When REVUE heard a couple Calvin College students were headed to Chicago for the 10th Annual Pitchfork Music Festival, we decided to put them to work. The festival, which ran over the boiling hot-and-wet weekend of July 17-19, featured a laundry list of big-name and emerging bands, DJs and rappers. REVUE asked the students, Chloe Selles and Grant Stiles, to spotlight their top three performances. Also weighing in is Calvin College Student Activities Research and Program Coordinator John Williamson. He accompanied the students on the Chicago trip and also offered up his top picks.
Chloe Selles’ Top 3
Teenage band Mourn from Barcelona surprised with a primal and fervent performance. While most of the onlookers seemed unfamiliar with the Captured Tracks-signed band, Mourn soon won over the crowd and had them dancing along to their haunting vocals and powerful, ‘90s-inspired indie-rock rhythms. The group’s gritty vocals and PJ Harvey-influenced tunes thrilled the audience and proved age ain’t nothin’ but a number.
Led by the incomparable lead singer Mike Hadreas, Perfume Genius also gave a remarkable performance. He appeared on stage in bright red lipstick and commented, “A guy told me to take my lipstick off before I came onstage and I said no … I could say no forever.” He alternated between fierce dance moves and screams to tender, lilting vocals creating a charismatic, authentic energy. A band has done its job when the audience is either dancing or moved to tears – Perfume Genius accomplished both at Pitchfork.
On her 2015 debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, Courtney Barnett presented her wry wit, quirky storytelling and her magnetic personality. But the Aussie’s Sunday performance at Pitchfork reminded Chicago of her electric stage presence. From the opening song, “Elevator Operator,” Barnett owned the stage. Even under the burning-hot sun, Barnett was cool and comfortable while delivering her lyrically-driven folk-rock tunes. It was so blistering, her laidback look was extra casual – she sported a pair of shorts, only the second time she’d ever worn them for a performance, she dryly noted. Her slipshod look paired with her infectious and poetic energy made for a flawless and charming set. At one point she said, “I’m having fun. I hope you are, too.” Yes, Courtney, it was a blast.
John Williamson’s Top 3
Chvrches provided a much-appreciated burst of electronic pop near the end of Friday. Even the most apathetic in the Pitchfork crowd couldn’t resist the invitation to dance. In spite of their worldwide success, the three members, including lead singer Lauren Mayberry, still seemed to relish the chance to play in front of such a large, beach-ball bopping crowd. Martin Doherty openly shared his nerves when he stepped out from behind the keyboard to provide lead vocals for his one song, “Under the Tide” – his performance and exuberant dancing enlivened an already electric show. The crowd was also treated to the second ever live performance of the band’s new track, “Leave a Trace,” which began circulating the day prior – making the event even more special.
The New Pornographers
Indie rock veterans The New Pornographers provided an unsurprisingly tight set on Saturday evening. The crowd skewed a little older for one of the more senior bands, perhaps in part because holding a spot from this show would mean a great position for Sleater-Kinney’s headlining performance. The shining sun made it hard to believe that the festival had been shut down temporarily due to torrential rain and lightning earlier in the day. The music too was some of the brightest of the weekend, keeping the smiling crowd dancing and singing along to unapologetically poppy tunes. Their closer, “The Bleeding Heart Show,” was an appropriately jubilant climax to the sunniest show of the day.
The Julie Ruin
While I’d planned to watch their whole set, a shout-out from Waxahatchee singer Katie Crutchfield inspired me to catch The Julie Ruin instead. The project is the latest group fronted by legendary musician, writer, activist, and Riot grrrl founder Kathleen Hanna – most known for her time in Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. The playful punk set’s most prominent feature was the lack of pretense. Hanna spoke honestly and candidly about the inspirations behind her songs: feminism, obstacles to creativity, toxic relationships. At one point, she jokingly asked if this was an Al-Anon meeting. While these raw moments of banter may not suit every audience, it serves Hanna’s goal to inspire the crowd, women in particular, to pursue their ambitions. Though the subject matter is heavy, the rock ‘n’ roll music The Julie Ruin generates is energetic, bouncy and hooky.
Grant Stiles’ Top 3
The breezy-jangle pop of Mac DeMarco, coupled with his slacker-hobo-millennial persona quickly won over the Pitchfork crowd early on Friday. The show was a bit of an all-encompassing victory lap for Mac. The 25-year old songwriter played singles from his three LPs and an oddball, dad-rock Steely Dan cover. As for his own songbook, the sharp contrast between his lyrics (mainly love songs about his girlfriend Kiera) and his onstage persona (weirdo, gap-toothed rocker who occasionally gives bizarre shout-outs to the Red Hot Chili Peppers) charmed the crowd and somehow makes sense. Perhaps it’s because DeMarco never seems to take himself too seriously and the throng of young people at Pitchfork were on board throughout his set.
The first act returning from Saturday’s rain delay was Kurt Vile and the Violators. Vile only played for 25 minutes due to all the rain and thunder but still managed to captivate a crowd of soaking-wet fans. Most of his songs are seven minutes, give or take, so Vile only got through a few tunes before he was cut off. Nevertheless, the shaggy-haired rocker helped to boost the moods of hot and wet attendees. The sun shone as the crowd jammed out to “Goldtone” from his 2013 double album Wakin On A Pretty Daze. Vile seems timeless in a Neil Young-kinda way. His songs could have been written at any time in the last 30 or so years and still felt fresh. It was a perfect soundtrack for a tired crowd in desperate need of dry socks after a washout. Vile’s next LP, b’lieve i’m goin down…, is expected in the fall. Perhaps next year Pitchfork will invite him back so he can play some of the new tracks without getting shutdown prematurely.
Chance The Rapper
To think we almost left after Run The Jewels’ set … I admit, when I first heard Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap, I thought he was a bit overrated and was mining nostalgia from his millennial audience (he does a cover of the theme song to the children’s TV show Arthur). But sometimes you have to see an artist live to appreciate their craft. His show was incredible. The Chicago native drew the biggest crowd of the festival and everyone seemed to be engaged in the hometown-pride atmosphere. Chance was very adamant about everyone having a good time, referring to the show and Chicago in general as “his crib,” and his fans felt that connection and intensity. He played songs from Acid Rap, 10 Day and his newest release with his group The Social Experiment. The band is led by Donnie Trumpet, who was equally excited to be in front of a hometown crowd exclaiming “I used to play basketball in this park!” to an uproar of applause. Later on the crowd got an unexpected surprise when gospel singer Kirk Franklin appeared onstage for a guest appearance flanked by a gospel choir. The crowd went bananas. Intensity and harmonious elation was in the air. Chance even noted the night marked “a new chapter in his career” – an uplifting end to three spectacular days of shows.