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No Expectations 032: Festival Song
Pitchfork Music Festival must-sees and a killer new MJ Lenderman track.
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What I’m Seeing at Pitchfork Fest 2023
I get the arguments from a good chunk of music journalists who hate music festivals. Yes, live music is better indoors. Sometimes these multi-day events are run by people who donate to hateful causes. They can be unsafe for crowds and poorly run. They can be exorbitantly cost-prohibitive and use up public parks for far too long. They don’t book enough women or people of color. It’s all true but some are way better than others and some clearly aren’t worth your time.
That said, I usually have a pretty good time. My first festival was Lollapalooza in 2008, which at 16 was a truly formative experience. As a kid who grew up in Michigan, it was my first opportunity to see Radiohead, then my favorite band. I’d never been in a crowd that big before and honestly, I’ve yet to face a harder decision than seeing Rage Against the Machine reunite or Wilco (I chose the latter). The whole experience had me hooked.
Chicago’s Pitchfork Fest at Union Park has been my favorite music festival for over a decade. It’s the most well-run, thoughtfully booked, and smartly organized event of its kind. Since 2011, I haven’t missed a weekend except for, well, you know. The grounds are manageable—you can walk from stage to stage in about five minutes. Compared to the few hundred bands that are booked at Lolla each other, there are usually only around 50 at P4k. It’s small enough that you can get your fill of live music without overextending yourself. Most importantly, thanks to the expert curation of bookers like Mike Reed, you’ll see acts that you wouldn’t see at the C3 or AEG-run fests. Plus, I get to see some New York and LA writer buds I only hang out with once a year at the fest.
Over the weekend, some of my friends described this year’s lineup as a “Josh Terry-ass bill” and they’re not wrong with headliners like The Smile, Big Thief, and Bon Iver. The undercard is so up my alley it’s even going to get me to go when the gates open Saturday and probably even Sunday. While I normally write festival previews for Chicago Mag, this year, I’m just going to do it in the newsletter. If you’re a subscriber and see me out and about this weekend, say hi.
Unless a miracle happens this week and I’m super-humanly productive today, I don’t see myself making it to the festival until early evening on Friday for Youth Lagoon. That’s a shame because Sen Morimoto, MAVI, and Grace Ives are all worth seeing. In particular, I’m most stoked for Chicago’s Sen Morimoto who plays the Green stage at 2:30. He’s about to release a new album called Diagnosis and it’s his most streamlined and accessible release yet. It’s his Indie Rock LP, which marks one of the first times I’ve seen an artist go from genre-fusing experimental pop to picking up a guitar. Most of the time it’s the other way around.
Youth Lagoon’s Heaven Is a Junkyard is one of the best albums of the year. While it’s more understated than some of Trevor Powers’ earlier work as Youth Lagoon, I can see it being unanimously thought of as his best in the years to come. I’m betting he’ll have a similar lowkey set and let songs like “Prizefighter” and “Idaho Alien” speak for themselves. He’s at the Green stage at 4:15.
After Powers’s set, I’ll pop over to the Blue stage for Jlin at 5:15. The Gary, Indiana footwork artist has played the best before and she’s killed it. I’m excited to see her again. I’ll bounce between Perfume Genius (6:15, Green) and Ric Wilson (6:15, Blue) and grab food before Alvvays (7:25, Red) and The Smile (8:30, Green). I like Alvvays but wasn’t as high as some of my peers on their latest LP Blue Rev (which I’m told needs to be experienced live). I feel similarly about the Smile. I loved a few of the songs on 2022’s A Light for Attracting Attention but it never resonated with me the way most Radiohead and Thom Yorke solo LPs do for me. Still, pretty stoked to see this in person.
There’s so much I want to see at P4k Saturday, I’m not sure I’ll even have time to grab a beer. Sub Pop’s latest signing in local legends Deeper kick off the day at 1:00 on the Green stage. I profiled the Chicago indie rock outfit in 2020—the last in-person interview I did before, well, you know—and now they have a new one out in September called Careful!. I’ve loved every single they’ve put out so far, especially the propulsive “Build a Bridge.”
Immediately following Deeper is Palm’s final Chicago date before breaking up. While they’re at 1:45 on the Red stage Saturday they also have an aftershow with Melkbelly at the Empty Bottle Friday (tickets are still available). I’m going to miss Palm—I can think of few bands who were as influential and adventurous in their brief run—a real “your favorite band’s favorite band” band.
