Here are reviews of some of the Day 1 sets Friday at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park.
Phoebe Bridgers, Green Stage, 8:30 p.m.
“I hate you for what you did,” sang Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, breaking into the beginning of her 2017 breakout single “Motion Sickness” and setting the tone for her headlining set at Pitchfork on Friday night.
Bridgers and her band — all clad in skeleton onesies — were greeted by an enormous crowd, eager to see the 27-year-old artist perform her blend of emotive indie folk-rock after a year’s worth of pandemic-forced canceled tour dates and virtual performances.
From the cheery Christmas lights wrapped around her mic stand contrasted with the skull-and-bones imagery of her outfit, to the muffled cheers from some of the happy fans in the crowd masked amid the global pandemic, to the thematically-heavy songs in major keys, Bridgers leaned into her knack for embracing irony to reach emotional clarity.
Set highlight “Kyoto” made the crowd swell to an even larger size, as fans danced to the upbeat song while singing deeply personal lines like, “I’m gonna kill you if you don’t beat me to it.”
Since the release of her brooding debut album “Stranger in the Alps” in 2017, Bridgers has developed a devout fan base that grew exponentially with the release of her emotionally evocative sophomore album “Punisher,” released last year. And while “Punisher” never got a proper tour, it did net the artist multiple Grammy nominations, a “Saturday Night Live” performance and widespread acclaim.
Bridgers’ fan base — sometimes known online as the “Phantoms” or the “Pharbz” — was clearly present Friday night, some of whom waited more than eight hours at the front of the stage for a key spot. During quiet moments in tracks like “Garden Song,” they sang passionately with eyes closed, all but drowning out the artist while belting lines like, “I hopped the fence when I was seventeen, then I knew what I wanted.”
If you didn’t wait for hours for the front row and were instead on the outskirts of the massive crowd, it was sometimes a struggle to hear Bridgers and her band, a reminder of the Pitchfork’s scale in comparison to other major music festivals and the limitations of its sound system. But by the second half of her set, the crowd had quieted enough for moving performances of songs like “Me & My Dog” — a song from her side project boygenius, with artists Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus.
Bridgers’ love for irony really shone during her mid-set cover of Bo Burnham’s “That Funny Feeling,” from his 2021 special “Inside,” which had her crooning lines like “Reading Pornhub’s terms of service, going for a drive, and obeying all the traffic laws in Grand Theft Auto V,” with haunting conviction.
The artist ended her set with her song “I Know The End,” building up to a climax that prompted the crowd to jump and scream as Bridgers and her band did the same, sounding like a powerful, melodic exorcism. The song’s abrupt ending also meant the end of her set, as she and her band rushed off the stage.
Yaeji, 7:45 p.m. Blue Stage
Like many artists on this year’s, Yaeji released music last year that never got a proper tour.
In April 2020, the DJ, producer and vocalist dropped “What We Drew” — a creative, electronic, house-, R&B- and hip-hop-leaning mixtape with odes to human connection fit for a rave. But it was relegated to isolated, solo listening during a time hallmarked by shutdowns.
So when Yaeji took to the Blue Stage Friday night, she was making up for lost time, even going about 15 minutes over her set time — much to the satisfaction of the several hundred festival-goers assembled.
The crowd danced nonstop as Yaeji worked from behind her DJ setup, and was ecstatic when she took the mic and moved to the front of the stage.
In addition to being an innovative, genre-pushing producer, the Brooklyn-based artist is also an incredibly magnetic performer — which was really emphasized during her performance.
Songs like “Money Can’t Buy” saw Yaeji depart from her low-key vocal delivery on recordings, and project her voice in a way that sounded like she was spitting full-on bars.
One of the best features of the set was the presence of two backup dancers on stage with her for select songs — something she was trying for the first time, she told the crowd. The choreography was both tight and effervescent, and it was clear the crowd lived for moments when Yaeji would join the dancers for a synchronized combo.
On more mid-tempo tracks such as “Never Settling Down,” she clutched the mic and slowly strutted across the stage with the gliding demeanor of an R&B singer giving the audience a ballad.
Her song “Waking Up Down” helped to turn the more secluded corner of Union Park into a club, as Yaeji’s fans — whom she affectionately calls her “onions” — stepped and sweat along with the beats.
If she lost anyone from the crowd who peeled away once Phoebe Bridgers started her headlining set over on the Green Stage, Yaeji quickly gained new members who sprinted from other parts of the park when she started her 2017 cut “raingurl.” It all culminated in a full-throated singalong.
“Thank you, Chicago, Thank you, Pitchfork,” Yaeji said before her final song. “Everyone here is Best New Music!”
Kelly Lee Owens, 6:30 p.m., Blue Stage
Welsh producer and musician Kelly Lee Owens brought her meditative electronic techno-pop sound to the Blue Stage Friday, easing the crowd of festival-goers into a sort of tranquil trance as the sun set on Day 1 of Pitchfork Fest.
Many members of the crowd closed their eyes and swayed to the low, feel-it-in-your-chest frequencies pushed through the subwoofers, while others nodded to the ethereal beats with their eyes transfixed on the artist working on stage.
“You look so beautiful!” Owens told the crowd, as sunlight silhouetted her and shone onto the crowd.
