Lollapalooza’s reemergence as the premier music festival in the country (and possibly the world) is no longer up for much debate. Its lineup alone puts it well out of the reach of festivals like Coachella, Bonarroo and SXSW. Bigger headliners meant bigger crowds this year (reportedly clearing 225,000 over the three days), but surprisingly this didn’t add up to longer lines for food, beer or bathrooms. The festival’s well thought out organization helped create a feeling of freedom and convenience that put it head and shoulders above pale imitators like All Points West.
It’s obvious that millions of dollars are poured into the festival from big-name sponsors, not to mention ticket and concessions revenues, but the high standards exhibited across the board — from stage construction to sound quality to the video content playing on big screens on either side of the large stages — suggests the money is being put to good use.
The other thing that sets Lollapalooza apart is that it’s clearly not an industry event; it’s a band showcase for fans, and in that sense it couldn’t get much better. The hour-long sets, contraints that everyone besides headliners must abide by, generally assure that you’re going to see the best the performers have. There are no encore pretenses or elaborate intros. The music starts immediately and rarely pauses. Performers are almost without fail bringing their best (they’d be fools not to), and their efforts are largely mirrored back by some of the country’s most enthusiastic and engaged crowds gathered in one place.
Chicago is the ideal city to host the event. It has all of the conveniences of a major city (public transportation, cabs, hotels, restaurants) without any of the pretension of an LA or New York. Being in the middle of the country makes it fairly easy and inexpensive as a travel destination, and Grant Park is perfectly suited for the multiple stages, vendors and teeming masses that Lolla brings with it. The festival also works with the Parkways Foundation on the design and organization of the event, with a portion of the gross revenues going back to the program that benefits parks in the Chicago area.
It was impossible to be everywhere, but we did our best to see and hear as much as we could. Here are some of my impressions over the course of the weekend.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 1
Best Band With No Lead Singer: Holy Fuck
A late addition to the lineup, I can’t think of a better way to start the festival than with the thoroughly original, super modern, high voltage instrumentals of Holy Fuck. It was a little strange to hear their late night soundscape in the middle of the blazing heat but they proved their name is more than a gimmick – it’s usually your first reaction after hearing one of their many finely crafted blipstreams.
The Bring It On Award: Go Team!
If you’re into hip-pop anthems that would be perfect for amping up your hipster kickball team, this would have been the show for you. These guys came with a lot of energy and even at the hottest point of the day drew a good-size crowd with a big block devoted to jumping around during just about every song.
The There Will Be Blood Award: Gogol Bordello
For sheer lunacy and a sound that seems to come from another time in history you needed to look no further than Gogol Bordello. With perhaps a little help from the already descending Radiohead army, these gypsy rockers drove the enormous crowd into an absolute frenzy with their booming sound and onstage antics. It was honestly one of the craziest spectacles I can remember seeing.
This Is Just a Warm-up: Grizzly Bear
Grizzly Bear are a talented group with a nice, full sound live, but after you’ve been playing places the size of Bowery Ballroom or smaller since you started touring, opening up for Radiohead for the rest of their North American tour is bound to be a pretty drastic shift in perspective. Lead singer Edward Droste admitted it was “surreal” watching 75,000 people sing along to “All I Need” from backstage later that night. Let’s hope that the opening act slot does more for their careers than it did for Beta Band, Clinic or Liars.
Living Proof: Cat Power
Newly sober and looking visibly happy and healthy, Chan Marshall is slowly but surely working to put all those “worst show I’ve ever seen” stories behind her.
