Pitchfork Music Festival Review: Alvvays, The Smile, Big Thief, King Krule, Palm, Florist, & more

Written & photographed by Marina Malin.

After spending a copious amount of time throwing bright-colored fabrics on my bed, scattering through sewing patterns, calling friends for fashion approval, and rearranging mini skirts and accessories to find visually intriguing cohesion, I make my way to Chicago. This extensive routine, though costing me 3 hours of sleep, was worth it as I was about to embark on the most pretentiously trendy destination of the weekend: Pitchfork Music Festival.

Pitchfork prides themselves on being “The Most Trusted Voice in Music.” Naturally, their audience embodies that. The sea of listeners rock flashy totes and tees that engrave their musical devotion like tattoos: Silver Jews, Panchiko, Aphex Twin, Brian Eno, Jonathan Richman, and Sparklehorse to name a few of the weekend’s highlights. I am filled with an overwhleming inclination to compliment everyone in Union Park’s unoffical dress code in hopes of building kinship with fellow music nerds. Pitchfork is not for the jock jersey wearing crowd but rather, those who find belonging in niche musical references like the Midori Orignal tee. With my observations, I first handedly understand what Jack Madison meant by nicknaming Pitchfork Music Festival the “record-collecting younger sister to Lollapalooza, her fraternity-rushing older brother.” I endorse this impression completely and would further add “record-collecting, alt, much cooler, visually and sonically pleasing sister.”

Friday July 21 2023

As Fridays are notoriously known for being the least appealing day of a 3-day festival, I begin my walk to Union Park habitually rubbing my eyes out of pure exhaustion from travel and fashion sorting. I am not sure what to expect from my first music festival and find comfort in embarking on new territory with fellow Pitchfork Music Festival virgin: little indietronica, synthpop, bedroom pop artist, Grace Ives. We adapt to the Pitchfork air together. As I get used to the technicalities of photography, she gets used to her reflection on the IMAG screen, asking if people listen to her music. Regardless of the answer, the audience quickly becomes starstruck by Ives’ flirtatious disposition. We are enamored as we watch her free-flowing curly hair bounce in her living-room-like dance party. She lets loose, releasing moans as she skips around the stage, nagging her hair, and moving her hips: “keeping [the energy] sexy.” Ives’ discography consists of sparkling synths, echos, and chimes that crack like pop rocks on your tongue. With her bite-length tracks and improvised setlist, she fills the silent breaks with verbal hehes, dances, silly anecdotes, and laughter. In these moments, she bridges gaps between herself and the audience. Her slight awkwardness and subtle chaos allow us to relate to her as plainly human. Grace Ives is our newest friend crush who empowers us to dance our way through the festival.

Photography by Marina Malin

The sun shined the hardest for Youth Lagoon, dragging in swarms of dragonflies that enliven the audience in celebration of their resurrection.
Emerging from the shadows after 7 years, their debut parts away from their previously psychedelic sound and embraces a stripped-down approach to chamber pop. Youth Lagoon keeps their set tame with simple instrumentals that allow frontman Trevor Powers to breathe new life into his experience through his words and piano drive. Though we hurt for him, his captured perseverance teaches us that vulnerability is not a weakness, but rather a doorway to strength. We are all relieved to know Youth Lagoon is back with more life, meaning and willingness to be vulnerable. His art brings him home to himself.

