With an estimated 160,000 people packing Grant Park in Chicago August 3-5 to see 130 acts perform across nine stages, it’s safe to say that Lollapalooza is the year’s big-draw festival. Despite a temperature that broke ninety degrees, a sun that at times felt almost unbearable, and a few scattered showers on Saturday, there was a lot to be positive about. The park made a perfect home for the festival, with enough space and a clear path from one end of the grounds to the other. Scheduling complaints were minor — we missed some bands we wanted to see and sometimes had to run the length of the park to catch the next act. There were plenty of toilets and bars (most lines were only a handful of people long); security was unobtrusive and so were the hipsters (the crowd was mostly young white kids dressed in contemporary college fashions); and I didn’t see one fight or one arrest, which is extremely rare at an event of this size. Everyone seemed excited to be there and supportive of the music, and the set lengths were fixed, meaning artists were forced to tighten their show and leave the audience hungry for more.
But more than that, this year’s bill included some of the most important, progressive, relevant and buzz-worthy artists working today. The amount of variety and creativity on display should have been enough to get anyone who attended excited about what’s happening in music right now. Five years ago, if you had told me I’d turn to what is (perhaps unfairly) called “indie rock” for listening sustenance, I probably would have laughed. But with hip-hop continuing to look like jazz or reggae or any other genre whose creative glory days are in the past, I’ve had to look elsewhere for inspiration. While rappers spin their wheels about spinning their wheels, many of the artists at this festival addressed a broad spectrum of social, political, and everyday feelings and ideas, articulated from voices that varied from ironic detachment to naked sincerity to self-claimed empowerment.
It’s difficult to make blanket statements about such a diverse set of musicians, but one of the unifying features of the most notable bands at Lollapalooza was a sense of immediacy — a need to be heard. Even the longstanding argument of independent versus mainstream falls apart when you’re dealing with artists like M.I.A., TV on the Radio or Yeah Yeah Yeahs, whose ideas translate so powerfully that trying to box them in or apply a label ends up pointless. One of the festival’s greatest selling points was its ability to transcend the negative sniping found on so many blogs and message boards these days and instead turn into an open celebration of the artists who hold today’s sound in their very talented and capable hands.
It would be impractical, of course, to discuss each of the acts at the festival, but here’s a brief look at some of the more notable performances.
Biggest Surprise: Chin Up Chin Up
Talented musicians who create a big sound, these Chicago natives had a ton of energy and easily won the early crowd over, including those of us who had never heard their music.
Best Show to Nap During: Son Volt
Ex-Wilco member Jay Farrar still has a knack for pretty, straight-forward melodies, but he also makes it difficult to differentiate one song from another. The band’s laid-back afternoon-barbecue vibe made this the perfect time to get under cover and out of the blazing sun.
Best Cover Song and Costume Changes: The Polyphonic Spree
The Polyphonic Spree is notorious for grand theatrics, and they certainly didn’t disappoint. They packed an already crowded stage with a local dance troupe, switched from their new look (black army fatigues) to their old (white choir robes), stormed the crowd hand in hand, and pulled off an incredible cover of Nirvana’s “Lithium” that had people in an absolute frenzy. Lead singer Tim Delaughter is committed to putting on a near-religious performance, and after this one, many in the audience can surely be counted among the converted.
The “Make Sure You Bring Your Earplugs” Show: M.I.A.
At the hottest point of the day, Maya Arulpragasam strutted on stage in a pair of silver short shorts and matching Chucks and, with Philly’s Hollertronix DJ Low Budget on the wheels, pushed the stage’s speakers as far as they would go. Complaining of a sore throat — in between songs, she used some unmarked spray that Jack White had apparently sent her — she used her undeniable stage presence to maintain the crowd’s energy throughout. She ran out into the audience, danced with partner Cherry, and climbed the stage’s scaffolding to sing her version of a ballad. She played many songs from her soon-to-be-released Kala, but predictably it was when she went to surefire hits “Bucky Done Gone” and show closer “Galang” that she got the biggest crowd response.
