Danielle A. Scruggs
Carly Rae Jepsen
The second I heard Car Seat Headrest play David Bowie's "Blackstar,"
my hopes were high for this weekend. Immediately after that, though, it started pouring. But that's the fickle nature of Pitchfork, or really any good outdoor music festival: brilliant and thrilling one moment, bleak and rainy the next. Thankfully, as the day continued, it seemed this year's fest would start on an upswing. Twin Peaks were charming and rocking as ever. Broken Social Scene were the Broken Social Scene-iest, with a rotating roster of singers coming up for new and old jams. Shamir proved himself to be miles ahead of where he was during the festival last year, drawing in a huge crowd of dancing folks (myself included) and blowing 2015's performance way out of the water.
But the real treat (and the biggest surprise to me) was Carly Rae Jepsen. I've never hated Jepsen—sure, I've scowled at "Call Me Maybe" a few times, but who hasn't? That said, I never would have expected to fall madly and deeply in love with her in Union Park. She was everything a performer should be—charming, energetic, talented—and the tunes were right out of the 80s pop songbook, tweaked just enough for now. She's the new Robyn, and anyone who knows me knows that I love Robyn more than most people on this earth. When Jepsen walked onstage, there was explosive applause, and though I was bemused at first, I've been completely converted. Carly Rae Jepsen 4 Lyfe.
For those new to the party, it probably seemed like some sort of bizarre joke when Cadien Lake James of Twin Peaks
got rolled onto the stage in a wheelchair—but it was really more a sly nod to the folks in the crowd who know the band well. In 2014, the previous time these local boys played the fest, the guitarist-vocalist had a broken leg and played sitting in a wheelchair. That set was still fun and rambunctious—as is the band's way—but it was more of a coming-of-age performance. The dudes seemed almost in awe of where they were and the size of the stage they were on (despite how early in the day they'd been booked), and their tickled parents watched from the wings.
This year, though, Twin Peaks were completely in control—confident in the supersize festival environment and well aware of how to strut their stuff throughout their set. They know that there's not much in rock 'n' roll that's more powerful than an all-in vocal chorus undergirded by a walking bass line. Even the lone lifeguard perched above the empty pool behind the Red Stage couldn't help but tap his foot along to some of the hooks. They obliterated Julia Holter
's subtle fade-out from the Green Stage as they laid down a set of Stones-style sing-alongs—so many, in fact, that it's hard to believe they only have a pair of full-length albums. Chicago sons through and through, Twin Peaks are the most magnetic and fun rock band in the city, and the fact that they know it only makes their shows better. The best sign spotted in the crowd: "The whole world can fuck off because I'm listening to Twin Peaks."
The rest of day one was gravy, and I wasn't even one of the crew of superfans posing for photos with Carly Rae Jepsen. Rapper Mick Jenkins
worked the Blue Stage like a man destined for the Green Stage in 2018; Broken Social Scene seemed to be playing their favorites almost exclusively for the stoked girl at the side of the stage with a Polaroid camera draped over her shoulder; and the very reliable Beach House
pushed their billowing dream pop out into the ether as the crowd stood entranced and perfectly still. It wasn't Pitchfork's most star-studded first day by any stretch—Carly Rae was as close to mega as it got—but it was a fine start. On Saturday, Girl Band and Savages are on tap, so you can expect things to get louder.
This is the seventh Pitchfork Music Festival I've attended, and the first day felt comfortably familiar. I took a dinner break during Broken Social Scene's serene, controlled set—and if memory serves, I did the same thing the last time this Canadian supergroup played the fest. Some things felt off, however, and I don't just mean the unseasonal chill in the air. The park looked about half as crowded as it normally does on a Friday; sure, I had plenty of room to dance to Carly Rae Jepsen and Twin Peaks, but the lower-than-normal attendance might've contributed to the dialed-back energy I felt. The staff at the Blue Stage seemed to struggle with sound issues right before Moses Sumney took the stage, and Mick Jenkins's set got pushed back too—but he wasted no time launching into his potent rap tracks with professional aplomb. I got to dance to a portion of his set with my friends' adorable two-year-old on my shoulders—I'm not sure who was giggling more, me or her. I usually run around Pitchfork like a chicken with its head cut off, trying to see everything I can, but today I took pleasure in meandering around without a schedule. And shaking it to "Call Me Maybe."
