The weekend provided fans a safe space for self-expression, platformed up-and-coming artists and sustained Chicago’s establishment as a mainstay of the music scene.
Love and Lightning at Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival
The 2023 Pitchfork Music Festival was all about extremes. Friday was marked by serene musicianship from acts like Sen Morimoto and The Smile, while Sunday favored performative intensity, with JPEGMAFIA and Bon Iver leading the charge. An impending storm interrupted Saturday’s lineup, while the sun beat down on the festival’s remaining two days.
Still, the weekend provided fans a safe space for self-expression, platformed up-and-coming artists and sustained Chicago’s establishment as a mainstay of the music scene.
Friday, July 21
Lush trees and overgrown grass served as the setting for the green stage, which was taken over by R&B artist Nourished by Time.
“I was just telling somebody that this is my first festival ever,” Nourished by Time said. “But as, like, a human, not even as a fan.”
Following Nourished by Time, Contour brought his existential and abstract artistry to the red stage for a melodic 1:45 p.m. performance.
When his performance began, Contour paced the stage while reading a poem by Amiri Baraka about dreams and mortality. He then launched into his discography, delivering simple vocals supported by dreamy piano melodies and computer-generated synth beats.
Back on the green stage, singer Sen Morimoto’s set offered the festival’s first instrumental, multi-person performance of the day. With seven others on stage, Morimoto’s easygoing vocals were matched by relaxed, jazzy instrumentalists — including himself and another on saxophone. Providing seamless harmonies and tranquil background beats was Chicago native KAINA, whose soulful singing made an appearance on last year’s Pitchfork stage.
Showing off his lighthearted stage presence, the singer asked the crowd to howl during his performance of “Woof” from his 2020 self-titled album. Morimoto, who said he’s been a Pitchfork festivalgoer for 12 years, continued his casual set with a cover of Cher’s “Believe.”
Strutting back and forth on the red stage, Grace Ives paired her whispered ‘80s vocalizations with fast-paced beats.
“It’s so nice here,” Ives said as the temperature rose to 79 degrees. “I’ve only ever been here in the winter, and I still love Chicago.”
Axel Boman’s DJ set sounded like a horror movie in a dance club, with heart-pounding bass and a piercing saxophonist by his side — the third sax of the day. His 4 p.m. performance embodied the life of the far-removed blue stage, providing the outdoor audience with a rave-like atmosphere.
Sounding like Morrissey over heavy synths, Nation of Language’s lead singer Ian Richard Devaney helped shepherd the festival into its upbeat afternoon through his expressive dancing.
Devany took a break in the middle of his set to admire the headliners that would be playing after him, the first being Perfume Genius on the green stage to his left.
Surrounded by cloud-like piles of tulle fabric, Perfume Genius gripped the mic stand with red, elbow-length gloves and palpable confidence. Hefty bass lines and vibrant harmonies added depth to the singer’s deliberately passionate movements.
“I see the sun go down / I see the sun come up / I see a wreath upon the grave,” the artist sang as the sun began its descent.
Building on the lively momentum of Perfume Genius’ set, five-piece group Alvvays brought their upbeat indie-pop sound to the red stage. Lead singer Molly Rankin’s airy vocals paired well with a dreamy keyboard, steady bass lines, complex guitar riffs and fierce drumming.
While the band maintained a stationary stage presence, their energy was channeled into their musical output which energized the crowd in preparation for the headline performance.
Friday headliner The Smile released their first album in May 2022 but found immediate success as two of the three members — lead singer Thom Yorke and guitarist Jonny Greenwood — brought the fanbase from their English rock band Radiohead along with their talents.
Their set opened with a spotlight on Yorke, playing piano with his back to the crowd, singing “Pana-vision.” Behind the band was a simple yet effective set of lights synced to Yorke’s vocals, Greenwood’s strumming or drummer Tom Skinner’s rapid percussion.
The Smile played their latest single “Bending Hectic,” an 8-minute song with a slow crescendo and intense payoff.
“Despite these slings / Despite these arrows / I’ll force myself to / Turn, turn,” Yorke shrieked as Greenwood’s chords and Skinner’s beats met in a musical plane above Union Park, delighting the crowd of fans below.
Saturday, July 22
A haunting, sustained riff from rock quartet Deeper opened the green stage with high energy, offering a more dynamic start to the festival’s second day. Simple rock instrumentals supported the group’s characteristic punk vocals.
Gray clouds encroached on the bright blue sky as festivalgoers crowded around the red stage for the rock sounds of Palm. However, security guards quickly directed attendees away from the stage due to a weather delay.
Lightning strikes and looming storm clouds ended up cutting Palm’s 1:45 p.m. set from the lineup. Fresh off the announcement of their disbandment, the band was scheduled to perform on Saturday as one of their farewell shows. Later in the night, Palm announced on their Instagram story their set was rescheduled for Sunday, offering fans a promotional code to receive a free single-day ticket for the last day of the festival.
The festival resumed its schedule at 2:45 p.m., though the momentum from the early-afternoon sun and upbeat sound had diminished. The calm of the shaded blue stage fittingly hosted Black Belt Eagle Scout’s soft rock performance which ended with a string of intense instrumentalization.
Across Union Park, MJ Lenderman brought his North Carolina twang to the red stage, opening with “Toontown.”
“You can see right through me, honey / Toontown frown / Just some watered-down Romeo clown / With his pants pulled down,” he crooned.