Owens was in constant motion throughout the set, playing keys, turning nobs, pounding a sample pad and singing into a mic. Yet, the multitasking felt like less of a juggling act and more like witnessing an artist meticulously reproduce her work in real-time to create an experience unique to that environment.
The effect was an engaging performance, where Owens’ production was accented by her breathy vocals floating above shimmering arpeggios and moments where she would lean into the mic and sing, headbang and look into the packed audience.
Her setlist boasted a number of other tracks from her latest release, last year’s “Inner Song” — a dreamy and introspective album touching on themes such as profound loss, letting go and change. The sophomore record is equally and deeply emotive, whether accompanied by Owens’ tastefully minimalistic melody lines or masterfully arranged instrumentation.
Even from a stage separating a crowd split between masked and unmasked festival-goers, the former-nurse-turned-professional-musician connected with the hundreds of fans in attendance, making eye contact and nodding in encouragement to those catching danceable grooves.
A standout moment was when Owens performed “On,” looking wide-eyed into the crowd with a nod, as if encouraging fans to, as she sings, “let go.”
The backhalf of Owens’ set produced for danceable moments, amping the crowd up as sun finally set and temperatures cooled significantly.
People packed before the stage were all smiles, dancing, hugging and laughing — all while kicking up a significant cloud of dirt that floated above them.
And at the end of her set, Owens stepped to the edges and clapped for the audience, raising her hands to cheer and thank them all.
Hop Along, 3:20 p.m., Red Stage
No stranger to festival settings, seasoned Philadelphia-based indie-rock group Hop Along took the stage for its sweltering afternoon slot on Friday.
Save for a few cobwebs that came in the form of the occasional out-of-tune guitar or hardly-noticeable missed notes, the four-piece group performed a tight set spanning their more than 10-year-old discography.
After all these years, the undeniable focal point of Hop Along’s loud, folk rock-leaning sound is still the distinct rasp and range of bandleader Frances Quinlan’s vocals. The well-known power of their voice as heard on each of the band’s albums and the dynamic presence of all their vocals as captured on Quinlan’s 2020 solo record “Likewise” were on full display Friday.
Quinlan’s voice burst through the monitors and showcased their skill for sliding from falsetto to full-throated wailing and back, all while delivering catchy choruses to an audience nodding to the beat.
The performance was a breezy hit parade, with the band steadily gliding through a set list that felt curated for all the fans who’ve waited since before the pandemic to see them. And as evident by the smiles worn on Quinlan and Co.’s faces, the band had been waiting to see them, too.
“It feels so good to be with y’all,” said guitarist Joe Reinhart.
“I was very by myself like a week ago — this is very strange!” Quinlan said with a smile.
A set highlight was when Quinlan switched out their Gibson hollow body for an acoustic guitar to play “Horseshoe Crabs,” from the band’s 2015 album “Painted Shut.” Reinhart along with drummer Mark Quinlan — Frances’ brother — offered backing vocals throughout the set, but really shone during this song.
Other highlights included “How Simple” from 2018’s “Bark Your Head Off, Dog,” which Quinlan prefaced by asking the crowd, “Y’all being cool? Y’all respecting each other? This next song’s about two people who don’t respect each other.” The band then ripped into the opening riffs before leading the sea of joyful fans in singing the lines “Don’t worry, we will both find out just not together.”
Hop Along ended its set with one of its oldest releases, the 2012 fan favorite “Tibetan Pop Stars,” which sent the crowd jumping and headbanging.
The group will reprise its Pitchfork stint with a 7 p.m. aftershow Saturday at Metro Chicago, where local bands Varsity and Slow Mass will open.
Dehd, 2:30 p.m., Green Stage
Following blistering sets from cerebral hip-hop group Armand Hammer and Detroit post-punk outfits Dogleg, local outfit Dehd was third up on Day 1 of this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival.
The three-piece group burst into “Lucky,” serving their brand of jangly, moody — and at times surf-leaning — indie-rock to the delight of hundreds gathered to see the home team.
Drummer Eric McGrady worked as the band’s backbone standing center stage, flanked by bassist Emily Kempf and guitarist Jason Balla positioned just ahead, who both jumped and swayed while trading vocal duties.
Where many artists might rely on a lineup of lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass and five-piece drum setup for a fuller sound, Dehd chooses barebones instrumentation to embrace the freedom of dead space and let their songs truly shine — and it always works to their benefit.
Kempf’s guttural wails Friday on set standouts like “Baby” sounded as if they were drenched in reverb, creating the illusion of a once-empty hall filled with her powerful voice. Balla’s guitar lines on tracks like “Flood” came through crisply, sailing through the speakers without the anchor of a rhythm guitar. And McGrady’s driving eighth notes — pounded solely on a floor tom and snare — kept the crowd moving throughout the entire performance.
“This is really cool you all,” a beaming Kempf said to the crowd as it baked underneath the mid-afternoon sun.
Dehd’s set at Pitchfork Fest also served as an opener for a delayed tour in support of “Flower of Devotion,” released in July 2020.
The crew plans to cover more than 20-dates, including a stint in Vancouver, before ending back in the midwest with a St. Louis show in November.
More reviews to come ...