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Pitchfork Music Festival 2023: The best moments and our full review

May 28, 2023

All the hipsters grew up and had babies, and Chicago's local talent is second to none.

The thump of bass and clang of more than a few guitars echoed down Lake Street, signaling Pitchfork Music Festival had returned to Union Park. This year, weekend headliners included The Smile, Big Thief and Bon Iver, and the promise of some serious music discovery with mid-day performers such as Grace Ives, Koffee and Soul Glo—to name a few.

While everyone in the city knew (deep down) that the weekend really belonged to Beyoncé’s Renaissance World Tour (and arguably Barbie), Pitchfork Fest—now in its 17th year—managed to keep its signature taste-making universe intact. Even despite a very Condé Nast sponsorship hawking “smart, preventative” facial filler consultations to Millennials and Gen Z in exchange for sitting in air-conditioning and receiving pink-themed beauty treatments … to which someone said, “This is still the land of hipsters. There are no ‘smile lines.’ Some of these people haven’t smiled in years.”

One thing that did feel immediately different this year compared to Pitchforks’ past, at least for this writer (who hadn’t been back since pre-pandemic)? Its expanded family-friendliness. Everyone brought their babies.

No seriously, when did everyone have kids and how are they so big already? The Kid Zone by Music House takeover on the lawn was real and adorable, no matter its proximity to folks sparking blunts before hitting the food vendors.

Despite an emergency evacuation on Saturday due to lightning nearby and a peppering of weather delays robbing everyone of what was bound to be a definitive set from Vagabon and killing any chance of seeing Snail Mail and Panda Bear + Sonic Boom, there were moments that managed to spin the rain into gold (we’re looking at you, Weyes Blood).

With a few set highlights and a brief round-up of the best things the festival had to offer apart from the music itself, let’s take a look back at Pitchfork Music Festival 2023.

I’ll admit, I was worried. Watching live videos of The Smile, the trio formed by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood with Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner, I feared the tinkering; the almost masturbatory, loss of awareness, “wait, what song was this?” sort-of gear tinkering and uber-extended play that lulls you into submission simply because you just want to get on with it. I hate that at music festivals, when the band’s set is already truncated and there are too many outdoor variables beyond anyone’s control. And when the legend has already gotten as big as it has for two-fifths of Radiohead, you have to prepare for anything.

But any preconceived notions were blown away. Tight and surprisingly turbulent live, The Smile delivered in jazz-inspired progressive rock. The most extra you got was a few minutes of Greenwood shredding a violin bow with his guitar on “Waving a White Flag”—but you wanted that. With only one album under their belt, 2022’s A Light for Attracting Attention, they hit the stage with a clear mission. Songs like “You Will Never Work in Television Again” and newest single “Bending Hectic” throttled with post-punk fervor, while the inclusion of fourth touring member Robert Stillman on horns for “The Smoke” added a lushness and welcome sensuality to the hypnotic compositions.

I maintain there was enough time left for one more song.

The festival’s smallest stage hosted its mightiest performances, from the fiery, non-stop energy of Leikeli47 on Friday to the stunning Julia Jacklin luring everyone back after Saturday’s rain with a stirring solo set as remaining programming was adjusted; Belgian electronic-pop duo Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul, a farewell from math rockers Palm and boundaryless, blistering instrumentalists Mdou Moctar.

But the set of the weekend belonged to Black Belt Eagle Scout, the project from Indigenous singer-songwriter Katherine Paul, who was the first to return to the stage after Saturday’s initial weather delay. With a selection of songs primarily from her latest album The Land, The Water, The Sky, Paul and her band captivated with big grunge riffs and even bigger feelings. For an album inspired by nature, it was very much on her side. As temperatures began to rise again after the light sprinkle of rain, it was as if Paul’s vocal breathed a coolness into the air that proliferated across that pocket of the park. Songs like “Sedna” and “Don’t Give Up” felt fuller, their rhythms seismic as they got caught up in the breeze. But it was “Soft Stud” from 2017’s “Mother of My Children” that cemented Paul as a guitar hero. Delivering an impassioned solo, the audience took over vocal duties on the poppy refrain “Need you/want you” without hesitation. The ultimate sign of a successful performance.

