“with all the world” – khruangbin (2019)

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Despite the extreme heat and being caught in the downpour that forced a fairly significant evacuation, I had a really great time this weekend at the Pitchfork Music Festival.  While music festivals are normally not my thing, I usually give Pitchfork a pass.  It feels fairly small to me compared to some of the other music festivals in the area, I get in for free, and I know a bunch of friends and colleagues who attend as well.  Despite the crowds that can accumulate throughout the day in preparation for that day’s headliner, I can break away and explore other options like perusing vendors or finding a quiet spot under a tree.  All in all, it is a very good time.

Whenever the lineup for Pitchfork gets announced, it is a reminder of how uncool I can be when it comes to new, underground, and independent artists.  I usually only know a few names and they are typically the headliners or the acts that play right before. I’ve discussed this before.  It isn’t that I actively avoid new, hip music.  It just takes me a while for it to get on my radar.  I just have other things that take up my time and attention and there is always a bunch of new music coming out.  More and more every year and it is too much to absorb.

So, leading up to Pitchfork, I try to do some homework.  I’ll read recommendations from several music publications and critics, or I might sample some of their tracks on Spotify.  However, if I know I will not have time even for that, I can always just show up and check them out.  Showing up to a performance without any knowledge or preconceptions is an absolutely exciting way to experience an artist for the first time.  And there were plenty of new experiences for me this year.

Unlike previous years I’ve attended Pitchfork, I’ve never gone all three days of the festival.  At most, I go about two because I usually have other things going on and music festivals can be exhausting.  However, since I missed last year’s festival due to a vacation, I was going to make up for it.  I was determined to attend all three days and check out new sounds.

The artists I experienced for the first time at Pitchfork were Sky Ferreira, Julia Holter, HAIM, Cate Le Bon, Parquet Courts, Clair, Khruangbin, Amen Dunes, Ibeyi, Nenah Cherry, Snail Mail, and Whitney.  This fest was my first exposure to these artists, and I had a great time at each set.  While some sets resonated more with than others, I still had an absolute blast and walked away with mental notes on who to explore further. While I had so much fun at Mavis Staples, the Isley Brothers, and Robyn, all sets I really wanted to see and whose music I was familiar with, I want to talk about the set from the list of artists I didn’t know previously that impressed me the most.

I had not heard of Khruangbin until they were announced to play at this year’s festival, and I didn’t bother look them up prior to their set.  They were performing on the third and final day of the festival, the day I was debating on attending (I know I said I was going to make an effort to go all three days, but extreme heat and storms do force you to rethink your decisions), and I was so happy I went.  Khruangbin’s hypnotic blend of soul, dub, and psychedelia with a wide variety of global music added an experience to the festival that I felt was lacking in the prior two days.

Their music was entrancing and easy to lose yourself in.  I could’ve just stood there and swayed to their funky, down to earth psychedelic jams, but I was also entranced on the band members themselves in addition to the music.  The energy between Laura Lee on bass and Mark Speer on guitar was so intimate.  It exuded a level of sensuality that seemed almost private, but was shared with an audience as part of the experience of Khruangbin live in a festival setting.

Since that performance left the biggest impact on me from all the artists I experienced for the first time at Pitchfork, I’ve spent today listening to their studio releases.  Released in 2019, Khruangbin’s latest studio album Hasta El Cielo is a really funky treat.  With the opening track “With All the World,” you are immediately coasting through an atmospheric dub with spicy, lingering guitars and an echoey drums.  It all feels very ethereal, but earthy as well.  It strikes a delicate balance between reaching for cosmic limitations and remaining firmly grounded and comfortable with one’s self. It is a great opening track that sets up the tone and theme for the album.

It can be difficult to explore new music. You must remain open to idea of exploring new things.  And worst-case scenario is you don’t like it.  Just move on and find something else.  There’s plenty to explore.

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“butter” – a tribe called quest (1991)

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Well, another Pitchfork Music Festival has come in gone.  This was my fourth time attending the fest and it has stayed consistently fun.  As always, the crowd wasn’t unmanageable and my enjoyment of the fest was helped with cooler weather and no rain.

I also got to see a lot of great performances.  Thurston Moore was loud, noisy, and amazing.  Angel Olsen was a real treat, but I think her backup singer was more excited to be there than she was.  George Clinton was a missed opportunity because I left after 15 minutes due to poor sound that was later corrected.  PJ Harvey’s performance, while good, seemed out of place at an outdoor music fest in the daytime.  The Feelies were furious with George Clinton for bleeding into their set time which affected their playing.  And I made happy memories watching LCD Soundsystem with Carolyn.  All in all, it was a great time.

