I fucking love Chicago in the summertime — where every day makes you feel like Ferris Bueller. With my iPhone as my life coach and fellow Creamer D. Patrick Rodgers as my co-pilot, I returned to the Windy City this weekend and, while I didn’t manage to find the time to check out inevitably awesome re-vamped Sears Tower Skydeck, I did catch a good bit of the annual Lollapalooza Festival.
D.P.R. and I descended on the park for day one as the ethereal soundscape of modern indie-rock standard-bearers The Walkmen snaked through the air and bounced off Soldier Field. While it was our intention to see the band’s set in full, finding our way to press check-in forced us to mostly settle for just hearing it. But there are worse ways of starting off a weekend than by warming your eardrums with Hamilton Leithauser’s gruff falsetto as it soars above you.
Luckily, we managed to acquire our credentials in time to watch the band close their set with a one-two punch of the ever-raucous anthem “The Rat” and a gorgeous “Stranded” — complete with horns. While they did end up entertaining a rather large crowd, the fact that such a top-shelf band was playing on day one at 1 p.m., while musical criminals like AFI or the “Blink-182-for-people-who-don’t-want-to-admit-they-like-Blink-182” what-have-you of Matt & Kim get prime slots on the same stage, makes me want to punch people, if only I weren’t so inherently peaceful.
If you ask Lollapalooza creator Perry Farrell what his festival brand is all about, he’ll tell you it's peace. While taking a breather in the press hospitality area Midway through Friday’s festivities, I found myself sitting within earshot of Farrell giving an interview to another journo, and simply couldn’t help but listen to his bohemian rock-star ramblings on politics and social welfare. “We’re driving peace,” he said of Lolla's mission, which i suppose is funnier than saying, "We're doing ourselves in much faster than the dinosaurs ever did." Of course, for my esteemed fellow Creamer D. Patrick Rodgers, the whole “driving peace” sentiment might have been a little hard to rectify with the mental image of the mini Chicago Riot he saw break out when a gaggle of gate-crashers bloodied up some backstage security. All they were doing was trying to jump on board the peace-train and shovel some coal.
Just like at Bonnaroo ’09, one of the festival’s obvious highlights was an afternoon set from neo-soul exemplar Raphael Saadiq. With the swing-beat singer bearing an uncanny resemblance to a certain sitting United States President, Saadiq’s set was a good fit for Grant Park. Over a tight-and-tasteful-as-fuck backing band, Saadiq exuded a palpable joy and contagious charisma as he smiled with the widest of smiles and channeled Curtis Mayfield with a falsetto that cut like through the massive crowd like a knife through butter. Saadiq’s set — which heavily featured choice cuts off his excellent 2008 release, The Way I See It — had the audience clapping in unison to the persistent beat of a piccolo snare, and joining in the sock-hop, reminding us all of the difference between music that’s throw-back and music that’s timeless. Raphael Saadiq needs to come to Nashville. STAT.
“It’s 2010 and we’re here to whip it again,” said bassist Gerald Casale as the band whipped into the most well-known selection from their oeuvre, which was just one in a 14-song slew of hits — by my standard, at least — that included such gems as “Going Under,” “Peek-a-Boo,” “Girl U Want,” “Mongoloid” the devolution manifesto “Jocko Homo,” and the bowel-emptying closing medley of “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA” into a "let’s-change-the world" version of “Gates of Steel” that made me want to cry, in addition to a trio of songs from their 2010 comeback album, Something for Everybody.
With journeyman drummer Josh Freese — who made a lot more sense propelling Devo than he did Weezer last month at Bonnaroo — the band’s only non-original member, the brothers Casale and Mothersbaugh donned the energy domes, radiation suits and knee-pads to win over the growing crowd with as vital and perfect sounding set as any you'll see from any one of today's myriad new wave revivalists.
After singing, clapping along and running in place for the duration of Devo’s set I was pretty spent. The following few hours consisted of casing the various stages littering Grant Park — on which I caught snippets of sets from the Dirty Projectors and The Black Keys — before retreating back to press hospitality to take advantage of happy hour and involuntarily vibe-out to the ’80s cop-buddy-flick sounds of Chromeo — who are basically the second coming of Ray Parker Jr. At least when they’re not backing up Daryl Hall.
