Music festivals are frustrating.
Drunk kids talk over your favorite songs. The crowds induce claustrophobia, if not misanthropy. A tiny cup of Heineken costs $5. Your favorite bands are scheduled at the same time.
Pitchfork Music Festival suffers for all these reasons, but it delivers what matters and more.
Last weekend in Chicago’s Union Park, thousands braved the rain and heat to enjoy a worthwhile lineup of bands as bro as Vampire Weekend and brazen as Willis Earl Beal.
Yes, the price is right, the lineup is diverse and the vibe is comfy. The festival’s three stages all have their moments to shine, and all draw crowds as different and alike as the bands that play on them.
Pitchfork officially started early Friday afternoon, but on a sour note.
I was riding the “L” to Union Park when the first crack of lightning splashed across the cityscape. The train stopped and the doors opened to let in a roll of thunder and the dismaying sight of rain.
Undergrads not really dressed for the festival were scattered around the park under train tracks and church entrances. We took shelter and waited for the skies to clear. They did.
Friday’s standout was Chicagoan Willis Earl Beal, who stomped and preached in a whiskey-fueled fervor. The crowd clapped with him and stared, bewildered by his one-man show. It sounded halfway between the possessed howl of Tom Waits and the theatrical groove of Grace Jones.
The afternoon’s only other rainfall came during Tim Hecker’s set. Hecker seemed to conjure the winds and raindrops with his sampler, the storm clouds only amplifying his assaultive ambience.
After that, the rain let up just in time for rapper Big K.R.I.T. to get the crowd moving at the main Green Stage. Dirty Projectors later warmed up the crowd with a well-rounded show, before Feist took the main stage and eased everyone into a sleepy finale to a long day.
Rain returned Saturday, hard enough to shorten Cloud Nothings’ smouldering set. Later, the storm was light enough to complement Bradford Cox’s haunting solo set as Atlas Sound. Cox wore stark white face paint that spirited away the crowd with him.
Later Saturday night, after the rain was gone for good, Godspeed You! Black Emperor took the stage with such modest majesty that the crowd didn’t realize the show had begun; the Canadian post-rock legends opened with a murmur of a song that almost everyone mistook for a sound check. No one made that mistake once the band kicked into high gear.
The emotional climaxes from that set lingered with me into Sunday’s opening acts, when Chicago natives A Lull proved a smaller band could make just as big a sound as Godspeed.
It was hard to keep up with the rest of the sundried day.
AraabMuzik drove a sweatsoaked crowd wild with his rapidfire sampling, and I could only watch from afar, jealous of the teenager audience’s stamina. A salad kept me company while I cooled off under a tree, before I joined the crowd for Beach House’s evening set, which set the scene for a gentler, more survivable night.
Soon I was surrounded by smiling folks as far as I could see, and the whole crowd seemed primed and ready for Vampire Weekend’s undeniably fun pop. As the band closed out the festival Sunday night, I could only marvel at the weird microcosm I’d enjoyed for the past three days.
Even with two years of Pitchfork experience under my belt, my perception of the festival changed by the hour.
The place itself was a beautiful thing to grow accustomed to.
Union Park is 13.6 acres, which seems daunting enough when you first arrive, but is meager compared to Lollapalooza’s 300 acres in Grant Park, Chicago and Bonnaroo’s 700 acres of Tennessee wilderness.
What Pitchfork lacks in size, it makes up for in intimacy.
You quickly come to know the grounds and how to make the most of your time on them. There are never more than two bands playing at any given time, and it only takes a few minutes to travel between the stages.
I caught at least one song from every act on Friday without stressing myself out. The small space means noise occasionally leaks from stage to stage, but it’s a distraction worth bearing for the easy access to different acts.
Pitchfork is negatively associated with hipsters, but you’d never know it from the crowd. I saw as many sunglasses-sporting dads as I did skull-shirted 20-somethings. Even the most outspoken snobs offered a grain of salt with their insight.
It seemed like a crowd of music lovers, and music lovers come in all shapes. A few even sat on their parents’ shoulders with pacifiers in their mouths and headphones in their ears.
Pitchfork has a rare and comfortable atmosphere. I never felt insecure chatting with a fellow fanboy or taking shelter under someone’s umbrella.
I was walking through a crowd of familiar strangers by Sunday night, most of whom were quick to smile. The weekend was exhausting but well worth the waking fantasy of easy laughs and pitch-perfect music.
Check out photos from the festival here.