Review: Pitchfork Fest 2017

Much like the assortment of tables in a high school cafeteria, every music festival has its own distinct personality. Coachella is the table of popular girls with perfect shiny hair and year round tans, Burning Man is the grassy knoll where kids are perennially playing hacky sack, and Pitchfork Fest, well, Pitchfork Fest is weirdo table, where the jazz band sits and the cool kids in berets who drink black coffee and regularly hang out with older kids pass out their hand Xeroxed zines at lunch. While it’s fair to say that a good deal of summer festivals tend to have a sameness in terms of their line-ups (I think Phantogram is playing 76 of them), Pitchfork Music Festival has always pulled from the more unique corners of the music world for the bulk of its diverse line-up.

This past weekend, in its 13th year, Pitchfork continued to deliver some of the most interesting and compelling acts in the game, alongside bigger names like Solange and LCD Soundsystem, both acts whose existence on the line-up really marks the unstoppable growing reach of Pitchfork in general.

Here are some of our highlights:


Madame Gandhi at Pitchfork Fest 2017 – By Barry Brecheisen

Madame Gandhi

The festival kicked off on a temperate Chicago day with a riveting set by Madame Gandhi, a singer, drummer, rapper, poet, and activist who made an early bid for most interesting act at the fest, reading lines from the “The Feminist Utopia Project” and chanting mantras like “The biggest threat is a girl with a book” as her all-female, yellow jumpsuit clad band backed her up. Not surprisingly, the Harvard MBA and former touring drummer for MIA approaches putting together her set list with a lot of thought. As she told us, “I think about it in two ways. One, explorations of three-dimensional constructions of femininity as well as designing for high energetic moments and lower, more introspective moments.”

"I think big no matter if we are in an intimate space or a festival atmosphere. The story doesn't change. Go big or go home.” - Dawn Richard

Dawn Richard

Also keeping it socially conscious was avant-garde R&B chanteuse Dawn Richard. The former Danity Kane singer looked resplendent in a white and silver two-piece outfit that was equal parts retro and futuristic, much like the singer’s danceable, emotive music, a marriage of acoustic and electronic that energized the crowd. We asked Richard if she treats putting together a festival setlist differently than she might a club one. “I treat them the same actually. I think big no matter if we are in an intimate space or a festival atmosphere,” she told us. “The story doesn't change. Go big or go home.”

Danny Brown

Danny Brown at Pitchfork Fest 2017 – By Barry Brecheisen

Detroit rapper Danny Brown set the tone for this festival performance in a very Danny Brown-ish way, coming onto the stage to the strains of the Black Sabbath song “Iron Man,” showing off a new cropped hair cut but remaining as wild-eyed and wild-tongued as ever. A true weirdo and festival favorite, Brown is perfect for Pitchfork, and his set list reflected his fest-pertise with its head-spinning lot of beloved bangers. His approach to putting together a set list, though, is anything but odd. “It’s chronological bruh bruh,” Brown told us, and upon inspection, it really pretty much is.

“It’s chronological bruh bruh.” - Danny Brown, on his set list approach.

Starting off with “Die Like A Rockstar” off his 2011 release XXX, Brown performed four more tracks off the same album before jumping to his newest release, “Kool Aid,” which appears on the Silicon Valley soundtrack. But then it was right back in time to 2013 with “Side B (Dope Song)” off Old. Four more songs off Old (including his most played track, “Dip”), before he jumped to songs off his new record, including the single “Really Doe,” and closed out his giddy set with his hugely popular collaboration with producer Rustie, 2014’s “Attak.”


"I like to break up the heavy songs with intimate songs where I'm on stage alone and give the audience the chance to focus on just one thing." - Laetitia Tamko, aka Vagabon


Laetitia Tamko who performs music under the moniker Vagabon, kept the trend of day openers that wow the crowd going, delivering her soaring vocals over raw, spare guitar work. Vagabon’s music tackles themes of home and heartbreak, and backed by a bassist and a drummer, Tamko’s powerful vocals created tension and release, over and over, leaving her audience captivated and compelled. Though she has only released one EP and one full length album, she has become a critical darling thanks to her captivating voice and poignantly honest lyrics. We asked her about putting together her set: "I like to break up the heavy songs with intimate songs where I'm on stage alone and give the audience the chance to focus on just one thing," she told us. " I rarely change it on the fly, the unpredictability is when I play new songs without the backing band. I usually decided whether I will do that once I'm already on stage."

"Thinking about the stage we'd be playing at Pitchfork, we just decided to put all the fastest, loudest songs we had. For better, and sometimes for worse, lol." - NE-HI


The trophy (imaginary, made of goodwill and vapor) for my favorite musical discovery at Pitchfork Fest goes to Chicago quartet NE-HI. You had me at hello, we have alternating vocals, you hooked me in with your toe-tapping, tinny garage rock, and you will keep me forever with that vibe of plaintiveness wearing a "who cares?" hat, the sort of light-handed desperation that I can get and get down with. Though the band is more used to playing dark clubs, their energetic fervor translated well to the big festival stage. We asked them how they handled the change:

"We played a club show the night before and actually had a different setlist. There are certain songs that don't translate as well when there aren't walls to trap the sound. Thinking about the stage we'd be playing at Pitchfork, we just decided to put all the fastest, loudest songs we had. For better, and sometimes for worse, lol."