Best Show to Enjoy from a Distance: Blonde Redhead
Singer Kazu Makino is undeniably sexy, but the stageside flat screens made it possible to enjoy her understated sensuality and the band’s beautiful drone from a comfortable distance. And quite frankly, after the sun’s relentless heat and a performance scheduled in between M.I.A. and LCD Soundsystem, we needed a little rest.
You’ve Worn Out Your Welcome Award: Perry Farrell (Satellite Party)
Listen, I love Jane’s Addiction as much as the next man, and I know Perry Farrell came up with the name and concept of the festival. But I also know he sold the creative rights for millions of dollars, so having to hear half-assed versions of Jane’s standards like “Stop” and listen to him babble on about the communal experience, drinking Jagermeister from a coffee cup and other such nonsense made me wonder if festival organizers actually invited this joker or if he just went ahead and invited himself. And honestly, did we really need him to introduce Yeah Yeah Yeahs in a skin-tight fluorescent-yellow leopard-print suit? Me thinks not.
Master of Irony: James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem
Not only did LCD frontman James Murphy get to smirk at the random irony of opening with “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House” hours before Daft Punk would occupy the opposite stage, but he also lightened the mood with moments like, “I’m going to try something I’ve heard a lot today. [in unenthusiastic sarcasm voice] ‘Are you ready!?’ I always wondered why bands say that. We’re the ones onstage. Aren’t we the ones who need to be ready? [turns to drummer] Are you ready?” The band set the stage on fire with a non-stop, sweat-soaked dance-party workout that would have made Richard Simmons proud and proved why LCD’s albums, although good, are little more than advertisements for the live shows. After turning the crowd into a pogo-jumping mosh pit with an extended version of “All My Friends,” Murphy provided more words of wisdom. “I see you guys are dancing really hard out there and that’s good,” he said. “But here’s a little rule of thumb: If you look around and there are no girls dancing anywhere close by, you’re dancing a little too hard.” This show was easily one of the festival’s highlights in terms of energy, overall quality and crowd enthusiasm. That included from a juvenile hipster no older than twelve whose big sister told him, “No crowd surfing,” before turning to find him having the time of his life atop a sea of passing hands.
Back to the Future Award: Daft Punk
Remember when they used to hold outdoor raves in the same burnt-out grass yards that housed carnival fairs? This was a lot like that minus the glow sticks and bad ecstasy pills. In their stead were two of the world’s best sound selectors atop a gigantic pyramid putting more than fifty thousand dancers through the ringer with a laser-light show, high-energy BPM count and international mega-hits like “Around the World” and “One More Time” all from behind the comfort of air-conditioned astronaut helmets.
Best Band That’s Too Young To Drink: Tokyo Police Club
These fresh-faced Canadian noisemakers started the day off in fine punk-rock fashion with kick-and-shout songs and an energetic keyboard/tambourine player that’s probably a lot more fun on stage than he is at parties.
Worst Transfer from Record to Performance: Tapes ‘n Tapes
Generally bands are at least able to duplicate their studio sound if not find another level for the live performance. Tapes ‘n Tapes seemed to follow the ideology that louder is better. Not always. Screaming vocals that grated on the ears and ramped-up guitars had this crowd restless and looking at their schedules for the next move.
Worst Cover Song: Pete Yorn “Young Folks”
When you’re known for harmless songs people listen to over morning coffee, ending your set with a lifeless acoustic version of one of the year’s hottest tracks is just not a good idea.
Best Karaoke Performance: Stephen Marley
I was happy that Jamaican music was represented in some form at the festival, but watching Bob’s look-alike, sound-alike offspring do watered-down versions of his father’s songs that sounded pretty much the same as Stephen’s own blend of roots reggae pop really made us wish they had just invited brother Junior Gong instead.