Philly punks Soul Glo stood in stark contrast to their festival peers, and I thank them for it. Rivaling the ferocity of nearby JPEGMafia with an explosion of hardcore, singer Pierce Jordan felt like he was almost daring people in the crowd to try and look away. At times, it felt like he and guitarist GG Guerra were in competition to see who could rile folks up the most. That fearlessness and invitation to confrontation, in both their performance and music, is what first garnered Soul Glo attention after signing with Epitaph Records in 2021. Bringing their major label debut Diaspora Problems to life, the mosh pit did not stop until the band left the stage in a feedback loop of noise. My ears are still ringing.

Sen Morimoto covered Cher’s “Believe” and I’m sorry if you missed it. He and his band played it again Saturday night at his after-show at Schubas. I’m sorry if you missed it then, too.

The artist, who noted on stage that this year marks his tenth living in Chicago, has become a frequent collaborator with and supporter of many in the city’s creative scenes—from his band of friends to work at Sooper Records—so it’s no wonder his Pitchfork set was largely made-up of fellow local musicians excited to see their friend achieve his dream, both on stage and in the crowd. Playing songs from 2018’s Cannonball!, his self-titled album, including “Woof” (to which he admitted he’s “never actually owned a dog”) and previewing tracks from upcoming LP Diagnosis (out November 3), Morimoto put his breadth of talent on display—from singing and rapping to playing saxophone. His newer music shows a seasoned Sen deep in his experimental bag, with songs like “If the Answer Isn’t Love” and the titular track coming off a shade darker, a bit fuzzier in their production. Count me excited.

Chicago-by-way-of-Gary, Indiana producer JLIN made her name in Chicago footwork, but the producer’s inventive takes on electronic music and modern composition have catapulted her to new heights, including being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2022 for her album Perspective, on which she worked with the lauded Third Coast Percussion to meld classical music with her own style. The result is a much darker, heavier-yet-nuanced type of dance music—which elicited one of the largest crowd reactions of the weekend as the intensity was consuming. Unassuming in her stage presence, JLin lets every beat, drop, grind and bass gurgle speak for itself—capturing emotions that make you both wince and smile. While she humbly accepted her audience’s applause at the set’s finale, her music spoke volumes without words.

Ric Wilson is one of the best live performers the city has ever nurtured. And the joy he and his band find in performing is contagious. If you were lucky enough to catch his early afternoon performance at Pitchfork in 2019, you know this. Showcasing tracks from Clusterfunk, his collaborative EP with Chromeo released earlier this year, he rapped, dance and sang opposite the soulful stylings of vocalist Kiéla Adira with enviable ease as he held the crowd in the palm of his hand during his Friday evening set. Wilson and company made you want to be part of their crew, long before removing the barrier between performer and audience for his now-hallmark Soul Train break, even as the siren call of Perfume Genius’s “Queen” howled yards away.

Just before the final song of their set, local post-punks Deeper were waved off stage by festival crew. Lightning had been spotted too close for comfort—and a hush fell over Union Park from around 1:35pm to 2:45pm on Saturday. Up until then, the band’s pulsating post-punk was resonating with a crowd that only continued to grow in the early afternoon. Jagged at times and melodic at the next, the quartet’s songs infect you with the need to keep time along with them, by tapping, stomping or even air-drumming (like I found myself doing). “This Heat” remains a new wave-tinged barnburner and “Lake Song” is still as much of an earworm as ever, while new songs like “Build a Bridge” off upcoming album Careful! (due September 8) hint at a glossier, more emboldened band.

Sunday saw the birth of Ariel Zetina, pop star. As resident DJ at the iconic Smartbar, the queer, underground club scene’s favorite daughter made her debut as a vocal artist in addition to bringing her multifaceted trance-techno-meets-glitch-pop beats to the Green Stage to set the energy high on the final day of the festival.

She didn’t come alone. Flanked by a number of local LGBTQIA+ dancers and drag artists, including Cae Monae, David Davis, Angelíca Grace and Dutchesz Gemini, Zetina strutted, pouted and posed her way across the stage and invited us to her brand new party, complete with a cover of Vanity 6 and Prince’s “Make Up.”

“It’s a dream come true,” she smiled at the end, linked arm-in-arm with “the dolls” (her fellow performers sharing in the spotlight). As with much of her work, it was a true celebration of community; the trans identity and queer experience abound in joy when given the space to flourish on the main stage.

From Saturday night’s enthralling display from Belgian electronic-pop duo Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul to Sunday’s one-two punch of Koffee then Kelela, it was abundantly clear that people want to dance.

And more than ever, people probably need to dance.

