Pitchfork Music Festival 2021 Guide: Who To See and What Are The Best Bands

St. Vincent performing at End of the Road Festival in 2018 | Burak Cingi/Redferns

St. Vincent performing at End of the Road Festival in 2018 | Burak Cingi/Redferns

Every festival season, it can feel like just about every lineup looks more or less the same. And then there’s Pitchfork Festival, which often has one of the most interesting, coolest bills of the year. Owned and curated by the music publication Pitchfork, the Chicago festival highlights rising acts that will almost certainly be the big names of tomorrow, indie favorites, and headliners, who may be in more, say, pre-headlining slots at other fests, but are contemporary icons nevertheless.

If you’re headed to the three-day event, which goes down in scenic Union Park from Friday, September 10 through Sunday, September 12, chances are you already have great taste in music or are at least drawn to several acts who are set to play. There are a lot of exciting names on this year’s lineup, though, and you might have yet to check out some of the up-and-comers slated to play earlier in the day. So, once you’ve thought through what you’ll be eating and drinking at Pitchfork Fest, we pulled together the ultimate schedule of not-to-be-missed performers, and who to see in case you run into the always begrudging festival conundrum of conflicting set times. Remember to bring your vaccination records or stop by one of the festival’s rapid testing sites in order to meet entry requirements, before catching these acts.

Who to see at Pitchfork Festival on Friday

The small font band to see

When: 1:45-2:25 at the Red Stage
Set times are staggered across the three stages first thing in the afternoon, so if you get there early enough, you can catch everybody who’s kicking things off. That means you have no excuse not to see post-hardcore band Dogleg. Hailing from Detroit, the band pushes Midwestern emo to another level with their aggressive, yet poignant music that’s full of thrills, and basically begging you to bang your head so hard that you almost decapitate yourself. Seriously, if you’re looking to get fired up for the day, they’ll do the trick.

The local act to see

When: 2:30-3:15 at the Green Stage
Since the fest is in Chicago, we’d be remiss not to suggest some hometown heroes, and DEHD have been coming up in the local DIY scene for the past couple years. The three-piece makes a calico brand of surf rock that’s splashed with hints of alt-country and dream pop.

The wildest set of the day

black midi
When: 4:15-5:10 at the Green Stage
Pitchfork adds more experimental artists to its lineup than the average festival, but black midi is certainly one of the most out there acts you can catch. The London-based band’s sound holds no bounds: It’s noisy, jazz-inspired, post-punk experimental rock. That’s a mouthful, yes, but there’s no denying they’ll manage to make their late afternoon set time resemble a wild, late-night gig from their British underground scene.

The biggest conflict of the day

Yaeji and Big Thief
When: 7:45-8:30 at the Blue Stage; 7:25-8:25 at the Red Stage
Pitchfork did not make Friday evening an easy choice. The Brooklyn-based indie rock band Big Thief consistently makes stunning, poetic records. They’ve played Pitchfork in the past, though, so there’s a chance you may have caught them. So, if you’ve filled your Friday with a lot of rock, head to Yaeji’s set instead. The Korean-American DJ makes electronic music that’s stylish and chill, but still danceable. Her beats have a certain dreamy sweetness to them that’ll put you in that blissful late festival daze; just imagine how much fun it would be to vibe to her hit “Drink I’m Sippin On” live to get hype for the headliner.

If you miss Big Thief… see Phoebe Bridgers

When: 8:30-9:50 at the Green Stage
If you end up missing the Big Thief set, you can make up for the lack of folky music by seeing Phoebe Bridgers‘ headlining slate. Her earnest, somber poeticisms might just invite a tear down your cheek, but she’s a powerhouse talent and it’s thrilling to see how her 2020 sophomore album Punisher has launched her into the guitar smashing, rock-star-level stratosphere.

angel olsen at pitchfork festival
Angel Olsen at Pitchfork Festival 2017 | Barry Brecheisen/WireImage/Getty Images

Who to see at Pitchfork Festival on Saturday

The local act to see

When: 1:00-1:40 at the Green Stage
Check out Horsegirl for some semblance of a high school homecoming “Ballroom Dance Scene.” The three-piece is another group of Chicago natives who just graduated high school and expect all of their friends from the scene to make it to the fest. Even though the band is made up of Gen-Zers, they sound straight out of the ’90s with their alt-rock full of fuzzy guitars. They’ve already generated a great deal of buzz with just an EP, so get them on your radar now because they could be the indie stars of tomorrow.

The small font band to see

Bartees Strange
When: 1:45-2:25 at the Red Stage
Alt-rock artist Bartees Strange is supporting names like Courtney Barnett, Lucy Dacus, and Phoebe Bridgers on tour this fall, which is a strong indication that he’s someone to pay attention to and to see solo when given the chance. He blew up last year with his prolific full-length debut Live Forever, which in part explores his experience as a Black artist in the indie scene and coming of age in Oklahoma. It’s full of anthemic tunes that feel like they’re meant to be played at fests (and probably stadiums one day).