After maneuvering through Friday's afternoon traffic in the passenger side of my friend's Dodge Dart, I arrived at Union Park just in time for Moses Sumney's set. However, what looked like technical difficulties onstage delayed his start by 11 minutes anyway.
Listening to Sumney build a rhythm track by beat-boxing into the microphone and looping the layers together, I grew more excited for the creativity he was about to bring to the Blue Stage. But I may have been one of the few who felt that way—his music was so chill that Twin Peaks' drums and guitars drowned him out from a neighboring stage.
I hung around after Sumney to catch Mick Jenkins, because I'd heard he puts on a great show. Fashionably late, Jenkins rocked the crowd with his biggest songs, "Comfortable" being my personal favorite. But things didn't get super hype until he played "Fuck tha Police" by N.W.A, singing along to the chorus. This resonated especially deeply in light of the recent fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota.
Broken Social Scene
Taking my own advice
, I checked out Broken Social Scene on the Red Stage. I spotted a young boy sitting in front of his parents, wearing noise-cancelling headphones and playing a game on his cell. Little did he know, he missed out on an amazing show. I felt free as I danced in the crowd to their guitar jams and lulling melodies.
My first-ever Pitchfork band was a little disappointing. I caught local indie rockers Whitney
playing their last few songs on the out-of-the-way Blue Stage, and I fear it wasn't quite out of-the-way enough. Their catchy, intimate sound and delicate falsetto singing didn't translate well to the open-air venue; it felt like someone had dropped a coffee shop in the corner of a stadium.
Uncategorizable Los Angeles musician Moses Sumney
adamantly did not have that problem. The people I spoke to in the audience were mostly passersby like me, rather than fans . . . but they're all fans now. His voice in itself is a thing of wonder: jazzy, soulful, and sexy, swooping up to a high, keening pitch like a funky fire siren and then down into Isaac Hayes sensuality. He sampled himself laying down beats on the mike and doing beat-box clicks and snaps, and then looped the results, harmonizing and adding layers as he went—sometimes he even laughed to himself at the joy of it. His songwriting is dizzyingly eclectic, from guitar shoegaze feedback to country strumming to Auto-Tunish pop-vocal effects. In his between-song patter, though, he seemed unenthusiastic about the Pitchfork experience; he introduced a new song by assuring us, "You get to say you heard it first, which is something I know you hipsters love." He also made a snide remark about having to compete with music from the other stages. But whatever the source of his (understandable) ambivalence, his set was one of the most impressive live performances I've ever seen.
Local rapper Mick Jenkins, up next on the Blue Stage, was a lot more comfortable in the venue—and a lot more predictable. That's not necessarily a bad thing, at least if you ask the crowd; hometown enthusiasts were out in shoulder-to-shoulder force, responding with smitten roars whenever Jenkins goaded them: "Drink more . . . ," he'd say, and they'd shout "Water!" A thin young man, high on at least the music, tapped me on the shoulder to tell me earnestly, "This is the best performance of the weekend!" Personally I think that honor goes to Sumney, but given Jenkins's rapport with the audience, he's the one I suspect will be moving on up to the national spotlight (and the main stage) sometime soon.
I don't keep strict track of these things, but I'm pretty sure 2016's Pitchfork festival is the first one I can remember where signs were posted prominently at Union Park's Ashland entrance to announce that tickets were still available (and that folks thus shouldn't bother trying to haggle with scalpers). That might explain the seemingly low attendance and surprisingly mellow, non-claustrophobic vibe inside the grounds on Friday; so might the threatening late-afternoon clouds and random spritzes of drizzle. Maybe people were at the V103 Summer Block Party on Northerly Island instead—I might've had more fun if Erykah Badu and SWV had been blowing up a Pitchfork stage, honestly.
Danielle A. Scruggs
The crowd for Carly Rae Jepsen
Not to say I didn't have fun! Carly Rae Jepsen made sure of that, along with a gaggle of teenagers behind me in the crowd doing goofy synchronized dance moves to her hit-packed set—which included "Run Away With Me", "I Really Like You," and the formerly omnipresent and much-beloved "Call Me Maybe." In one of the afternoon's most pleasing moments of musical synchronicity, Blood Orange's Dev Hynes joined Jepsen onstage for "All That"—a stately slow jam, reminiscent of midperiod Prince, that he cowrote with her for her 2015 album Emotion
—and contributed some lovely guitar parts. It seriously whetted my appetite for Blood Orange's Saturday set.
