Dipping Our Toes: A Return to Live Events with Pitchfork Music Festival

Saturday headliner St. Vincent. Photo by Julian Bajsel (courtesy of Pitchfork Music Festival).

“Comin’ out of my cage and I’ve been doing just fine.”

Let’s be real – after more than a year of COVID-19, political unrest, and everything else that 2020 brought us, “just fine” might be a bit of an exaggeration. I’m not sure anyone or anything hasn’t been profoundly impacted by the events of the past year, and that especially goes for the live music and festival industries. We’ve seen events get canceled due to COVID’s initial presence (season 1, if you will), a brief return to hope/normalcy with vaccines, further dread brought on by the Delta variant, and – most recently – the downfall of events due to climate change-induced natural disasters. Love it here.

Photo by Katie Bowles.

However, I was thrilled to get the opportunity to cover Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago after a year and a half without live events – and my newfound anxiety about large groups was thrilled to tag along for the ride. But the fest promised strict health and safety restrictions (vaccination/negative test proof required each day, masks encouraged when not eating or drinking) and the city of Chicago recently reintroduced mask mandates for indoor establishments, so where better to ease back into festivals?

Day one had a stacked lineup with Animal Collective, Big Thief, and Phoebe (fucking) Bridgers capping off the night. I was most excited for Phoebe, but Big Thief pleasantly surprised me with an amazing live set that somehow perfectly highlighted Adrianne Lenker’s gorgeous vocals. Even during their quieter tracks, which is no easy feat at a festival that’s outside in the middle of a major city. Unfortunately, I missed a good chunk of the set due to being stuck in a ridiculously long vendor line, a recurring logistical issue other attendees noted in social media comments throughout the weekend.

Big Thief. Photo by Katie Bowles.

Phoebe’s set was great as well, with her typical sarcastic banter punctuating hits like “Kyoto,” “Motion Sickness,” and (her closer) “I Know The End.” She also included a cover of “That Funny Feeling” from “Inside,” Bo Burnham’s existential pandemic special – an apocalypse-era song both hilarious and terrifyingly real. Note: Watch “Inside” if you haven’t already.

The crowd during Phoebe’s set could have been a little more spread out/masked-up, but other than selling fewer tickets, there would’ve been no way to avoid having a group this large for a major headliner – I felt safe enough.

Phoebe Bridgers. Photo by Jackie Lee Young (courtesy of Pitchfork Music Festival).

Day two of Pitchfork brought a fun set from Georgia Anne Muldrow, Kim Gordon showing that she’s still got it, Angel Olsen bringing down the house – and bringing out collaborator Sharon Van Etten (!!) – and finally, St. Vincent closing the day with what was potentially the best set of the weekend.

St. Vincent’s set included hits like “Los Ageless” and “New York” (which was to be expected), but she also brought an almost Lady Gaga-esque theatricality to Pitchfork with a body double, brief sketches in between songs, and backup singers/dancers who were essentially characters in the St. Vincent-led play we were all watching. I can’t say enough good things about this set, from the power of her voice to the talent of the musicians with her, to how well-crafted and choreographed the entire show was – if you get the chance to see St. Vincent live, do it.

St. Vincent. Photo by Julian Bajsel (courtesy of Pitchfork Music Festival).

I had to catch a flight home Sunday night so unfortunately wasn’t able to catch headliners Erykah Badu or Flying Lotus, but I did stay long enough to check out Thundercat, another set that wound up being one of my favorites. Yes, Thundercat is insanely talented (as is his backing band), but what really made the experience was how much fun he was clearly having – he had a huge smile on his face throughout the set, and chatted away in between songs about his cats, life, and whatever else seemed to pop into his head. Between his evident love of performing and the warm afternoon sun of Chicago in late summer, it was hard not to have fun during the show – a great one to close out my weekend.

Thundercat. Photo by Jackie Lee Young (courtesy of Pitchfork Music Festival).

All in all, Pitchfork was the perfect fest to slowly break out of my pandemic, quarantine shell. Yes, there were some logistical problems and maybe more people could’ve masked up, but now that I’m back in LA (and have tested negative for COVID), those problems don’t seem to matter as much and I’m left more with the memories of an awesome lineup, fun city, and the happy vibes of being back in the festival scene. Were there issues? Yes. Would I go again despite them? Absolutely.

Photo by Katie Bowles.

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