This week’s question comes from Laura Adamczyk, in honor of Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival taking place this weekend:
What is the best set you’ve seen at a music festival?
Perhaps it could be dismissed as recency bias—or maybe even hyperbole—but trust me when I say that in all my years of going to shows I’ve never seen anything like the Have Heart sets at Sound And Fury 2019, and I doubt I will ever again. After 10 years apart, the Boston hardcore band announced eight shows, with portions of the proceeds benefitting a women’s shelter in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the same organization that their legendary final show supported a decade ago. Across two nights at Sound And Fury, the band proved they were anything but a nostalgia act. With a sign that read “Separating migrant children from their families is a human rights violation” displayed prominently, vocalist Pat Flynn offered an in-depth explanation on the subject, as his status as a history teacher made him uniquely qualified to speak on the United States’ long history of avoiding ratification of the UNCRC, while also allowing a local indigenous person to preface their second show—and final U.S. performance—with a short speech reminding people of Los Angeles’ indigenous tribes, and that this event was happening on land stolen from them. Beyond the band, who were as tight as they ever were, the reaction from the crowd was monstrous. People sang along so loud that the band was often drowned out, and Flynn had to tell the crowd to be mindful of the stage, as the mass of people pushing forward had it teetering on the edge of collapse. But even that warning couldn’t stop fans from flooding the stage during “Watch Me Rise.” A week prior to their Sound And Fury appearances, Have Heart played to nearly 10,000 people in a Massachusetts parking lot, inspiring debate about whether or not it was the biggest hardcore show in the genre’s history. The jury may still be out on that one, but for me, I’ve never seen one bigger, better, or more inspiring.
If nothing else, this question has really pushed me to consider the value of music festivals. I’ve been to my fair share over the years, yet found myself really struggling to come up with a music-fest set by a band that could even come close to the experiences I’ve had in clubs and bars (and basements). And what I’ve realized is that much of what makes a memorable set at a festival has as much to do with the context surrounding the artist at the time as it does the actual show. Because the ones I’ve treasured the most—Beastie Boys at Lollapalooza, Jawbreaker’s return at Riot Fest—were because they were either the last chance I had to see them, or a reunion I never thought would happen. And by that metric, my best experience hands-down belongs to seeing Sleater-Kinney at Pitchfork 2015, a capstone on the band’s triumphant return tour following the release of reunion album No Cities To Love. First off, like many, I had assumed they were done for good. Second, they’re a personal favorite with a special place in my heart. And lastly, that album is really, really fucking good. It was rainy and muddy and gross, everything I normally hate, but the set was so excellent, their performance so fierce and cathartic, that it achieved a kind of magic that festival sets rarely achieve.
There’s really nothing quite like seeing Sufjan Stevens sing “Chicago” in Chicago, and his 2016 set at the Pitchfork Music Festival not only delivered that but also a scorching version of “Seven Swans” that I know I’ll never forget. Still, despite every bone in my body telling me that Stevens’ headlining set that year was the best festival set I’ve ever seen, I can’t help but go back to Lollapalooza 2012. M83 had released its wonderful Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming the previous year, and were still enjoying the cultural ubiquity garnered by its sweeping lead single, “Midnight City.” It was warm, lightly windy, and sinking into twilight when they took the stage, and at some point—my memory is fuzzy—Anthony Gonzalez and company launched into an extended cover of Daft Punk’s “Fall” that resulted in a hypnotic jam session that, in my mind, went on and on and on in the best possible way. If I’m remembering correctly, they resumed it in the wake of “Midnight City,” when the casual fans departed en masse, and I danced like I’ve never allowed myself to dance before (in front of strangers, at least). Clearly, I don’t remember specifics. I do remember a feeling of complete and total euphoria. It was magic.
Riot Fest has a tradition of releasing its lineup, then later announcing a surprise special-guest set. So I had already purchased my three-day tickets when my dream of a dozen-plus years was announced: The Replacements’ 2013 reunion at Riot Fest. Despite my longtime ‘Mats love, I had only seen them once in my life, on the decidedly deflated Don’t Tell A Soul Tour in 1989. So with the chance to see them again (well, with Paul and Tommy as the only vet members) in my own hometown, I could scarcely believe my luck. And it was an amazing, crowd-pleasing set: lots of old punk stuff like “Love You Till Friday” and “I’m In Trouble,” classics like “Alex Chilton” and “Androgynous.” Best of all, the band somehow seemed to be having as much fun as the beyond-thrilled crowd. When the riff to “Left Of The Dial” started, I burst into tears, and I saw I wasn’t the only one. The tempestuous of the band’s chemistry meant that the ‘Mats’ reunion was fated to be short-lived—but it was also unforgettable.
