The Community of the 2015 Pitchfork Music Festival
There was a moment when I just sat staring at the scene in Chicago’s Union Park. It was on Sunday, the last day of the 2015 Pitchfork Music Festival. Caribou was playing on the main stage, the smell of marijuana was pungent, and I was enjoying a hot dog. There were people everywhere. Most crowded at the front of the stage for Caribou, some standing idly talking with their friends, and others, like myself, nodding along to the bassline of “Can’t Do Without You.” It was a moment of clarity that I experienced in a festival (my first) marked by a rush of emotional states which played out like a roller coaster through a grueling three day plunge. There was CHVRCHES’ maelstrom of synth, Freddie Gibbs putting Pitchfork on blast for previous line-ups, an actual maelstrom that shutdown the festival for all of 20 minutes, the dirge of listening to Panda Bear and the rowdiness of A$AP Ferg’s energetic dorkiness. Yet, throughout all of it, festival goers noticed a fair amount of community throughout the throngs of festival goers. We weren’t inundated with a slew of corporate sponsors, distractions and a disorienting amount of people. That community created an atmosphere in which we could enjoy the acts, no matter how close or far away we were from each respective stage. It was a community I was glad to be part of for three days.
Friday, the first day of the festival, began with cloud cover and humidity as Natalie Prass took to one of the main stages near the entrance. It was interesting to see her perform in front of a gathering crowd of curious onlookers rather than the intimate venue of devotees in which I saw her earlier this year. I was a little skeptical about how she would do, given the number of people in this setting, but it didn’t deviate from her previous performance. She was cool, calm and confident, a radiant beam of light which beckoned all within ear shot to come forth. After watching her signature cover of Janet Jackson’s “Anytime, Any Place,” I wandered around the park to the vendor tents as the sky began to open. The sun started bearing down on the festival as I made my way towards a tiny village of artists who were selling stunning poster art for various artists and their respective tour stops. There was a velvet print of Dolly Parton for a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, a neon blast of Lauryn Hill and a gigantic hologram combustion created for an Unknown Mortal Orchestra concert.
As the heat index began to rise, ILoveMakonnen brought his showcase of New Atlanta antics to the stage after Natalie Prass. The performance was filled to the brim with wrist motion and the signature off-kilter hooks of Makonnen, whose presence was undeniable. He knew how to tease the most recognizable of his arsenal (“Tuesday”) without giving himself away to fan service. “Don’t Sell Molly No More” garnered an uproar that was fit someone returning to the 404 area code. It would be a small swell of sound compared to the tidal wave crash given to Sunday’s closer, Chance the Rapper.
One Cuban Pork tamale later, and it would be time to take in Mac DeMarco. The court jester of indie rock, DeMarco drew a sizable crowd that laughed, clapped and crooned along with him. A few Viceroy cigarettes later, and DeMarco would be replaced with the pulsing, breathless rush of CHVRCHES, led by a fearless Lauren Mayberry. Mayberry would praise the US Women’s National Team, tell Mac that his well-noted vice was a “dirty fucking habit,” and looking into the soul of the crowd with her piercing stare. Through “Gun,” “Lies” and “Tether” she controlled the stage with an iron fist, dressed in all black and leather, whipping the stage with her microphone cord. It was the first palpable rush of the entire festival as people squealed, howled and shouted for more; all of them masochists underneath the boot heel of Mayberry.
Day 2 of the festival offered a range of genres consistent in their rowdy mood. Alicia Bognanno and Bully ripped through their bubblegum chewing grunge as a mosh pit formed to the right of the stage. A swirl of drunk college bros threw each other around for every song. Even the mid-tempo songs in the set list were used as a license to aggressively throw people about. Bognanno allowed it, but with one condition: “No one gets hurt.” These conditions didn’t apply at the same stage later in the afternoon, when A$AP Ferg commanded people to start a mosh pit in the mud of a soaked Union Park.
