Pitchfork 2021: 10 acts to see as the eclectic music festival returns
In true Pitchfork fashion, the lineup is as diverse as ever with a hearty mix of indie rock, hip-hop, singer-songwriter, R&B, electro and jazz fusion, with many acts returning from the ill-fated 2020 roster.
In a year full of unplanned twists and turns when it comes to music festivals, things are just getting started this September as two of the Chicago’s most prized homegrown affairs — Pitchfork Music Festival and Riot Fest — are prepping their mighty returns.
Usually held in the middle of July, Pitchfork Music Festival is taking shape this weekend. Though it’s not the milestone 15th anniversary organizers had planned for 2020 (canceled due to the pandemic), this year’s event is still a landmark, offering a spate of headliners led by women, which hopefully helps set a new industry precedent.
In true Pitchfork fashion, the lineup is as eclectic as ever with a hearty mix of indie rock, hip-hop, singer-songwriter, R&B, electro and jazz fusion, with many acts returning from the ill-fated 2020 roster. In addition to knowing the fest’s COVID protocols (full vaccination or a negative test within 24 hours for each day of the fest is required, and masks are encouraged at all times), here are some of the artists you don’t want to miss if you’re heading to Union Park this weekend:
The Fiery Furnaces
It’s been a solid decade since siblings Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger (originally from Oak Park) took a stage together as The Fiery Furnaces. In that time, each has gone on to solo success, but this is the indie-rock reunion many have been waiting for — especially as it was first announced as part of the 2020 Pitchfork lineup. Once signed to Chicago’s storied Thrill Jockey label, The Fiery Furnances are now a part of Jack White’s Third Man Records (a curious development since their garage-rock sound and sibling construct was early on compared to The White Stripes). If their latest single “Down at the So and So on Somewhere” is any indication, they’re definitely on fire again. (5:15 p.m. Friday, Red Stage)
These Pitchfork Festival alumni are the epitome of “keep it weird.” With an arsenal of synths, samples, cinematic composition and avant-garde noisemaking, their experimental cachet takes cues from Pink Floyd, Beach Boys, Zappa and The Flaming Lips while redefining eclectic psychedelia in the new millennium on albums like the acclaimed “Merriweather Post Pavilion” (named for a venue in their native Maryland). They’ve been working on new material, so perhaps they’ll be serving up some fresh takes in this set. (6:15 p.m. Friday, Green Stage)
If you’re still talking about Grimes and Robyn’s appearances at Pitchfork Music Fest over the years, you’re going to want to make a beeline for Yaeji on opening day. Songs like the beat-heavy “Raingurl” bring the club to the park and hint that this will be one of the most danceable sets of the weekend. The Korean-American talent started her career as a DJ, moving into production and songwriting, offering bilingual lyrics that softly layer over her house-meets-hip-hop trademark style. (7:45 p.m. Friday, Blue Stage)
A true artist can tap into the times and provide a sense of solace and resonance for the audience — Bridgers does all that while still remaining artful and authentic. The L.A.-based singer-songwriter and guitarist has been at the top of critics’ lists for a while and never more so than for her 2020 Grammy-nominated album “Punisher” that showcased a defining maturity to her abilities, with 11 songs that move through the emotional spectrum from playful and witty to serious real talk. Bridgers herself has been a mouthpiece outside the music, with the album’s release heavily encouraging support for racial justice programs. This will be one of her first returns to the stage since the pandemic cut off her “Punisher” tour cycle and will finally give the album its due spotlight. (8:30 p.m. Friday, Green Stage)
Pulling influences from various genres, styles and cultures, this Chicago-based dream-pop act has early roots in Colombia, where guitarist-vocalist Camilo Medina and bassist Javier Forero were born and raised before the two serendipitously reconnected in Miami and later made their way to the Midwest, where they formed the bilingual band. Their chilled-out vibe has a Sunday-drive calmness while song structures carry retro appeal, all drenched in a washed-out haze that is a real record-store mood. (Saturday, 2:30 pm, Green Stage)
The prized poet, singer-songwriter and teacher has a real way with words that must be heard live to fully appreciate. Wood’s affinity for her native Chicago comes through in her works and collaborations, including with Chance the Rapper. The Young Chicago Authors instructor and creative director has been riding high on a series of solo releases in recent years, including the incredible 2019 release “Legacy! Legacy!” with neo-soul appeal and each song dedicated to a Black artist or activist, creating a concept album that still reverberates years later. A mix of Gwendolyn Brooks with Lauryn Hill, Woods is the set that will leave many speechless. (6:30 p.m. Saturday, Blue Stage)
It’s easy to see why Annie Clark is the David Bowie of our era. The accomplished artist who goes by the nom de plume St. Vincent is a sly shape-shifter in sound, style and character with her writing and creative vision getting better and better on each subsequent album, and hitting a fever pitch with her latest “Daddy’s Home.” She’s not only a virtuoso on the guitar, inspired by her time fawning over grunge music, but she also tests the boundaries for what rock and pop can be, and for that she will be heralded as an iconoclast even after the day comes when she plays the last note. This will be the highlight of the weekend. (8:30 p.m. Saturday, Green Stage)
Mariah The Scientist
Sunday’s bill has an incredible force of talent, not to be outdone by the headliner Erykah Badu. But if you’re looking for an early-day act that might move the needle, head for Mariah The Scientist. With hints of SZA, Lana Del Rey and even the other Mariah, the Atlanta songstress (her stage name paying homage to her former trajectory as a biology student) is a deep-thinking songwriter whose voice sounds like it descended straight from the cosmos. She’s a rather new kid on the R&B block but she’s already laying a great foundation. (3:20 p.m. Sunday, Red Stage)
If his name sounds like an ‘80s superhero, just wait until you see the real-life powers Thundercat a.k.a. Stephen Lee Bruner delivers on stage in a set that nimbly moves through fresh funk, acid jazz and smooth R&B. The musician, who got his start as a one-time bass player in So Cal thrash hardcore band Suicidal Tendencies, has been a frequent session player for the best of the best, even earning a Grammy for his work with Kendrick Lamar on “To Pimp a Butterfly.” He sealed that deal on his own in 2020, winning a Grammy for the accomplished fusion album “It Is What It Is,” setting the stage for his own solo domination. (5:15 p.m, Sunday, Red Stage)
Detroit has been the birthplace of a legion of music greats, and Danny Brown deserves his place among the best of them. The rapper is one of the more inventive and amusing in the genre — expect some stand-up served alongside the rhythmic flow. His latest album, 2019’s “uknowhatimsayin¿” is one of his finest to date with production work from Q-Tip and contributions from the alt hip-hop scene he helped hone including JPEG Mafia, Blood Orange and Thundercat, the latter of whom is playing earlier in the day, so expect a guest spot in one of their sets. (6:15 p.m. Sunday, Green Stage)
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.