I’ve been moaning for years about how seldom two of my favorite musical artists — the Feelies and PJ Harvey — play in Chicago. One of the great things about being a music fan in Chicago is that you get a chance to see just about every touring artist. But there are a few bands and singers who bypass the Midwest or simply don’t tour all that much. Since the Feelies went on hiatus around 1991 and then reunited, the New Jersey rock band had played in Chicago only one time, at Millennium Park in 2009. That year was also the last time British singer-songwriter PJ Harvey had played in Chicago; when she released her recent records, she played only a handful of U.S. shows.
So, you can imagine how thrilled I was — along with other Chicago fans of the Feelies and PJ Harvey — when it was announced that both of them were coming to the Pitchfork Music Festival. And they were just two of the artists that made for an especially strong and diverse lineup at this year’s festival, which took place this past weekend (July 14-16) at its usual location, Union Park on Chicago’s West Side. Not surprisingly, as it turned out, the sets by PJ Harvey and the Feelies were two of my favorite moments in a really fun weekend of live music (which was made more enjoyable by the delightfully temperate weather).
Holding a saxophone aloft like a talisman, PJ Harvey made a dramatic entrance as the musicians in her large band banged drums, making the concert feel like some sort of pagan ritual. After opening with songs from her most recent album, The Hope Demolition Project, Harvey seemed to be running backward through her discography, but she eventually circled back to the new songs, with the voices of her bandmates adding to the power of the chorus. As always, Harvey was a riveting presence at the center of the stage. (Set list.)
The Feelies got off to a slightly late start, because the previous act playing on the other side of the field, George Clinton, ran several minutes past his scheduled time slot. That may seem like a minor point — and yes, I was also excited to watch Clinton, the 75-year-old godfather of funk, jamming with his Parliament/Funkadelic group, whom I’d never seen before — but Pitchfork is designed to run on a pretty tight schedule. Once the Feelies started playing, the band hit a couple of wrong notes — that’s hardly an egregious crime, and yet it was surprising, considering how precise the band typically sounds. Once the Feelies had found their footing, however, the group was in top form, strumming its trademark chords to those driving rhythms. (Set list.)
Here’s the rub: As much as I enjoyed seeing both the Feelies and PJ Harvey playing in the beautiful weather in front of crowds in Union Park, I was left wanting more. I’d love to see longer shows by both of these bands, as opposed to these typically condensed festival sets that last an hour or so. (I’m jealous of those who saw the Feelies playing a full show at El Club in Detroit on the following night.) But I will take what I can get. And in general, shorter sets do create a livelier feeling at music festivals.
This year’s Pitchfork experienced some logistical problems — including long lines at the entrance on Friday. And when the big field got crowded at the end of the day, it wasn’t fun to make my way through the throngs of people. And this may be stating the obvious, but depending on where you were at any given moment, your experience of the festival may have been completely different from my own. I watched Harvey’s show from a spot near the stage, but then as she began playing the final song of her set, I started needling my way back through the crowd to reach the photo pit for the next show, by Saturday’s headliners, A Tribe Called Quest. By the time I’d reached the back part of the field, Harvey was still playing, but I could barely hear her music at all. In that part of the park, it was hard to tell that a concert was even going on.
Other highlights for me over the weekend included the resonating shoegaze guitar wall of Ride; the sultry, moody songs of Angel Olsen, which often built to ferocious climaxes; LCD Soundsystem’s dance party (even if it was a bit of rerun from previous fests); George Clinton’s nonstop groove; the boundless enthusiasm and catchy riffs of the garage rockers Priests, Cherry Glazerr, Jeff Rosenstock and NE-HI; Thurston Moore, still doing music that sounds like Sonic Youth (and why the hell not?); the enthralling songs of Mitski, who seemed almost stoic during the early part of her set (I wasn’t able to stay for the whole performance, which reportedly climaxed with a “primal scream”); Colin Stetson’s stunningly muscular saxophone minimalism; A Tribe Called Quest paying tribute to its recently deceased member, Phife Dawg, with an energetic set; the beautiful and passionate vocals of Jamila Woods; and R&B star Solange’s elaborately staged visual and audio spectacle.