If there's one image from last weekend that most sticks out in my mind, it's that of witnessing what is perhaps the largest single gathering of people I've ever seen form a human sea more than a quarter-mile long as the minutes counted down for Lady Gaga's set. The mass of her monstrous followers, who dominated the crowd in every direction that day, and people simply consumed with curiosity and a desire to see the Gaga phenomenon in all it's zeitgeist-y glory, was staggering.
I first noticed the critical mass reach a fever pitch when, as the lights dimmed, the normally "over-it" folks populating the press area scrambled like savages to the fence to try and get a glimpse. I was among them.
While Gaga went through the rather perplexing beginning to her show — which featured her singing as a silhouette behind a projection screen, Trent Reznor-style — it was hard to take your eyes of the sheer spectacle of the crowd. Spectacle seemed to trump everything about Gaga. That is, until she began speechifying, passionately and angrily shouting out a hodgepodge of fuck-the-haters confrontational/motivational banter that was an I'm-an-outcast-just-like-you rallying call for her little monsters.
I've gotta say, it was actually convincing, and pretty funny, especially when she bragged about having the biggest dick in the park. Of course there were a bells glittering and whistles going off, screens, lights lasers, Cirque-worthy acrobatic dance routines, and about as much subtlety as a Civil War battle. Which is almost what I felt like I was watching. There was also music. Guitar solos, Auto-Tuned vocals, Ibiza beats and piano solos all condensed into every aesthetic hallmark of contemporary pop music. Still, with the exception of the singles, most of it just sounded indistinguishable from song to song. Gaga has a Madonna-worthy celebrity surrounding her, but it won't be until she writes her "Like a Prayer" that she'll be as compelling beyond this pop-cultural moment in time.
Given the park's grand size and narrow, shot-gun shape, Lollapalooza is really sort of two festivals going on at once. At no time was this more clear than when The Strokes did their own headline-y sort of thing over on the north side of the grounds. As I made my way into the vicinity to rock 'n' roll, I felt like I might as well have just crossed into another dimension. The band were three songs into a 16-song set that — like everything they've ever done — was short and to the point. I was especially thrilled to have made it in time to see them play "What Ever Happened?," the fantastic opener to their criminally underrated sophomore effort, Room on Fire. Aside from a cursory overview of that record and its followup, First Impressions of Earth, the band stuck to covering all the key bases of their seminal aughts masterpiece, Is This It?. So much so that I could hardly tell a difference between this show and the one I saw the band play in 2002. Of course, they looked a little different, Albert Hammond Jr. was rockin' an uncharacteristically close-cropped 'do and I don't think I could describe singer Julian Casablanca's visage better than my partner-in-crime D. Patrick Rodgers, who described him as looking like "a dystopian teenage warlord." Still, they're New York City to the guard, with Casablancas as my g-g-generations Joey Ramone.
Nailing killer cuts like "Soma" and "Reptilia" The Strokes sounded sick as ever. In my Lollapalooza preview I'd worried that, "[going] up against Gaga is going to make them look like yesterday’s news, as opposed to elder statesmen." I was wrong. They definitely prevailed as elder statesmen.
Blushing with nostalgia along with 30,000 other singers-along while watching a band play songs culled from a debut less than a decade old is really a feeling I'm not used too. Of course, there was the moment during which Gaga's fireworks show managed to turn the heads of everyone watching The Strokes. Even the band themselves were caught watching Gaga as Casablancas casually acknowledged the pyrotechnic display. But when he counted the band into "Someday," it sure as hell didn't feel like anyone thought they were missing much on the south end of the park.
There were some great bands to check out on the first half of Saturday: But I didn't see any of them. I had a great American city to enjoy, and the hurdles of mass transit, all-day breakfast options and the various civic distractions that managed to consume much of my day. There was also the ostensibly short-that-predictably-became-long trip to a Chi-Town chum's apartment to say, "high" — I mean, "hi." Which eventually led to us watching Throw Mama From the Train and playing Foosball. Now tell me that doesn't sound better than seeing Blues Traveller and The xx.
Of course, the precursor to such activities could have easily been equally enhancing to seeing bands, but fuck, there wasn't any Bonnaroo-style, out-in-the-open, Shakedown Street-style commerce-center anywhere near, or within the festival grounds. What the fucking fuck? Am I doing something wrong? I'm an unkempt schlub walking around a music festival in cargo shorts. I even wore a T-shirt proudly displaying a Nashville establishment as a way of saying, "Hey Mr. Tambourine man, I'm OBVIOUSLY here from out of town, needing someone to play a song for me."
