As Chaka Khan tore through her 1979 hit “Do You Love What You Feel”, an elementary schooler stood side stage wearing a denim jacket patched with the words “step your game up.” He danced like a maniac, looking cooler than I ever have in my 33 years of life.
This is Pitchfork Music Festival 2018, where the kids are coming up from behind. The three-day showcase of breaking local talent, trending Best New Music and legacy headliners in Chicago could be described as “lit” or “everything” or “af” by the fashion-forward crowd, most of which weren’t old enough to rent cars.
For a fatigued festival-goer who’s been renting sedans for nearly a decade, the fest was surprisingly…comfortable. With a Grumpy Old Man pale ale in hand for most of the weekend, I found Union Park easy to navigate with none of the hellscape qualities that keep “people my age” from enjoying festivals. I had a great time.
On Friday, my arrival was soundtracked by Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society, an epic ethnic drone band that sounded like how Nag Champa smells. Their infinite jam session was perfect for exploring the grounds. The park was smaller than I expected, but claustrophobia-free. It rained, but the ground held firm and the weather didn’t stop anyone’s fun.
I don’t typically watch a band without a drink and I’m happy to report that staying hydrated, or dehydrated, wasn’t a problem. Some bros remark that there was “so much Goose Island,” a true statement given their tap monopoly. More breweries would’ve been welcome, but at least there was no festival upcharge—everything cost $6. The menu was heavy on the hops, the only real day-drinking beer was the 312 Urban Wheat. A welcomed addition to the lineup was Japandroids collab called “The Hops That Heaven Built,” and my personal favorite. Basically a maltier version of the Old Grumpy, it was a slow-sipper that lost its flavor once lukewarm.
By beer nerd standards these were nothing to scoff at, but by day two I wanted more variety. I was so Grumpied out I tried a Rose Cider from Virtue—and really liked it. But more than variety, I just wanted a beer-beer. You know, something light and crisp that resembled water, but plus alcohol. Maybe even a (cough) American adjunct lager (cough). At the very least it’d pair better with the food I ate—Connie’s pizza, pork buns from Wow Bao, a Fat Rice noodle bowl, two more slices of Connie’s pizza.
Oh, also, there was some music.
The line-up was heaviest on indie rock...duh. Nilufer Yanya’s hypnotic songwriting impressed me, plus she covered the Pixies “Hey”. Courtney Barnett doesn’t have a disappointing bone in her body, breezing through favorites like “Avant Gardener” and “An Illustration of Loneliness”. Meanwhile, the biggest name indie acts were less inspiring due to technical issues. Low volume crippled Tame Impala’s wall of psychedelia and Fleet Foxes’s reverb-y folk sounded like it was played through a dorm room wall, which was how I last heard them.
Hip hop also had a huge presence. Philly phenom Tierra Whack commanded the big stage like a boss rather than a rookie, rocking a Blossom denim hat and leading chants of “Whack!”. Chicagoans kept recommending Saba, one of several hometown rappers on the bill. The crowd sung the words to Care For Me (BNM!) and a sharp backing band amplified his energy. Kweku Collins also repped Chicago hard, pointing out his high school friends and sister in attendance while pleasing indie nostalgics with a reinterpretation of The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Maps”.
I was disappointed not to see any DJs on the line-up, but the few electronic acts made good. Mount Kimbie had the biggest gear footprint, an arsenal of synths that admirably recreated the sonic spectrum of their 2017 album Love What Survives. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s solo set featured a modular synthesizer that invoked mixed reactions—“it sounds like an alarm clock”—but the controlled chaos rewarded a close listen. The standout was Kelly Lee Owens, a young London producer and singer who pivoted from classicist techno and acid house to an Aaliyah cover and inspired the weekend’s biggest afternoon dance party.
Speaking of DJs, budding selectors were well served by the CHIRP Record Fair, a pop-up on the park tennis courts with booths from iconic Chicago record stores like Reckless and Logan Hardware (reborn as Electric Jungle), plus label-specific shops from Merge and Numero Group. The neighboring Renegade Craft fair made for a nice diversion from the music. In true old dude fashion, I bought a cool tie.
If you’re catching a theme here, I felt a bit out of place. I’m not a festival hater or one of those too-old-to-have-fun types, but this felt like a younger person’s scene. At one point in my life, I was Pitchfork’s target audience, but I’m now on the periphery, an Old Man Grumpy standing at the back of the crowd and marveling at how cool the kids dress these days (and why I only scored two high fives for my ‘95 Bulls Michael & Scottie & Toni & Steve & The Worm shirt).
The catwalk of ironic T-shirts, recycled vintage cuts, and futuristic post-gender fashion legitimately impressed me . A few Ts made me cringe (“I wish I was like you, easily amused”), but then I’d laugh out loud at a camo jacket with iron on letters reading “Drink Water”. Psychedelic tapestry patterns are very big right now. There were a ton of kids who would hate to be called normcore, but made it look good. Swimsuit tops and T-shirts without bras were everywhere, worn with defiance towards the 75 degree temperatures and an empowered attitude (#pitchforkfreesthenipple).
Thankfully Pitchfork booked a few acts for the senior citizens not interested in indie rock, most notably Raphael Saadiq, Chaka Khan and Ms. Lauryn Hill. Saadiq led his hotshot band through soul stompers from his forthcoming LP Jimmy Lee and a medley of tunes that he produced for Solange and D’angelo. Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” was the wildest moment of the weekend, delivered with power, grace and beauty. It bridged the age gap and made for a once in a lifetime sing-along. Her performance wasn’t just a victory lap, Chaka’s still got it.
The festival ended with the 20th anniversary performance of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The notoriously tardy singer took the stage 27 minutes late in a wide witch hat with an A’s logo and a tall striped button-down over a white wedding dress. Here we were, me and Ms. Lauryn Hill in Union Park, trying our best to have fun. At times Ms. Hill appeared out of breath, then she’d recover and ferociously rip through a verse with a sly smile. Songs like “To Zion” and “Forgive Them Father” still resonated even though they were played in alternative arrangements. Her fans didn’t mind.
I’d already seen her perform at another festival, so it didn’t feel that special to me, he said with his nose in the air. That is, until Ms. Hill stopped her set to reflect on the album. She recounted feelings of responsibility to tell a unique story while respecting music history. She wanted the album to be part of a continuum. She battled her label, championed art over industry. She micromanaged mixing sessions, flew between studios in Jamaica and the US. She didn’t sleep, but she finished the album. We were proof that it was worth it. She sounded exhausted, but grateful.
The set closed with “Doo Wop” (“That Thing”) and it sounded just as good as it did when it premiered on MTV 20 years ago. On my way towards the exist I walked past some late ‘90s babies twirling electric hula hoops to a song released before they could ride a bike. Despite all my gripes about feeling over the festival hill, I couldn’t help but smile and dance along, thinking to myself that I wouldn’t mind coming back next year.
If you missed Pitchfork Music Festival, or want to do it all over again in September, then join Vince Staples, Yo La Tango and more at OctFest in New York City. Tickets to the beer and music festival are on sale now.