Band Most Likely to Recover from the Sophomore Slump: Bloc Party
With expectations set impossibly high after the success of Silent Alarm, it was unlikely that Bloc Party would have lived up to what fans and critics wanted no matter what they released next. So after the critical beating and fan backlash that welcomed Weekend in the City, some may have written the band off. But if this performance proved anything it was that Bloc Party’s material actually translates better live (case in point: a chopped and screwed version of their much maligned new single, “Mercury in Retrograde”) and they still know how to rock a big stage. The harsh reality remained: Playing on this stage at this point in the day was not going to be easy, and after a blistering version of “This Modern Love” left all the fans anxiously awaiting Radiohead, mostly complacent lead singer Kele Okereke couldn’t help but let out a frustrated, “Come on.” I understood his irritation. Bloc Party put on what was easily one of the best shows of the weekend. But they could have been stuck on the other side of the park like CSS, Stephen Malkmus, the Cool Kids or the Raconteurs, whose audiences were as much concerned with making sure they had a clear sightline of Thom Yorke.
Return of the Kings: Radiohead
People in Chicago are still buzzing about the legendary show Radiohead put on in Grant Park in 2001, and if that wasn’t enough to live up to, being the only band to play unopposed at the festival added just a little more pressure. But when you’re arguably the biggest band in the world, you’re used to that kind of thing.
The best way to describe the show? Quality. The state-of-the-art light show simulated, among other things, rain and fireworks and flying into the sun; dozens of cameras captured the band at various angles and displayed the images on the giant screens to either side of the stage, where they were further manipulated to match the show’s content from somewhere off-stage. Then there is the catalog: They played songs from The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac and In Rainbows (in its entirety). It would be difficult to name a single modern band that could fill a two-hour stage space with a better run of songs.
The scene around us could only be described as rapturous. It was an emotional, borderline religious experience for many in the dedicated crowd (we held down our spot for five hours before the show started). When Yorke joked between songs late in the set that the massive crowd was “so quiet,” it was probably because we had expended so much energy just getting to that point that we really needed a break.
The band started with “15 Step,” ended with “Idioteque,” played two encores and took the crowd through a set that was frantic, desperate, haunting, ecstatic and beautiful in equal measure. It was quite honestly the best show I’ve ever seen. After Radiohead exited the stage, the bar was set very, very high.
SATURDAY, AUGUST 2
Overhyped Blog Darlings 1: Does It Offend You, Yeah
These guys make a lot of noise, but if someone can explain to me what sets them apart from the hundred other bands just like them besides a ridiculous name and jokey song titles, I’m all ears.
Up and Comers: Foals
Somewhat quietly Foals released one of the best albums of the year, and even though they were relegated to an early time slot on one of the smaller stages, they put on a focused and energetic performance that won the crowd over almost from its first notes. The crowd continued to grow throughout their set, and the high-quality song construction and instrumentation that made the album such a winner was on full display here. The band has a jittery stage presence, but the songs themselves make up for any lack of showmanship and had us convinced that they were certainly someone to watch for in the future.
Bringing Berlin to Chicago: Booka Shade
Perhaps eager to prove that they belonged on an actual stage and not just inside Perry’s DJ tent, Booka Shade came correct with live electronic drums and a big sound that stretched well past the large crowd that they had dancing from start to finish. I was actually impressed by how well their songs translated into a live set that served as a nice break from all the preening rock stars.
Flavor of the Month Award: MGMT
Proof of what a hit single or two can do for you was the enormous crowd that packed the MySpace stage for the Brooklyn duo’s midday performance.
The 2 Live Crew Award: Spank Rock with Amanda Blank
Even if you broadcast an erotic chat line, it would be difficult to top the amount of dick/pussy references coming out of the Spank Rock set. With Devlin & Darko on the wheels and Naeem dressed in some kind of ridiculous ’50s hipster outfit, the boys from Baltimore did what they do best: brag about “how my hip-hop dickhead bangs like rock’n’roll.” Joined by the filthy-mouthed Amanda Blank for half the set, they had the crowd laughing and bumping at the same time. What else are you supposed to do with a chorus like, “Shake it ‘til my dick turns racist”? These guys are a lot of fun live, but their act works a lot better in a late-night club when half the audience is drunk.
