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The A.V. Club climbs out of the sultry mudpit that was Pitchfork Fest 2018

Ms. Lauryn Hill closed down Pitchfork Music Festival 2018 on Sunday evening. (Photo: Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Chicago’s weather this weekend felt like a hug from a very large, sweaty man, with rain looming over nearly every set at Pitchfork Fest; and when the sun made a rare appearance, it was brutal. Fortunately, it didn’t stop anyone from taking the stage: Acts big and small blew us away this weekend, from hometown hero Saba to Aussie rockers Tame Impala, from Brooklyn indie-pop act Japanese Breakfast to Ms. Lauryn Hill’s triumphant closing set. Here are some of the best, most noteworthy moments.

Gentlest ease into the festival

Through light, intermittent rain, Lucy Dacus and her backing band turned in a mellow, intimate performance, a gentle if understated way to welcome this year’s festivalgoers to Chicago’s Union Park. The indie singer-songwriter worked into her early Friday afternoon set patiently, with occasional guitar jams and swells of distortion, letting her emotive voice take the lead in connecting with the crowd. “Everybody’s been singing along. It makes me feel like I’m really supposed to be here,” the 22-year-old said before delivering the quiet opening licks of closer, and favorite from this year’s Historian, “Night Shift.” The band built up slowly to the song’s chorus and climax, while Dacus’ vocals soared to Josephine Foster-like croons—saving the set’s biggest burst of energy for the end. [Laura Adamczyk]


Most convincing impression of a band that’s been playing festivals for years

They only just released their debut album last year, but Chicago natives Melkbelly took to the stage Friday afternoon at the early hour of 1:45 p.m.—kicking off the Red Stage performances, and only the second act of the day—and made it seem as though the band had been delivering powerhouse sets to festival-size crowds since Lollapalooza came back. Kicking things off with the squalling stomper that opens Nothing Valley, Melkbelly tore through a collection of old and new tunes alike with equal fervor, maintaining a sunny disposition and charming the crowd with commitment that overcame the horrific weather. From rain to sweltering sun and back again several times over the course of the band’s set, by the end the audience didn’t even notice their sweat-and-rain-slicked ponchos; they were too busy nodding along to the angular roar of distorted guitars. [Alex McLevy]


Best set full of one-minute songs

Tierra Whack was a welcome addition to the Friday lineup when Earl Sweatshirt canceled last-minute. Amid early summer’s deluge of hip-hop releases, the Philly rapper quietly dropped an album to rival them all, and to even out-Kanye Kanye in brevity: the 15-minute, 15-track Whack World, whose artful, wondrous video announced Whack as a creative force to be reckoned with. In her early evening set Friday, she was commanding and playful, crisscrossing the stage in a denim dress jumper and matching bucket hat while her DJ danced from behind his post. Almost every single track got cheers of familiarity from the crowd, but ones like “Pretty Ugly” and “Pet Cemetery” in particular proved just how excited people are about Whack. This set was a blast. [Kelsey J. Waite]


Most momentous homecoming


It’s hard to imagine anyone quite matching Saba’s excitement to be at Pitchfork. Back in April, the Chicago rapper earned the breakthrough he’d been working toward for years with the release of second LP Care For Me, and Friday’s performance, his first back home all year, felt momentous. Saba’s music is proudly, wholly rooted in his upbringing on the West Side, so it’s fitting that his stage set would be modeled after his grandmother’s kitchen, with Care For Me producers daedaePIVOT and Daoud working the synths from behind the countertops. Sonically, Saba didn’t miss a beat, and to see him inhabit songs like “Life” and “Stoney” with both ferocity and joy, respectively, was powerful. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Most ferocious yell

The relatively spare, laid-back jangle of Courtney Barnett’s set was occasionally cut through by the exuberant electronics of Mount Kimbie at the Blue Stage Friday, even while it felt like a great soundtrack to the early evening breeze. But when Barnett laid into her more aggressive numbers, like “Nameless, Faceless” and “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch,” often lit from below in stark red, it was transcendent. By the end of the latter, her voice devolved into a hoarse, slurred yell rarely heard on tape, before she finished up with a nasty, discordant solo on her low-slung, fire-red Fender Jaguar. And even while everyone was enjoying typically witty, lackadaisical songs like “Depreston,” the crowd went wild when she closed with “Pedestrian At Best”—which ended with her leaving her guitar there on the stage to feedback until a hand came by to cut it off. [Kelsey J. Waite]


