R. Kelly at Pitchfork Music Festival, 7/21/13

Categories: Last Night
Erik Hess
R. Kelly
Pitchfork Music Festival
Union Park, Chicago, Illinois
Sunday, July 21, 2013

For the many Twin Cities music fans who made the trek down to Chicago for this weekend's Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park, there wasn't much consensus over what to do about Sunday night. On the one hand, people were expected to work the next day. On the other hand, there was R. Kelly. And he, of course, posed a whole other conundrum.

It goes without saying, after the many arrests and lawsuits, the accusations of underage sex and child porn and, yes, even singing too loudly to his own music while driving his car, that there's no right answer on how to feel about Kelly. There was the sneaking suspicion, particularly with the hipster-heavy indie crowd that Pitchfork attracts, that perhaps the appeal of this show had as much to do with irony as it did with sincere fandom.

Perhaps. But for those who stuck it out, Kelly's performance was just the thing to close off the three-day festival: a clinic in showmanship, (mostly) free of the (excess) weirdness that he's known for, and above all one hell of a good show.

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Throughout the course of the weekend, R. Kelly's presence on the bill was a source of curiosity more than anything else. How weird would it be? What tricks would he pull out this time? There were rumors of a 50-person choir, a full orchestra, and God-knows-what-else.

In the end, the rumors were only half right. The set kicked off with a red-robed choir marching on stage and joining Kelly for his opening medley, led off by "Ignition (Remix)," but from there it was mostly a straight-forward affair. There were no massive cranes, no beds on the stage, no women in cages. Just Kelly, sporting a Bulls hat and sunglasses, with a white hoodie and a silver-studded microphone.

Erik Hess
Ah, yes, the Bulls hat. Kelly is from Chicago, after all, which was part of the appeal for, say, a Minnesotan to miss an extra day of work just to catch a singer who has sunken into apparent self-parody over the years. If there was any question over how the Pitchfork faithful would view the performance, then there was also a significant turnout of the R. Kelly faithful -- people who staked out spots hours in advance, grandmothers who brought their grandkids, and others still who reminisced about the days when Kelly sang on the L train.

It was hard to say, then, just who Kelly might have really been playing for. It could have been his time to convince some doubters. Or it could have been his love letter to the city that will always be his home. Regardless, he did his best to pack in as many hits as possible into his allotted 90 minutes, mostly working verses of different songs into medleys along the way. And the crowd -- pretty well all of it -- threw themselves into it, getting as grimy as you could expect a bunch of (still mostly white) kids with sunburns and hangovers to get over songs about grabbing booties and sex in the kitchen.

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