Biggest Band on the Smallest Stage: Cold War Kids
With nine stages, it was pretty much ensured that you’d get your exercise, but for the most part festival organizers got the stage assignments right. That was not the case with Cold War Kids, which was relegated to the tiny Citi stage. The entire area was packed, and hits like “Robbers” and “We Used to Vacation” were broken out to enthusiastic response.
Band Most Likely to Become the Next Phish: The Roots
Perhaps surprising for fans who’ve followed the Roots since the beginning, the performance at Lollapalooza showed them to be little more than a hip-hop jam band. Black Thought remains one of the most talented live emcees on the planet, but he was asked to do little more than spit verses that segued into extended rock solos or cover versions of easily recognizable hits. The band is known for unpredictable guest spots, and many of us were hoping Common or Kanye would pop up on their home court, but not even Roots affiliates Dice Raw or Rahzel made the trip. Maybe I’m just an old-fashioned hater because the mostly white crowd ate up Captain Kirk’s “You Got Me” Jimi Hendrix routine, but in a festival with almost no legitimate hip-hop acts, I would have been a lot happier with a little more beats and rhymes and something a little different than the live show these guys have been perfecting since 1998.
The Keep It Real Slacker Award: CSS
The Brazilian party-pop outfit Cansei de Ser Sexy disappointed many a fan in multi-colored Wayfarers by missing their plane and having to cancel altogether.
Most Sincere Performance Moment: Regina Spektor
One undisputed fact about Lollapalooza is that it was loud. Even the most insecure artist was able to hide behind the push of hard drums and screaming guitars. So imagine coming out by yourself and singing a few a cappella and then turning to a piano and finally a guitar for your only accompaniment. And yet Regina Spektor’s intimate little songs won the larger-than-expected crowd over immediately, perhaps because it came as a breath of fresh air and perhaps because of her sincerity. If the songs hadn’t convinced you, there was little room for pessimism after Spektor stopped a song midway after she spotted a young girl who looked like she was going to pass out. The singer actually got up from her piano and refused to start again until EMTs had the girl on her way to safety. She then addressed the rest of the audience like a concerned big sister: “I hope you guys are drinking a lot of water and staying hydrated and shit because I want you to have a really good time today and for the rest of your lives.” The performance was strong as well. “That Time” and “On the Radio” came to life beautifully, and her voice sounded even better live than it does on record.
Uncaged Lioness Award: Karen O, Yeah Yeah Yeahs
After getting the sweetheart treatment from Regina Spektor, we ran across the park just in time to catch the raw visceral energy of certifiable madwoman Karen O and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Sporting a black-and-white checkerboard cape, her trademark bangs, makeup that looked like war paint, some kind of custom-made dominatrix outfit and a fluorescent-green microphone, she had control of the crowd from her first banshee scream. Perhaps as a reaction to the semi-backlash to Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ quieter, song-driven second album, this performance was a flat-out firestorm. With plenty of ammunition in the form “Phenomena,” “Kiss Kiss,” and of course “Y Control,” the musicians turned the crowd into a sweaty mess, only pausing to play what Karen called “kinda like a love song for us” and the band’s one radio hit, “Maps.” It was somewhat surprising to see a band that started as local faves in Brooklyn and supposedly struggled with major-label record sales have so many people so riled up, but if anything it reaffirmed Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ relevance and reignited excitement for whatever may be released next. This was without question the wildest show — both on- and off-stage — that I saw all weekend.
One-Note Performance Award: Spoon
At just about any other music festival, Spoon would almost certainly be on my don’t-miss list, but that wasn’t the case at Lollapalooza. In fairness, just about anybody is bound to sound a little bland immediately after Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Spoon sounded good, but with so many other bands able to provide the dynamic dramatics of a rock show experience, these musicians really couldn’t find another level. Although I should mention that we had to leave before they played their anthem, “The Way We Get By.”
