Khruangbin, Julia Holter and black midi - photo by Dave Robbins
I went to this year’s Chicago Pitchfork in hopes of finding something new. My first time back since 2016, it soon became apparent how much the city had infiltrated and influenced the festival. Windy city artists as diverse as sizzling knob-twiddlers Bitchin Bajas, ultra-smooth DJ Valee, gospel legend Mavis Staples and sunshine folk-rockers Whitney populated all three stages. Fifteen young poets from Young Chicago Authors’ Louder Than a Bomb festival spoke volumes in their short performances between bands on the Blue Stage. Native son Ric Wilson brought the bombastic Lane Tech High School marching band, adopted daughter Lala Lala’s Lillie West fleshed out her stage with hometown aces Sen Morimoto, Kaina Castillo, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya and Vivian McConnell and goofball synth-pop duo Grapetooth brought their entire posse on stage to close out their set. The tribal vibe was infectious, and it was great seeing and hearing Chicago represented on so many different levels.
There was glitz and there was grit; rappers, rockers, jazzbots and funkateers. Ferocious commotion from a shadowy, sumptuous Low, a mad jagged black midi and intergalactic magicians The Great Black Music Ensemble stood shoulder to shoulder with chic sophistication from art-pop surrealist Cate LeBon, cool subversive disconauts Stereolab and multi-lingual groovologists Ibeyi. There were national acts and international acts, from Texas’ exquisite fusionists Khruangbin and D.C.‘s sleek Flasher to England’s hip hip-hop icon Neneh Cherry and Japan’s theatrical kitsch ambassadors CHAI. Each night’s headliners united generations, delivering baby boomers, The Isley Brothers, Gen Xers, Haim and millennials Robyn. All in all Pitchfork seem to cover all its bases, but did any of it qualify as new?
What does new really mean, anyways? Rising stars? Break-through performances? Beyond the aforementioned events Pitchfork hosted alt-pop balladeer Jay Som introducing new songs from her forthcoming album, indie-rocker Snail Mail brought R&B chanteuse Clairo on stage after having fellow spitfire Soccer Mommy sing the night before at an after show and boppy iconoclasts Belle and Sebastian played their classic, “If You’re Feeling Sinister,” from front to back. Premieres, spontaneous collaborations; these are never before heard moments, but are they new? Quite a few Pitchfork artists are devilishly good at updating fertile traditions, adding new spins on old ideas like Standing On The Corner or infusing fresh energy to well-worn forms like Rico Nasty, but what about new music, daring, different music? Did Pitchfork deliver its promise of a hipster getaway where cutting edge met popular culture?
The answer is a resounding yes! Personally, electro-classical maverick Julia Holter, insurgent black midi and tasty Khruangbin opened my eyes, pricked my ears and punched me in the gut with their new takes melting delicious licks and wily styles into a unique musical hybrid that stood on its own. Each year I attended I came away with new groups to follow and a renewed hope for a bright musical future. 2019 was no exception and primed the pump until next year when I anxiously look forward to discover what Pitchfork Chicago deems in, important and new.