Though, one performance stood above the rest.  If you had asked me prior to the fest who was the one act I absolutely had to see, the answer would come fast and easily: A Tribe Called Quest.

I had been a fan of the group since college.  While I had discovered a few of the other artists during the time, A Tribe Called Quest preceded all of them.  Plus, I have listened to them more than the others.  So, when they were announced as the headliner, I knew I had to make time to see them.

As I made my way to a spot left of the sound booth about 45 minutes before the show, a lot of questions were coming to mind.  This was the group’s first festival performance since the death of Phife Dawg last year.  They had performed on Saturday Night Live since his death, but that was in a more controlled setting.  This wasn’t television. This was a full-length concert performance in front of thousands of people.  And everyone, including me, was wondering “What about Phife Dawg?”

I was talking with my friends about the possibilities.  Perhaps the others were just going to rap Phife Dawg’s rhymes.  Or maybe they were going to bring out a guest or a slew of guests throughout the tour to substitute.  We even joked about bringing out a hologram like what happened with Tupac a few years prior.  W when the lights dimmed and the show commenced, we got our answer.

Q-yip, Jarobi, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad were present and joined with guest MC Consequence.  However, while there were three MCs, there were four microphones on stage.  One of them (I cannot remember who) announced that they were going to leave the mic open for in memory of Phife Dawg.  This was a touching gesture to include a lost founding member who could never be replaced.  However, the inclusion of the microphone was more than just symbolic.

After a few songs into the set, the group gave Phife Dawg the mic.  When this happened, the group would step away and a single spotlight would shine on the empty mic as the studio vocals of Phife’s solos would play.  It was completely mesmerizing scene.  A voice thundered through the audience, but no one was behind the mic.  The experience was captivating and turned what could’ve been a standard tribute into someone more engaging and meaningful.

This scene happened a few times, but none were as impactful as when “Butter” played.  A cut from the group’s second studio album The Low End Theory, this performance of “Butter” represented one of the best tributes I had ever seen.  The other members stepped to the side of the stage.  Nearly all the lights came down except for the one spotlight illuminating the empty mic.  Muhammed then played an acapella version of Phife Dawg’s verse of “Butter” which had seen become a career-defining song for the group.  When the verse was over, the rest joined in as a picture of the group was projected on the background.  The entire performance was touching as Q-Tip turned away from the audience and stared into Phife’s eyes as he rapped.

What could have easily been a phoned-in performance turned into something much more.  And frankly, I wouldn’t expect any less of from A Tribe Called Quest.  They have, for nearly 30 years, been stellar performers and impeccable showmen.  The professionalism and empathy conveyed in Saturday’s headlining performance will be one for the music history books.

“boy problems” – carly rae jepsen (2015)

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I have a lot of friends who are really into music.  Many who go to shows every week, some who play an instrument, and a few who even perform live shows.  Our tastes and experiences differ from eachother, but we’re connected by our simple love for music.

I love music.  I know a lot about music.  I listen to it frequently and read about it a lot.  I volunteer for two non-profit organizations that are exclusively centered on music.  I also started taking guitar classes last year to better understand how music is made.  It is a part of my life and something I cherish deeply.  However, unlike my other friends who music just as much as me (if not more), the only aspect of music culture I don’t really gravitate towards is the music festival.

For me, there are a lot of things that are off-putting about music festivals.  First and foremost is the heavy influence corporations have on music festivals.  The money that pours in and out of these things is a lot.  Granted, it means bigger acts and bigger sponsors and bigger vendors and bigger everything, but bigger is not always better.  Second, the weather can really change my mood and how I relate to the music.  I had friends who went to Bonnaroo multiple years while in college.  The idea of being stuck under the sun in 100 degree heat somewhere in rural Tennessee and not able to leave until the festival was over just doesn’t sit well with me.  Call me a city slicker, but I like proper toilets, running water, and being able to sleep in my own bed.

