The sun god answered our prayers on Sunday. Union Park was cooler than Saturday and sunnier than Friday, and it stormed long after Oneohtrix Point Never ended his set. While the previous days offered plenty of indie rock and “poptimistic” tunes, Sunday almost felt like a jazz festival. Watching Sun Ra, Kamasi Washington and Thundercat all in the same day felt like celestial beings visited us to deliver a message in a hidden, melodic code.
Sunday also had a few technical difficulties, especially at the blue stage. While Homme started a few minutes late, it was Empress Of’s 30+ minute delay that pushed the stage off schedule for the rest of the day. Set times started going on at the same time making it incredibly difficult to get from stage to stage. But Jeremih, Miguel and FKA Twigs tied the weekend with a soulful knot.
The Sun Ra Arkestra is led by the 92 year-old Marshall Allen, and the free jazz group has continued for more than 20 years after the band’s original leader Sun Ra died in 1993. Sun Ra claimed to have been visited by aliens and to have experienced a vision where he would speak through music and the world would listen. And his Arkestra could be from Saturn with their tin hats and colorful gowns — they dress like ancient pharaohs traveling to a time of planetary exploration.
Early in their set, Allen trades a saxophone for an electronic wind instrument. After all, the band specializes in sculpting squeals, squeaks and squawks into sonorous sounds. But while they dress like visitors from Saturn, their music isn’t saturnine: they’re a freely improvising group with roots from the 1950s and can still play a hot 12-bar-blues tune that sounds fresh.
Woods has a vibe that they like green tea, Clif Bars and like to get high but not stoned. Their folk tunes hit the chords somewhere between indie and jam band. As singer-songwriter Jeremy Earl and their keyboardist laid down textures, lead guitarist executes melody with relaxed precision. After halfway into their set, they lift their songs by bringing horn players on stage (bringing out the horns seems to be the big trend this weekend, from Twin Peaks to Whitney or Kevin Morby to Woods). They’re the jam band indie kids can feel good about liking because they won’t come off as excruciatingly caucasian.
Homme came to the Blue stage a little late but it didn’t hamper their riveting performance. Macie Stewart and Sima Cunningham make up the core of the band and usually perform as a duo, but this time around they were joined by drummer Matt Carroll who added even more depth to their sound. Focusing on their self-titled EP, Stewart and Cunningham tore through their songs with vicious guitar playing underlined by their gorgeous voices. “Woman” in particular had the now trio raising their game to unreal heights, re-establishing as a must see group.
– Julian Ramirez
Kamasi Washington played not too soon after Sun Ra, who kept the spirit of jazz alive throughout the day until Thundercats later performed. While the Sun Ra Arkestra still sounded fresh, Washington’s jazz sounded modern. Washington features an all-star band, featuring funky solos by bassist Miles Mosley, keyboardist Brandon Coleman and trombonist Ryan Porter. After he warmed up the crowd, he brought his father onstage to play clarinet for their take on the old jazz standard “Cherokee.”
Washington won the 1999 John Coltrane Music Competition, played on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, and released his first solo album called The Epic last year. Talking about jazz today might sound arcane, but despite his byzantine melodies Kamasi Washington makes jazz accessible and interesting without diluting his craft and vision.
As mentioned earlier, Lorely Rodriguez of Empress Of’s set was delayed by an unreasonably long time. She is a one-woman outfit so the technical difficulties seemed all the more irksome. She came out and apologized for the wait and was genuinely surprised by the crowd’s full acceptance. She managed to get things going pretty quickly after that, doling out her spellbinding electronic songs. In contrast to other electronic bands that played after her, she doesn’t go in for the overtly glossy noise or kitschy vibes. She opts for more deeply textured sounds that can be easy to get lost in. Lucky for those who waited, this is exactly what they got as Rodriguez disappeared into her music.
– Julian Ramirez
Indie-electronica artists love the 1980s. Neon Indian combines the Reagan decade’s best and worst musical qualities, and frontman Alan Palomo unabashedly marches to a fanfare of cheesy synth lines. Palomo had some of the best dance moves of the weekend, too. And their music is so self-aware that it makes the camp enjoyable. On the other hand, Holy Ghost! blared bright, neon-colored disco sounds to catch your attention. But their act got old quickly. Maybe they belong in the club at night instead of a festival at day.
