In May, my Reader colleague Leor Galil took a long look at the surfeit of summer music festivals in Chicago. As he subsequently tweeted, folks here are often so eager for a reason to get outdoors when the weather’s warm that it seems like they’ll accept almost anything: “People want to be outside at an event, does it really matter what you put in front of them?”
Chicago isn’t alone there, of course, and in the 13 years since the launch of the Pitchfork Music Festival, similar events have cropped up all over the country—these days a band could conceivably string together a U.S. tour that consists almost entirely of dates at such festivals. One thing that continues to distinguish Pitchfork, though, is its independent-minded booking. Way too many regional fests seem to present the same couple dozen acts—basically whoever’s on the road that summer. But Pitchfork relies on far fewer of those artists, instead pursuing a curatorial strategy that focuses on the bread and butter of its sister website: indie rock and adventurous forms of electronic music, pop, and hip-hop.
Circuit des Yeux
Sat 7/21, 4-4:45 PM, Blue Stage
Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society
Fri 7/20, 3:20-4:10 PM, Red Stage
Sun 7/22, 1:45-2:25 PM, Red Stage
This Is Not This Heat
Sat 7/21, 6:30-7:15 PM, Blue Stage
In its early years, Pitchfork even offered a sprinkling of acts well outside that territory, venturing into free jazz and so-called world music. In 2006 and 2007 the lineup included such gloriously daring improvising artists as 8 Bold Souls, Chicago Underground Duo, the Jeff Parker/Nels Cline Quartet, Tyondai Braxton, Craig Taborn’s Junk Magic, Fred Lonberg-Holm’s Lightbox Orchestra, Ken Vandermark’s Powerhouse Sound, and the William Parker Quartet. At the 2008 festival, A Hawk and a Hacksaw, Boban & Marko Markovic, and Extra Golden shared traditional sounds from three continents.
Such outliers largely vanished in subsequent years, though the occasional left-field artist—Julia Holter, Bitchin Bajas—continued to enliven Pitchfork’s lineups. So it was a pleasant surprise in 2016 to see Kamasi Washington, the Sun Ra Arkestra, Circuit des Yeux, and Holly Herndon at the festival. In 2018 the oddballs scattered around Pitchfork’s schedule—four of whom I’m singling out here—are among the things that make it unique among its national competition. They don’t have the draw a festival of this size usually requires, but their presence distinguishes the event.
Circuit des Yeux, the project of Chicago singer and guitarist Haley Fohr, performed at Pitchfork just two years ago, but since then Fohr has undergone exponential creative growth—Reaching for Indigo (Drag City) was one of the best records of 2017. Her increasingly original sound clearly takes inspiration from the likes of Yoko Ono, Diamanda Galas, and Nico (whose Chelsea Girl she covered last fall). Album opener “Brainshift” is a delicate, hymnlike meditation that conveys the feeling of a sudden, all-encompassing transformation with the help of a swell of massive brass by trombonist Nick Broste. On the galloping “A Story of This World Part II,” Fohr flings herself into some of her most daring vocal experiments, mixing wordless howls and melismatic whoops—and she does it with a focus and precision missing from her earlier work. Her expansive psychedelic arrangements are elastic enough to allow for improvisation from her backing musicians, and her presence and authority as a singer have bloomed. Her deep voice inhabits her meditative, richly textured art songs like a spirit with a mind of its own, transforming them into wide-mouthed vessels that pour out a steady flow of ideas.
Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society have developed an equally distinctive aesthetic—subtle, kaleidoscopic modal playing from a jazz bassist, thrumming at the heart of a hypnotic groove—but on their fourth and best album, last year’s Simultonality (Eremite), this Chicago combo pull back from their usual focus on North and East African traditional music to incorporate Krautrock and classical minimalism. As usual, they build most of their pieces atop cyclical, propulsive patterns that Abrams plucks from a twangy three-string bass lute called a guimbri, which in its original setting serves as the motor of much Moroccan Gnawa music. On “Ophiuchus” Ben Boye’s psychedelic, chromatic electro-harp creates a pulsating backdrop (daubed with wandering figures by harmonium player Lisa Alvarado and electric guitarist Emmett Kelly) that Abrams and drummers Frank Rosaly and Mikel Avery reshape with a polyrhythmic groove. “Sideways Fall” borrows Jaki Liebezeit’s drum break from Can’s “Vitamin C” as its driving force, the pattern split between Rosaly and Avery. Abrams switches to double bass for album closer “2128 1/2” (named for the Indiana Avenue address of the late Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge), where guest saxophonist Ari Brown channels the lung-scorching tenor tone of Pharoah Sanders as Boye pounds out profound piano vamps a la Alice Coltrane. The piece takes Abrams back to his jazz roots, even as it clears a plateau for Natural Information Society’s future explorations.
East-coast collective Irreversible Entanglements is one of the most exciting collaborative projects from Philadelphia spoken-word artist Moor Mother (aka Camae Ayewa), whose intensity, precision, and metaphoric power have few equals in the post-hip-hop landscape. The group began as a trio of Ayewa, Philadelphia saxophonist Keir Neuringer, and D.C. bassist Luke Stewart, and then grew to a quintet with the addition of two New York-based musicians, drummer Tcheser Holmes and trumpeter Aquiles Navarro; last year they dropped their self-titled debut album, a joint release by Chicago’s International Anthem and New Jersey’s Don Giovanni. At the start of the opening piece, “Chicago to Texas,” Ayewa sounds deliberate and measured, with the instrumentalists mirroring her reserve, but their acoustic and largely improvised music grows more heated and cutting as it progresses. The album’s four tracks follow a single narrative thread, unfolding a harrowing story. Ayewa avoids familiar hip-hop rhythms and the cliched singsong cadences of poetry slams, instead summoning a fury to match her message; her voice rises and falls, accelerates and decelerates, interacting with the band with incredible subtlety. When Ayewa performs as Moor Mother, her electronic backing generally matches the intensity of her voice, but in Irreversible Entanglements the musicians engage in classic improvisatory give-and-take. The thrilling dialogue between band and vocalist evokes Amiri Baraka’s 1960s work with Sunny Murray or the New York Art Quartet, with the addition of contemporary extended techniques such as unpitched air columns or frictive noise. When the group performed at Thalia Hall last year, Ayewa refused to serve as a leader, asserting Irreversible Entanglements’ collective spirit by giving her colleagues as much space as she took.
This Is Not This Heat is a partial reunion of the great This Heat, a UK group that formed in 1976 and broke up in 1982. Though nominally a postpunk trio, they paid little heed to the conventions of the genre. Percussionist Charles Hayward had previously played with prog-rockers Gong and Quiet Sun (led by Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera), but instead of following a similar path, This Heat stumbled onto something completely their own, masterfully employing tape loops, rhythmic phasing, noise, radical editing, and weird overdubs. No matter how many times I hear “Horizontal Hold,” the second track from their self-titled 1979 debut album, I’m still blown away by how fresh it sounds. Few pieces of music excite me more: its dense, seething mass of noise and rhythm radically rises and falls in intensity, with fierce but stolid drumming, ominously droning organ, searing, constricted electric guitar, and other sounds I still can’t confidently identify. This Heat only made one more studio album, Deceit (which came out in 1981), and one classic 12-inch EP, 1980’s Health and Efficiency. Multi-instrumentalist Gareth Williams died from cancer in 2001 at age 48, but Hayward has stayed musically active, and in 2016 he and guitarist Charles Bullen reconvened as This Is Not This Heat. Their sporadic reunion revisits the band’s classic work with guests such as Thurston Moore, Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip, and Chris Cutler, and this is their first stateside appearance—they’ll present music never before heard in Chicago. v