Black Belt Eagle Scout (2:45, Blue) vs. 700 Bliss (2:30, Green) is a tough one but most of the time, a band playing the Blue stage—an area with actual trees and shade—trumps the two bigger stages. Black Belt Eagle Scout (who is one of the only Saddle Creek artists I haven’t written a bio for this year) has a fantastic album from February called The Land, The Water, The Sky. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to leave 15 minutes early for My Most Anticipated Set of the Weekend.
Even though I’ve seen the guy play live three times in the last eight months (once with Wednesday, once with his own live band, and once solo), MJ Lenderman (3:20, Red) is still the show I’m looking forward to most. He just signed to ANTI- and put out a new song he debuted live last year called “Rudolph,” which I write about a bit more in the “What I listened to” section below. After that, I’m rushing over to catch Vagabon (4:00, Blue). I wrote the bio for her upcoming album Sorry I Haven’t Called, which is undoubtedly going to be an AOTY contender. It’s such a confident, adventurous, and welcoming album that I keep coming back to well after rinsing it a couple of months ago for that deadline.
Next up is the most baffling conflict of the entire weekend: Julia Jacklin (5:15, Blue) vs. Snail Mail (5:15, Red). I kinda can’t believe this! Jacklin’s “Pressure to Party” and “Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You” are two of the best songs of the past decade and the same goes for Snail Mail’s “Pristine” and “Heat Wave.” I’m going to try to time it out by looking at previous setlists.
King Krule (6:15, Green) vs. Yaya Bey (6:30, Blue) is similarly brutal but I’m leaning toward Bey because I haven’t had a chance to see her perform yet. After that, I’ll post up for Big Thief (8:30, Green) and hopefully be able to enjoy Weyes Blood (7:25, Red) from afar. I recently caught Weyes Blood play a solid set at Riviera where she name-dropped Adam Curtis and showcased a video he made for the tour. Also, Big Thief is going to rule. What a band. Maybe new music is coming from them too after this week’s incredible “Vampire Empire” single? Hell yeah.
Sundays at a music festival are usually when you are just running on fumes and free drinks from whatever seltzer brand is posted up around the grounds. I always say I’m going to get there early for the first act of the day but it never quite works out. But because I’m stoked that Ariel Zetina is opening up the day (1:00, Green), I’m stopping myself from doing any aftershows and getting enough rest to make it out. Zetina’s a staple in Chicago’s DJ community and each set has been a stunner.
I’m viewing this day as the “walk around and see a little bit of everything” day. I’ll catch a bit of synth-poppers Jockstrap (3:20, Red), hardcore punks Soul Glo (4:00, Blue), Killer Mike (5:15, Red), and Illuminati Hotties (5:15, Blue). Another gnarly matchup is choosing between Koffee (6:15, Green) and Hurray for the Riff Raff (6:30, Blue). I haven’t seen Alynda Lee Segarra play since two HFTRR albums ago, so I’ll probably just do that.
Bon Iver’s headlining set (8:30, Green) is my Big One on Sunday. I’m one of his weirder fans in that I think 2019’s i,i is his best (history will prove me right) so I hope he plays a bunch of that. I wrote about that album in 2019 and I think I did a solid job making the case for it being one of Justin Vernon’s best LPs.
What I listened to:
Song of the Summer Contender: MJ Lenderman, “Rudolph”
The playlist this week is all Pitchfork Fest 2023 artists, which includes MJ Lenderman, but it would’ve felt weird to skip over how much I dug his latest single “Rudolph.” It’s the North Carolina guitarist’s first song with new label ANTI-. I love it. Steven Hyden sums it up better than I could here:“New MJ Lenderman single just dropped. Lots of lap steel + lots of cowbell + a “Blowin In The Wind” reference + some boss Trans Ams in the video. The man simply does not miss.” Lenderman also appears on the excellent new Squirrel Flower singles, which preview a new album from the Chicago rocker out in October. It’s incredible.
Gig report: Bonny Doon, Anna St. Louis, Hazel City at Thalia Hall (7/14)
Two Fridays in a row for me catching an In The Round set at Thalia Hall with a Twin Peaks offshoot opening first of three. This time, instead of Cadien Lake James kicking off the night as Lake before Spun Out and Cabeza De Chivo, it was Clay Frankel’s Hazel City playing with Anna St. Louis and headliner Bonny Doon. I wrote about both Hazel City’s new album and Bonny Doon’s excellent Let There Be Music in my Top 30 Albums of 2023 So Far list. I had such a good time: Bonny Doon are one of the best live bands going right now.
