A few highlights from the Chicago event...

In the era of festival saturation and three-day gatherings with little in the way of a cohesive identity beyond alcohol and sunburns, Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival remains a paradigm of how a festival can maintain an identity.

With an emphasis on local artists (Valee, Whitney, Tasha), eclectic, ascendant talent (JPEGMAFIA, Black Midi, Chai), and a few just-left-of- mainstream stalwarts (HAIM, Parquet Courts, Robyn), the festival toes a difficult line of appealing to the general fan and the obsessive music head.

Pitchfork also picks its spots smartly when it comes to nostalgia acts, loading Day Two up with a cult favourite (Stereolab), and a pair of crowd-pleasers (Belle and Sebastian, The Isley Brothers).

Weather conditions were rarely optimal, with fans having to endure scorching sun on Friday and a brief thunderstorm-caused evacuation Saturday, but for anyone wanting to leave a festival enthused about music rather than burnt out on it, it’s hard to beat Pitchfork.

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Day One

Rico Nasty: It’s hardly surprising, but the intensity and urgency of Rico Nasty’s music makes it well suited for the stage. The fearsome spitter has a swagger and command of the stage consistent with artists well beyond her 22 years. Her earlier projects sometimes lag when Rico experiments with slower, more melodic instrumentals, but her setlist is lean and efficient, like her stellar 2019 project 'Anger Management'.

Anchored by name-making songs like 'Poppin' and 'Countin Up', Rico was one of the strongest early afternoon acts of the entire weekend. The only major knock on Rico’s set may be the timing; having such a propulsive performance early in the afternoon made the energy difficult to sustain as mellower acts dominated the next few hours.

Sky Ferreira: When things were going right for Sky Ferreira, including on tracks like 'Boys' and '24 Hours', she was every bit the auteurist pop star who soared on 2013’s 'Night Time, My Time', but those moments were waylaid by a host of technical difficulties that ultimately brought her set to a dissatisfying close.

It’d be egregious to put the blame on her, making the performance feel like an entirely too on the nose metaphor for the past few years of her career, which has been an onslaught of label drama that has kept her from releasing her sophomore record 'Masochism'. 'Descending', the new track she performed, sounded promising, even as she fought a losing battle with a faulty in-ear monitor. 

Soccer Mommy: The multitalented Soccer Mommy played what will likely be her last ever set on the festival’s smaller Blue Stage, as the crowd was fully ready to be swept up in her frank, introspective writing. Brighter tracks like 'Last Girl' and 'Outworn' shone brightly in the blistering heat, but still had the underlying bite of Sophie Allison’s lyrics about insecurity and inadequacy.

She has just a single true studio album under her belt, but Soccer Mommy has already proven as an artist and performer that she deserves the biggest possible stage at a festival like Pitchfork.

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Day Two 

Lala Lala: Backed by a formidable group of ascendant Chicago musicians, including KAINA, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, and Sen Morimoto, Lala Lala kicked off a scorching second day with a set that highlighted her strong songwriting and DIY grit.

Lillie West, the group’s mastermind and sole permanent member, used her accompanying band to build bigger, wider sounding versions of standouts like 'See You At Home' (which featured Morimoto on sax) and 'Siren 042'. Lala Lala even reeled off a stirring cover of Perfume Genius’ 'Slip Away', capturing the yearning, hopeful energy that has made the song a staple of coming-of-age films.

Ric Wilson: Nearly every year, it seems that one young Chicago artist seizes their opportunity and delivers a set that portends them having a real moment in the city’s crowded scene. In 2017 it was Jamila Woods, in 2018 it was Kweku Collins, and this year’s prime candidate would be rapper Ric Wilson.

The joyous, soulful Southside MC pulled out all the stops, bringing a local high school marching band on stage, having Collins drop by to perform their collaboration “Sinner,” and even leading the crowd in a Soul Train - style dance migration. Through all the creative flourishes, he never sacrificed substance, performing tracks like the urgent, poignant 'Dan Ryan' with power and precision.

The Isley Brothers: Saturday’s headliners know exactly how deep and influential their catalogue of smooth, seductive R&B tunes is. Having The Isley Brothers perform doubled down on the soulful nostalgia Pitchfork embraced last year with Chaka Khan.

The group played staple songs like 'That Lady', 'Between The Sheets', and 'Footsteps In The Dark', which they smartly blended with Ice Cube’s 'It Was A Good Day'. Even at 78, Ronald Isley still has heft and command to his voice, holding his own among the lush arrangements.

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Day Three

Tasha: Another strong hometown set came from singer, songwriter, and guitarist Tasha, who performed a delicate set so elegant that it’s hard to believe hundreds of people ran over to see JPEGMAFIA after it concluded.

“I want everybody to have a very nice, sweet time with me,” she asked a receptive crowd more than willing to step into her cozy, and contemplative world. Primarily playing tracks off her 2018 album 'Alone At Last', Tasha’s vocals were occasionally washed out by the guitars and drums, but even when that happened on songs like 'New Place', the instrumentation is gorgeous enough to command attention. She also debuted a handful of new songs solo, making fans hopeful for another project around the corner.

JPEGMAFIA: One of the most droll, media-savvy MCs to emerge in ages, JPEGMAFIA might have had the best bit of the weekend by continually referring to Pitchfork as Condé Nast Fest, mocking the corporate owner the music website.

JPEG, who produces and masters all of his own material, flexed his DIY ethos by not even having a DJ on stage and working the laptop himself. The brunt of the material came from his breakout album Veteran, including 'Thug Tears', 'Baby I’m Bleeding', and 'I Cannot Fucking Wait Until Morrissey Dies', which he joked about having retired.

There’s a ballistic energy to JPEG’s live shows, as he doesn’t just jump but rolls, writhes, and leaps between the stage and the crowd, as pure an embodiment of the punk/hip-hop nexus as any of the South Florida SoundCloud contingent.

Charli XCX: Charli eschewed the traditional trappings of a primetime pop performance at a music festival. Her stage was relatively stripped down, and the singer and songwriter carried herself with the free and easy charm of an A-list rapper on stage.

Despite the casual charm of her performance, Charli’s setlist was clearly meticulously constructed, leaning heavily on standouts from her 2017 mixtape 'Pop 2' like 'Out Of My Head' and 'Unlock It'. She did go all the way back to 'I Love It', beginning the song with a verbal eye roll (“I have to get this hit out of the way”) before backing it up with an animated performance.

With her album Charli out in September and another tour planned, she’s clearly in peak form.

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Words: Grant Rindner

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