Beyond the corporate and climatic elements surrounding a festival, I also have an issue with the musical elements of a festival.  Festivals are big and expensive.  As each year goes by, I recognize bands less and less.  Sure, I could take the time to investigate every act on the bill, formulate an opinion, and draft an educated itinerary of which bands I want to see and where they are playing, but that’s a lot of work.  Oftentimes, there are only a few I want to see.  Even then, I cannot justify the cost of spending a few hundred dollars just to see half a dozen bands.  For many of the smaller acts, I know I can always catch them at Schuba’s or the Metro, and for the larger acts, some arena.

However, despite my complaints about music festivals that makes me sound like an ol’ fuddy duddy, there is one I rather enjoy.  The Pitchfork Music Festival was held this past weekend and is always a treat.  While I’ll never avoid the issue of not knowing many of the bands, there are other things I like about this festival.  First, Union Park in Chicago is not a very big park.  And while the crowds do get bigger the night progresses, it is very manageable unlike crowds I have experienced at other Chicago festivals like Riot Fest.  Secondly, I know a lot of people at Pitchfork.  This is because one of the organizations I volunteer with coordinates a record fair where labels and stores can sell their products alongside other vendors specializing in handcrafted jewelry and other fun items.  If volunteers put in enough time, they can get free access to the festival for either one or three days as long as they volunteer for a few hours.  As volunteers, we all chip in to sell records, mingle, and enjoy the festival together.  Talking with friends and colleagues makes a festival a lot more fun instead of wandering aimlessly alone amidst the festival smell, noise, and general chaos.

While the one act I wanted to see was Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys performing the 1966 classic album Pet Sounds in its entirety (it was extremely sand and disappoint, by the way), the act that surprised me the most was Carly Rae Jepsen.  When the line-up for Pitchfork was announced a few months ago, that was a surprising addition to what is typically a rather hipster roster.  Though release din 2011, her single “Call Me Maybe” was inescapable during the summer of 2012.  It was a smash single that played everywhere.  While a fun song, it was pop bubblegum.  But, it was the kind that got stuck on the bottom of your shoe and you felt its stickiness everywhere you went.

I admit I was a bit cynical about her being added to the roster.  I hadn’t heard any other song from her.  Knowing that she did put out a follow-up album, Jepsen didn’t seem like the type of pop artist that would rise to commercial ranks of Katy Perry or Lady Gaga.  She very much seemed like a one and done type of artist.  As Pitchfork was getting closer, I said I would go see her under the rationale that if she is playing Pitchfork, then she must be a little cool.  Joining a friend for the performance, I approached the show with an open mind.  After a few songs, I was caught up with the energy of the crowd and Jepsen’s performance.  I was surprised and blown away.

I noticed that Jepsen looked a little different than when I watched the video for “Call Me Maybe” a few years earlier.  Rocking a mullet and a colorful romper, she launched into the first song of the set.  She had amazing energy and a great rapport with her band backup singers.  It was impossible to not dance and get lost in the pop rhythms.  It made me realize why Jepsen never became the type of pop star that defined Britney Spears or Katy Perry.  This was more of a fringe pop start; still accessible but with a sound and style that didn’t quite sound like modern commercial pop radio.  Jepsen’s music had s retro vibe that was reminiscent of early Borderline Madonna.

The set was fantastic.  Many of the songs were catchy and upbeat, and others were more ballad in nature.  While not every song was an absolute winner, there wasn’t a bad one in the bunch.  The only song I was familiar with was “Call Me Maybe,” so every song was new to me.  One that stuck out with me was “Boy Problems.”  Appearing on her 2015 album E•MO•TION, but not officially released as a single, “Boy Problems” is a fun yet realistic song about getting over people in your life.  While many songs about single life and independence such as Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” are anthems filled with confidence and empowerment, “Boy Problems” is a little more down to earth in its message.  In the song, Jepsen is on the phone with a friend.  Her friend is tired of hearing about her boy problems and her advice to Jepsen is to just move on because he’ll never change.  Jepsen realizes her friend is right and that she doesn’t need to ruin her own day by dwelling on the past and some stupid boy.  The message was very real and relatable, and that was a refreshing take on the subject of breaking up.  While Beyoncé’s classic track is great for getting the blood pumped up, it is infused with a false sense of bravado.  Jepsen’s “Boy Problems” is a song about relationship problems that we all face.

Jepsen’s performance was incredibly fun and was a highlight of the festival for me.  For someone who isn’t a big fan of music festivals, I always manage to have a lot of fun and make great memories at Pitchfork.  Even if their lineups may contain a few surprises and disappointments, I know that the overall is going to be a blast.