Photography by Marina Malin

Holding the hot title of Best New Music for their 2022 album Blue Rev, the power-pop band Alvvays headlines the second-largest stage on day 1. The Canadians dress in their business casual button-downs, feeling corporate against the stockpile of baby tees. Their look is deceiving as they are about to cause absolute mayhem in Union Park, creating a mess no one would expect from button-downs and slim-fit jeans.
“I am going to be really alone in this crowd,” says a middle-aged man in the sea of hormone-permeated young adults. However, Alvvays’ jangly piercing guitar, catchy arrangement, extremely articulate construction, reliable rhythm, dependent drumming, and confident vocals magnetize older generations to the front. Alvvays’ talent is universally undeniable. I was most impressed by the audacious “Pomeranian Spinster.” If you think the name sounds like a carnival ride, you’re not half wrong as Alvvays’ live performance gives us the same adrenaline rush that forces you to scream, banging around your head, unable to stay still. Abandoning us in chaos, Pomeranian Spinster stands out in utter rebellion. Rankin goes rogue and her vocal presence is especially punky. O’Hanley’s guitar riffs yell and screech in our faces. Just when you think the band can’t ascend their wilderness anymore, Rankin gradually screams in impertinence “could’ve been mine” over O’Hanley’s finale ripping guitar solo. Their set could shake someone out of sleep paralysis, it was near impossible not to move your body to.

Radiohead’s very own Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood join forces with Tom Skinner to grant the gift that is The Smile. No, not the smile in the way you’re thinking, but rather the guy that “lies to you every day” taking after a Ted Huges poem. The Smile appears on stage with significant spacing, just barely visually acknowledging one another’s presence. Without physical acknowledgment of one another, their band possesses a telepathic language, that the audience could only understand sonically. All three masterminds of their multi-instrumental paths are absolute wildfire when combined, capable of dramatizing each beat without a tilt of the head. Their set gave us insight into what a prodigy’s brain sounds like. Their performance was nothing short of a shot of ecstasy: perfect instrumentals, idiosyncratic vocals, unparalleled composition, and brilliant technique. Possessing an almost spiritual divinity, the crowd was transfixed by Yokre’s haunted complexity. Greenwood thrashes his fingers up and down the neck of his guitar, even using his guitar to shred apart a bow as an art form. Sonically, we’ve been plopped on orbit floating in space and the only thing we can grab onto is Skinner’s pristine drumming but even that is momentary and pushes against any grain confining them to be anything but extraordinarily radiant themselves.
When asking my self-proclaimed die-hard Radiohead fan friend what about Thom Yokre’s art does it for him, all he musters up is “It’s just so deep and melancholic.” Unable to put his finger on what exactly, I take this vacant response as disappointing, invalidating his true appreciation. However, only after experiencing Yokre’s mastermind was I able to accept this answer with satisfaction. The Smile is incomprehensibly impressive, beautiful, and flawless. There is nothing that could be reviewed, rethought, or interpreted in other ways than perceiving it exactly how it is. To say anything that is not what is presented feels disrespectful and rather intimidating. I experience great hesitancy in writing about them at all, with the weight of their immeasurable talent on my shoulder, unsure if my vocabulary could even do them half the justice they deserve. Their work cannot be compromised by some words I put together. I talked to my aforementioned friend afterward, unable to translate their set other than saying what I just experienced was more than music, it was a spiritual soundscape.

Saturday Jul 22 2023

It is Saturday morning and I open my notes app to my schedule of artists to photograph. On the top of my list of beloved artists, is a note I wrote a few days prior: “This will be the best day ever! Indulge!” I get myself ready for back-to-back sets through 1-10 PM by fueling myself with the free backstage sliders and hot pockets. If I learned anything from yesterday it is that even though my thrifted Ariat cowboy boots are fun and flauntable, the more responsible choice is my unplatformed, dance-resistant shoe. I tie my signature mix-matched Converse and head out for the day with an audible stomp and visual pep in my step.

First on the list is the psychedelic heading into extinction band, Palm. Followed up with highly anticipated Panda Bear & Sonic Boom, who are a part of the incredible Spacemen 3 and Animal Collective. I make my excitement known, referring friends to their set. However, mother nature had different plans for us and scheduled in Chicago’s newest and most hated group, Pitchfork Rain Delay. Some believed that it was revenge for Pitchfork scheduling Snail Mail and Julia Jacklin at the same time, I could get behind that.