Mitski at Pitchfork Fest 2017 – By Barry Brecheisen


Stoic in facial expression and bursting with emotion vocally, Mitski’s unique performance style and reputation for almost violent vulnerability had her crowd at the smaller Blue Stage packed to the gills and spilling out on every side. Her set was also organized emotionally, starting out with just her voice and her bass on the mournful “Francis Forever,” pushing the crowd’s collective heart to swell to breaking point with the mid-set rendition of the lead single off Puberty 2, the blistering “Your Best American Girl, ” leading up to complete catharsis with the pulsing beat and screaming crescendo ending of “Drunk Walk Home.” The singer, who at one point was so raw that she herself teared up as she told the audience “This has been my dream since childhood, and now I’m here. I hope all your dreams come true too,” ended her moving set with the brashly defiant song “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars,” leaving the crowd dizzied and dazzles, and in at least one case (me), with a tear streaked face.

"We always try to let the pace gather some momentum as it goes along." - Glenn Mercer of The Feelies on set list building

The Feelies

New Jersey native sons (and one daughter) The Feelies released their debut album Crazy Rhythms in 1980, firmly before its time, and it was the “Fa Ce La” that launched a thousand indie bands. Since then they’ve sporadically released five albums, including this year’s excellent In Between, and though they don’t play often, their set at this year’s Pitchfork Fest was an exercise in the deft delivery of songs plucked from the span of their 37 year career. They started off with “On The Roof” and “Let’s Go,” two lovely tracks from the 1986 Peter Buck produced The Good Earth, and closed out their set with energetic renditions of “Raised Eyebrows” and “Crazy Rhythms” from that seminal debut, proving that even though they spawned an entire genre of followers, there’s still something inimitable about The Feelies.

We asked Glenn Mercer of the band about how they tackle bringing nearly four decades of music to an hour long set: " We have the basic template for our single set shows and another for our usual double sets. They both include our standard eight song 'regulars' and we add to those, depending on our mood. We always try to let the pace gather some momentum as it goes along, and playing two sets lets us do that to a greater degree. We also don't typically play any cover songs when it's a single set. In each case, we try to get a good balance that includes songs from every album."

PJ Harvey at Pitchfork Fest 2017 – By Barry Brecheisen

PJ Harvey

Though the rigidly principled artist may have disappointed some fans with her focus on largely new material in her set list, PJ Harvey’s performance, backed by a nine-piece band, was nothing short of riveting. The percussive horn section gave songs off her last two albums (such as opener “Chain of Keys” and the title track from 2011’s Let England Shake) a marching band like intensity, and her powerful vocals all but pierced the air. Near the end of the set, Harvey threw the old heads a bone, or three, playing the brazen “50ft Queenie” off her breakout 1993 album “Rid Of Me,” followed by her ever beguiling biggest hit song, “Down By The Water,” and the ragged, gripping “To Bring You My Love.”

“There’s a sliver of disappointment that she doesn’t play more old stuff, but as an artistic decision, I get it. I’m still satisfied.” - a fan on PJ Harvey's epic set

She closed out her set with a powerful version of “The River Anacostia,” complete with a full chorus of singing from all the band members. After she left the stage, I asked a member of the crowd who had been swaying, eyes closed, with obvious pleasure for nearly the entire hour what he thought of her song choices, he said “There’s a sliver of disappointment that she doesn’t play more old stuff, but as an artistic decision, I get it. I’m still satisfied.”

A Tribe Called Quest at Pitchfork 2017 – By Barry Brecheisen

A Tribe Called Quest

The headlining performance of Day 2 was both a dramatic mourning and a joyful celebration of former ATCQ cofounding member Phife Dawg, who passed away last year. This was Tribe's first full performance since Phife's death, and their set pulled from all six of their albums (as well as one Q-Tip solo song, "Vivrant Thing") and included subtle but powerful tributes to other collaborators, like Prodigy and J Dilla, but they did not edit out Phife's many verses. Instead, Tribe chose to highlight them, continuously leaving one empty, lit microphone in the center while the track played Phife's beloved voice. The result was both reverential and comforting for the audience, many of whom had grown up with that voice. Tribe was one the most anticipated acts of the weekend, and even without the help (or possibly thanks to the lack of) elaborate visuals or stage tricks, they absolutely did not disappoint.


"I like to keep it in album order as much as possible...since the album was created with a narrative in mind."  - Kilo Kish on her set list approach

Kilo Kish

Genre defying artist Kilo Kish started out as a visual artist before moving into music, and this was plenty apparent in her aesthetically arresting Pitchfork set (which made for 3/3 of female festival openers killing it). The 26-year-old definitely errs on the side of the avant-garde, and started her performance seated in a chair, clad in a bright red pants suit, silently reading a copy of The New Yorker as her DJ played a track. This theatrical beginning gave way to a performance that was borderline musical theater, as Kish made her way through her spirited pop tracks, delivering her diary lyrics with accompanying facial expressions and body movements. She was animated and intensely expressive throughout, using not just her lilting, childlike voice but also props (like a bright red telephone and a black briefcase), wild interpretive dance, and maniacal laughing to put forth her narrative. The result was a short but engaging set that was anything but forgettable.

