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‘The Last Gasp of Summer’: Pitchfork Music Festival Brings A Mix of Genres, Headliners to Union Park

Pitchfork Music Festival returned to Chicago Sept. 10-12 after a year off with a jam-packed lineup featuring artists of varied genres and fame, headlined by Phoebe Bridgers and St. Vincent, among other tentpole acts.

Friday

The first day of Pitchfork opened with an eclectic mix of musicians, but it was some of the quietest groups that shined the brightest.

Halfway through the day Hop Along took to the Red stage. Singer and guitarist Frances Quinlan’s acoustic guitar felt like the breeze that rolled in with the start of the band’s set — cool and refreshing. 

Quinlan’s unique melodies in the group’s hit songs “Tibetan Pop Stars” and “How Simple” helped the band stand out among the well-curated list of artists who played the first day.

Zack Miller | The Phoenix Hop Along singer and guitarist Francis Quinlan sings during the opening song of the band’s Friday afternoon set.

It only made sense that Friday’s headliner, Phoebe Bridgers, would have the most elaborate stage backdrop of the day. Taking inspiration from the art book that came with vinyl copies of her latest album, “Punisher,” she made her way through the better part of the record while still mixing it up a bit with older tracks like “Scott Street.”

Behind the art, though, remained one constant — a depiction of a starry sky. 

Bridgers earned her place among the celestial bodies track by track, injecting her personality into the studio-sounding performance through embellishments on powerful notes. 

Her cover of Bo Burnham’s song “That Funny Feeling,” from his recent Netflix special “Inside,” which has now become a staple on her setlist, was welcomed by the crowd who sang along with her. She then closed out the set with the final track of her sophomore album, which ends in screaming and a shredding guitar solo — a fitting finish for her existential-yet-cathartic style.

Saturday

Bartees Strange picked up the pace early Saturday with tracks from his debut album “Live Forever,” seamlessly swapping between genres. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Bartees Cox Jr. captivated the crowd with an arsenal of shredding guitar licks, straightforward rap lines and dreamy soundscapes.

“This is the coolest,” Strange said. “I dream about this s—, so thank you so much.”

Faye Webster hit the Blue Stage in the early evening to perform songs from her indie pop album “I Know I’m Funny haha.” Despite sound difficulties with Webster’s low-mic volume, the audience overflowed in support of the artist.

Zack Miller | The Phoenix Faye Webster donned a blue dress for her performance at Pitchfork’s Blue stage.

Women continued to dominate Saturday as Angel Olsen and St. Vincent gave prolific performances Saturday night. Olsen entered the stage radiating confidence as bright as her yellow highlighter pantsuit. 

Olsen’s set was a mix of powerful vocals, inspired instrumentals and stand-up comedy. Between tracks, Olsen played with the audience, showing off her personality and captivating the audience in tow. A fan begged to toss broccoli on the stage.

“Try not to hit me in the face,” Olsen said. “‘Cause that offends me.”

Olsen teased the crowd with a story about a new song she wrote in the hotel. What followed was a bait-and-switch with her signature hit “Shut Up Kiss Me,” leaving the audience screaming and dancing along.

With her angelic vocals, Olsen looked like the final form of a hotel lounge singer. 

To close, Olsen brought singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten on stage to perform “Like I Used To,” with fans swaying in joyous approval.

St. Vincent closed the night with a bombastic headlining performance, making every prior set look like a warm-up. Hardly taking a break, St. Vincent went track-to-track effortlessly. 

With a set of cartoon big-city buildings and synchronized background singers/dancers, St. Vincent’s set was aesthetically triumphant. As her lounge pop tunes rattled the audience into an enthusiastic trance, the stage transported fans to a cartoon — think “Powerpuff Girls” or “Totally Spies.”

Zack Miller | The Phoenix St. Vincent headlined a dynamic set, running through hits from her versatile discography, ranging from folksy tunes to funky electropop during her Saturday night performance on Pitchfork’s Green stage.

St. Vincent’s look for the night solidified the atmosphere, a hybrid “Showgirl Barbie” and Madonna look with a sultry tuxedo and Stepford-wife hair with curled ends. 

The set had the energy of a Disney villain’s exposition heavy song — in the best way. Performing hits from her latest album “Daddy’s Home” as well as earlier career staples, St. Vincent served a versatile mix of jazzy pop, electropop, rock and folk inspirations. 

For 80 minutes, it was St. Vincent’s atmospheric world and the audience was just living in it, and living for it. 

Sunday

Caroline Polachek hit the stage in sunglasses and cowboy boots as an instrumental of her track “The Gate” played. With one studio album under her belt, Polachek commanded her 55-minute set with a refined flair. The weather was so-hot-it-hurt-your-feelings, but the ethereal tracks brought an ocean of relief to a captivated crowd.

“Pitchfork, how’s everybody doing?” she addressed the audience. “This is it, the last gasp of summer. We’re here sweating together.”

Zack Miller | The Phoenix Indie star Caroline Polachek performed a set of magical pop tracks, including breakout hit “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings.”

Polachek beamed energy as she ran through her album “Pang” and new lead single “Bunny is a Rider” —  plus two unreleased tracks — bending the limits of her vocals through whistles and a long-held scream. 

As though the music possessed her, Polachek was an enchanting force on stage. With her arms in the air and her hips swaying, Polachek was a free-spirit Shakira: her hips may not lie, but they can do spells.

One would be hard-pressed to find more talented musicians than Stephen Bruner — more popularly known as Thundercat — and his backing band.

Not even technical difficulties could throw off the masters of improvisation — who jammed through it as if it were a planned part of their set — while a music-production pit crew worked to fix the issues. 

Zack Miller | The Phoenix Thundercat rips a funky bass solo while his backing band jams during their Sunday evening set.

“You are giving me life right now,” the bass virtuoso remarked to the crowd before going into his hit “Them Changes.”

Closing the festival, headliner Erykah Badu transcended time with her performance. Badu entered the stage as a hypnotic image of her oscillated on screen — perhaps to brainwash the audience into forgetting she was 25 minutes late.

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