a lack of material to pull from. Lead vocalist Adrianne Lenker has one of the most haunting voices in indie rock and, in combination with guitarist Buck Meek’s technical skills, she created a sound that is both soft and all-encompassing. Their correlating set times with Yaeji over at the Blue Stage caused some sound problems that were outside of the band’s control but despite that, they managed to absolutely captivate their audience and make themselves a spot within the legendary status of Pitchfork performers.
Phoebe Bridgers - Arguably nobody else performing at Pitchfork this year had a bigger 2020 than Phoebe Bridgers and the varying levels of skeleton paraphernalia that you saw being worn around the festival on Friday proved that. This Pitchfork set marked a pretty big milestone in Bridgers’ career as it was her first festival headline slot. The anticipation was absolutely killing everyone as her performance drew closer.
My only complaint — and this is coming from a pretty big Phoebe fan — is that I just don’t know if she’s quite headliner material. I understand why Pitchfork did it because she drew a huge crowd, but her material airs on the softer side and can cause people who aren’t as familiar with her sound to zone out and lose interest. That being said, she powered through the entirety of her 2020 release, Punisher, and also managed to include some older songs, including a nice little ode to her friend Julien Baker with boygenius' "Me and My Dog."
Songs like "ICU" and "Kyoto" had the crowd screaming along, and softer tracks such as "Garden Song" and "Smoke Signals" saw everyone absolutely hypnotized. There was more than one occasion when I looked around and saw people in the crowd with tears in their eyes which is just a testament to how moving Bridgers’ music is. Closing with "I Know the End" felt like a catharsis of sorts, ending with the booming outro and blood-curdling scream that makes the song so iconic. Bridgers is currently on tour through October and if you haven’t seen her yet, I strongly suggest it. She’s an incredibly special artist.
Horsegirl - Anybody who has had any sort of conversation with me in the last year and a half knows that I’m a huge fan of Horsegirl. Their set at Pitchfork was probably one of my most anticipated, purely because I was so excited for them. This Chicago-based trio creates music that is reminiscent of bands such as Sonic Youth and that, in combination with their recent signing to Matador, means that I anticipate them becoming huge in the next couple of years. They told the audience halfway through their set that they grew up attending Pitchfork so this performance marked a big milestone in their lives. Keep an eye on Horsegirl; I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Bartees Strange - After the release of his debut album Live Forever, Bartees Strange has been having a huge moment. His blend of rock, RnB, and emo make his songs stand out among other groups and his electrifying performance on the Red Stage catapulted him up to being one of the best sets of the entire festival. The amount of energy from him and his backing band had a firm grip on the audience and seeing the amount of people singing along makes me anticipate that we will probably be seeing Bartees again someday higher up on the lineup.
Waxahatchee - Waxahatchee aka Katie Crutchfield and I both grew up in Birmingham, Alabama so seeing her is always a nice little homecoming of sorts for me. Her 2020 release, Saint Cloud, was one of my albums of the year last year and being able to see it performed live was very special for everybody in the audience. Backed by the Detroit band Bonny Doon, Crutchfield’s powerful voice absolutely commanded the Green stage. Songs like “Fire” and “Witches” had the crowd engaged and mesmerized by her powerful songwriting and I can imagine that a handful of new fans were made during her set.
Faye Webster - Following an abrupt announcement that Jay Electronica would no longer be able to attend the festival, Faye Webster suddenly saw herself performing a much bigger slot on the Blue Stage. Fresh off of the release of her new album, I Know I’m Funny haha, Webster has seen a sudden rise in popularity that I think is completely well deserved. The Georgia-based singer’s soothing vocals softened the late afternoon haze and gave the audience the perfect opportunity to sit back, relax and take it all in.
Kim Gordon - Kim Gordon is the coolest person I have ever seen in my entire life. Formerly the frontwoman for the iconic alternative rock band Sonic Youth, Gordon has since branched out into her own solo career that is just as captivating. Blurring the lines between experimental and straight up rock, Gordon commanded the stage like she owned it (because honestly yeah she does) and brought a performance that was raw and unapologetic.