The Gang’s All Here: Broken Social Scene
They may not have had original contributors Feist or Emily Haines, but they did have members of Stars, Apostles of Hustle, Do Make Say Think and both founders (Kevin Drew and Brandon Canning) on hand for a tight set of some of the collective’s best material. Half the fun was watching everyone trading guitars, moving from keyboards to drums, cowbell to trombone, all caught up in the pure joy of creating live music. The band has gained a reputation for having sloppy live shows, but in front of this huge assembled crowd they were anything but. All the changes in their extended songs were right on time and the set time was managed for maximum effect.
When the World Gives You Lemons Award: Lupe Fiasco
Last year he got slotted opposite Amy Winehouse and this year he had to deal with inpatient Rage fans who had already taken over that stage waiting for the headliners. But despite these sizable obstacles, the Chicago native delivered a sharp, more mature set filled out for the most part with songs from The Cool.
Don’t Call It a Comeback: Rage Against the Machine
They may have been playing a set almost entirely made up of material more than ten years old, but you would have never known it from looking down at the massive sea of dedicated fans who turned Grant Park into a spin cycle of pent-up energy. Frontman Zach De la Rocha had to stop the show several times because of the chaos near the front of the stage that caused a constant wave of fans to be taken out over the barricades by security. But almost ironically after these brief pauses Rage would go right back into their high-octane rant-rock setting everything right back on fire. De la Rocha seemed completely at ease stomping around the stage, and his large presence and politically charged lyrics showed why Rage is still right in step with a lot of what people are feeling today: fed up and ready for change.
SUNDAY, AUGUST 3
Best Band to Have Brunch To: Brazilian Girls
The Brazilian Girls have come along way. It wasn’t so long ago that they were playing every Wednesday at tiny Nu Blu on Avenue C in New York, and now they were an opening afternoon band on the biggest stage of Lollapalooza. That had to feel good, and they translated that feeling of good will to fans who turned up to dance or just lay back on the hill for their blend of sun-soaked, international-flavored pop. Lead singer Sabina Sciubba’s beautiful voice easily filled up the open field and left just about everyone with a smile on their faces.
Best Intro: Chromeo
These guys are certified jokers, but they do it well and the huge crowd dancing in front of their stage seemed to be proof of that.
Overhyped Blog Darlings 2: Black Kids
Victims of their own success, Black Kids came on the scene with an EP full of catchy songs with funny titles, a borderline offensive band name and a whole lot of buzz from the blogosphere. The love affair seems to be over; their debut full-length has been almost universally panned and their stage show here felt lifeless and struggling.
Festival Whore Award: G.Love & Special Sauce
Is there a music festival that these guys have said no to since 1994? I have no evidence to support the answer being yes.
Best Cover “Sunday Bloody Sunday”: Saul Williams
A good part of this show was taken up by Saul Williams doing his best Rage Against the Machine imitation. But after his sneaker-selling hit “List of Demands” got the crowd jumping, he made a brief speech of encouragement (“We can change everything”) before closing out his set with a poignant and well-delivered version of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
It’s a Mother Fucking Party: Girl Talk
Say what you want about Greg Gillis — he’s been called everything from an overrated mash-up cut and paster to just another hipster on a laptop — but the boy draws a devoted crowd there for one purpose: to party their ass off. The minute Saul Williams’ set ended on the Citi stage, hordes of his devotees rushed the stage chanting “Girl Talk, Girl Talk” and proceeded to go apeshit from the minute he came on stage ‘til the time he exited atop the crowd on an inflatable raft. In between he paired Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” with Jay-Z’s “Roc Boys,” the Village People-style fake cops blasted the crowd with toilet paper guns, and the dancers he invited to crash the stage almost collapsed it.
You’re Not Exactly the Rolling Stones: Love & Rockets
With so many other options at Lolla, young people may not have been rushing to a Stones concert, but at least they’d be able to recognize Mick and Keith and sing along to “Satisfaction.” I couldn’t say the same for aging Brit rockers Love & Rockets, who seemed out of place and out of date here.