We asked her if she changes things up when she performs at a festival, set list wise: "It's the same for me. I usually just perform the show the same way everywhere. Because of the nature of the project, I like to keep it in album order as much as possible as well, since the album was created with a narrative in mind." 

Colin Stetson at Pitchfork Fest 2017

Colin Stetson

On the topic of things that are unlike anything else you’ve ever seen (or heard), meet Colin Stetson. The free-jazz noise saxophonist who has collaborated with Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, takes the stage in a cut off black-metal t-shirt, revealing the kind of muscular arms you soon realize are necessary to hoist up the behemoth bass saxophone he uses to make the nuanced, trance like sounds that sound, and feel, like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Stetson also uses an alto sax, but whichever instrument he’s holding, it’s his incredible breathing techniques, the ones that allow him get through insanely intense eight or nine minute pieces without fainting, that are the most important element of his performances and what makes him so compelling to watch.

"I’ve got a pretty good clock in my head when it comes to trimming things down on the fly." - Colin Stetson

We asked Stetson about his approach to an abbreviated festival fest: “I don’t really like how it feels to kind of do three or four songs in a set at a festival and just having those being those colossal long things…I kind of wanted to have a more of a selection of different songs, and stuff that I am just working on now,” he says. To battle this? “I cut down lengths of a few of them so that last song I did was actually an 8-minute version of a song that’s about 18 minutes on the next record. I’ve got a pretty good clock in my head when it comes to trimming things down on the fly.”

American Football

How do I love American Football? Let me count the ways…The emo icons brought the full force of their unusual take on rhythm, profound sentimentality, subtly imaginative melodies, and intensely introspective lyricism to the giant crowd waiting to welcome the hometown heroes (American Football formed in Champagne-Urbana, but spiritually, they belong to Chicago), and the crowd loved every wistful, wonderful moment. They started off with the powerful “Stay Home” off their landmark 1999 self-titled release, making their way through a nine-song set list that included songs both old and new, which featured “I’ve Been Lost For So Long” off last year’s triumphant self-titled reunion album. They wrapped up with two songs from their first record, including “I’ll See You When We’re Both Not So Emotional,” which is also what I privately said to the band in my head after their set was done and I sad-walked away to see Solange.

Solange at Pitchfork Fest 2017 – By Barry Brecheisen


The entire weekend felt like it was leading up to the majesty of a Solange performance, and guess what? It was. The gorgeous and glorious live show featured a stage entirely bathed in red light, its backdrop a glowing orange orb and its floor populated with a pyramid on one side and two roman columns on the other. Subtle is not Solange’s style. Solange appeared clad in red from head-to-toe, as were all her back-up singers, dancers, and musicians (more than 20 total), all completely choreographed and in-sync, providing a powerful visual that spoke to issues of race and gender and demonstrated the kind of true artist she actually is, a level of creativity and control that far exceeds the simple title of “singer.” But she is also a singer, and one of the best around right now, delivering silken, steady, emotionally rich vocals throughout her entire set. This was the performance that probably best captured the spirit of Pitchfork, which is what happens when the artistically ambitious weirdo develops into something that becomes larger than life, drawing in fans of all walks of life and genre affiliation into their warm, red glow.

Solange sings to fan at Pitchfork Fest 2017 – By Elizabeth Cronin

During the song "F.U.B.U." Solange took the time to make her way into the crowd, and sing directly to one (very lucky) woman in the front row. We hunted her down, the chosen one, whose name is Bianca, and asked her what the experience was like for her:

"That moment was just pure magic. That’s the only way I can describe it. What strikes me as I continue to watch the footage over and over again, ha, is that her coming up to me felt so intentional. I know that I was making direct eye contact and intentionally hoping that she would come my way, but I don’t think I expected it. However, looking back, I can’t help but think that she felt my energy, intentionally chose me, and gave that energy right back to me. I’m certain that she isn’t still thinking about this moment the way I am, but I’m grateful for it and for her. I feel truly blessed."

Watch the video below:

Solange sings to fan at Pitchfork Fest 2017 – By Elizabeth Cronin


Free Topo Chico in VIP

Classic carbonated heaven juice Topo Chico got a few remixes in the form of Grapefruit and Lime flavors, and I drank about twelve of each. Bubbly, bouyant, and moving.

Red-heads at the Blue Stage

The three young men in their early 20s who had all dyed their hair the exact same shade of burgundy, seemingly the night before, as evidenced by the streaks of crimson seeping into their temples and down the backs of their necks, each wearing slightly different versions of cargo shorts and chatting together while waiting for the Pinegrove set to begin.

Sitting Down at the Festival

Long time fan, only seems to get better with age.

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Last updated: 28 Sep 2021, 00:50 Etc/UTC

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