Pitchfork Music Fest 2023 opens in Union Park with The Smile

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Pitchfork opened in Union Park on the Near West Side Friday, reasserting itself as the most multigenre multiday happening in a Chicago musical summer now seemingly jammed with festivals.

Leading up to the Day 1 headliner The Smile were sets by Perfume Genius, footwork-inspired electronic music by Jlin and the Chicago-based hip hop artist Ric Wilson. Coming Saturday and Sunday are headlining concerts by Big Thief and Bon Iver, respectively, plus Kelela, alt-rock by Vagabon, JPEGMAFIA, the reggae artist Koffee and R&B by Yaya Bey. Just for starters.

Music fans can be forgiven for not being fully versed in The Smile, a new band that debuted in 2021 and composed of Radiohead members Thom Yorke (vocals, guitar, bass, keys) and Jonny Greenwood (guitar, bass, keys), plus drummer Tom Skinner (Sons of Kemet and other projects). Friday’s crowd was full of fans sporting Radiohead shirts, indicating this new band was a strong draw for the day.

Sprawled on a blanket near the Blue Stage during a set by house music DJ Axel Boman, Dan Cox and Eric Reda of Edgewater said they’ve been coming to Pitchfork for the last seven years and buy three-day passes before they know the lineup. “We always find new stuff to listen to,” Cox said.

Cox sent along a link to some Smile songs, Reda said, “And I thought wow, that sounds just like Radiohead.”

Reda was otherwise cringingly familiar with the sound. “In 2000, I was young, I had just moved to Chicago in the middle of a Chicago winter. I was really depressed and all I did was write morose short stories and listen to Radiohead.”

They said they’d be in Union Park all three days, with one detour Saturday night. Cox is jumping ship to go to Beyoncé at Soldier Field. The headliner Big Thief “is actually one of my favorites but I’ve seen them six times.”

The group, which also included Eva Seligman from Edgewater, pronounced Pitchfork “chill” and said it was the only big fest they’d consider coming to. Well, that and maybe Riot Fest. It was Seligman’s first Pitchfork, she had recently moved to Chicago from the East Coast and was impressed it seemed to be really about the music, not the scene. “Not about drunk teenagers.”

If chill was the vibe on Friday, it was the perfect day, with sunny skies, a slight breeze and less intense crowds. While some attendees danced barefoot on the grass, many sat back comfortably in lawn chairs or reclined on blankets, some with their eyes closed to fully take in the sound of the music in the relaxed atmosphere.

Even the merch tent, sometimes a locus of insanity with long lines, was doing merely steady business. “Paced, not rushed,” said a staffer. Biggest sellers: A white Alvvays T-shirt, a Smile shirt with current tour dates and the 2023 edition Pitchfork tee.

Also, most popular food vendor, from informal Friday observations: The DönerMen Food Truck. Most popular beverage: White Claw Hard Seltzer (with apologies to beer lovers).

For first-time Pitchfork attendees Eva Murillo and Charlie Johnson, The Smile’s Friday night headlining performance is what pushed them to go this year. As big Radiohead fans, the 19-year-olds from Chicago jumped at the chance to see Yorke perform live. But they also enjoyed the opportunity to see new music in person, discovering artists they otherwise wouldn’t have listened to.

While Murillo noted that having music festivals in public parks has turned into a complicated topic, with concerns over limiting the public’s access to these spaces, she said it’s a great opportunity for small artists and local artists to gain an audience.

Among all the summer music festivals Chicago has to offer, she said Pitchfork stands out because of its craft fair section.

“It’s great that it supports multiple kinds of art,” Murillo said.

As organized by the formerly Chicago-based music publication that shares its name, the 17-year-old Pitchfork has a daily capacity of about 20,000, playing on three stages and drawing local concertgoers and out-of-towners. Along with music, it boasts the CHIRP Record Fair, Flatstock Poster Fair and Renegade Craft Fair, which had hand-painted hats, pottery in soft pastel colors, handmade earrings and tie-dyed clothes available for purcahse.

Michael Alden Hadreas of Perfume Genius performs during the Pitchfork Music Festival at Union Park Friday, July 21, 2023, in Chicago. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)

In the early evening hours, Michael Alden Hadreas, who performs under the name Perfume Genius, took to his set on the Green Stage with props that had a big visual impact, from bright red elbow-length leather gloves to yards of yellow tulle stretched across the stage. While the set initially had some technical issues, Perfume Genius, which last played the festival in 2015, still delivered a fun performance with music from 2014′s “Too Bright” and 2020′s “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately.”

Later that night, Blue Stage headliner Leikeli47 was all high energy and crowd connection. Amid shout-outs to Chicago, Pitchfork and even Beyoncé, the Brooklyn rapper asked for volunteers from the crowd: “I wanna see some twerk!” The trio that was pulled up on stage was up to the task, to huge cheers. Leikeli47 segued from there into “Girl Blunt,” with fans singing along.

After that, The Smile on the Green Stage seemed the opposite vibe, opening with the moody “Pana-Vision” and Yorke first addressing the audience after a few numbers. “Hello, we’re The Smile,” he said. The band first hit their stride six songs in with the more energizing “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings.”

Yorke even cracked a smile after that. “Everybody awake now?”

July 21-23 in Union Park, 1501 W. Randolph St. Gates open each day at noon on Ashland south of Lake Street, and on Ogden Avenue at Washington. Tickets from $249 and more information at

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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