Pitchfork Music Festival Day 2: Mitski, Japanese Breakfast, Magdalena Bay, Karate — and a surprise appearance by Jeff Tweedy

The Wilco frontman joined Japanese Breakfast for duets on both bands’ songs.

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Mitski closes out the second day of Pitchfork Music Festival at Union Park on Saturday night.

Mitski closes out the second day of Pitchfork Music Festival at Union Park on Saturday night.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Here’s a look at some of the sets from Saturday’s Day 2 lineup at Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park:

Magdalena Bay

Magdalena Bay performs at Pitchfork Music Festival.

Magdalena Bay’s Mica Tenenbaum performs at Pitchfork Music Festival.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

One of the advantages of attending Pitchfork Music Festival year after year is that the event is organized by a media company with a pulse on the best new music releases. As such, the popular weekend is consistently a highly curated affair full of some of the artists that the outlet deems standouts in their field. Case in point: Magdalena Bay.

The bewitching L.A. synthpop duo, featuring singer Mica Tenenbaum and producer/multi-instrumentalist Matthew Lewin (and further rounded out by Nick Villa on drums), came prepared to show why they are being hailed as one of the most promising crashers onto the pop scene. In a spirited hour-long set, they delivered solid performances of nearly every track on their breakthrough album “Mercurial World,” including what may be the bonafide track of the summer, the ebullient dance hall delight “You Lose!”

With a smidge of Grimes’ hyper programming fetish, some Donna Summer disco funk and Tenenbaum’s Britney Spears babyspeak vocal style, Magdalena Bay spans the gamut of pop, finding a range of listeners at some point on the genre’s spectrum. And they do it in a fun-loving way — armed with bag of props including cans of silly string, crystal balls “from Target,” and a bunny mask or two that helped the audience let their guard down and throw their arms up. Seeing them in a more controlled room on their next club tour is a must.

Karate

In addition to finding those bullseye up-and-comers, the tastemakers at Pitchfork also are quite proficient at pulling from the archives and booking true scene iconoclasts like the until-now dormant rock act Karate. A beloved underdog of the thriving ‘90s indie rock league, the trio kept creating pearls of art until 2005 when they called it quits as members pursued personal endeavors.

This weekend’s set was one of their first appearances in 17 years, sandwiched between just eight club dates for a lucky few who get to see them plugged in again — and what a moment it was. Opening with the quippy “Operation: Sand,” the band (formed in Boston) was in fine formation, each song playing into frontman Geoff Farina’s moody metaphorical lyrical style that came off like poetry set to music. Drummer Gavin McCarthy and bassist Jeff Goddard were a steady backing line that added to the band’s eclectic sound, a fusion of rock and jazz signatures, no more so than on “Small Fires.”

Last year, Chicago-helmed archival record label The Numero Group re-released five of Karate’s LPs, which clearly has put some ideas in the band’s head about their place in the current musical landscape. As Farina dedicated the final song to his students at DePaul (where he currently teaches songwriting, lyric writing and the history of the blues), he declared, “We’ll be back.” We can only hope we don’t have to wait another 17 years.

Japanese Breakfast

Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner beats a floral-wrapped gong during a performance of “Paprika” at Pitchfork Music Festival at Union Park.

Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner beats a floral-wrapped gong during a performance of “Paprika” at Pitchfork Music Festival at Union Park.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

What a year it’s been for the indie pop band out of Philly. Not only was frontwoman Michelle Zauner’s debut book, the heartwarming and breathtakingly honest “Crying in H Mart: A Memoir” a New York Times Bestseller upon its initial release, but Zauner herself was named one of Time’s “Most Influential People of 2022.” All of this unfolded as the band’s latest album “Jubilee” was nominated for several Grammys followed by an appearance on the season finale of “Saturday Night Live” in May.

It’s no doubt that the group will ink headliner status by this time next year. Not that they didn’t deliver like they were already at that point in their penultimate set on Saturday night. What’s normally a quartet nearly doubled in size for this performance, with the addition of a live horn section and violinist that created beautiful orchestral layers on tracks like the pleading confessional “Boyish.” Before the emotive turn, Zauner was having the time of her life beating on a floral-wrapped gong for the opener “Paprika,” and then was seen bouncing around the stage without abandon for big hit “Be Sweet” (in a top decorated with a stuffed animal dog, no less). The conscientious frontwoman also stopped the set a couple of times when noticing an audience member needed a medic and thanked the crowd for “taking care of each other.”

The biggest moment in the set came with the surprise guest appearance by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy whom Zauner hailed as her “favorite songwriter of all time.” The two beautifully duetted on the Japanese Breakfast song “Everybody Wants To Love You” before diving into a tandem treat of Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.,” with Zauner’s beaming smile reflected by the crowd.

Mitski

Fan girl screams weren’t really an expected reaction for dark-heart artist Mitski as she closed out Saturday night at Union Park. But it does makes sense. The singer-songwriter’s fanbase is, in a word, rabid, unleashing a spasm of guttural shrieks for her every move as she pounced about the stage in a highly physical set.

Mitski’s show is no run-of-the-mill concert; it’s full-on performance art in which she uses her entire body to translate the message of her songs. To fully get the volatility across, the artist employs a specific type of Japanese choreography called Butoh that relies on slowed-down dramatic gestures to evoke emotion, and it’s highly effective.

In opener “Love Me More,” Mitski — bathed in a theatrical dark blue light — was basically Lady Macbeth rubbing at her hands and arms as she sang, “Here’s my hand, there’s the itch, but I’m not supposed to scratch.” And in a performance of her stellar new single “Working For the Knife,” she suggestively used her microphone as a simulated weapon to mock slitting her own throat before turning it into a pleasure tool. Even after a brief moment of interacting with the clingy crowd, Mitski noted she had to “get back into character,” illuminating how seriously she takes her craft.

To think that the gifted artist almost gave up her career a few years ago, admittedly burned out by the spotlight and pressure of consistent creative output, to then release one of her most dynamic albums yet, this year’s “Laurel Hell,” is nothing short of mind-blowing. The new work’s electronic-heavy production coupled with Mitski’s eerie aura calls to mind a Bjork-ian style, while Mitski’s top-notch songwriting is still well-preserved on each track. Done live, her perfect pitch vocals only serve to make the songs even more polished. We can’t wait to see what she does next.

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