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Pitchfork Music Festival 2021 crowd standing in front of stage
Photograph: Zach Long

8 amazing moments at Pitchfork Music Festival 2021

Back in Union Park, watching bands and getting coated in dust.

Zach Long
Emma Krupp
Written by
Zach Long
Emma Krupp

After taking a year off in 2020 and delaying the event (which usually takes place in July) to September this year, Pitchfork Music Festival returned to Union Park with a new set of safety rules (including a proof of vaccine or negative COVID-19 test requirement for entry, plus a mask recommendation that was only loosely followed) and a mostly-new lineup of artists, including indie darlings, rappers and experimental acts spread across the fest's three stages. Spared from the worst of mid-summer heat and any major weather events, the fest went off mostly without a hitch—though it couldn't escape a few last-minute cancelations and schedule shake-ups, like when Jay Electronica bowed out (due to "unforeseen circumstances," organizers said) and was replaced by RP Boo on Saturday. As we head toward the end of September's packed music festival roster, here are some of our favorite moments from Pitchfork Music Festival 2021. 

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A golden hour dance party with Kelly Lee Owens

Try as I might, I couldn't get into Animal Collective's late-afternoon appearance on Friday, so I headed to the Blue Stage and found Welsh electronic artist Kelly Lee Owens wrapped in a cloak as her cover of the latter half of Radiohead's "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" warmed up the crowd. By the time she threw off her cloak and began manipulating the various synths and drum machines that surrounded her, folks around me were already moving to the beat as the setting sun cast golden rays across the throng of people. Sure, a crowd of folks dancing at a music festival isn't exactly an uncommon sight, but seeing it at the first Pitchfork Music Festival in two years (bathed in some beautiful light) was a moment that made me feel incredibly grateful that it's possible to gather and enjoy some music, once again.—Zach Long

Waking up to the bombastic melodies of Bartees Strange

If the free boxed coffees being handed out at the gate or the punishing midday heat on Saturday afternoon didn't perk you up, an early afternoon set from Bartees Strange (the stage name of Bartees Leon Cox Jr.) probably did the trick. The Washington D.C.-based singer-songwriter's Red Stage set was as arresting as his bright, foliage-covered shirt, combining powerful vocals with indie rock arrangements and triumphant synth flourishes that would make Vangelis smile. "I've been wanting to do this all my life," Cox said with a grin before launching into another genre-fluid tune, delivered with the earnest excitement that accompanies a personal milestone. And there's little doubt that on future visits to Union Park he'll be playing much later in the afternoon, to a slightly less groggy crowd .—ZL

RP Boo at Pitchfork Music Festival
Photograph: Zach Long

A footwork showcase set to an RP Boo soundtrack

The rapid movements of footwork dancing have been extremely visible in Chicago this summer, thanks to a short that's currently being projected on the side of the Merchandise Mart during Art on theMart and a couple of footwork-focused events that have been presented as part of the House City performance series. On Saturday at Pitchfork, a last-minute cancelation by rapper Jay Electronica resulted in West Side footwork producer RP Boo being added to the day's lineup—and he brought some friends. While he manipulated the incessant beats, RP Boo was joined on the Blue Stage by a pair of footwork dancers that intermittently showed off moves as the crowd cheered them on. It's certainly not the first time that the sounds and sights or footwork have taken the spotlight at Pitchfork Music Festival, and I'd argue that it'd be worth making the Chicago-born art form an annual fixture of the fest.—ZL

A surprise appearance from Sharon Van Etten

Rumors swirled that indie crooner Angel Olsen might welcome a special guest during her Saturday night set after eagle-eyed fans spotted Pitchfork Music Festival alum Sharon Van Etten—with whom Olsen recorded a single earlier this year—at O’Hare International Airport and around town on Friday. Sure enough, at the tail end of a soulful, romantic show that included everything from the dance-friendly “Shut Up Kiss Me” to a cover of a song by Chicago musician Marvin Tate, Van Etten emerged to help close out the set with a performance of "Like I Used To" (the single in question), which ended rather sweetly with a hug between the two singers.—Emma Krupp

Jamila Woods tackles a grunge-era classic

Taking the stage in front of a live audience for the first time since the early 2020, Jamila Woods spent much of her set digging into the buoyant R&B of Legacy!Legacy!, which is made of up tracks devoted to (and named for) various Black artists. But midway through her performance, Woods decided to break into a song she's covered in the past: Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Her reworking of the hit ’90s anthem dials back its more aggressive tendencies, imbuing Kurt Cobain's apathetic musings with tenderness and finding the vulnerability within the distinctive melody. After so much time spent in isolation, lyrics like "Here we are now, entertain us, I feel stupid, and contagious," have some very different connotations—something that definitely wasn't lost on a poet like Woods, and anyone else listening closely to her soothing rendition.—ZL

Thundercat at Pitchfork Music Festival 2021
Photograph: Zach Long

Thundercat presents his jazz odyssey

Not even a malfunctioning amp could stop the bass-heavy grooves of Thundercat's Sunday afternoon set from moving forward—some members of the crew quickly switched out the equipment mid-song and Stephen Bruner was back in the pocket as if nothing had gone amiss. When he wasn't dealing with technical difficulties, Bruner was turning familiar tracks like "Dragonball Durag" and "Them Changes" into expanded jazz-fusion instrumentals, using the structure of each song as a jumping off point for virtuosic noodling. Manipulating his bass so that it sounded like a sitar, a banjo or a swelling synthesizer, Bruner looked like he was having a blast trading licks and rhythms with his small-but-might two-piece band, at one point remarking, "It just feels good to play again." This enthusiasm was contagious—it's fun to watch someone having this much fun.—ZL

Caroline Polachek's mind-buzzing high notes

Midway through her Sunday afternoon set, Caroline Polachek—formerly of the electro pop duo Chairlift—paused to explain the inspiration behind her song "Parachute," a dream in which she’s forced to accept her own death only to find herself miraculously saved and returned to normalcy. Next to me, a friend whispered that this felt fitting: Polachek’s entire performance, full of delicate choreography and opera-trained high notes, carried a certain dream-like quality; during "Ocean of Tears," her trilled calls reminded me of a siren at sea. Keep an eye out for two new (and as of yet unreleased) tracks that she performed on Sunday, "Smoke" and the vaguely Spanish-sounding “Sunset.”—EK

Embracing nostalgia with Waxahatchee

If there was ever an act to see in shimmering late-afternoon heat, it's Katie Crutchfield's southern folk project Waxahatchee, named for a creek in rural Alabama near where the singer grew up. Dressed in a long floral sundress with her hair in a somewhat Victorian-looking bun, Crutchfield's Saturday set focused mostly on the 2021 release Saint Cloud, a thoughtfully-composed roster of songs that for me—and evidently for other members of the crowd, judging by a few teary-eyed faces I spotted—have this uniquely nostalgia-evoking quality, leaving me wistful for a rural country upbringing I've never had. Still, even as "Oxbow" drew tears, other numbers had the crowd bopping along: "But if you wanna buy a round, we might hang out," she sang cheekily on "Witches," a perfect line for swaying along with a drink in hand.—EK

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