The tamest act of the day was Ex Hex due to Mother Nature’s interference by way of thunderstorm. The storm threatened overhead as a canned voice over the PA said, “due to forces outside of our control, the festival will be evacuated. Check back at pitchfork.com for updates.” The announcement was met with groans and then shrieks of terror as a reverberating boom of thunder shook everyone in Union Park. From there, chaos began. Crowd goers were running to get out of the park as rain seemed to pour from every which direction. Those who were drunk or high stood around as if they had all the time in the world. But as people made a mad dash to the gates, there was no martial law, nor anyone crushed in a stampede. People kept as calm as possible given the disastrous conditions. In a twist of fate benefiting us, the storm would pass, and the sun would emerge in a matter of five minutes. The festival gates would re-open in a matter of twenty.
Mud covered the landscape for the final two days. Festival attendees would wear it on their sleeves as a badge of honor. It was on their face, on their legs, on their arms. It didn’t matter as long as it signaled that they were close to the action at the festival. And when A$AP Ferg emerged on the Blue Stage, it was hard not to get muddy. Bodies flew as he performed “Work” and “Shabba.” Eventually, a trash can was hoisted in the air and thrown among the throngs of people in front until the lid opened and spilled wet bottles, cans and food-contaminated containers. It was one of the most hilarious moments of the festival, not ignoring the fact that Benny the Bull, the Chicago Bulls mascot, was in attendance and dressed like a member of a chillwave band.
Ferg’s set ended in a raucous ovation that may have stalled Shamir’s performance. An hour of sound checks passed with no sign of the North Las Vegas native. Future Islands was playing over on one of the other stages, and I decided to forgo another round of irritating mic checks to see the band’s front man, Daniel Herring, grinding around on stage. The set was also interspersed with Herring’s signature growl and chest thumping antics. It was improvisational comedy, if the key words thrown out from the audience were “Huey Long,” “Channing Tatum,” and “Cannibal Corpse.”
The night closed out with Sleater-Kinney, the biggest rock band of the festival. Yet, at that moment, you would have thought that they were the biggest rock band in the world. Carrie Brownstein performed high kicks and windmills which, due to the residual rain on the stage, led to a nasty spill. She quickly rebounded, making the fall seem like an extension of her Buster Keaton-like guitar antics. Corin Tucker’s vocals were as sharp and biting as ever, especially on “Dig Me Out,” which elicited a mass sing-along. Janet Weiss, meanwhile, pounded away at the drums with more ferocity than the storm that made the attendees flee for the streets earlier in the day.
By the end of the extended set, people were crying. These were tears of elation at seeing one of riot grrl’s seminal bands take the stage like they never left. It was a feeling that you couldn’t shake. You wanted to stay with everyone, despite Chicago’s noise ordinance, and listen to Sleater-Kinney perform Dig Me Out in full. I had to settle for a late night hot dog in Little Italy and the album being played through the headphones on my phone, the scene of people joyfully shouting along to Sleater-Kinney still vivid in my head as I fell asleep.
“If you’re on the fence about seeing us, you should definitely go see her.” Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee referred the crowd to Kathleen Hanna in the late afternoon on the third day of the festival. Her set was marked by the garage scuzz of her recent album, Ivy Tripp. “Under a Rock” and “Air” were performed before she pointed the way toward the Julie Ruin. While she and her band were incredibly on point despite early sound issues, I made my way to the Julie Ruin. Hanna’s latest band was another straightforward, no-bullshit vehicle amped by her caterwaul cheerleading. There were motivational speeches for the “young folks” creating art and an incredible amount of pep for progressive causes. There was a moment during one of her songs when she pointed into the crowd, and her finger seemed to point directly at me. It probably wasn’t, but maybe it was. It was a moment when I went from casual observer to fully engaged. I turned into that music dork that goes into fits for days that this person, this institution, pointed their finger at me, of all people.
As the afternoon continued, the sun’s unforgiving rays continued to prey on the crowd of those who were hydrated and otherwise. There was barely any wind, in spite of Chicago’s breezy reputation. It didn’t matter one bit as the crowd waited for Jamie xx to take his place behind his kit of knobs, dials and a disco ball. He came out to huge applause and began his show with a nod to Chicago house innovator Frankie Knuckles by playing “Our Love.” His later song choices twisted and turned inward on themselves until they started to coalesce into tracks from In Colour. All of this was happening as the young crowd that had formed near the front of the stage started surfing through people and hitting them as they went. It was an experience that became noticeably irritating for a lot of the crowd goers despite the amount of drugs and the Quiet Storm of the music.