Like Going to the Local Bar: The National
After all the antics on display on various stages and the pulsing rhythms coming from Perry’s DJ tent, it was a refreshing change to see Brooklyn’s National take the stage and run through a string of their best material with no pretense. They may not have inspired any mosh pits or crowd surfers, but their more mature set had fans singing along and sounded very good in the early evening setting.
Best Use of Spare Parts: Mark Ronson
With the Dap-Kings, Jamie Lidell and others already on site to help him re-create his various cover songs and his sister and her paparazzi-fave girlfriend along to create buzz, Ronson used his blatant opportunism to gather a decent-size crowd on the stage opposite Kanye’s just before everyone made the move to that side of the park.
Best Last-Minute Addition: Perry’s DJ Tent featuring Million $ Mano, Devlin & Darko, DJ AM, Frankie Chan and Flosstradamus
It’s such an easy concept and such a sure winner. Any time there was a break in between bands, you could always go over to Perry’s DJ Tent and find a full-blown party being helmed by some of the world’s finest DJs. Once you got dancing over there, it was harder than you might think to break yourself away — at least until sit-com star DJ Mom Jeans came on and opened up with Sesame Street…
Best Use of Home Field Advantage: Kanye West
Maybe because of the blowback from the Bonnarro mess or maybe just because he was determined to shut up all the haters who had been flooding the Lolla boards for weeks before his arrival, Kanye West put on nothing less than an inspired two-hour performance for 75,000-plus fans in the city where he grew up. Performing without the aid of props or his much-talked-about light show, Kanye took on the massive stage all by himself for the entire stretch of his set and put himself much closer to rock-star status as he ran through his hits, album highlights and even guest spots. He used his verse from Young Jeezy’s single “Put On” as an extended ode to the city of Chicago and even gave his former address before dedicating the entire show to his recently deceased mother.
From the anthemic sing-along of “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” to the easy fun and audience participation during an extended version of “Good Life” to drawing more than a few tears with his verse from “Hey Mama,” Kanye ruled the crowd from start to finish giving seemingly every ounce of energy he had in him. He gave a speech about his own perceived arrogance and how he saw his mission as trying to go further and do something that had never been done before that came across as both spontaneous and honest.
If there is one thing you can never question about West, it is his work ethic, and this night was a perfect example: It was a vast improvement over his performance at Lolla just two years before. No, Barack Obama didn’t show up to address the crowd, but Chicago’s other native son held it down just fine by himself and closed the festival on a high note that’s going to be very difficult for anyone else to match.
THE BIG PICTURE
Scheduling conflicts at an event of this size are inevitable, but there were some particularly bad clusters that could have been avoided on Friday and Sunday. On Friday there was a two-and-a-half-hour period before Radiohead that packed in Cat Power, Gizzly Bear, Mates of State, Bloc Party, Stephen Malkmus, CSS, the Cool Kids and the Raconteurs. During a ninety-minute block on Sunday, you had to decide between the National, Flosstradamus, Girl Talk, Mark Ronson and Gnarls Barkley. This was especially frustrating given that the earlier parts of these days weren’t exactly packed with must-sees. That said, the festival did do a great job with the headliners. Radiohead played unopposed and it was unlikely that there were a large number of Rage fans upset they were missing Wilco or Kanye heads kicking themselves that Trent Reznor and NIN were at the other end of the park.
There was plenty of space at Lolla reserved for traditional rock ’n’ roll, but it was also easily apparent that the influence of electronic music has only continued to grow. You could hear it everywhere over the course of the weekend from the sounds being created on stage to what now constitutes a stage show (a laptop and little else) to the relentless rhythms coming from the overstuffed DJ tent. It seems that the more artists are able to conquer new technology the more they are going to be able to do with it, and to me that seems like a very exciting prospect.
It should also be noted that there were only 14 arrests during the three-day event and no serious medical problems reported. For the second year in a row, I didn’t see a single fight, which is pretty incredible considering the amount of people that were in attendance.
Lollapalooza gives you very little to complain about. This is an event that was well done from start to finish, and it won with small details and broad strokes alike.
Photo Credit: Margarita Gonzalez/Prefixmag.com