First day of annual Chicago event ruled by Australian might
Article and photos by John Flannagan
Getting the opportunity to cover such an important festival like Pitchfork is one upon which you pounce – even if it is for just one day of the three-day event. Although, size-wise, it is a smaller festival, it packs a huge reputation for boasting both up-and-coming acts and unique throwback performers. And as I soon found out, its simple triangle layout featuring just three stages named after colors (red, green and blue) was perfectly suited to my needs on this weekend.
The festival happened to fall at the same time as a preplanned family vacation to my Windy City hometown, so finding the right day and time to catch the festival action took a good deal of finagling. I had to book the right downtown hotel that wasn’t too far from the Union Park festival grounds while still being close enough to family-friendly attractions. After a full day of taking in sites that included various museums (as well as pigging out on classic Chicago fare), it was determined that I would be able to sneak off to catch the first evening of the famed Chicago festival. The Friday lineup included Tame Impala and Courtney Barnett, two of my favorite current artists, so I was thrilled to be seeing them live even if I were missing out on a lot musically for the remainder of the weekend.
And from the moment I stepped inside the gates, I knew that this was a festival tailored to me. Local favorite Goose Island was the sole beer vendor, but countless designers of band posters and indie vinyl booths littered the grounds and made my strolls between stages a delight. As a Chicago transplant, I was forced to wonder aloud why I’ve managed to miss this for so many years. With any hope, I’ll be able to return in an official capacity for a more immersive experience in the future.
As a light rain was setting in for Friday evening’s festivities, the first act that caught my ear upon arriving at Union Park was the indie-folk outfit Big Thief. Led by Adrianne Lenker’s breathy croon, I finally caught on to the content of her lyrics midway through the set, understanding themes ranging from childhood and death to the singer’s relationship with her mother and – much to my surprise – aliens.
More and more artists are revealing their vulnerabilities to audiences these days in an open way that seems almost sermon-like, which I can attribute only to the strange times in which we are living. Lenker’s between-song banter was no different, it, too, coming across as strangely confessional yet refreshing.
The set drew me in from the first note, and I found myself blown away by the emerging group. Big Thief have been around for only a couple of years at this point, but already they’ve served as a supporting act for the likes of The National, who brought the band on tour with them this past spring. There’s no doubt that the band’s name will continue to populate festival bills over the next few years, and I expect it to rise ever so slightly with the passing of each.
Although I was at Union Park for just a short time this year, I regardless was faced with a rather big schedule conflict: Their set times commencing just 20 minutes apart from one another, I was forced to choose between Courtney Barnett and the English electro-instrumental duo Mount Kimbie. Having seen Barnett a couple of times prior, most recently at Shaky Knees in May, I opted to begin with Mount Kimbie this go-around.
I was immediately rewarded for my decision, as again I was blown away as I kept inching toward the media cut. Their set blended raucous guitar riffs with catchy synth hooks, Andrea Balency’s flawlessly placed lyrics and harmonies soaring above the mix. While the material leaned heavily on last year’s “Love What Survives,” their sound served as the perfect backdrop to the early evening, as the famed Chicago winds began to pick up. As much as I hated to pull myself away from the excellent show, I knew that it would behoove me to catch the end of Barnett’s rocking set.
Maybe it was the weather or the crowd, but whatever caused it, Courtney Barnett had a discernable swagger about her during her pre-headlining set on Friday evening at Pitchfork. Perhaps you could chalk it up to her having an additional guitarist onstage – something I’ve yet to see in two previous performances – or the fact that the new, punchier material from “Tell Me How You Really Feel” gave the rock goddess a little more pep in her step during this performance.
The amplified energy level was not lost on the audience, either, although it could be argued that it had been most of the day up until that point. Once Barnett ripped into “Avant Gardener,” though, the crowd was set off. And during “Small Poppies,” you could sense that you just might be watching the Chrissy Hynde of this generation. As Barnett screamed, “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you” near the end of her time onstage, the irony was thick, as she clearly hadn’t disappointed anyone on the night.
Finally, it was on to the headliners of day one, the thunder from Down Under that is Tame Impala. On a bit of a hiatus (the Aussies haven’t released an album since 2015’s “Currents), the band nevertheless put on a trippy, spellbinding show.
Concerning the three-year lull, frontman Kevin Parker was quoted in a recent interview as saying, “We better have new music next year.” Tame Impala has made scant festival appearances during the prolonged absence, though; it’s just that the BLANK collective hasn’t been privy to any of them. However, it has seen fellow Australians King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Pond and the aforementioned Barnett multiple times each, all of whom have helped to solidify their home continent as a force with which to be reckoned in the world of rock music.
But make no mistake: While all of those performers are excellent in their own rights, none command the same kind of draw that Tame Impala does, and this rain-soaked headlining set at Pitchfork proved as much. With an impressive gathering jammed in and locked in for two hours of bliss, the powerhouse group played crowd favorites such as “Mind Mischief” and “Elephant,” making up for a sound quality that seemed a little too distant at times. Midway through the dreamy set, the fog-like mist settled in above the crowd and mixed beautifully with the psychedelic light show as the band surged forward.
Parker, obviously enjoying the rain, commented several times about the elements, advising the masses that it didn’t matter and would only make the experience that much more special. As Tame Impala concluded its 16-song set with encore performances of “Feels Like I Only Go Backwards” and “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” to a thunderous roar from the crowd, I couldn’t help but conclude that Pitchfork is first and foremost a festival for the most committed of music fans.