“We still alive, Chicago?” Joey Purp came back to that refrain over and over again throughout his set Sunday at Pitchfork Music Festival’s Blue Stage. It functioned as your basic pump-up-the-audience exhortation, but as a mantra it ran much deeper. Purp was one of a few hometown heroes at this year’s festival, and in keeping with the city’s violent reputation, he raps a lot about the jarring reality of watching people you grew up with gunned down. He also raps about watching friends overcoming all that and becoming rich and famous, and judging by his performance Sunday he’s well on his way to joining them.
Purp, with a little help from those friends, put on one of the most entertaining shows of the weekend. He performed with urgency and enthusiasm, delivering rapid-fire cleverness (“These labels try to sign me for an arm and a leg/ They could have my whole body, I would still be ahead”) over production that ranged from good to great. Adding to the hyped-up atmosphere were keyboardist Peter Cottontale and DJ/producer Knox Fortune, go-to collaborators for Chicago’s army of young hip-hop talent. Fortune’s beat for “Photobooth,” which sounds like an organ dropping from a balcony and disintegrating on impact ad infinitum, was a highlight in particular. That song also marked the moment when water balloons started flying, squirt guns started squirting, and water bottles started splashing with reckless fervor. It wasn’t even that hot outside, but how can you complain when the show’s that lit?
A few tracks later we got guest appearances from first Towkio and then Vic Mensa, two of the other leading lights of Chicago hip-hop, each bursting with energy in support of their SaveMoney brethren. They contributed a lot to the set’s amped-up feel, but Purp was more than capable of keeping the crowd on his own, as he demonstrated by keeping things hype for several more songs after they disappeared backstage. (“They fuckin’ with me,” he once rapped, and rightfully so.) Still, when he returned for an encore — a rarity for an afternoon festival set, but the hometown crowd demanded it — a whole battalion of buddies including Mensa and Towkio rushed the stage and went wild while Purp descended into the crowd. It was conclusive proof that, yes, Chicago was very much alive.
— Illinois Entertainer (@ie_entertainer) July 17, 2017
Jamila Woods was scheduled to perform on the same stage two hours later, but thanks to the Avalanches cancelling at the last minute she was promoted to the much larger Green Stage across the park. So what was to be a side stage gig sandwiched between two emo bands instead effectively became a main stage set opening for Solange. Woods was more than ready for her moment. She emerged dressed like royalty, bathed in sunlight and beaming with the biggest smile I’ve seen on stage all weekend. The underlying joy that courses through her music was written all over her face.
Flanked by a four-piece band and three backup singers, Woods sang selections from last year’s spectacular HEAVN plus new material. Her band gave the music that late-night TV treatment, adding heft but removing some of the subtle beauty from the studio recordings. Yet Woods’ appeal as a singer and songwriter remained abundantly clear. She sings with poise about deep love and intense pain, her melodies easing and fluttering across the beat, natural to the point of effortlessness but often veering into surprising creative flourishes; she’s probably the first Pitchfork Fest performer to ever interpolate Incubus or Paula Cole.
Many of us assumed that Chance The Rapper, a constant presence at Pitchfork Festival in recent years, would guest with either Purp or Woods, both of whom he’s collaborated with. It’s not really fair to Chance’s associates that the question of whether he’ll show up burbles among the masses anytime one of them performs in Chicago, but meh, there are greater injustices in life. And anyhow, his presence becomes less important as more and more figures from this scene assert themselves as viable career artists in their own right. Of course the crowd would have exploded had Chance and Jamila joined forces on “Sunday Candy,” but Woods has more than enough jams to hold it down on her own. If you’re lucky, next time you see Chance in concert he’ll bring her out.