It began in rain-soaked disappointment, with an impending storm cutting short a much-anticipated headlining set Friday by Icelandic singer Bjork, and ended Sunday with an evening of bump and grind, courtesy of Chicago R&B kingpin R. Kelly.
In between, the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park brought an array of indie-rock with a smattering of hip-hop and electronic music — 46 acts in all — to more than 55,000 fans over the weekend. Pitchfork has become the reliable, more user-friendly little cousin to Lollapalooza's annual monolith in Grant Park, with cut-rate prices ($50 a day compared with Lolla's $95) and cutting-edge performers. But this year's booking of Kelly represents a turning point; he's easily the most mainstream performer Pitchfork has ever had in its lineup since the festival launched in 2006.
Kelly has sold 50 million albums and has been the dominant singer-songwriter-producer-performer in R&B over the last two decades. He's also among the most controversial; he stood trial on child pornography charges in 2008 and was acquitted. This year, the singer has been branching out beyond concerts largely attended by his core African-American audience to the festival scene, including Bonnaroo in Tennessee last month and now Pitchfork.
Kelly brought a robed choir and a band with him, as he tried to pack 20 years of hits into the scheduled 90-minute set. He compressed his songs into a medley, with each getting little more than a verse and a chorus. The subject matter? What else -- it was all about "getting freaky in the club," or anywhere else, for that matter.
"Do you want a sexy show?" Kelly asked, as his fans shimmied in the park even as rain began to fall. As Kelly shows go, the crowd reaction was more curious than boisterous, but the vast majority of the 19,000-capacity audience stayed for the duration.
The nearest in star power to Kelly all weekend might have been singer Solange (Knowles), the younger sister of Beyonce, a headliner at the United Center a few days earlier. In contrast to the glamorous dance-pop of Beyonce, Solange presents a more down-to-earth persona. In her tie-dye outfit and Afro Saturday, she called for an “old school grind fest,” but the set was more like a pleasant picnic, with orange and green beachballs bouncing through the audience. Solange's thin but pliant voice suited the breezy rhythms, and she pulled off at least one surprise — turning her mellow, melancholy hit “Losing You” into a dance workout.
Before a storm warning chopped the last 30 minutes off her set Friday, Bjork caused as much buzz with her outfit as she did with her music. She shimmied in gold foil-like garb with a quilled headdress — surely the strangest science professor in recent memory as she delved into the mysteries of gravitational pull and the moon's effect on the tides in songs from her latest album, “Biophilia.”
But the Icelandic singer's elaborate presentation — including projection screens and a large, robed female choir — was more the exception than the rule. Many of the up-and-coming bands were figuring out how to negotiate the demands of playing on a big stage for the first time and looked a bit overwhelmed. This made the achievement of U.K. quartet Savages all the more impressive.
Clad in black as if to defy Saturday-afternoon heat stroke, the band — which released its debut album only a few weeks ago — performed in that confrontational spirit. Singer Jehnny Beth twitched as she bit off syllables or stretched her voice into a howl. During “Hit Me,” drummer Fay Milton repeatedly bashed her cymbal with such force that she threatened to break it in half. Ayse Hassan's bass barged into songs and took over like the Terminator in a foul mood. And guitarist Gemma Thompson made her instrument sound like anything but a guitar, a sound machine that reset the tone and scuttled the atmosphere in every arrangement with skill and daring. Rather than marching off with triumphant anthems, the band offered psychodrama in “Hit Me” and “Husbands.” The band exuded gimmick-free drama.
Parquet Courts, a Brooklyn-by-way-of-Texas quartet, slammed together songs like bumper cars, which gave its set a relentless momentum. The guitars of Andrew Savage and Austin Brown twisted and spiraled around the melodic bass lines of Sean Yeaton, evoking the interplay of New York City punk pioneers Television, while drummer Max Savage kept the combustible mix from tilting over into chaos.
Atlanta MC Killer Mike put his stamp on the festival when he got choked up talking about hip-hop as a lifeline deeper than any political party or religious institution. On Sunday he threaded stories about his life through the songs, displaying a rare vision that looked beyond the task at hand — entertaining a crowd of thousands in a park — to the streets beyond it. With a megaphone voice matched by his robust personality, Killer Mike delivered rhymes saturated with personal meaning and political dimension, bolstering his claim that “this is what a church is supposed to look like.” He returned later to join El-P during his set, the two entering to the chords from George Thorogood's “Bad to the Bone” to deliver the socially unconscious battle rhymes from their slamming “Run the Jewels” collaboration.
Veteran performers such as Wire and Swans demonstrated that they not only remained vital, but that they can still one-up their younger peers in terms of vision and intensity. Shaking like a shaman or leaping as he brought huge chords crashing down on his guitar, Swans' Michael Gira flexed command of music that spanned continents and eras. “I see it all!” he declared, and no one was going to argue with him. The reunited Breeders, in contrast, tried to conjure the spirit of 1993 and their hit album, “Last Splash,” but their performance came off as loopy and disjointed.
Small pleasures bubbled up on three stages over three days of music: the “locust invasion” tone of the guitars played by Canadian metal band KEN Mode, the head-scrambling ferocity of Toronto trio Metz, the fragility of Julia Holter's neo-classical compositions juxtaposed with the aggressively self-deprecating banter of Pissed Jeans' Matt Korvette. Belle and Sebastian had fans singing along in the rain Saturday to their indie hit “The Boy With the Arab Strap,” and Low delivered perhaps the most unlikely cover of all, a lovely version of Rihanna's “Stay,” with guitarist Alan Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker trading verses. In a music world where just about everything can be found on YouTube, it was gratifying to stumble upon something that isn't.
Bob Gendron, special to the Tribune, contributed.