After the impromptu Pitchfork Rain Delay, Julia Jacklin takes the stage. After chronically checking on Jacklin’s social media updates on the status of her set, fans run to the blue stage to catch 10 minutes of Julia Jacklin. The time frame only allows for 3.5 songs which motivates a solo as her band cheers her along from the sidelines. Since the scheduling was unclear, only devoted fans seeking out Julia Jacklin’s set would catch it. The limited crowd creates an intimate setting that reassure her when the overwhelming nerves of the day sneak up on Jacklin. Cleary flustered and frantic, Jacklin perseveres into her opener “Too in Love to Die.” A passionate sentiment and ode to a love that reinvigorates your purpose to live life. The track is so beautifully intense, perhaps too much as she pulls an Elliott Smith: abruptly stopping the song before its end because it doesn’t feel right. A human mistake she handles with honesty that is admirable to watch as she shyly remarks “I don’t know why I started with that, I never start with it.” Carrying on with greater confidence, “I Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You” she invites a band member on stage for supporting vocals. No longer the focal point of our attention on stage, the two sound beautifully tender and passionate. Her band member’s courage fuels Jacklin enough to get into the closing two songs “Head Alone” and “Pressure to Party” where her solo energy shifts. Jacklin is screaming along with her audience demonstrating passion and angelic vocal range. Her fans show unwavering appreciation for Jacklin and her guitar giving them a set at all. It is a beautiful scene and moment for Jacklin’s fanbase to come together and admire their rainbow after the storm.

Photography by Marina Malin

I stumble upon Black Belt Eagle Scout‘s set with no prior knowledge of who the group is or where they are from. To my pleasant surprise, I was met with the incredibly beautiful Katherine Paul and her supporting band whose fuzzy guitar and impact drumming makes me do a quick check-in with my body. Having to leave their set shortly, the singular and informal note I have is “They sing about what really matters. The lead singer is just really truly lovely.” Their 2023 album The Land, The Water, The Sky makes up half of the set. The album explores Paul’s ties to her native identity and Swinomish reservation. Its beautifully crafted lyrics illustrate reciprocity and home beyond a front door and windows. Black Belt Eagle Scout performs a lush retelling, relearning, and introspecting of the self concerning its surroundings –with an emphasis on nature. I remain bitter about not being able to stay at the set for longer but know this is only a starting point for my passionate loyalty to the indie rock band. I leave excited about my new musical discovery that is wholesome, ethereal, and inspiring.

Photography by Marina Malin

Saturday afternoon I find myself standing knee-deep in a pit amongst borderline indie sad boys with graphic tees and facial hair; not grungy but just enough emotive to find indisputable love for King Krule’s Archie Marshall or rather “ARCHYYYY” as they scream like pledge brothers playing rage cage. Bros shout lyrics before Marshall has a chance to sing them, stroking their own egos and individuality complex. My cruelty aside, King Krule rallies together the most devoted fan bases at the fest. Marshall pours courageously arduous and complex emotions into lyrics that we can refuge in. His vulnerability simultaneously cradles and encourages us to grapple with our mental health. For that and his stellar sound, King Krule is deserving of the overwhelming amount of affirming “I love yous” shouted at his entry.
“Perfecto Miserable” deliberates desperation and closes with a phone call. The transition to the next track “Alone, Omen 3” is seamless and perfect as it begins with that phone ring. Continuing the call in the two tracks places us in some sort of out-of-body meditation. The phone is an awakening against the sanctity of progressive guitar, elephant-trumpet saxophone, and heavy cymbal. “Alone, Omen 3” is more noisy and edgy featuring tons of short-tempered bodily expressions, shouts, and head-banging amongst all in sight. Marshall dissipates in the art of his music, grunting, shouting, tripping over himself, knocking his microphone over; getting completely embellished in his spirit. My highlight is the post-art punk “Stoned Again.” Straight mania is captured in its disturbing dark compilation of any noise they could find. Despite its aggression, we feel safe in its scene, Archie is entrusted.