It’s no surprise that Neon Indian saved his biggest and most recognizable songs for the final two spots in his set list. Despite a more than decent and accessible album in VEGA INTL. Night School, Alan Palomo can not escape the bright light cast off of “Deadbeat Summer” and “Polish Girl”. The entirety of his set was dripping with dark ’80s synth lines, but it wasn’t until those two songs blared that the crowd full let themselves go. His over the top dancing and some just as expressive facial expressions as he was mugging to the crowd made the set a fun distraction from the more serious moments of the festival.
– Julian Ramirez
The Chicago-based Jeremih brought his friends onstage — and his mom, too. He started his set by singing over the Black Eyed Peas “I’ve Got a Feeling” and the crowd unironically cheered him on. He shouted “shots!” and “Chicago!” throughout his set, which, according to the rule of three, was funny after the third time (but tiresome the fourth time). Still, among his two dozen he invited onstage, the crowd warmly welcomed the city’s beloved Chance the Rapper. Jeremih is fun, but between letting Chance bask in the spotlight and his incessant hyping, he was still a cheerleader.
– Colin Smith
Whatever happened to DJs playing songs to bide the time while the late performer made his way to the venue? Did somebody decide that was not a good idea and 20 minutes of silent waiting was a better move? Jeremih marked what I think was the only excessively late start at the bigger stages of Pitchfork. He would go on to make up for it, although more so out of luck than planned purpose.
Jeremih claimed he had no set list and would do whatever the crowd wanted him to do. So as he queried, “Yo want some old shit or some new shit?”, the audience obliviously opted for the old bangers. It made for a pretty random assortment of tunes with the sole purpose of getting the crowd moving. When teases of various performers resulted in Chance the Rapper coming to the stage for “No Problem” and a tiny cut of “Angels”, the crowd lost it. It never got back to that energy again, but Jeremih’s time was fun albeit inconsistent.
– Julian Ramirez
Thundercat is a big guy. And yet his six-string hollow-body bass might just be as tall as him. The jazz bassist has worked with Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus, and Kendrick Lamar, among others. He’s released three solo albums with another one in the works, and a keyboardist and drummer accompanied him live. While he can rumble the bass, he also traverses its frets with swift and grace. His soulful vocals hover lightly above his band’s rhythms. Like his contemporary and peer Kamasi Washington, Thundercat brings jazz music that’s exciting and entertaining for listeners without dumbing down the songs or tradition. Jazz prodigies Jaco Pastorious and Stanley Clark breathed new life into jazz during the era of rock music, and Thundercat is doing the same in the era of hip-hop.
– Colin Smith
If there was any doubt that Sunday was going to be the most groovin’ and soulful day of the fest, Miguel’s performance ladi that doubt to rest. Armed with a full band that looking completely jazzed to be performing, Miguel launched on stage after an amazing instrumental intro. He was all smiles and sexy looks for the beginning of his set, throwing in some salacious dance moves in the mix as well.
Towards the middle of the set, Miguel made a point to bring some reality into the night, lamenting the fickle memory of the nation. He spoke about the events from a few short weeks ago and of the Black Lives Matter movement, imploring the crowd not to forget or to simply diminish lives into “hashtags and prayer hands.” After “How Many”, a protest song that summed up his worries, Miguel returned to his previous joyous self.
– Julian Ramirez
Unlike the weekend’s previous headliners Beach House and Sufjan Stevens, FKA Twigs didn’t speak to the crowd to exchange artist-to-audience pleasantries. Unlike Beach House, she didn’t hypnotize and lull the audience into a daze. Unlike Stevens, she knows how to dance (and she didn’t read from I Ching).
Twigs is a classically trained dancer with a voice and presence that rivals Janet Jackson. She creates an electronic sound-space that draws from Massive Attack and The xx. And on the final night of Pitchfork, she dreaded her hair and resembled the singer from Star Wars: Episode VI that Jabba the Hut threw into the Rancor pit (maybe Lucasfilm should bring her onboard for Episode VII).
Curtains of black fabric with images of a few hands reaching up and down created the backdrop for her performance — they protruded as if they were a cave’s stalagmites and stalactites. Her stage felt like a set design for a one-act play. And the way she and her dancers moved around stage made her performance feel like a musical.
The rhythms she and her backing band pulsed felt at once locked and loose: this was dancing music. The polyrhythms — the four-count of the electronic drums beat against the bells hit into 1-2-3s — felt trance-like. And her dancing felt both primal and futuristic
Is her art dance or ballet? Is it performance art? It’s certainly music, but when you leave her trance you’ll wonder what you just saw.
– Colin Smith
The Sun Ra Arkestra and Woods photographs by Colin Smith, all other photography by Julian Ramirez