I've never not gotten a kick out of Twin Peaks, and their afternoon appearance was typically boisterous. For the most part, they've left sweaty Rogers Park basements far behind, but they still bring that youthquake energy everywhere they go—they're pretty great ambassadors for Chicago's rock scene, you have to admit. I was also heartened that Julia Holter framed "Why Sad Song?," the first tune of her early-afternoon set, as a rejoinder to "all the horrors of the world right now." This summer it's seemed like every week has brought a new series of living nightmares for humanity to reckon with; those of us privileged enough to find solace in music (and to attend music festivals in relative safety) should feel lucky, whether every Pitchfork performer crushed it or not.
Man, Twin Peaks. I've been able to watch this band grow from their humble beginnings, and they're seriously at the top of their game. From the very start of the set, when guitarist Cadien James rolled onstage in a wheelchair (an homage to their 2014 Pitchfork appearance, when he played in one after busting his leg) and then rose out of it in a moment of James Brown-esque grandeur, they made their hometown proud, getting a massive crowd from every walk of life jumping up and down. Since that 2014 set, they've augmented their lineup with keyboardist, guitarist, and vocalist Colin Croom, who's added some sophistication to their reckless abandon and made their loose sound even bigger. My favorite part was the middle-aged bald dude pogoing and head-banging along with fans a third his age. I feel bad for anyone who had to take the stage after these guys. A truly excellent band.
I've been covering the Pitchfork Music Festival since it launched as Intonation in 2005, and each year it seems like I recognize fewer industry folks in VIP. I assume there aren't fewer of us there—it's more that music journalism has ceased to be a business
that can reliably support people my age, who tend to have mortgages to pay and families to support. At 44, I've got neither, but most of my peers have moved on—Pitchfork itself has lost the likes of Jessica Hopper
and Brandon Stosuy since Condé Nast acquired the company last fall. This gives the festival a valedictory feel, at least to me.
Danielle A. Scruggs
Carly Rae Jepsen
On the other hand, there's still free beer in VIP, and beer makes everything better. I enjoyed a few pours of Goose Island's collaboration with Twin Peaks, a "garage lager" called Natural Villain
that's intended as a homage to some of the band's favorites—Modelo, Pacifico, Sol. It tastes like Goose tried to brew a version of Corona that doesn't suck. It's easy-drinking enough to make a good band-practice beer, but you can actually pick out the flavors of malts and hops—something you can't say about the fizzy yellow Mexican crap that Twin Peaks apparently like.
I finished at the office in time to get to the park shortly before six, and like most Reader
staffers in attendance, I made sure to see Carly Rae Jepsen. I love Emotion
, but at her Metro show in March, I was in such a terrible place emotionally that I couldn't partake of the general atmosphere of celebration and catharsis. I was looking forward to a second chance—and I admit, as someone who's lately been wishing for a friend to drag me out of my apartment so I'll do something other than drink myself to sleep, I misted up a bit during the first chorus of "Making the Most of the Night." ("I know you've had a rough time / Here I come to hijack you, hijack you, I love you / I'm making the most of the night.")
One of the things I appreciate most about Jepsen is the innocence and earnestness of her persona—her retro radio pop is clearly a big-dollar professional production, and her songwriting chops are formidable, but she dispenses with the "armor-plated diva" routine that seems obligatory for women operating at her level. Despite her obvious talent, she's endearingly, relatably dorky onstage—I mean, I have friends who dance better to her songs than she does. On "Gimmie Love," when she sings "Do you think that I want too much?," you get the feeling she's actually afraid the answer might be yes. I loved Jepsen's whole set, right down to the ruthlessly perfect drummer filling out the sequenced rhythms—my only complaint was that in 50 minutes she didn't manage to play "Your Type."
Beach House began their set inauspiciously—the mix seemed tentative, and I heard a couple whistles of microphone feedback early on. Even their signature light show—the light-spangled backdrop and trio of scrims for projections—didn't get going till the third song. But by the time the band wrapped up, they looked and sounded as good as they had at the Vic in March. The band mentioned how much they appreciated the cool weather, but to my ears, their carefully dreamy songs cried out for a warm, humid evening—the kind when you can't tell where your skin ends and the air begins.
Carly Rae Jepsen poses for a selfie with Reader contributor Meagan Fredette.