For almost 15 years, the Pygmalion Music Festival in Champaign-Urbana has been putting on a mini-Pitchfork of sorts each fall, with a mix of indie, electronic, and hip-hop, established and up-and-coming acts. Having lived in Chicago before moving to Champaign, I found myself a little disappointed by the number of acts that came through town. But Pygmalion was, and is, a boon for music fans in Central Illinois, and it certainly was for me in the fall of 2010, new to the area for grad school. I’d seen Built To Spill perform a disappointing set at Pitchfork the previous year—Doug Martsch retuned his guitar after nearly every song—but the following year, in a tiny bar with a tin ceiling in Champaign, it was a different story. While I’d never thought of them as such, Built To Spill made the perfect bar band that night: the dark guitars, the jams, the sing-alongs. I remember only a few specifics, but more than anything, the whole thing just felt good, an ease in both the band and the crowd. They opened with “Strange” and finished with a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple,” a song that was new to me and which came fully alive, immediately meaningful for reasons that I can’t quite explain. I’m very grateful to whoever thought to record the song at the show—it may not mean much to people who weren’t there, but for me the video is the perfect reminder of a perfect night.
The Intonation Music Festival was Pitchfork Music Festival before there was a Pitchfork Music Festival, and only lasted for two years before the name was changed into its current iteration. Everything else was the same: the indie darlings on the bill, Union Park, the heat, the practiced apathy of the terminally hip crowd. That last bit led to a lot of people impassively standing there as artists begged them to make some noise at Intonation 2005—that is, until The Go! Team took the stage. The genre-bending Brighton six-piece is known for its optimistic, danceable sound and boisterous live shows, and it brought both of those things to a difficult early Saturday afternoon time slot. At that time, The Go! Team only had one album out, 2004’s Thunder, Lightning Strike, and the band basically played through that entire album over the course of its set. But the setlist wasn’t what made this show special. What was so memorable was watching the crowd uncross their arms and start moving their feet in time with the music, their impassive expressions slowly sneaking upward into a smile as they swayed in unison. By the time vocalist Ninja called about a dozen adorable kids swimming at the Union Park pool to come up on stage and dance, their bathing suits dripping wet as they unselfconsciously boogied to the music, the energy in the park had lifted and completely changed. Nowadays, the pool is closed during Pitchfork. And I’m still looking for an organic moment of collective joy like that one to pop up again.
I’ve seen enough great sets at Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, and Pitchfork to occasionally convince myself that spending all day in the sweltering heat with thousands of tripping teenagers is still a good idea. But the best festival experience of my life, hands down, was the first Scion Rock Fest in Atlanta circa 2009. For a metal fan, the lineup was a true once-in-a-lifetime dream, offering a curated who’s who of the genre: Neurosis, Converge, Mastodon, Pig Destroyer, High On Fire, Boris, Baroness, Krallice, and a dozen significant others. Picking a fave performance of the day isn’t easy (everybody was on), but I’ll give the edge to Skeletonwitch, whose mid-day set was about as fun as music this fast and heavy gets. This was long before the band kicked out frontman Chance Garnette for drunken assault, which does complicate their one-time reputation as thrash metal’s best party band. (They’ve since reinvented themselves as a more serious—and, in my mind, better—black metal act.) But for years, every Skeletonwitch show was a party, and I’ll never forget the energy of that Scion set, from the way they whipped the pit into a boisterous frenzy to Garnette’s frankly hilarious stage banter, like announcing—in his best demon rasp—that “This next song is about not going to church.” Oh, and did I mention that many of the sets at Scion, including this one, happened indoors, in an air-conditioned bar? Best. Festival. Ever.
I didn’t think I’d ever get to see Jawbreaker, a band I adore but who had already broken up by the time a boy in my dorm introduced me to them. (Yes, I’ve listened to and seen Jets To Brazil, but it wasn’t quite the same.) Even after the news of their reunion at Riot Fest broke in 2017, people who had seen them live warned me not to get my hopes up, because Blake Schwarzenbach, Chris Bauermeister, and Adam Pfahler were now decades older, the sound at outdoor festivals is terrible, maybe they won’t show up, I’m wrong to get excited about anything, etc., etc. But as soon as “Boxcar” began to play on that balmy September night, I don’t think anyone in Douglas Park had any lingering doubts about Jawbreaker’s return. I’ve been going to Riot Fest since it was spread out across multiple venues like Reggie’s, but this was the most magical set I’d ever seen. It didn’t matter that I’d been at the festival all weekend and that my feet hurt or that I was sweaty and had had to sidestep all manner of gross things on the ground. Songs like “Want” and “Accident Prone,” which I thought I knew by heart—when they were performed that night, it was like I was hearing them clearly for the first time. The rest of the crowd was just as enchanted—at one point, possibly during “Kiss The Bottle,” I found myself holding hands and essentially propped up by the strangers around me. I went on to see Jawbreaker twice (traveling out of state on both occasions) in 2018, so yeah, I guess you could say it made an impression.