Set most likely to make you wish you were high if you weren’t already


Aussie psych rockers Tame Impala closed down Friday night with an impressive set of neon stage lights, trippy video animations, multicolored lasers, and well-timed confetti explosions, whose remnants littered the grounds around the Green Stage for the rest of the weekend. Not only did frontman Kevin Parker and his band sound immaculate, but they played among this kaleidoscopic spectacle with complete—one might even say “stoned”—composure. Parker’s vocals, drenched in delay, rippled out over the crowd, as lasers danced overhead and across the trees all the way at the back of the park. It was an onslaught of favorites, too, with every song—“Yes I’m Changing,” “The Moment,” “Elephant”—prompting an enthusiastic response from the crowd. This was one for the books. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Best 2-a.m. drive down Crenshaw Boulevard

It was raining for most of Raphael Saadiq’s set, but it didn’t keep the former Tony! Toni! Toné! member from shining on Saturday. His brand of Prince- and Stevie Wonder-influenced soul was irresistible, and his band was airtight. This was never clearer than when, midway through his set, Saadiq took the audience on a ride with a medley of songs he might play in his car “at 2 a.m. driving down Crenshaw,” beginning with Erykah Badu’s “Love Of My Life” and hitting on D’Angelo’s “How Does It Feel” and others before closing on Solange’s “Cranes In The Sky.” Saadiq made the mistake of asking the mostly white Pitchfork audience to take over the words for the latter, resulting in maybe the festival’s most embarrassing crowd moment, but he played it off well. And again, the band killed it. [Kelsey J. Waite]


Most in-their-feelings audience


He wasn’t the main headliner, but Dev Hynes, a.k.a. Blood Orange, pulled one of the biggest, most devoted crowds of the day over at the Green Stage on Saturday evening, a well-earned graduation from his afternoon debut at the fest in 2013. Launching with his name-making Sky Ferreira song “Everything Is Embarrassing,” he brought his ’80s- and ’90s-inspired pop to life with a pair of captivating backup singers and a brass and woodwind player, touching on favorites like “Desirée,” “Better Than Me,” and “Best To You” and previewing a couple of tracks from next month’s Negro Swan. Hynes’ performance style is distinctly intimate, and his audience seemed especially lost in his wistful music, swooning and swaying along. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Best poop joke

Everything about Nnamdi Ogbonnaya’s set kicking off Sunday afternoon at Pitchfork was wonderful and weird, a glorious bricolage of hip-hop, jazz, ska, rock, funk, and any other musical genre that’s popped into the madman multi-instrumentalist’s mind. On record, Ogbonnaya’s music often plays as hip-hop—eccentric hip-hop, yes, but able to be filed under that particular genre. But his Pitchfork set was truly unclassifiable, with prominent guitar work foregrounding the music’s indie-rock dynamics and free-jazz song structure. Ogbonnaya’s status as trickster god of Pitchfork was secured with a wild performance of “MMMM MMMM MMM(i’m finninin((dookielipz))),” a song from his 2012 album of comedic sex jams Booty Slices about being grossed out by a girl who has a piece of poop on her upper lip. Ogbonnaya performed the very silly number with deadpan commitment and consummate showmanship, including dance moves best, if inadequately, described as a malfunctioning cyborg James Brown. [Katie Rife]


Best cover song

Photo: Michael Hickey/Getty Images

In addition to providing the best indie-rock version of a chillwave vibe, via its shoegaze-meets-space-pop songs, Japanese Breakfast stepped up and delivered the best cover of any act at the festival for its second-to-last song. After winning over a crowd already eager to nod and sway along to addictive tracks like “Diving Woman” and “Everybody Wants To Love You,” as the group hit its penultimate tune, singer Michelle Zauner announced that everyone should sing along to the next one if they knew the words, and then led her band into a rousing, triumphant version of “Dreams” by The Cranberries. Rarely has the song sounded so vital than it did in the cloudy afternoon haze of Sunday-afternoon Pitchfork, and best of all, it showcased just how good all the songs surrounding the cover were—Japanese Breakfast’s songs feel like instant classics, even when Zauner’s vocal mix is too low for fans wanting to hear those words so often quietly breathed across the tops of their seductive grooves. [Alex McLevy]

