Grande Halle de la Villette, Paris
1 - 3 November
There’s something strangely fitting about Pitchfork Paris being held in Grande Halle de la Villette. The vast heritage building – an abattoir active until the late 70s – sits near the junction of two canals, making for an idyllic stroll into a space that was once a site of carnage. The same contrast could be applied to Pitchfork Paris. A normally gritty experience packaged into a neat, non-disruptive affair.
Pitchfork Paris bills are historically good at balancing big room acts and experimental artists. Previous years have brought the likes of Thom Yorke, Kamasi Washington, M.I.A and Fatima Al Qadiri under one roof. The 2018 edition saw headliners Mac DeMarco, Kaytranada and Bon Iver joined by both established and budding artists like Blood Orange, Snail Mail and Cola Boyy, with after parties slinging highly-anticipated sets from queer electronic experimentalists Lotic and Yves Tumor.
Inside the Grande Halle, the two stages face each other at opposite ends of the building, with each act ping-ponging between both. The herd-like back and forth movement between stages perhaps contributed to a lacklustre atmosphere during Mac DeMarco’s Thursday headline slot.
Ushering in Friday was London-based singer Tirzah, who took the stage with collaborators Mica Levi and Coby Sey. Delivering a suitably understated performance, she floated through patient R&B crooners Affection and Gladly off this year’s long-awaited debut album Devotion.
Next up, Blood Orange. This set felt like a rite of passage for Dev Hynes. Illuminated under the indigo glow of the lights, the multi-instrumentalist and producer lunged into an effervescent show covering material from latest album Negro Swan and his three preceding solo albums. The way Dev Hynes disarms a room with the sheer force of tenderness goes unrivalled, proved when singer Ian Isiah took centre stage to perform Holy Will, the soul-stirring gospel centrepiece of Negro Swan. Brimming with protest, warmth and redemption, everyone walked away feeling more hopeful. Canadian producer Kaytranada then topped the night with a high-octane live set, notably popping off for slow-burning Kelela remix Waitin and famed 99.9% banger Leave Me Alone.
Saturday kicked off with an endearing, if not slightly nervous, effort from Baltimore guitar pop angel Snail Mail. The real stars, however, were New Zealand quartet Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Just a few songs in, frontman Ruban Nielson was thrashing in the crowd for Not in Love We’re Just High, his worn-in vocals never wavering once. This kind of audience interaction elevated their typically lo-fi, introspective psychedelic pop into big room singalongs, breathing new life into low-key Sex & Food bops Hunnybee and Ministry of Alienation.
Now it’s time for the electronic zeitgeist to bring the festival to a close. Producers Avalon Emerson and Daniel Avery both delivered storming, kinetic sets spanning breakneck techno, spectral electronica and poppy beats, flexing their ability to get even the staunchest (€9) pint-holder moving.
Ultimately, though, an entity so adept at music curation fell short in a live setting. It’s hard to pinpoint where the atmosphere disappeared to – perhaps it was the antisocial layout of the Grande Halle or the fact that it felt like the festival-goers were casual music fans that could take it or leave it, despite stellar performances. Still, there’s a unique charm in walking out of the venue to see a cascading Parisian fountain littered with tinnies; almost like a moment was beginning to swell, preparing to burst, but never did. Next year it just might migrate inside.