Lenderman maintained his blank stare and calm demeanor behind his black shades while standing in front of his band’s two drummers. Combining elements of classic country with quaint lyricism, Lenderman’s music radiated amiable charm.
As the growing crowd of festival attendees dispersed following Lenderman’s set, screens next to the main stages lit up with news of another weather delay. Festivalgoers sought shelter under trees and vendor tents before an announcement to evacuate the festival emerged on the screens.
The crowd filed out of Union Park around 4:40 p.m., following directions to find shelter near festival grounds while waiting for storms to pass and gates to reopen. Just over an hour later, bright rays of sunshine peaked through the clouds as festivalgoers were welcomed back to the park.
As the skies cleared to a slight drizzle, King Krule growled his way onto the green stage at 6:15 p.m. The singer delivered deep vocalizations while he and his band jumped around on stage, restoring the high energy the evacuation drained from the festival.
Weyes Blood seemingly glided onto the red stage as the night’s second headliner, noting the forecasted rain ahead of them.
“Protect yourself, protect those around you,” she said. “But get ready to experience tears from the sky.”
She then played “Seven Words,” which she said she first performed live in 2017 — at Pitchfork. Through the pouring rain, she continued her set with a free spirit and arms open wide.
The night had built to Big Thief taking the main stage, and the crowd they attracted made it clear everyone there had returned to see them. The four bandmates took center stage, waving and smiling to fans before jumping into their set.
Fresh off the release of their July 19 single “Vampire Empire,” the band’s soft-spoken, pacific demeanor matched their folk sound and vulnerable songwriting. Fans passionately sang along as the band explored themes of heartbreak and healing.
Lead singer Adrianne Lenker’s voice intentionally cracked on every song, her range spanning from a soft whisper to deep, guttural screams.
After welcoming her younger brother Noah on stage for their last song, “Spud Infinity,” just before 10 p.m., Lenker took a moment to soak in the loving crowd, looking out at the crescent moon above Union Park.
“When I say celestial / I mean extraterrestrial / I mean accepting the alien you’ve rejected in your own heart,” she sang.
Sunday, July 23
In her neon getup, Ariel Zetina’s voice and production was the first to grace the now muddy, matted fields of Union Park on Sunday, but it was Palm’s performance on the blue stage that stole Pitchfork’s attention.
Despite admitting to nerves, Palm’s rescheduled set and their last ever in Chicago emitted confidence through their experimental, intentionally disjointed indie-rock sound. Each musician produced vastly distinct instrumentation while still finding a cohesive rhythm.
“We’re being a little awkward,” singer and multi-instrumentalist Eve Alpert said with tears in her eyes. “This is our last song.”
Colombian artist Lucretia Dalt brought her electronic production and simple vocalizations to the green stage, along with an elaborate percussion setup which added dimension to the techno music.
Beneath the trees, indie-folk band Florist played a song lead singer Emily A. Sprague said they made for a “dark, coming-of-age horror movie” — an adequate summation of their music style. A gentle addition to Sunday’s lineup, Florist’s set was refreshingly uncomplicated and raw.
English duo Jockstrap hopped out to the “Succession” theme song and maintained this unseriousness for the first half of their set. The second half, however, saw Georgia Ellery bring out her acoustic guitar, letting her vocals shine alongside Taylor Skye’s electronic beats.
JPEGMAFIA cemented himself as one of the most humorous performers of the weekend, joking about having no hair and his overheating computer between songs like “BALD!” and “I Cannot Fucking Wait Til Morrissey Dies.” He jumped around the stage as his energized, comedic stage presence proved his skills as a natural entertainer. Festivalgoers across the park sang along as the rapper serenaded the crowd with an a cappella rendition of Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2012 hit “Call Me Maybe.”
Atlanta rapper Killer Mike turned the red stage into a church, strolling around arrangements of white flowers. A pew stood behind a row of five background vocalists, whose soulful choral additions supported the rappers’ motivational verses about pain and growth.
“Face to face with fate, had to face my fears / It was me, I’m the reason that I fell / That was hell, locked in self-guilt like jail,” he rapped.
Jamaican singer Koffee brought modern reggae to the green stage as Sunday’s first headliner. After persisting technical difficulties, the Grammy-winning 23-year-old introduced a string of three love songs, starting with her 2022 song “Lonely.”
“I know you’re scared to give your heart / But you gotta get to know me, yeah / I said you gotta get to know me, yeah,” she sang.
Her charismatic demeanor, laid-back vocals and tireless background dancers made her set one of the best of the weekend.
Kelela’s simple stage design made it impossible to focus on anything but her. This was made even easier during the performance of the title track of her February album “Raven” when a single spotlight shone down, seemingly from the heavens.
“Don’t tell me that I’m strong / You’ll never wake up / Your silence lasts so long,” she sang.
The most dense crowd of the weekend gathered for Bon Iver and their multi-tiered stage. Frontman Justin Vernon’s voice — whether being electronically distorted or not — has always stood at the center of Bon Iver’s production which was no exception live.
Despite being a rather tranquil studio recording, Bon Iver’s 2009 song “Blood Bank” was the set’s most striking. Flashing red and white lights beamed in every direction, lighting the dim parts of the now dark festival grounds.
This energy was immediately undercut by “Skinny Love” — Bon Iver’s raw and wistful acoustic song that put them on the map.
“I want you all to get home safe,” Vernon said. “And spread love, y’all — wherever you go.”
This story was written by Austin Hojdar and Ella Govrik. Photos by Austin Hojdar and Ella Govrik / The Phoenix