Blast from the Past Award: Patti Smith
A reference point for many artists at the festival, I can’t say I’ve ever been a big fan of Patti Smith. But I wasn’t complaining about the added bonus of hearing eighties jukebox staple “Because the Night” while waiting for Interpol.
Band Most Likely to Inspire You to Upgrade Your Wardrobe: Interpol
The members of Interpol came dressed in dapper designer black and equipped with their big, precise, near-perfect sound. It’s a lot of fun to get swept up in the spontaneous and unpredictable, but there is also something to be said for seeing a very good band with very good songs play a very good set for a very big crowd. Early tracks that helped the band build a sturdy reputation — “NYC,” “C’mere,” “Evil” — only helped solidify it when heard live on Lollapalooza’s massive sound system. Newer tracks including “The Heinrich Maneuver” and “No I in Threesome” have only improved on the band’s signature sound, and somehow even Paul Banks’s complete lack of crowd interaction and the band’s stoic cool only added to the mystique. Except for the infamous Carlos Dengler, everyone basically played in place. But the music was more than capable of speaking for itself. With a transcendent quality enhanced by the ambience of an early nightfall, a slight rain, and Chicago’s skyline in the background, this was easily one of the festival’s best shows.
The At Least It Wasn’t Jared Leto Award: Juliette & The Licks
That’s pretty much the highest compliment I’m able to pay this “band.”
Artist Least Likely To Crack a Smile: Amy Winehouse
My photogapher’s wife said 2:15 p.m. was the perfect timeslot for Amy Winehouse: Too early for her to have started drinking but late enough to allow time to recover from a hangover. Whether still getting over a late night or not quite ready for a new day, Winehouse displayed her best poker face and bluffed the bettors in Vegas by showing up on time and sober, playing a dazzling set to a huge crowd of sun-soaked fans. She stuck strictly to her songs on Back in Black, straying only to cover Sam Cooke, Lauryn Hill and the Zutons and pausing only to blow kisses to her newlywed husband, it was the power of her voice that proved why Winehouse got so famous even before the gossip pages got a hold of her. Backed by the multi-talented Dap Kings, her brand new retro sound was a clear winner with audiences, who were buzzing early about the high quality of her performance.
Band Most Likely to Make You Think You’re at Woodstock: Kings of Leon
A throwback to old-school Southern rockers like Lynard Skynard, these guys still packed the yard and made you feel like drinking keg-poured Budweiser was just the thing to do.
Old Guys Most Likely to Convert Young Fans: Iggy & The Stooges
Thanks to Converse, Gap and other advertising campaigns, most people at least have some idea who Iggy Pop is, and if there is one thing that’s still contagious at a rock show, it still has to be a shirtless guy onstage screaming and running and jumping and sliding all over with reckless abandon. Even if very few in the audience could tell you the name of one song played, many were swept up in the moment enough to rush the stage and make this one of the more amped-up crowds and performances.
Biggest Buzzkill Moment that Turned into One of the Real Highlights: Peter, Bjorn and John
Two songs in and just after telling the crowd how they used to dream about coming to Lollapalooza when they were in high school, Peter, Bjorn and John started a version of “The Chills” — and then the power on the entire stage cut out. The guys signed autographs and joked with the crowd awhile, but it was more than forty-five minutes until the power came back. Fortunately, no one scheduled to play after, and the trio went on to tear apart versions of “Up Against the Wall,” “Let’s Call It Off,” and “Young Folks.” These guys may officially be the coolest nerds ever. Peter Moren has a surprisingly funny rock-star presence and Bjorn Yttling provided some in between-song humor, calling their final two tracks “two of the most important songs in Swedish history.” This band really has its act together: Peter, Bjorn and John’s live translation of album tracks, controlled energy, and ability to give the crowd exactly what they wanted made this one of the best sets of the weekend.
