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At the Pitchfork Music Festival, an Indie Spotlight for R&B

July 21,2016 02:11

Chicago. In a subtle act of subversion, this past weekend Pitchfork, the online music magazine best known for its advocacy of indie rock, held a festival-within-a-festival that celebrated the new guard in R&B and soul. With BJ the Chicago Kid, Blood ...and more »

Chicago In a subtle act of subversion, this past weekend Pitchfork, the online music magazine best known for its advocacy of indie rock, held a festival-within-a-festival that celebrated the new guard in R&B and soul. With BJ the Chicago Kid, Blood Orange, Miguel, Nao, Anderson Paak and the Free Nationals, Shamir and Moses Sumney in the diverse lineup, the Pitchfork Music Festival acknowledged the richness of a contemporary movement that has shrugged off its status as a subset of hip hop. Presented on three stages in Union Park here, the bill still tilted toward rock and pop with Beach House, Broken Social Scene, Carly Rae Jepsen, Savages and Sufjan Stevens, among others. Jazz was represented by the Sun Ra Arkestra, saxophonist Kamasi Washington—who seems to have performed at every major festival this season—and bassist Thundercat. Brian Wilson revived “Pet Sounds” in celebration of the album’s 50th anniversary. Sunday night’s headliner, FKA Twigs, gave an elaborately choreographed show of electronica and abstract modern dance. Yet the R&B and soul artists shone through. The next-generation cavalcade began on Friday with a mesmerizing set by Mr. Sumney, who has yet to issue a full-length album. At first, he was a one-man band, looping melodic chants and percussion he created on the spot to serve as the backdrop for his flawless vocals. Joined by guitarist Josh Halpern, he moved to a synthesizer to issue sound waves and, on another tune, fingerpicked the strings on an acoustic guitar, all as if to suggest there were no limitations to what could support his brand of soul. Following Mr. Sumney’s triumphant set, the singer Shamir jumped into a fun-filled funk show that drew on his 2015 debut album, “Ratchet.” The 21-year-old’s fluttery countertenor pinged above meaty rhythms; keyboardist Danielle McGinley provided the honeyed midrange, at times approximating a soul horn section. The overall effect was a display of youthful vigor and glee. Contemporary R&B is robust enough to withstand the occasional setback. Saturday featured sets by Blood Orange—a project of singer and multi-instrumentalist Devonté Hynes—and BJ the Chicago Kid. Separately, they released two of this year’s superior R&B-related albums—Blood Orange’s “Freetown Sound” and BJ the Chicago Kid’s “In My Mind.” Here, whenever Mr. Hynes picked up the guitar or sat at the piano, the music rose to a caliber above what it was when he patrolled the stage as a bare-chested vocalist. As he does on “Freetown Sound,” Mr. Hynes split the vocals with female singers; for one number, the pop star Ms. Jepsen joined in, as she does on the album. Perhaps a little less sharing of the spotlight would have resulted in a more persuasive concert. As for BJ the Chicago Kid, he made the disappointing choice of performing to recordings rather than in front of a live band. He has a compelling voice that can bring the sharpest rappers and great soul balladeers to mind; here, when he let it loose, he confirmed its capacity to thrill. But his set was a re-creation rather than an exploration of his music. On tour for much of the year behind his 2016 album “Malibu,” Mr. Paak and his Free Nationals are a tight unit that zigzags with ease as he digs into his update of R&B, hip hop, funk and glitchy jazz-influenced electronica. He opened his Saturday evening show by spitting out rap verses at a frantic pace, but soon he settled in behind the drums, where he pushed the band toward R&B’s hard edge. On the same stage less than 24 hours later, the British singer Nao charmed with songs from her forthcoming debut full-length album, “For All We Know,” out July 29. Fronting a three-piece group, she sang pop for adults, espousing the joys of adoration and “apple cherry kisses.” But when love fails or falters, she raged, as in “In the Morning” and the pounding blues “Bad Blood.” Nao will return to the U.S. in September; when informed, the buoyant crowd roared its approval. Prior to FKA Twigs’ set on the main stage, Miguel performed his R&B blend that tapped into rock and funk without detracting from his smooth, forceful voice. Supported by a raging rock band, the provocative sensualist with a social conscience delivered a wide-ranging set that drew on his albums “Kaleidoscope Dream” and “Wildheart.” Though it seems a contradiction in terms, Miguel is an undervalued superstar; he places the R&B tradition in a thoroughly modern context. Despite their differing approaches to the form, these emerging artists have a shared gift for experimentation. Together, they affirmed that R&B has reclaimed its lofty position among the essentials of popular music. Mr. Fusilli is the Journal’s rock and pop music critic. Email him at jfusilli@wsj.com and follow him on Twitter @wsjrock

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