Pitchfork Music Festival 2018: Day 1 in Review

If you live in Chicago long enough the annual Pitchfork Music Festival feels like one big backyard barbecue. Fortunately, unlike my last one, we didn’t see much rain and the only thunder we heard was from Courtney Barnett’s rhythm section. This year’s Pitchfork succeeds in booking diverse lineups, striking an improved gender balance (when 70% of artists across festival lineups are male) and booking local talent. Rain or not, this Friday felt underwhelming. Earl Sweatshirt canceled last minute. Julien Baker, while a powerful songwriter, had more people talking over her than watching. The energy didn’t pick up until one of the very last acts, the ever-literate and discursive rockstar Courtney Barnett, took the stage. But when the sets were good, they hit all the way home. The Curls The day started off with the The Curls endlessly weird and charming set. If you ever want to make a good first impression as a band, follow the Curls and let loose as hard as you can. Their jazzy, funky, crazy sound was the perfect wake me up for the early festival goers who crowded around the Green stage. I will say, it was nice seeing so many people out this early at Pitchfork. The band really fed off the decent sized crowd and delivered the danceable jams you’d expect from the art rockers. The band all donned No Cop Academy shirts, whether they were officially designed or handmade concepts, putting their support towards using $95 million dollars into Chicago communities rather than a police training ground. - Julian Ramirez Melkbelly Melkbelly kept the local sounds roaring as they took the Red stage with a ferociously loud set. It should be no surprise that Melkbelly’s noise rock would tear into every audience member’s eardrums, regardless of the outdoor setting. Miranda Winter’s voice barreled through the rain that ended up turning to some nice sunshine during the set as the rest of the band raced through their instruments. If The Curls didn’t wake the crowd up with their fun and uplifting energy, then Melkbelly’s beautiful aural assault knocked some sense into them. - Julian Ramirez Lucy Dacus After her opening songs "Addiction" and “The Shell,” Lucy Dacus confessed she was a little nervous, mostly about performing in the rain and getting shocked. However it seemed like those first couple of songs eased her worry. She told the crowd she was going to change up her setlist and after a slight false start to ”I Don’t Want to Be Funny Anymore,” Dacus and her band were putting some of the best chill out and enjoying tunes you could hope for. Her lyrics are so precise and elegant; it’s hard not to be impressed by her ability to make them come alive on stage. Dacus ended her time on stage with “Night Shift,” a satisfying end to the set. - Julian Ramirez Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society took what I like to call the “annual jazz session that blows you away.” With screens featuring colorful patterns stationed behind them, the band got straight to business, taking their seat spots and jamming out sounds that were impossible not to groove to. Not to diminish Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society’s amazing jazz set, but this was definitely the set for those who were a little high and just wanted to mellow out and dance, something that was evident by the throngs of people huddled together and swaying around with their eyes closed. - Julian Ramirez Julien Baker The noise from the Red stage bled into Julien Baker’s set, not to mention the ubiquitous chatter that created another barrier. Vulnerable singer-songwriter material doesn’t exactly lend itself to a festival setting, but Baker belted out her lyrics as if her life depended on it, rocking her guitar along with her body. As you inched closer to the stage, the intimate environment she sought to create became more palpable. But it's mood music: the listener, too, has to willingly enter that mental and emotional space, and that became especially difficult for a Friday afternoon, coming out of work and seeing Saba orchestrating the crowd on the other end of Union Park. - Colin Smith Saba After Earl Sweatshirt canceled, the hometown hero Saba took over a later slot, allowing the festival to resume its original schedule. And as his music and performance showed, this native of the Austin neighborhood celebrated life in spite of death. His release this year, Care for Me, is dedicated to his cousin and close friend John Walt (Walter Long), who was part of the group Pivot Gang and was stabbed last year. Across his jazzy, breezy songs are meditations on grief as he strives to find sense in a senseless and, at times, cruel world. - Colin Smith Big Thief With songwriting just as vulnerable as Julien Baker or Saba, Big Thief gave us more catharsis, cleansing ourselves amid bouts of sporadic rain and the band's melodic noise. Excitement in the audience grew when the washed-out guitar beckoned songwriter Adrianne Lenker's first lines in "Shark Smile." With songs like "Mary" and her other reflections on pain off of 2017's Capacity, it was time for the tears to roll down. Big Thief hits a sweet spot between melody and noise, tight songwriting and loose solos, and introspection as well as raucous performance. - Colin Smith Courtney Barnett I last saw Courtney Barnett perform at the Chicago Cultural Center a few months ago and it was as thrilling as you’d expect. She devoted most of that set to playing the entirety of the amazing  “Tell Me How You Really Feel” followed by choice cuts from her back catalog, which ended up feeling a little lopsided in practice. This time around it felt a little more varied (even though the first four songs were off the new album) and Barnett’s performance was just as explosive as one would expect. The set ramped up with "Avant Gardner" and reached what most bands would call a high point with “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch,” but not Barnett and crew. After that they set off with “Small Poppies” (containing one of my favorite all time lyrics “I used to hate myself but now I think I’m alright), rose up to “Elevator Operator,” and hit a reverent tone with the coming of adulthood ballad “Depreston.” There was nowhere to go after this but straight into some of Courtney’s most well-known songs to finish things off. The drunk epic of “History Eraser” livened up the mood and set the stage for the climax of “Pedestrian at Best.” “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you!” screams Barnett and leaves me wondering just how big of a pedestal would she have to be put on to actually disappoint. I don’t think it exists. - Julian Ramirez Tame Impala Tame Impala created a modern Ken Kesey acid test with updated projectors and high-tech lights shows amid keyboard warbles and flanged drums. Playing a broad swath of their hits across their repertoire of three full-length albums, the psychedelic Australian band had the crowd stomping along to “Elephant” and singing their hearts along to “Eventually.” Having seen the psychonauts indoors, the outdoor setting proved two challenges to the band: 1) a live mix that changed volume throughout a given song but remained too quiet for most of their set, and 2) an onslaught of bros who disrupted the mood with plenty of jeering and talking. Like a rotating fan in a hot, humid room, the live mix seemed to constantly evade you while you wanted it to stay still. Still, it's hard to pay attention to anything else while washed away in Kevin Parker's imagination. - Colin Smith
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Colin Smith

Colin Smith thinks that Chicago right now is the place to be for music. He works for Illinois Humanities, is a freelance writer, and plays psychedelic-pop songs with his band.