Saba is one of Chicago’s best current musical exports. He’s spent most of April and May touring the U.S. and Canada in support of the alternately scalding and beautiful Care for Me, and his late-afternoon Red Stage set on Friday at Pitchfork was his first hometown show of the year. The emotional epicenter of that self-released album, which came out in April, is “Prom/King,” a vivid, even-handed recounting of the 24-year-old rapper’s friendship with his murdered cousin, Walter Long Jr. They didn’t always get along growing up, as Saba acknowledges in the song, but their friendship crystalized after Long offered to find his cousin a prom date. In 2012 they helped found west-side rap collective Pivot Gang, and Long took on the name John Walt for his music. It seemed like everywhere Saba went, Walt was by his side. They weren’t just family who made music together—they’d become best friends.
In 2014, when I visited Private Stock‘s Fort Knox studio to talk with Saba about his forthcoming second mixtape, Comfort Zone, Walt was there. At Double Door in July 2016, the previous time Saba and Open Mike Eagle shared a bill in Chicago, I ran into Walt and we watched part of the show together. That was one of the last days I saw him. Walt was stabbed to death on February 8, 2017, in River North, about a mile and a half east of Union Park.
Walt is so thoroughly present on Care for Me—his coy smile, his loyalty, his humility, his death—that he feels nearly as tangible as the nimble percussion or placid keys. On 2016’s Bucket List Project, Saba rooted his descriptions of growing up in Austin in the kind of lucid detail that made me feel as though he’d shown me around his old west-side neighborhood even before he actually did, and on Care for Me he applies the same lyrical prowess—and his sharp skills on the mike—to honor Walt and document his life. Saba raps as though he could bring Walt back, but his murder haunts many of the songs leading up to “Prom/King.” That track ends with a recording of Walt singing, “I just hope I make it to tomorrow,” and the first time I heard it, it caught me unaware and my body seized with sobs.
Care for Me is my favorite album of the year, but listening to it feels like a private experience—I’ve only occasionally felt comfortable enough to play it for other people. I didn’t imagine I’d first see Saba perform these songs at Pitchfork, in broad daylight, to a crowd of thousands. The last time Saba gigged in Chicago, he headlined a fund-raiser for the John Walt Foundation at the House of Blues on November 25, 2017, which would’ve been Walt’s 25th birthday. At the end of the show the crowd chanted “Long live John Walt,” something the members of Pivot Gang have taken to doing at all their concerts.
Saba performed for one of the largest crowds I saw all day, even with clouds threatening rain for most of his set. I’m still not sure how many of those people knew about Walt, but they definitely cared about Saba—they weren’t just there hoping to see Chance come out and do his verse on Care for Me‘s “Logout.” A big festival is far from a perfect way to hear music, and technical difficulties pushed Saba’s set back about 15 minutes, but he didn’t seem bothered by the late start. He nonchalantly circled the stage during his opening song, “Busy/Sirens,” which is also the first track on Care for Me. Saba and his live collaborators—DJ Dam Dam and producer-keyboardists Dae Dae and Daoud—kept the energy comfortably low as they cruised through most of the first half of the new album in order.
“It’s a beautiful day despite the rain—we here, we happy,” Saba said after “Fighter,” which ends with him mourning the 2017 death of his paternal grandfather, former 24th Ward alderman Michael Chandler. Despite the gravity of much of his material, at the halfway point of his set Saba began to slowly shift the mood in the park, beginning with one of Care for Me‘s most uplifting tracks, “Smile,” and continuing through a streak of ebullient Bucket List songs. He never wound up playing “Prom/King,” but toward the end of his set, Saba told the crowd about Walt’s murder as Daoud improvised a tender melody. As he wrapped up his short speech, the recording of Walt from the end of “Prom/King” played over the PA—and this time, at least to me, his gentle voice exuded hope that felt infectious. A few minutes later, after Saba wrapped up Bucket List standout “Church/Liquor Store,” he said, “I’m having the time of my life up here.”
The sun came out as Saba tore through Care for Me single “Life,” delivering his most ferocious rapping of the day—and partway through it, Dam Dam jumped offstage and ran along the walled-off path that bisected the crowd. I expected that to be the last song—Saba’s scheduled set time had expired—but he returned to the stage for a brief encore, the first I remember seeing from a midday festival artist. Shirtless, Saba launched into “Westside Bound 3” as other members of Pivot Gang trickled onstage. When Joseph Chilliams rapped his first line, everyone around me reacted as if they’d just seen their first skyrocket. Saba dedicated the set to Walt, and honored his memory through communal joy.