Half an hour later, another hot dog in hand, I passed by people making plans for Lollapalooza, trying to decide if it was worth it. “There’s always so many people,” I heard one person say. You could tell that most of the conversation surrounding Lollapalooza was coming from the hometown crowd attending the concert. The other concern among those both from Chicago and otherwise was regarding another event in town: Taylor Swift. Many people within the gates of Union Park seemed to be pretty welcoming of the pop star. There was also a lot of anticipation for Chance the Rapper’s set and the question of whether or not he would bring Swift to the stage (Chance posted a picture with the monolith on his Instagram earlier in the weekend). It was kind of interesting to see that the Pitchfork crowd was not as pretentious as I previously imagined. Despite the fact that Swift’s been dragged through the mud in interviews on the website, she was seen as a viable entity and not just some manufactured piece of pop artifice. Maybe my assumptions and pretensions about the crowd at a festival such as this one were wrongheaded. Perhaps the divisions that people harbor for musical tastes are not as strong as they appear to be by way of the Internet. Everybody that I overheard just seemed to have an appreciation for music, regardless of its commercial or independent origins.
This was best exemplified by an older woman who was waiting around for Courtney Barnett’s show to begin on Sunday. As she stood, a young lady and one of her friends were talking to her about the festival thus far. “Well, I’ve been enjoying it so far, but I have to leave early today to see Taylor Swift,” she told the two friends. “Wow,” the young lady was surprised. “I wouldn’t imagine you being into both Courtney Barnett and Taylor Swift.” The woman chuckled before saying, “They are both strong, female artists, and I like that about both of them.” Instead of a piss-taking contest that would normally emerge out of this kind of comment, there was an easy acceptance. No debate. No “yeah, but” arguments. It simply was.
As the sun began to set to the sounds of the L train, Run the Jewels took the stage to “We are the Champions” by Queen. Killer Mike and El-P promised to “tear this motherfucker up” with some surprise guests. They proceeded to assault the PA system with the heavy reverberation of droning bass. Zack de la Rocha and Gangsta Boo made appearances in their respective guest spots from Run the Jewels 2. It was a scene that may have been fun for people more toward the front, but watching from a distance was really awe-inspiring. The whole park was seemingly in attendance with its hands up, standing at attention for its populist heroes.
The brutal assault and politics of Run the Jewels were not enough to prepare the mostly Chicagoland crowd for the appearance of Chance the Rapper. While Killer Mike and El-P used menace and protest as the main energy behind their unstoppable freight train, Chance drew his from the life spring of positivity to lead his charged up show. His set was a huge production which acted as a coronation for the rapper whose story has been fiercely marked by independence and unwavering allegiance to his hometown. The thousands that gathered to his pulpit were greeted by LED screens and a full band that accurately captured the kaleidoscope of Chance’s being. Chance’s influences – a stunning range of styles from gospel to footwork – all manifested themselves in a frenzied, off-the-wall explosion of sound and vibrant colors. I had never seen the on-record persona of an artist so accurately represented as it was when Chance performed. The community of people that had experienced this festival over the last three days lent their energy to Chance, an artist for which community is the most important aspect of his music.
I started leaving Union Park in the middle of Chance’s set. I was tired and aching from a full three days of unforgiving weather, sporadic jabs to my back from mosh pits and untold hours on my feet. Yet, sitting near the entrance, I watched Chance from afar and started to regret making the decision to leave. Was I really all that tired? Am I that spent? If the rest of this community could take it, I surely could. I stood watching the crowd rock back and forth as “Slip Slide” erupted from the stage. The smiling, the clapping, the yelping – I wanted to be a part of it all over again. As the song ended, I made the decision to exit Union Park, fully cognizant of the “NO RE-ENTRY” sign staring at me as I left. It was okay, I told myself, Pitchfork would still be here next year. After all, this was its 10th year hosting a festival in the same exact place, in the same exact format that harbored this community. And I’ll definitely be back for another.