Gig report: Lawn, Gentle Heat, Eli Winter at Empty Bottle (7/15)
I wrote about Lawn a bunch for VICE and included their 2022 LP Bigger Sprout in the inaugural newsletter on No Expectations but I’ve never had a chance to see them live. They played a show at Empty Bottle on Saturday while recording new music in town (only band member Rui De Magalhaes lives here, the rest of the band is mostly based in New Orleans). The songs are split mostly between co-lead singers and co-songwriters Mac Folger and De Magalhaes. Mac’s songs have a power-pop bent while Rui’s are usually driving post-punk numbers. It’s a magical combo, especially live. For reasons outside of my control, I was late to the gig and only caught the last half of the second opener Gentle Heat’s set. Eli Winter is one of my favorite Chicago artists and I need to make a point to see his next gig.
What I watched:
Velvet Goldmine (Mubi)
I’ve been slowly making my way through Todd Haynes’ filmography and I honestly can’t believe I never saw his 1998 glam rock movie Velvet Goldmine. It focuses on the public fall of a David Bowie–inspired singer named Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and the journalist (Christian Bale) tasked with figuring out what happened to him. Bowie famously didn’t want his own songs used for the film so the soundtrack is filled with era-appropriate tunes and covers featuring Thom Yorke and other marquee rockers cameoing. It’s a lot of fun and moves with a lot of playfulness throughout. There’s a genuine love for the material and Ewan McGregor kills it as an Iggy Pop and Lou Reed-inspired rocker named Curt Wild. More movies should be like this.
Robert Greene’s documentaries are fascinating and adventurous: they experiment with the form and never feel like something you can just binge on Netflix. This one, which follows former The Wire actress Brandy Burre after she tries to dive back into acting after starting a family is really dark, raw, but ultimately pretty incredible. (She was the campaign manager for Mayor Littlefinger). It’s a tough watch at times but by the halfway point I was pretty immersed. His latest docs somehow sound even heavier.
What I read:
David Anthony Profiles Angel Du$t (LINK: Stereogum)
Justice Tripp has only ever wanted to be one thing: a creative person in a rock ‘n’ roll band. The 37-year-old Baltimore native may not be the first name one thinks of when people talk about hardcore’s current mainstream push, but for the past 15 years, he’s been setting the pace of that scene and leaving people to wonder what he’ll do next. With the new Angel Du$t album BRAND NEW SOUL out Sept. 9 on Pop Wig Records — the label he co-runs with current and former bandmates Daniel Fang and Brendan Yates of Turnstile — it’s clear Justice is ready to shake up hardcore all over again.
Nina Corcoran Profiles Lifeguard (LINK: Pitchfork)
Born and raised in Chicago, the group met the way kids do: by equal parts fate, luck, and a shared interest in something no one else cared about. While attending a local music camp during their middle-school years, Case, whose father has played in indie rock groups including Disappears, the Ponys, and FACS, spotted Lowenstein in a Tortoise shirt. Ecstatic to see another pre-teen who was into the heady post-rock locals, Case introduced themselves, and the two became fast friends.
Inspired by his older sister Penelope starting her own band, Horsegirl, Lowenstein began jamming with Case as a drum-and-bass duo under the name Lifeguard in 2019. Slater, who caught Lowenstein’s attention while playing in the folk-pop quartet Dwaal Troupe, joined shortly afterwards. Following in the footsteps of goth icons Bauhaus, who Case credits as helping them “discover that other people were sad too,” Lifeguard covered Brian Eno’s jittery 1974 track “Third Uncle,” thus locking in their musical compatibility and jumpstarting the songwriting sessions that spawned their debut EP, In Silence, at the turn of 2020. They gravitated towards a brooding, unpredictable blend of post-hardcore and art rock, earning comparisons to Unwound and Fugazi in the process.
The Weekly No Expectations Chicago Show Calendar:
Thursday, July 20: Say Sue Me, Precious Neophyte at Empty Bottle. Tickets.
Thursday, July 20: Grace Ives, Kassie Krut at Sleeping Village. Tickets.
Friday, July 21: Palm, Melkbelly at Empty Bottle. Tickets.
Friday, July 21: MJ Lenderman, Styrofoam Winos at Lincoln Hall. Tickets.
Friday, July 21 through Sunday, July 23: Pitchfork Music Festival at Union Park. Tickets.
Saturday, July 22: Sen Morimoto, Trinity Star Ultra at Schubas. Tickets.
Saturday, July 22: Jockstrap, Nina Utashiro at Lincoln Hall. Tickets.
Saturday, July 22: Dos Santos, Serengeti and more at Ravenswood On Tap.
Monday, July 24: Kurt Vile, Finom at Millennium Park. Free.