Angel Olsen - Angel Olsen is one of those artists that people either love with a fervor or are kind of indifferent about but there’s no denying that she’s an absolute force. Donned in a bright lime-green suit, Olsen worked through the songs of her 2019 release All Mirrors with her powerful voice carrying the performance. As the set came to an end, the moment that had been teased for days on social media occurred — Sharon Van Etten joined alongside Olsen for an incredible duet of “Like I Used To”, my personal pick for song of the year. Backed by the roar of the audience, the two vocalists made Pitchfork history at that moment and brought a stellar close to the set.
St Vincent - Probably the most anticipated artist of the entire weekend for me was St Vincent. I’ve been a fan for a pretty long time but have always missed out on seeing her absolutely iconic live show. St Vincent, aka the stage persona of musician Annie Clark, has been compared to a modern day Bowie and respectfully lives up to that title. Despite a somewhat flat response to her newest release, Daddy’s Home, Clark absolutely captivated the audience by pulling in her new jazzy persona into reworks of iconic older songs such as “Digital Witness” and “Los Ageless." This headlining slot was perfect for her and she absolutely owned it like the true rockstar she is.
Special Interest - Special Interest is one of the groups that I was most excited to see and they did not disappoint. Their early slot on the Red Stage woke everybody up instantly and as they blasted through songs from their 2020 release The Passion Of, it was hard not to feel the intensity. Their unique blend of industrial, rock and punk music is unlike anything else being released right now and singer Alli Logout is one of the most charismatic performers I’ve ever seen in my entire life. If Special Interest is playing anywhere in your area, run don’t walk because that will be a show you won’t want to miss.
Oso Oso - Oso Oso was honestly a pretty big disappointment, especially coming off of the Special Interest high from earlier in the day. Plagued by sound problems, their set at the Blue Stage felt dull and uninspired (and this is coming from someone who enjoys their music). Maybe if I had stuck around for a little bit longer it would have improved but by that point, I had seen so many better sets that I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything.
The Weather Station - Fresh off of the release of this year's Ignorance, The Weather Station played their hearts out at one of their only sets of the summer. Led by singer Tamara Lindeman, The Weather Station holds a power with their live performances that can often feel completely opposite the softness of their studio recordings. Armed with a tight rhythm section and the addition of saxophone and clarinet, their set had old fans and newly converted ones dancing in no time.
Yves Tumor - I know for a fact I’m not alone in saying that Yves Tumor put on the best performance of the entire festival. Clad in a cut up Slipknot shirt and thigh high leather boots, Tumor came out on stage with all of the drama and coolness of a hardened rockstar. Opening with “Gospel For A New Century”, the first song on their 2020 release Heaven To a Tortured Mind, Tumor tore through their set with an intensity that left everybody watching in shock. Between swinging the microphone around like a lasso, leaping into the photo pit and commanding the audience to “open up the pit”, Tumor took the Blue Stage and completely rocked its world. Backed with an incredible band (including a guitarist who matched Tumor’s energy perfectly) this set felt like watching history in the making.
Caroline Polachek - Caroline Polachek was one of the biggest surprises for me. She’s always been an artist that I couldn’t really understand the hype around but seeing her performance on the Green Stage really changed my attitude. Her impressive vocals sailed over the festival grounds as she worked her way through songs from her 2020 release, Pang, and a handful of unreleased material. Despite being slotted for the middle of the day, she managed to dazzle her audience without relying on the flashy visual production that her shows usually have. Her incredibly impressive vocals are what set her apart from other pop artists today and are what kept everyone captivated during her set.
Danny Brown - Danny Brown is an artist that you’re not really sure what you’re going to get from but his performance on the Green Stage late Sunday afternoon was like a bomb going off in the best way possible. His incredible energy had the entire audience jumping and screaming along to every word. He flew through his material like a powerhouse, running and jumping all over the stage in the process. It was truly something special to see this iconic rapper so in his element.
Erykah Badu - One of the biggest questions asked throughout Sunday was “Is Erykah Badu going to show up?” and if so “How late is she going to be?” This RnB legend has somewhat of a habit of being late to her own shows which led to some skepticism from fans but after a nearly thirty minute delay, Badu took the stage with a force and almost instantly transported the festival back to the late nineties. She was absolutely delightful and solidified her status as an icon in our modern day musical landscape. It was an honor to see her perform.
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