Ayla Zielinski wanted her first concert ever to be The Linda Lindas at Chicago’s 2022 Pitchfork Music Festival.
“It’s about real life stuff that actually happens,” said the 10-year-old of the songs written by the Los Angeles power-punk band, whose members are still in middle and high school and use that vantage point as fuel for songs about teendom, feminism and race.
There with her mother, Zielinski was, in particular, excited to see The Linda Lindas sing their breakout song, “Racist, Sexist Boy,” about a real-life encounter one of the members, who is Chinese, had with a boy at school.
Now in its 16th year, Pitchfork has matured enough to draw top billing indie music acts and the crowds that adore them, while filling out the schedule with a slew of bands who feel right for the moment – some famous, some emerging and some virtually unknown. Helmed by a team that includes Chicago culture impresario Mike Reed, the fest still manages strike a balance between being ambitious and hyperlocal – with local musicians working the backstage crews, small restaurateurs pulling up their food trucks to feed hungry fans and burgeoning tents full of spirited DIYers selling everything from wooden earrings to masterful screenprints.
And of course there are the bands. The draws this year were musicians like The National and Mitski whose moody grooves and prescient lyrics make fitting soundtracks for these times – and also The Roots, because, at the end of the day, it felt good to dance.
“I just sat working from home for two years, and I was just longing for live music,” said Julian Day-Cooney, 31, who lives in Portland. “It is my religious experience – going to concerts. I feel holy in the moment, it’s spiritual, and the emotional intensity I get from live music is like a jolt from the stagnation I’ve been feeling. It’s cathartic.”
Pitchfork also typically bills an eclectic selection of acts with strong local ties. This year that list included jazz showman Jeff Parker, Latina songstress KAINA, rebounding rockers Karate playing a reunification show, socially resonant hip-hop artist Noname and the provocative rapper CupcakKe, who performed a characteristically sexually explicit Saturday afternoon set that had the crowd bouncing.
This being a fest largely organized by musicians with Chicago connections, there were some charming this-could-only-happen-here moments, like when Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy joined Japanese Breakfast lead singer Michelle Zauner for two songs.
“Jeff Tweedy is my favorite songwriter of all time. It’s such an honor,” Zauner said, looking at the longtime Chicago musician adoringly before launching into a duet with Tweedy of the Wilco song “Jesus, Etc.”
This year Japanese-American singer-songwriter Mitski was perhaps the biggest draw, choosing the festival for one of her less-than-a-dozen U.S. tour dates after threatening a few years to quit touring altogether. The artist keeps the meaning of her words close, but a devout following of fans has interpreted her songs as tackling resonant themes: the despair of lockdown, the complications of mixed-race identity and uneasiness with fame.
Brett Korona and Miriam Gavin, friends in their mid-20s, said prices were too steep for a weekend pass, so went for a single day ticket.
“We can only afford one day and we decided Mitski was the heavyweight of the festival,” said Gavin. “At the end of the day, [a single-day ticket] was still $121 after service fees. Inflation and everything, we’re only in our mid-20s, and we’re about to have to start paying off our student loans, so we had to weigh our options.”
Mitski rewarded the crowd with a theatrical set that captivated even faraway attendees standing at the back of a muddy field. The artist paired moody lighting and her clear, unapologetic vocals with dramatic choreography that evoked martial arts and knife play. In some moments, she even appeared like she was straining to break free of invisible bonds. Theater? Reality? The audience, entranced, hung on every note.