Koffee, born Mikayla Victoria Simpson from Spanish Town, Jamaica, was one of the weekend’s more unknown acts, but left one of the biggest impressions. Tasked with playing the Green Stage just before headliner Bon Iver, she won over even the most sullen of indie fans with her exuberant reggae and R&B. You had to dance, even if to try to mimic the moves of her dancers on stage. When you hear a Caribbean rhythm, your hips cannot lie. Turning the park into a dance hall, there was room for everyone’s moves across the lawn. With one flare-up of technical difficulties taken in stride, the singer’s triumphant set was a great segue to Kelela.

Which is to my point, Kelela easily could’ve headlined on Sunday night. The artist is a no-frills talent, commanding the stage all her own—no band, no DJ—and needing only an audience that can clap on beat (if you can’t, don’t clap at all, she reminded folks). Not wanting to get cut-off by festival crew, she kept it rolling from one song to the next—smoothly transitioning from favored new tracks from 2023’s Raven, including “On the Run,” to her beloved “oldies but goodies” like “Bank Head” and “Rewind.” An angelic voice like velvet, she bent notes to new likings and found ways to throw a little grit in it when deemed necessary. The crowd was more than happy to chime in without missing a beat. Appearing at Pitchfork in 2014, 2018 and now this year, she rightfully should be the next artist buoyed by the festival’s media arm to return as a closer.

After nonstop movement, to drop the energy on a Sunday night with Bon Iver felt like a missed opportunity to really bring the festival home in a resounding way.

Motorshucker provided a refreshing, and dare I say, luxurious treat for concert-goers this weekend: fresh, perfectly-chilled oysters. The raw bar pop-up, which has quickly garnered a dedicated fanbase since launching in 2021, found a home in Pitchfork Plus over the long weekend. Offering up three kinds of oysters in addition to their addictive spicy fried peanuts and other festival specials, it was almost a shame that access to such an experience was gatekept by a higher-priced ticket. No fear! Chefs Jamie Davis and Mico Hillyard brought the goods to the people by Sunday—pulling fresh oysters from a refrigerated backpack and serving them up on the spot to unsuspecting folks who’d resigned themselves to various kinds of french fries and free Häagen-Dazs ice cream cones. Slurp on!

Speaking of Häagen-Dazs, the ice cream brand’s launch of its new butter cookie cone was fully embraced by attendees baking in the 80-plus-degree weather. Why? Because NO ONE is going to turn down free ice cream (unless they absolutely have to). It was also extremely delicious, as communicated by the sold-out signs displayed across the “coffee”-flavored cone every day around 2 pm. Unlike the oysters, it didn’t leave the palette feeling so refreshed.

For folks who realized this year’s Pitchfork was ultimately a pretty relaxed affair, the Renegade Craft Fair offered an alternative to new music discovery—shiny, new things! Well, new to you. With dozens of tables of local and national vendors, selling everything from one-of-a-kind clay jewelry to tooth gems, handmade ceramic boobie mugs, candles and vintage threads, the fair is always a welcome respite. Retail therapy, like taking in live music, has rarely made anyone feel worse. The same can be said for the CHIRP Record Fair, which if I’m being honest, is where at least half of my collection is from.

Overall, Pitchfork remains unmatched because of Union Park itself. Its manageable size allows you to truly experience the festival instead of constantly running back and forth and working yourself into an unhealthy, probably dehydrated tizzy. Taking the opportunity to actually observe your surroundings is one of the most overlooked aspects of being at an outdoor music festival. Having the opportunity to run into people you haven’t seen since the pre-pandemic days and catching up without having to sacrifice a set you really want to see is a privilege. That more intimate sense of community, that direct social recharge, is something that still feels unique to Pitchfork Fest because of its home. With nearly 20 years under its belt on the Near West Side, I hope that bit isn’t lost on thousands of other people, too.

See more of the action in our Pitchfork Music Festival 2023 photo gallery.

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Of the headliners, The Smile stole the showThe SmileThe Blue Stage wonLeikeli47Julia JacklinCharlotte Adigéry & Bolis PupulPalmMdou MoctarBlack Belt Eagle ScoutSoul GloChicago’s local talent is second to noneSen Morimoto JLINRic WilsonPerfume GeniusDeeper Ariel ZetinaPeople love to dance. People need to dance.KoffeeKelela The best, non-music things of the weekendMotorshuckerHäagen-DazsRenegade Craft FairCHIRP Record FairUnion Park