By Matthew Ismael Ruiz, Chicago
Pitchfork music festival, now in its eighth year, is produced by the people behind the indie-rock bastion Pitchfork Media—essentially, a music festival put on by people who frequent music festivals. Held in Union Park, a small patch of grass on Chicago’s north side, a few dozen carefully selected bands are spread out over three days on three stages. The collection of pop and indie pretty accurately encompasses the music website’s taste, while indie clothing retailers and a vinyl record tent represented its lifestyle.
The belle of this year’s ball was undoubtedly Sunday night headliner R. Kelly, but the Friday night set from Bjork was just as memorable—her bizarre headdress drew perplexed stares, but her atmospheric brand of Icelandic electropop fully enraptured the crowd. The set may have been cut short by an approaching thunderstorm, but with her massive, pulsing lightning chamber hanging above the stage and her dancers swaying to the rhythyms, it didn’t take much to imagine the diminutive artist had summoned the storm with her performance.
Earlier Friday, Sacramento hardcore antagonists Trash Talk berated the crowd when taking too long to follow their directions, Mac DeMarco led the crowd in a medley of familiar singalongs, and Joanna Newsom commanded an expansive stage alone with her harp.
Saturday started with a kick in the teeth in the form of a raucous set from Vancouver’s White Lung, who got a few bodies smashing against each other in the pit until the midday sun slowed them down. Parquet Courts’ Sean Yeaton followed a reading for Vol. 1 Brooklyn at the book fort with a head-bobbing rendition of “Master of My Craft” at the Blue stage. Veteran New York noise outfit Swans seemed to mint a gang of new fans, with their swelling opus drawing in new spectators throughout their set. Noisy Tampa post-punkers Merchandise graced the Blue stage with their 10-minute-plus symphony “Become What You Are,” likely introducing many in the crowd to their first noise experience.
The Breeders played a Guided By Voices cover before ripping through their classic album Last Splash, rendered with verve by now ex-Pixie Kim Deal. The other Knowles, Solange, gave a performance that seemed tailor-made for the sun-drenched setting, and her style of bouncy, synth-laden indie R&B played well to the crowd of Pitchforkians. Belle and Sebastian closed out the day on the Green stage with a rain-soaked set filled with nothing but the hits, spanning almost their entire career. Not content just to look and sound adorable, Stuart Murdoch also pulled multiple fans onstage to assist in singing and dancing along to their infectious twee melodies.
Sunday started slowly, picking up steam with back-to-back sets by indie rap favorites Killer Mike and El-P. Mike attacked the crowd with his forceful raps and El’s menacing beats, before getting choked up while giving thanks to Chicago and the people important to him that call it home. But by the time he made his way from the Green stage to the Red for El’s set, the vibe had changed, and their newly-formed duo Run the Jewels gave the crowd exactly what it wanted: Fun.
Katie Crutchfield’s lo-fi project Waxahatchee was soft, sweet and delicate as ever on the Blue stage, and her sister Allison and White Lung’s Mish Way watched from side stage with tacit approval. Hashtag rapper Lil B excreted charisma for an hour during his set of high-energy mixtape bangers. Newcomer (and Kanye production associate) Evian Christ played a low-key minimalist set to a relatively small crowd at the Blue stage, but chill vibes emanated from his little table onstage nonetheless.
M.I.A. had one of the more colorful sets of the weekend, with intricate set decorations and a team of dancers and singers. She fanned herself throughout her set on the Red stage—it’s possible she caught a glimpse of R. Kelly, who was set to follow her set across the lawn on the Green stage. But there’s no mistaking the Lady Gaga caught a glimpse of Maya, as she watched from side stage (not all that surprising, seeing as the Mother Monster turned up at Pitchfork Music Fest last year for Kendrick Lamar’s performance).
Despite a slight rasp to his voice, Kellz held the audience in the palm of his hand from the moment M.I.A. closed out her set. The crowd was diverse in age and color—old white men danced alongside gay Puerto Ricans and packs of teenagers passing around handmade cigarettes, and it was beautiful. But its likely no one was as physically animated as the swaths of middle-aged black women that pressed close to stage left, screaming along with every word at the start of his set.
Wearing a sparkling T, hooded sweatshirt and snapback Chicago Bulls hat, he stormed the stage after a brief intro from a white-robed choir. He sprinted up and down the stage, working the crowd into a frenzy as he crooned, hand firmly gripping his crotch. Kelly was in his element, and it was impossible to look away.
Rather than play any song in its entirety, Kelly ran through a hodgepodge medley of his greatest hits, as if to give the fans a taste of every song they came to hear. Squeezing more than 20 tracks into a 75-minute set, even he was impressed with himself. “I didn’t realize I had so many songs,” he admitted to the crowd, breathing heavily. “Every show I do so many songs.” He wanted everyone in the park that night to know just how hard he was working for them—even the people all the way in the back, that couldn’t see the sweat dripping down his face. Even if they couldn’t see his expressive visage, the shine from his bedazzled clothes and microphone reached the farthest corners of the park. Kelly is a star of the highest luminance; he writes songs that people of all walks of life can relate to and be inspired by.
By the show’s climax, the energy in the park had reached a fever pitch. Before breaking into the anthemic “I Believe I Can Fly,” he paused somberly, tipping his figurative cap to a city in crisis, his city: “I want to dedicate this song to the city of Chicago,” he said. “This is gonna resonate throughout the world.” As the crowd fervently sung the uplifting chorus, strobe-lit beach balls and inflatable doves filled the sky. Kelly turned the mic stand towards the crowd, standing back and watching on in appreciative awe.
There’s a reason why R. Kelly has been able to weather controversy, whether in court or just in the court of public opinion. He does every element of R&B better than anyone else; the high-energy raunch (“Snake”), paeans to love and devotion (“Half on a Baby”), feel-good party tracks (“Home Alone”), soulful slow jams (“When a Woman Loves”), and of course, the hopeful messages of triumphant optimism (“I Believe I Can Fly”). His vocal instrument is fine-tuned, and he had no trouble going on extended vocal runs to close out slow burners “When a Woman Loves,” and “Feelin’ on Yo Booty.” At this point, in 2013, it’s hard to argue against bestowing upon him the title “King of R&B.”