Band with the Strangest Career Arc: Modest Mouse
Modest Mouse started out as the lonely record-store clerks’ keep-it-to-myself favorite before turning into a band perhaps most famous for its help with the soundtrack to Fox’s teen saccharine soap The O.C. Much like Interpol, Modest Mouse showed the strength and dexterity of a truly professional band, and it was a pleasurable bonus to get to listen to the lush guitar work of added member and ex-Smith Johnny Marr, who looked as relaxed, cool, and comfortable as ever. “Missed the Boat,” “Paper Thin Walls,” and the ubiquitous “Float On” were easy winners. The band played for one of the largest non-closing audiences of the festival.
Best Use of Forty-Five Minutes: TV on the Radio
For reasons that remain a mystery, Brooklyn’s own TV on the Radio was held to a set fifteen minutes shorter than was the festival standard. The band kicked right in with the title track from its debut EP, 2003’s Young Liars. Tunde Adebimpe remains one of the best live vocalists alive, and he proved it during “Wolf Like Me,” “I Was a Lover,” and “Dirtywhirl.” After thanking the crowd and telling them this would end a period of fourteen months of touring, the band tried to take a request for its last song before giving the people exactly what they wanted, with an extended version of “Staring at the Sun.” These guys are clearly a cohesive unit: They are able to build a wall of sound, keeping everything moving with Jaleel Bunton’s crisp drum patterns and expertly manipulating a song’s tone and pace to make their live experience something entirely different than what you get on record. For many in that crowd, this was how the festival came to an end, with hundreds of still-hungry fans begging for an encore, joining in chants of “Fuck Pearl Jam” and fighting over tossed drumsticks.
The Soldier Field Stadium-Rock Award: Pearl Jam
After headlining the second Lollapalooza some fifteen years earlier, Pearl Jam returned to the same role in a much expanded festival. Although the band seemed slightly out of place playing among so many right-now bands, Pearl Jam still retains an independent spirit and turned out to be a very good catch; attracting young and old, the performance was a nice way to bring all of the various festivalgoers to one place for a final send-off. It’s almost impossible not to at least respect Eddie Vedder, who remains as sincerely no-bullshit as he was when the band decided to take on Ticketmaster for ridiculous surcharges and refused to keep making music videos. Vedder made some heartfelt comments about growing up in Chicago and commended the crowd for their behavior, which he said was applauded by every artist he talked to. They broke out classics like “Evenflow,” “Daughter,” and “State of Love And Trust” while pleasing core fans with songs from their less famous later albums. Vedder did get up on his soapbox to promote a “Save the Lake” initiative that had been present throughout the festival, even composing a short song reminding people to avoid going to BP Amoco, which is supposedly behind a plan that would pollute Lake Michigan. He also reinterpreted Pink Floyd, signing “George Bush, leave this world alone,” which of course got a huge crowd response.
Tragic Victims of Scheduling Conflicts:
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (versus The Roots)
Lupe Fiasco (versus Amy Winehouse)
Femi Kuti (versus LCD Soundsystem)
The Rapture and Silverspun Pickups (versus Blonde Redhead)
Yo La Tengo and !!! (versus Peter Bjorn & John)
Shows We Missed That Others Raved About:
Matt & Kim and Flosstradamus
Best Overheard Quotes:
Interviewer: Do you guys have any pre-show rituals?
Bjorn Yttling: I’m usually noodling on my computer.
Peter Moren: I like to brush my teeth.
Interviewer: What did you think of the crowd this year?
Lupe Fiasco: Very Caucasian. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
I can’t imagine a better home base for this festival than Chicago; it has two airports and is close enough to both coasts so neither is isolated; and it has all the public transportation, hotels and restaurants needed to carry this many guests. Chicago is clean and spread out and it’s easy to navigate, and it doesn’t pose the kind of crowding problems you might see in New York. Grant Park offers great layout options and is isolated enough that the noise won’t drive the neighbors crazy. So I’m pleased that organizers have decided to hold Lollapalooza here through 2011. I can’t wait to attend.
Photo Gallery from Day 1 & 2:
Photo Gallery from Day 3 & the Crowd: