“It’s been a long time since we played shows and a really long time since we played festivals,” Ezra Koenig told the rowdy Pitchfork Music Festival crowd on Sunday night in Chicago’s Union Park. “But you seem nice!” Aside from a pair of intimate shows last week, Koenig’s band, Vampire Weekend, hadn’t played a proper gig in nearly 18 months. But no rust was present when the Brooklyn-based four-piece closed out the three-day festival in grand style, returning for a four-song encore.
Their 90-minute set – highlighted by a wicked rendition of “A-Punk” and a whimsical “Holiday” – was essentially a run-through of their entire two-album catalog. But as they had done a few nights earlier, the band unveiled an as-yet-untitled new song off their forthcoming third album. The flitty number found Koenig waxing poetic about how “fire awaits all the sinners and saints.” Koenig also made explicit mention of the new release. “After the show, we’re gonna go home and finish the new album,” he said.
Vampire Weekend’s set may have capped off the three-day festival, but things were already in full swing on Friday when Canadian singer-songwriter Feist, backed by a six-piece band, enchanted the mainstage audience with a set heavy on material from last year’s Metals. Feist looked every bit the part of a hippie-commune leader as she swayed during airy takes on “The Bad in Each Other” and “How Come You Never Go There?” before launching into a trio of tracks off 2007’s The Reminder, including “So Sorry” and “The Limit to Your Love.”
A day later, the mainstage was subjected to a brutal attack from Sleigh Bells. Backed by a wall of Marshall amps, the noise-rock duo bludgeoned the crowd with helpings from this year’s Reign of Terror. Singer Alexis Krauss apologized to the crowd for missing last year’s festivities. “Sorry!” she said. “We were making a new album and now we want to share it with you!” Alongside guitarist Derek Miller, Krauss pranced around in her white Keds, showcasing her girlish growl on songs new (“Demons”) and old (“Tell ‘Em”).
Now in its seventh year, Pitchfork’s festival has always centered around indie rock, and this year was no different. Early Friday evening, the Dirty Projectors, led by frontman Dave Longstreth, performed an intricate set focused on their new album, Swing Lo Magellan. The group’s female vocalists, Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle, showed off their harmonic rapport with new member Olga Bell, who fit snugly into the mix. “I always choose people irrationally,” Longstreth told Rolling Stone backstage when asked about his process for hiring new personnel. “Olga slays it. She fits in super well.” Also touring behind a new album were Baltimore dream-pop duo Beach House, who took to the stage on Sunday afternoon to showcase cuts off Bloom. Singer Victoria Legrand, dressed in all black alongside similarly outfitted guitarist Alex Scally, let her breathy vocals do the labor on “Myth” and “Norway.”
The festival’s most poetic juxtaposition occurred on Saturday afternoon, when Flying Lotus’s dance-heavy set immediately preceded one from Wild Flag. The punk quartet brought the scrappiness of their record to the stage, rocking to a notably older crowd. The band closed their power-chord heavy set with “Romance,” which Carrie Brownstein called a “love song, for you guys and music.” British dance fiends Hot Chip employed an arsenal of synths, meanwhile, bringing audience members one step closer to a full-on dance party. Focusing primarily on their recently released In Our Heads LP, the band struck a delightful balance between dance music and rock bliss. The Brits masterfully built up tension that exploded into dance breakdowns, reminding the crowd what “drops” sounded like in the pre-dubstep era.
Breaking acts got their moment to shine, too: Canada’s Grimes sprinkled her synth-heavy set on Saturday night with standouts from her Visions LP, like “Genesis” and “Oblivion.” Later, she brought out producer Blood Diamonds for their collaborative track “Phone Sex.” Grimes’ fellow countrymen Japandroids, the garage-rock duo behind the critically acclaimed Celebration Rock, made the most of a short set on Friday. “We don’t have much time so we’re going to play as many songs as possible, said singer-guitarist Brian King, as the band ripped through tracks including “Fire’s Highway” and “The Nights of Wine and Roses.” Brooklyn punk rockers the Men were all business on Sunday. The punk outfit escorted the crowd through a range of genres, bouncing from shoegaze to uptempo garage rock to punk – and managed to involve a harmonica on multiple occasions.
But the weekend’s hip-hop performances were nearly unmatched. A$AP Rocky and his 10-deep A$AP mob went ballistic onstage Friday afternoon, keeping the rain-soaked crowd amped with whiplash renditions of “Houston Old Head” and “Wassup.” And while Schoolboy Q wasn’t there to lend Rocky a hand on their collaborative cut “Hands on the Wheel,” the Compton MC arrived the next day for his own performance. “I’m so faded,” he told the equally intoxicated crowd. Q, a member of the L.A. rap collective Black Hippy, is still building a fanbase (“I’m not as big as like Wiz Khalifa,” he told Rolling Stone), but that’s not to say the rapper, who peppered his set with selections from his latest mixtape, Habits & Contradictions, isn’t confident.”You gotta be cocky,” he explained.
Fellow Black Hippy member Kendrick Lamar basked in fame’s limelight on Sunday, as Lady Gaga watched from the side of the stage. The Dr. Dre protégé debuted “Swimming Pools,” a new cut from his forthcoming debut album, Good Kid in a Mad City. And newcomer Chief Keef made a surprise appearance on Sunday, joining producer-DJ Aarabmuzik for a raucous take on his breakout hit “I Don’t Like.” Said Aarabmuzik of his decision to bring out Keef: “He’s the biggest thing coming outta Chicago right now.”
Detroit’s Danny Brown, the gap-toothed rhyme-slinger behind XXX, used his Kermit-the-Frog croak of a voice to spit hilarious rhymes on “Lie4” and “Bruiser Brigade.” Pitchfork was a welcome respite for Brown: he admitted to Rolling Stone that when he toured with all-ages-appealing rapper Childish Gambino, he felt a bit uncomfortable. “I was performing pussy-eating songs,” he said, “for little girls there with their moms.”
Additional reporting by Joe Pinsker