Most confrontational scheduling

The addition of Philadelphia-based “liberation-oriented free jazz collective” Irreversible Entanglements to the Pitchfork lineup was a welcome one, a signal that the festival isn’t ready to get too soft and comfortable just yet. Taking the adjacent stage immediately after Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, with whom Irreversible Entanglements share a disdain for the utterly boring constraints of conventional songwriting, the group distinguished itself with its hypnotic, confrontational, highly political lyrics, building its set around a piece about gun violence that saw poet-vocalist Camae Ayewa (a.k.a. Moor Mother) challenging the stream of dehydrated festivalgoers in ’90s dad jeans just trickling in from brunch with refrains of “Did you hear those fireworks last night?,” “Do you feel safe?,” and “Did it break you when you learned that he was only 7?” over wild free-jazz improvisation. [Katie Rife]


Best parting of the clouds


The sun made a brief appearance Saturday for Moses Sumney’s late-afternoon performance, as though the soulful singer’s heavenly falsetto conjured it from the sky. After quieting the crowd into bliss with “Don’t Bother Calling,” off of last year’s lush, complex Aromanticism, the L.A. singer-songwriter reassured the crowd, “It’s okay to move. You know you can sway a little bit.” Whether spare and intimate or full and expansive, with a backing band that included violin and clarinet, Sumney’s time onstage was crafted and commanding. He knew just when to scale things back—all the better to appreciate his singular, impossibly beautiful voice, when left unadorned—or build things up, as in “Lonely World” and soon-to-be released single “Rank And File,” a burner with mic slapping, deep bass rhythms, clapping, and layered vocals. [Laura Adamczyk]

Best master of ceremonies at his own set

It didn’t take long for D.R.A.M. to get the entire Pitchfork crowd dancing. Shelley Marshaun Massenburg-Smith, a.k.a. hip-hop artist D.R.A.M., put the “master” in master of ceremonies with his between-song exhortations to the ebullient Chicago crowd. Having just released a trio of new music the Wednesday prior to his performance, D.R.A.M. wasted no time in pulling the audience into his action, with call-and-response demands of “If you love your mama, say ayyeeeaahhh!” and “spread love!” coming back to him tenfold. In didn’t hurt that his set was filled with festival-friendly bangers and slinky sex jams alike, each one seeming to incite a new level of passion in attendees delighted to have a performer so clearly on their wavelength. Even more impressive? DRAM pulled this off right before Chaka Khan took to the Red Stage—to open for the Queen and get the crowd moving that hard is a breakthrough performance in its own right. [Alex McLevy]


Most ecstatic park-wide sing-along


Both of the fest’s biggest stages were booked solid with jazz, R&B, and hip-hop on Sunday, making for a spectacular day overall and drawing the most diverse crowd of the entire weekend. Which made seeing the huge audience sing along, hands in the air, to Chaka Khan’s hit-heavy set all the better. Backed by her band of veteran funk musicians, Khan led everyone through iconic numbers from her solo heyday in the ’80s (“Whatcha Gonna Do For Me,” “I Feel For U,” and “I’m Every Woman”) and her time with Rufus (“Everlasting Love,” “Sweet Thing,” “Tell Me Something Good”). Three dynamic backup singers were there to help with some of the heaviest lifting, but Chaka proved she still very much has the chops to take these well-loved songs to exciting places. When she came back out to do “Ain’t Nobody” for an encore, it was probably the biggest, most ecstatic sing-along of the entire weekend. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Best “fuck you” to the skeptics


The combination of rain and a record of underwhelming or delayed performances didn’t augur well for Lauryn Hill’s Pitchfork-closing set on Sunday night, where she was scheduled to perform her groundbreaking album, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. But my patience and optimism were rewarded when Hill took the Green Stage—impeccably styled and only 23 minutes behind schedule—jumping right into a fierce rendition of “Lost Ones.” When “I Used To Love Him” began, it wasn’t just the drop in temperature that gave me chills. Against recent odds, Hill was warm, engaging, and more than willing to get past the occasional technical snafu. The park lights came on during the final haunting strains of “The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill,” but Hill wasn’t done yet. She took a beat toward the end to allude to the skeptics who doubted her ability to release a solo album 20 years ago, but the former Fugee was really about light and positivity last night. As she gave profuse thanks to the festivalgoers, her band, and her backup singers, several people around me yelled “We love you, Lauryn!” After such a powerful set, that love felt reciprocated. [Danette Chavez]

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