The layout of the Pitchfork Music Festival is logistically pleasing. There are just three stages (count ’em, Lolla: one, two, three), and each is close enough to the others that you can scoot from one set to the next without hustling so hard you have to skip out on a serendipitous photo op with Carly Rae Jepsen. As an arbiter of cool, Pitchfork has served itself well by keeping its flagship event relatively small, confining it to Union Park for its entire history rather than allowing it to bloat to fill the biggest space available. This modesty has helped the festival focus on bookings that make it seem in the know—a crucial branding approach for the iron fist that controls the hype. Pitchfork’s authorities require themselves to stay ahead of the curve, and they appear to hope that festivalgoers will chase that same feeling. That’s where Pitchfork’s third stage comes in. Formerly the Balance Stage (and in the fest’s early years left out of Friday’s schedule), it’s been called the Blue Stage since 2011, and for its entire history it’s defined itself as the incubator within the incubator.
The Blue Stage is the spot to camp if you want to catch the likes of Bon Iver (2008), Matt & Kim (2009), and Grimes (2012) before celebrity vaults them through the stratosphere. At the Red and Green Stages, the sweaty, sun-toasted throng of humans in front of you can be too daunting to weave through, but at the Blue you’re afforded the opportunity to see music on a stage rather than on a giant TV screen. Hell, Kendrick Lamar and FKA Twigs played it on separate occasions before going on to headline the whole damn festival just two years later (in 2014 and 2016, respectively). The Blue Stage is Schubas before the Aragon, the Empty Bottle before the United Center.
Plus its lineup is an excellent grab bag. While the two main stages often keep to picnic-appropriate big-name indie rock and party-time hip-hop and dance music, the Blue Stage presents rising locals, outside-the-box DJs, experimental acts, and what have now become sorely missed flavors at the fest: metal and hardcore-punk bands. It’s the Best New Music that you scroll past before you know you need to know about it. If you’d hung around the Blue Stage all weekend in 2013, for instance, you would’ve caught Angel Olsen, Trash Talk, Andy Stott, Metz, Julia Holter, Parquet Courts, Low, KEN Mode, Blood Orange, Sky Ferreira, Waxahatchee, and DJ Rashad. Not too shabby.
Perhaps most important, the area around the Blue Stage is at least partly shaded by trees. Tucked away in the southwest corner of the grounds, it offers a decently laid-back midafternoon respite for anyone fried and weary from the rest of the festival. The portable toilets can be a bit “fresher,” and the grind of the day is a little less burdensome. To get to the stage you have to shuffle through a bottleneck created by the beer booth, but it opens up on patches of grass where you can spread out your knockoff Navajo blanket and relax as the ambient electronics of Oneohtrix Point Never melt in the air overhead. And if you feel like taking a gamble, go ahead and nod off for a nap—maybe you’ll wake up during the set of someone you’ve never heard of before. v