The biggest conflict of the day

Waxahatchee and Faye Webster
When: 4:15-5:10 at the Green Stage; 4:00-4:45 at the Blue Stage
Some might call it criminal that Pitchfork booked both Faye Webster and Waxahatchee, the project of singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield, for nearly the same slot on Saturday afternoon. Atlanta alt-country singer Faye Webster has an after show and you can catch a portion of her set before heading over to Waxahatchee’s, so perhaps see as much as you can of the latter. The folk-inspired artist’s last record Saint Cloud was lovely, and should translate well live with her gentle voice paired with big, passionate guitars.

If you miss Faye Webster… see Jamila Woods

When: 6:30-7:15 at the Blue Stage
Coming up in the Atlanta scene, Faye Webster’s music has hints of R&B to its twang. So why not see neo soul/R&B star Jamila Woods in the evening? She’s another Chicago mainstay, having come up in the city’s poetry scene and an active community organizer. Her voice is gorgeous, and her words are even more powerful, so it’s safe to say you’ll be captivated by her performance.

The rare live performance you can’t miss

Angel Olsen
When: 7:25-8:25 at the Red Stage
Singer-songwriter Angel Olsen has released a lot of new music in the past few years, including her gorgeous 2019 album All Mirrors and a reworked 2020 version of it, Whole New Mess—but she’s only playing two shows in-person this year. One of them just so happens to be at Pitchfork, so that’s all the more reason to see her. Her music and idiosyncratic voice has the power to warm your heart and then rip it out entirely with all of its feelings—and you should absolutely let it.

danny brown at pitchfork festival
Danny Brown at Pitchfork Festival 2018 | Barry Brecheisen/WireImage/Getty Images

Who to see at Pitchfork Festival on Sunday

The small font band to see

oso oso
When: 2:45-3:30 at the Blue Stage
Pop-punk and emo are back in the mainstream—but have you taken a deep dive into the artists who really brought the sound back? oso oso is an emo project from Jade Lilitri, who hails from emo stronghold central Long Island, and the band is one of the genre’s finest. Their music gets you right in it with its heartwarming messages about chasing optimism in the face of apathy, which comes through in both their lyrics and exciting guitars.

The most stylish set of the day

Caroline Polachek
When: 4:15-5:10 at the Green Stage
Ever since indie pop group Chairlift disbanded in 2017, their frontwoman Caroline Polachek’s star has only grown. Now a solo pop act, Polachek makes chic, dreamy alt-pop that feels as if its from another realm with her ethereal, high-pitched voice. She has an eye for fashionable aesthetics that feel just a tad dark in the coolest way, so she’ll definitely make the stage her own. The lead single from her upcoming sophomore album “Bunny is a Rider” is a bop, so fingers crossed she previews even more new releases during her afternoon set.

The biggest conflict of the day

Yves Tumor and Thundercat
When: 5:15-6:00 at the Blue Stage; 5:15-6:10 at the Red Stage
Why are Yves Tumor and Thundercat scheduled for the same time? Unclear, but this is yet another festival scheduling offense. Both are funk-inspired musicians who likely have some of the same fanbases. Yves Tumor sounds and performs like a full-blown, futurist rock star, so you should immerse yourself in their live renditions of last year’s excellent, psychedelic-tinged Heaven To A Tortured Mind. Especially if you can’t make it to see any of the legacy acts on the bill, Yves Tumor is resonant of ’70s and ’80s icons, making them a must-see.

If you miss Thundercat… see Flying Lotus and Danny Brown

When: Flying Lotus at 7:25-8:25 at the Red Stage; Danny Brown at 6:15-7:15 at the the Green Stage
Thundercat is a frequent collaborator of producer Flying Lotus, so if you end up missing his set, you’ll want to make Flying Lotus. With his eclectic jazz and rap-inspired sound, you can bet his DJ set will be hypnotic. And who knows, maybe Thundercat will come out on stage for a song or two.

Thundercat tends to dip into some tasteful goofiness in his music with his nostalgic sounds and fun lyrics. As does rapper Danny Brown, who spits verses and performs like a stand-up comedian. If it’s unabashed liveliness and high energy you’re looking for, make sure to get to him at the Green Stage.

Each and every one of the headliners

When: 8:30-9:50 at the Green Stage
Whether you can make it to all three days of Pitchfork or you’ve only got tickets to one, you should make it a mission to see the headliners, who are all women—a true rarity for this (and any) year. As noted, Phoebe Bridgers is a rising talent who closes out Friday night; contemporary rock/indie icon St. Vincent is sure to wow you with her incredible guitar skills on Saturday; and legacy act Erykah Badu is an R&B/hip-hop artist for the ages who’s closing out the show on Sunday.

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Sadie Bell is the entertainment associate editor at Thrillist. She’s on Twitter at @mssadiebell.

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