Out of exhaustion and persevering my energy for my all-time favorite band Big Thief, I am hesitant on attending Weyes Blood. I anticipate her set to not be any different than the set I reviewed and photographed back in March. I set low expectations, wrapped my camera in plastic to protect it from the inevitable rain, and join forces with the rest of the press in the pit. The same shimmering cyclical synths, twinkling harps, fantastic choral-like vocal depth, staggered tippy-toe piano playing, and psychedelic drumming imprinted from March still subjects me to ascension today. However, this experience is different. While the outfit, set, and undertones were fairly identical to the March gig, the enjoyably pretentious energy of Pitchfork made it an entirely new experience. There is an adventurous quality to the audience, as they are observably more devoted and familiar with her power. Her adorned spirit is enhanced by her crowd.
My favorite and arguably the most cosmic song of her set, “God Turned Me Into A Flower” was dramatized by the paid actor Rain, who chose the only artist, audience, and song that would fit its performance’s virtue. Only Weyes Blood fans would be overjoyed dancing under rainy clouds, allowing it to mystify their experience. Not one person in the crowd leaves for shelter. As a collective we enthusiastically embrace the transcendental moment that is “God Turned Me Into A Flower.” We find muse in Weyes Blood who bridges fairytales and our present reality to create an audible sanctuary. The quality of magic revealed that Weyes Blood is more than her creation, she is a cosmic mystical sighting that nature reckons with.

Photography by Marina Malin

Tonight’s headliner is my all-time favorite Big Thief. They are my parasocial best friends that I admire with every inch of my being. During the second track of the setlist, my card’s memory alerts me that is full and I cannot photograph. Upset over not being able to photograph my favorite band, I take this as a sign to be present and enjoy the magical moment for myself. In the same breath, I have realized that my connection to them is deeply personal and for that reason I want to keep most of the details of my experience to myself to cherish and hold on my own, for it is sacred. However, I would not be a true Big Thief supporter without relaying some impersonal highlights:
(1) The four look like they came from various separate bands. Buck Meek wears a fancy navy suit, Adrianne Lenker in true Vermont fashion: flannel and denim, Max Oleartchik rocks a mermaid tale (!!!), and James Krivchenia in a festive fringed two-piece that threw up pink and gold. Their visual contrast speaks to the sweet nature and dynamics of Big Thief. They are a group that encourages and loves one another’s most genuine expression and raw creativity. They are devoted to honoring themselves wholeheartedly which shows in how they improvise their set to exclusively play what feels right and true for them. (2) During “Shoulders,” Lenker releases the most emotive and cleansing power-driven screams. She continues to let a few more out alongside electrifying guitar riffs and Krivchenia’s nasty drumming. We can look at her face to understand how real the power at this moment is, making it the greatest moment in music that I have ever witnessed. note from the author while editing: I literally cannot stop watching videos of this exact moment. Every time without fail I shed a tear. I feel like at that moment, she regained all the power she has ever been neglected of. (3) For the final song the band welcomes Lenker’s brother for “Spud Infinity.” He charismatically plays the unique jaw-harp which adds a frog-like Daniel Johnston sound. The band’s genuinely kind disposition makes it easy for the crowd to fall head over heels in love with them, fully entrenched in their performance. The reminder that this is their final track of the set is a brutal awakening call that brings us back to the ground. The fun nature of the jaw harp and closing energy of Day 2 of the festival inspires us to gather, indulge, and dance fun frilled jigs to an absolute bop.

Sunday July 23 2023

I expected myself to be filled with exhaustion by Sunday morning, but I woke up to the only two things that could revitalize my energy: Brunch with the lovely Madison family and a notification on my phone that Palm’s previously canceled set would be rescheduled for the last day of the fest. With excited anticipation, I put on my paisley vest, tie my orange and yellow Converse, and shake out any dreary emotions.

