When Will Toledo came onstage, I wondered how this baby-faced boy could have the maturity to write some of the most relatable musings of self-doubt and acceptance in indie rock this year. Reserved, with one hand shoved in a pocket, he sang the playfully dark hooks of 2016 critically acclaimed Teens of Denial along with the rain-jacket clad crowd. It would be too cruel to call the set lackluster, for Toledo perfectly rode the line between soft melancholy and explosive passion with his vocals and guitar, but if it wasn’t for the crowd’s enthusiasm, the performance would have fallen short. Toledo seemed nervous, maybe it was because he was the first performer of the festival, but instead of diving into familiar album material, he covered the title track from David Bowie’s 2016 Blackstar. That, along with the enthusiastic crowd throwing blow up orca whales around, was enough to shake up his set to notoriety.
After Car Seat Headrest, I headed over to Whitney at the blue stage. While the other two stages were in the main field area, the blue stage was framed by twisting trees and a more intimate pit area. Led by singing drummer, Julien Ehrlich, and guitarist, Max Kakacek, whose previous projects include Smith Westerns, the set-up was a nice break from the usual guitar led pieces of the festival. The different layout caused the lead to have less mobility than other performers at the festival though, but the energy level matched the early set time and came off as casual, rather than boring. Early in the set, the band played Bob Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying With You”, which blended seamlessly into their own Nashville influence. The sweet blend of horns, strings, down tempo drumming, and guitar floated through the treetops and made a head-nodding, relaxing set.
With a cigarette drooping from his lips and sunglasses I’m 99% sure my grandfather owns, Jack Dolan, led Twin Peaks out to a packed crowd of psyched fans. The performance had the power to draw out every angsty teenager inside all of us, and as the four piece rattled through old hits and then new tunes from their newest album, Down In Heaven, the mosh pit grew wider and wider. The horn and keyboard addition to the stage differentiates them from the beer-chugging garage rockers they were a couple years ago, but in a good, progressive way. Their music and Cadien Lake James’s growling wail and easy to follow choruses made for a sweaty, but wild time.
Carly Rae Jepsen took the red stage next with the energy of an artist that truly loves what they’re doing. She smiled the entire set, roamed the stage to allow each crowd member an up-close view, and breezed through each note with ease. Against a backdrop of starlight and city streets, she channeled 80s pop icons with ease, and her romance centered lyrics came off as sincere rather than washed out. When Carly started “All That”, Dev Hynes of Blood Orange emerged from backstage to cooly play guitar alongside her. It was almost humorous to watch some of Chicago’s most alternative people losing their shit to “Call Me Maybe”. The true mark of success as a pop star is straddling the line between a popular audience and the music elite, and Jepson’s fans weren’t there ironically, they were there because Emotion is their master pop fantasy.
Pitchfork alum, The Range, was on the blue stage next. I’m not going to lie though, I was there for maybe two songs. Half of it was in a this was kind of boring way and the other half was that he was pitted against other incredible performers. But, I did manage to soak in some of the Brooklyn producer’s atmospheric sampling. Electric texture swirled over the crowd, and the open air stage was a great scene to experience his music.
The duality of Shamir’s onstage presence is captivating; His sass with a mix of cynical humility commands the stage, while the backup band and singers sit back. His performance is a refreshing dose of breaking boundaries, musically and socially. Shamir’s music pairs a unique blend funk, disco, and R&B with his falsetto voice, and it had the entire crowd dancing. To be 22 and master the power of contradiction and complexity to minimalist beats is an immeasurable feat. Watching Shamir perform only solidified his lead in today’s music world.
Beach House closed Friday night’s festivities with a mellow, subdued set. A safe headliner for the festival, Beach House is one of those bands that you have to work really hard to dislike, and they flawlessly played their hazy dream pop. Victoria Legrand emerged looking beautifully tousled, adorned in a light-up cape. Their light show didn’t start until mid-way through their set though, and it didn’t feel as monumental as I’d imagined. The performance was extremely similar to when I saw them post Depression Cherry/TYLS, and the intimate charm of the smaller venue didn’t translate to the large festival scene. Instead, the festival night ended sleepily without a bang. Don’t get me wrong, I love love love Beach House, I just think that putting them as the first headliner Friday night was a safe, mediocre move.
