Sounding Board

Solange Closes Out Pitchfork Festival With A Dazzling, Moving Vision Of A Set

Only once during Solange’s headlining set at the Pitchfork Music Festival last night did someone other than Solange speak into a microphone. This was toward the end of the show, just after Solange had gotten done introducing all the members of her band. When she finished, one member of her band leaned over to a microphone and shouted out “the composer and choreographer of this show, Ms. Solange Knowles!” If you just saw that one moment — if you didn’t know any better — you might perceive a whole lot of ego and pretension in that moment. “Composer and choreographer” of a festival set? But the thing about Solange’s live show right now is that it absolutely justifies that level of hubris. Her stage show is a total triumph of vision and rigor and aesthetic and straight-up musical talent. It’s one person’s idea of what a festival set could look like done about as perfectly as humanly possible. It’s moving and lovely and an absolute wonder to behold. And honestly, “composer and choreographer” might be too slight a title. “Auteur” might work better.

Here’s how it looks: There’s a stage bathed in red light. At the back, there’s a glowing orange circle, like a setting sun. A tall, acute pyramid sits off to one side, and two Roman columns stand on the other. Solange and her band members wear matching red jumpsuits, shining, looking like Earth Wind & Fire or something. They’re all arrayed across the stage, symmetrically and precisely, like an architect figured out where everyone should stand. The whole visual presentation, stark and utopian and impeccably designed, looked a bit like the part of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure where Bill and Ted go into the future and everything is awesome. Much of the time, the musicians and backing singers in the band stand stock-still, staring straight ahead. Or they do graceful, minimal dance steps, all in time, all at the exact right moment. And the level of attention to detail is just insane. As in: Solange, her backing singers, and the members of her band are all about the same height. When they all line up at center stage, something they do pretty often, they look like a unified whole. I kept thinking about how one too-tall band member would’ve thrown the visual all off. But Solange would’ve never let that happen.

The whole show was as minutely choreographed as a Broadway show, with all the band members hitting their marks exactly, moving with deliberate stillness. Solange and the other two singers sometimes did the same and sometimes erupted into euphoric, tough-as-hell dance. All the people onstage were capable of doing these intricate, complicated stage routines but making them look effortless, like they were all right there in the moment. Every once in a while, a huge brass section, 20 pieces or more, would march onstage, also in matching jumpsuits, and they’d be just as locked-in with the movements. It must’ve taken Kubrickian levels of focus to get everyone in the right places at the right times, but that’s what happened.

And it’s not like Solange was picking these musicians just for how they’d look onstage. Musically, the sound they made was a near-perfect recreation of the sonic splendor of last year’s A Seat At The Table, and those songs, which already sounded great on record, became something more in person. The live arrangements were somehow spare and lush at the same time, and the supple, expressive work of the bassist, whose name I wish I remembered, was especially impressive. And Solange’s vocals were just nuts. She’s smooth and emotive and capable of these big harmonic leaps, and it always looks like it comes so easily to her. It’s a rare thing to see someone who’s both this talented and this committed to a singular vision.

And that vision had a lot to do with race and gender and self-love and proud excellence. It’s a powerful spectacle: A beautiful black woman, utterly in charge of everything happening on her stage, enrapturing a diverse Chicago crowd at a festival that’s historically concentrated on ramshackle white-guy indie rock. (It’s grown a long way in recent years, but that’s the baseline.) Dedicating her song “Junie” to the late Ohio Players/P-Funk member Junie Morrison, Solange credited him as a prime inspiration that helped convince her to add “frequencies and spirituality” to her own work. And “frequencies and spirituality” are a lovely description of what Solange is bringing to the stage right now.

As I’m writing this, I’m still basking in last night’s glow, so I can’t really say where Solange ranks in the list of Pitchfork headliners. But her set was easily the musical highlight of my weekend, and I can only remember one set that I found more moving: When Chance The Rapper headlined in 2015 and the entire crowd seemed to be made up of Chicago kids who knew every single word to every single mixtape track. That was a truly special one-off show. Solange is doing a version of her Pitchfork set every time she gets onstage this summer. You might have seen some version of it in TV-performance videos or in grainy fan-shot live footage. But it’s one thing to see that and entirely another to experience it in person. If you get a chance, try to be there for it. It’s really something.