Photography by Marina Malin

“Long live Palm” and “Palm forever and ever and ever” audience members scream. The first set of the day places me on an emotional track. The good news is that Pitchfork rescheduled their set. The bad (really devastatingly horrible) news is that the band is retiring and this set marks one of the last Palm gigs ever. In regular psychedelic fashion instead of being filled with grief over their farewell, hippies unite in the present moment: smoking weed and flailing their bodies to the Philadelphia math pop, art rock, neo-psychedelia, experimental rock group. Palm demonstrates mastery of withdrawal and rearranging temps that birth intentional noise scapes. There is manic time signature and blurry lyrics that meld into Palm’s sonic abyss. Without a clear logical tempo, there is no awareness of where you are on the track. We cannot predict what turns the sound will take or when it will combust into its demise of a trillion pieces. Encouraged unawareness teases us and we are forced to get lost within their sound, immersing ourselves in the sonic blessing that is the presence of Palm. Just like Palm, time is fleeting and all we can be responsible for is the perception of the now. With lulling vocals not sturdy enough to guide us out of this synchronic trip, Palm strikes down any restraints of their sound and exists as is. Unlike anything we have ever witnessed, we do not question Palm’s obscurity. We enjoy that you can’t find this anywhere else and that is exactly what makes the set so bitter-sweet.

Photography by Marina Malin

After the swirling expansive trip that Palm was, I am grounded in the sweet misery that is Florist. However, if I thought Palm would get me emotional, Florist is a grand meltdown. Florist is the orchestra of an audible bouquet you want to cradle and keep close and tend to. Not in a pitiful way but out of perseverance of its beauty. The bristled bubbly drum taps are produced by using brush drumsticks and the sentimental guitar strums are backed with verbatos. Every nook and cranny that makes up Florist is flooded with the utmost caution and delicacy.
Aside from these sentimental touches, Florist takes a minimalistic approach to sound. They blossom in Sprague’s poetic lyrics that speak from extremely vulnerable and personal experiences: “We try to be vulnerable, that’s kinda the point of this. It’s not always the easiest thing to do in life. I think it’s good to try.” Through her lyrics, Sprague exemplifies the power of vulnerable expression and connection. And thank god for it. Her discussion on grief and home makes me feel ineffably connected to Sprague. Her words feel like little secrets that very few understand, but I see her so clearly. Devastatingly beautiful, she sings poetry that linger in my ears like “home is a garden I can’t keep alive” (from “Dandelion”).
Florist feels like whispers and butterflies. In my hardest times, Florist would quite literally be my lullaby, calming my tears into sleep over shared experiences. Emily Sprague is an angel: soft and endearing. I am just so happy she exists. As the set closes, she gives audience members time to speak with her as she puts away her equipment. Before heading off stage, she gives a fan her setlist. I read somewhere that this was the first time in Pitchfork Music Festival history that that has happened. The thoughtless gesture attests to her naturally kind nature. As the few remaining listeners part from the stage, I overhear someone saying “It was so great to see her again. She has really come such a long way.” The loving nature of Florist breaks down power dynamics between artist and listeners and instead cultivates lifelong connection and friendship.

Photography by Marina Malin

A waft of odor takes over the green stage and surrounding areas as fans prove their unwavering love for JPEGMAFIA by moshing in extreme heat. This gesture of devotion causes many heat strokes and vomiting. The temperature is so hot, JPEG’s computer overheats and relocates. JPEGMAFIA, also known as Peggy, is skillful in his approach. He rowdies up the photographers and media team, jumping in front of us, and engaging with the audience. He kept this energy up throughout his set, holding his audience in a tight grip. Despite shading the festival, his excitement to be with his fans is palpable through his inability to stand still, playing a game of leapfrog with the big speakers. He’d do anything to get a little closer to his fans, even putting his arm around one in the mosh pit as he performed “HAZARD DUTY PAY!” Throughout the performance, he maintains a conversation with his audience as they holler in response “I love you Peggy” or “Fuck you, Peggy.” The two can be used interchangeably, meaning the same thing to him –the only difference is one succumbs to Peggy’s edginess. In complete opposition to said edge, due to his keyboard overheating, he sings a stripped cover of “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Ray Jepsen. His lyrical mistakes could not be overshadowed by autotune, yet he can make the 2000s-tween-girl-jam a heroic bop. Ignoring the hysteria, his masculine-dominating crowd sings along.