My Saturday opened with Savages. I got to hear Digable Planets from the long clump of people trying to enter the festival, and boy, did their nostalgic blend of jazz and hip-hop sound great, but when I finally made it in, they were leaving the stage and Savages was coming on. I’ve always been on the fence about Savages, but I can’t deny the powerful ferocity of lead singer, Jehnny Beth. Looking sleek and absolutely badass in a fitted suit with slicked back hair, Beth’s whispers erupted into screams in their opener “Husbands”. Washed with feedback and fast-paced guitar, the all-girl outfit delivered a captivating performance of snarling intensity.
Dev Hinds, the mastermind behind Blood Orange, captivated the world with his surprise album earlier this month, and he started his Pitchfork performance with the same dramatic flair, playing a rendition of For Colored Girls (The Missy Elliot Poem) before entering the festival. The interplay between the political activism and sexual undertones in his music make Dev Hinds a relatable, diverse catalogue of millennial sentiment. Each melody has the warm caress of Hind’s coo’s coupled with deadpan spoken word. Clad in just sweatpants-style trousers and no shirt, his minimalist appearance matched his music, simple, but sleek and stylish.
After Beach House’s quiet performance from the night before, I went into Sufjan’s set expecting the same reflective atmosphere, but I was happily surprised to find that instead of a show like the one I saw at the Fox Theater in Atlanta (where I cried the entire time), he had a light-hearted performance, complete with costume changes, sing-alongs, and backup dancers. It was a show completely crafted around a festival atmosphere. To be able to deliver such different experiences to the music, shows Sufjan’s adaptability and expertise not only on song writing, but stage-presence too. Covering himself in balloons or dancing around with sunglasses and streamers didn’t come off as cheesy or overdone. It was more a lighthearted approach to pointing out the universal truths that Sufjan sings about in his music and making it a collective performance where the audience is experiencing the magic together.
My final day of Pitchfork began with Kamasi Washington’s smooth jazz. Supported by an enthusiastic backup singer, he coolly and skillfully played the saxophone in front of a packed crowd. Washington was mostly expressionless, with sunglasses covering his eyes, but the tempo of the music and his fast moving fingers kept the crowd intrigued. For a jazz player to top major publications’ end of the year favorite album lists is uplifting news for the genre, and Washington’s accessible artistry has inspired a new generation of jazz lovers.
I caught Holy Ghost! next. The set was pretty standard and featured the lead singer, Nick Millhiser, at the forefront while Alex Frankel played the band’s electro dance-pop sound. The most exciting point of the performance was when Millhiser played the standup snare drum.
Neon Indian graced the stage next and lead, Alon Palomo, was the exact opposite of Holy Ghost!. Resembling a 80s gangster and dancing with a ferocity that rivals the lead in a coming-of-age prom dance off movie, the performance was dynamic and exciting. The crowd mirrored Palomo’s energy, and huge dance circles broke out. It came off as cheesy at times, but it was embracing the overdone facade that coated each song with delicious irony.
I saw Jeremih next on the green stage, and even though it was a really fun show, he acted as more of a hype man than the main performer. The majority of the songs he played were short snippets from top 40 bangers, and he roamed the stage surrounded by show-stealing back up dancers. Midway through the performance, he invited Chance the Rapper to the stage, and the crowd went absolutely wild. Chance the Rapper’s bit had more notoriety than the entire Jeremih set, but they did make for a jovial team to watch. To close the performance, Jeremih invited his mom to the stage to sing her his love. It was sweet, and it topped off a musical hodgepodge performance of special guests and covers.
The weekend ended with FKA Twigs, and her show was an inviting mixture of performance art and avant-garde R&B. The visuals drove her show to success, and she proved her spot as a headliner with her background in dance. Paired with her powerful visuals and mesmerizing costumes, the dance was unique to her performance and acted out a narrative. It was a monumental way to close out Pitchfork, and I was totally captivated by her crisp angles and movements onstage. Newcomers to FKA Twigs were hypnotized by her, while her cult-like following screamed excitedly the entire way through. Her performance was hauntingly beautiful and an epic way to close out Pitchfork 2016.
-Camilla Grayson, Music Director