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

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

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

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

R. Kelly at Pitchfork Music Festival, 7/21/13
Erik Hess
Kelly was on good behavior, but he was still R. Kelly, and it wouldn't have seemed right if there weren't still something bizarre about the whole thing. Naturally, he obliged, and most of the weirdness for the night came courtesy of his famed tendency to sing to the audience between songs. "Can I get a towel," he sang at one point early on, "to wipe my face? 'Cause I'm sweaty as a motherfucker." Then he repeated it, for several minutes, until it had become its own a cappella song (and until he got that towel).

This was a hilarious interlude in the show, and not the only of its kind; there was a far weirder moment later in the night when he chanted about "going for two hours," and how it meant that he's "in shape." (He'd only been going for an hour at that point, but no big deal, right?) Except that a little of the luster was perhaps lost when you realized that such moments weren't really improvised -- he did the same towel bit just a couple weeks ago at Bonnaroo. Could it be, then, when he boasted that he wouldn't "clean up his act," that it was all part of the show too -- just another part of the act?

In the end, it didn't really matter. There was a flood of silver and white balloons released into the sky, and another of dove-shaped balloons during the finale of "I Believe I Can Fly," which he dedicated to Chicago. It was the height of ridiculousness and beauty, all wrapped up into that strangely earnest and strangely tongue-in-cheek demeanor that only Kelly can harness. It didn't matter that those things, too, had been done before in other cities.

The fact that all those questions -- over the sincerity of the show, and even over Kelly himself -- didn't matter was simple: he's a tremendously gifted performer. That point got driven home over the course of the closing few songs, in particular with "When a Woman's Fed Up" and the "Step In the Name of Love" remix, where the dirty R&B grooves were put aside for those raw gifts. Kelly played it all up, showing off the full range of his voice (especially that bone-chilling upper register) and dropping to his knees.

Once you'd seen that, and understood it, just about anything would make sense, however temporarily. Even "I Believe I Can Fly" could feel like a religious experience, one where R. Kelly was the white-clad priest, and Pitchfork was his congregation.

Critics Bias: Very un-ironically excited to see R. Kelly. That has to mean something, right?

The Crowd: All over the board, as mentioned above
R. Kelly at Pitchfork Music Festival, 7/21/13
R. Kelly at Pitchfork Music Festival, 7/21/13
R. Kelly at Pitchfork Music Festival, 7/21/13
Photo by Erik Hess

Overheard in the Crowd: "He's the man. He's got fucking doves!"

Random Notebook Dump: It's not unreasonable to think of R. Kelly in conjunction with Prince, particularly given the hometown angle. This year, the Twin Cities have had a lot of interactions with the Purple One, who, face it, is every bit as weird as Kelly, except without the extreme moral considerations to have to deal with. Perhaps that has something to do with why people would be more unabashedly excited to see the one than the other.

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