When a band with “hurray” and “riff-raff” in their title enters rocking sparkly glitter on their cheeks, you know this set is about to have some personality. Not only does lead singer Alynada Segarra’s wolf cut jog the memory of Patti Smith, but her spunky voice is human in all the same ways. Both Patti Smith and Segarra have identifiable voices with a certain quality of authenticity: their tone lacks drastic femininity and pushes forth with edge and grain. Hurray for the Riff Raff is unpredictable and can shapeshift across genres with Segarra’s ambivalent yet powerful sound. With full-fledged power and rebellion, she sings of survival, nature, flowers, exes, police barricades, immigration, and justice. As “hurray” connotes a celebration of Life on Earth, it simultaneously demands a critical eye to it. Hurray for the Riff Raff encourages rewiring and evaluation of our habits and relations.

Nearing the end of the fest, Mdou Moctar unapologetically zipped past all other contestants for this weekend’s ear and eye candy. With a psychedelic backdrop, bright orange speakers, and their electrifying guitar leads, Modu Moctar hosts a traditional Woodstock celebration 50 years later.
Mdou Moctar is based in Niger and fully embraces their roots with the entire band dressed in traditional Taureg robes. Infusing Tuareg music with psychedelic rock, they transcend all boundaries and premature expectations. Lead singer Mahamadou Souleymane sings in his Tamasheq language and though the majority of the audience cannot translate his lyrics, we unite over our shared acknowledgment that Mdou Moctar absolutely shreds in every definition of the word. His riffs are exhilarating and he smiles with genuine gratitude throughout his set. He is so radiant that the crowd reflects his positive energy in the utter captivation of his prodigiousness. While Souleymane is the vocal point, his band does not fall far behind him. There is an energy he omits, riffing off not only his skill but pure life energy and force. They all possess extreme passion and skill as their fingers rave over the necks of their guitars, becoming subjects of their craft. Everyone is exuberant and cannot get enough. We are unable to look away as they break free from the confinements of genre and disintegrating time and place of music. Mdou Moctar knows how to leave an impression and give us a good ol ‘time. The crowd leaves with an unanimous response: Mdou Moctar made the long-lasting impression that when we look back on the festival decades from now, we will remember the electrifying experience Mdou Moctar brought to us.

I leave Union Park one last time. My walk to the hotel is long and quiet. It is the first time over the last couple of days that I can hear myself think. If you told me a year ago that I would be standing in a pit of photographers at a music festival, I would write it off as an outrageous idea reserved for movies and the ultra-pretentious William Millers of the world. In the past year, a lot has changed; the most significant being meeting and losing my boyfriend Jack Madison. After spending most of the summer rotting away to grieving patterns, Pitchfork Music Festival was a shattering revival of what shakes my core alive.
It is a wonderful thing to have someone so special, open up a new world of creative expression, and life force. Jack’s ideas for music were exceedingly vast and elaborate. My encounters with music never fail to present the weight of Jack’s passion and ideas. Pitchfork Music Festival is a reminder of the great and boundless power of music. This power is the energy Jack was grounded in every single day and it is what he has left as a gift to us. Music is where we can feel his soul rest most prominently. I sit on the white-sheeted hotel mattress and kick off my shoes. My ears are ringing and my feet ache. I look up at the popcorn ceiling walls and honor the entire reason I am here and who it is for Jack.

Read Jack’s 2022 Pitchfork Music Festival Review here.

Photography by Marina Malin

This post was written and photographed by Marina Malin. She can be reached at m_malin@coloradocollege.edu.

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