That tactic worked at Pitchfork, but not Lolla. Do I seriously have to just go and wear a Bob Marley T-shirt next time?
Moving on. The mellow I did happen to prevail on before the foosball game was harshed, stabbed, shot, hung, drawn, quartered, drowned, run over and raped in every orifice by the 20 minutes of musical depravity courtesy of Misfits-wannabe-turned-Hoobastank-ear-tormentors AFI, who were playing at 120-THOUSAND decibels on a stage near press hospitality where I made my entrance. It did give me some perspective, though. Kind of like when you start having an emotional crisis over the water in your shower not being hot enough, then you stop to think about starving children in third-world shanty-towns, before throwing a bag popcorn in the microwave and throwing Hotel Rawanda on the flat-screen and realizing it could be worse. That was my reaction to everything underwhelming after finding myself in earshot of AFI.
I also managed to kinda catch Social Distortion open their set with "Story of My Life," and follow it with "Bad Luck" — which sounded good, if you like that sort of thing, but not nearly as good as when I saw Bruce Springsteen bring Mike Ness to lead him and the E Street Band through it in L.A., last year. By the way, have I have ever told you that I like Bruce Springsteen?
After catching a glance of Cut Copy, I got restless and, once again, made the arduous trek across the park as Green Day took to the main stage and basically put on, give or take a setlist swap or two, the same show I saw them bust out at the then-Sommet Center last summer. Considering how great a show it is, that's fine. Basically, Green Day have been honing the same act for years: by-the-numbers pop songs x3 pyro, dirty joke, crowd participation, by-the-numbers pop-punk song, crowd participation + stage-dive, pryro x4, torch-ballad, pyro, non-Dookie old-song x3, torch ballad, Dookie-song x4, pryo, a revue of covers, more hits, more pyro, more crowd participation, fireworks finale and out. All the while, Billy Joe Armstrong proves he's a master showman to the extent of his idols, and that, even if you hate him and his band, you'll still respect them and revel in the moments of pleasurable guilt they'll give you. I did get to hear them do "Paper Lanterns" and "2,000 Light Years Away" before skipping back over the to north stages to see Phoenix, and that's pretty rad.
Mr. Sofia Coppola & Co. are another band who always put on the same show. At least they have for the last year or so. As always, they flawlessly, and Frenchly executed nearly all of their 2009 pop masterwork, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, a couple other gems, and some older songs from when they sounded like Maroon 5. The band did mention that they thought this was their biggest crowd to date, and I did notice they were playing with a reverence and determination that I didn't remember seeing at, say, Rites of Spring last April. But still, I've seen this band three times, at three different festivals in almost as many months, and it's really starting to give me a Groundhog Day vibe. Time to go back into the studio, Phoenix.
One act whose show I — or anyone else in the crowd, for that matter — can't say I've gotten tired of seeing live is electro-glam duo Empire of the Sun. The Aussie outfit — who played with a full band, and then some — made their stateside debut at Lollapalooza, and despite how much it made me lament not knowing an ecstasy dealer in Chicago, I rather enjoyed the onslaught of strobing laser lights, pulsating grooves and dirty hooks. I may not have had trails to see, but after a day of walking, sweating and drinking copious amounts of alcohol, I was definitely seeing double rainbows by the time Empire hit. Either that or their light show was just double rainbows galore. Actually, I think the answer might be both. Oh my God, the were triple rainbows! And so ended day two.
Hopefully you haven't made it this far into this post in hopes of reading a review of Switchfoot, because Sunday started off a lot like Saturday did for me: late. While I'd love to be able to furnish you with the most compressive, over-arching roundup of shows the festival had to offer, I'd also like to be able to feel my legs at the end of the weekend. Plus, I can only handle so much day-drinking in the Sunday sun. I had to pace myself so I would have enough energy to climb up on D.P.R.'s shoulders later and show the Arcade Fire my tits. WOOOOHOOOO!
The nice thing about Sunday was that Lolla organizers really did a great job ghettoizing the blogworthy bands on the north stages of the festival. I don't even think I had to go south of the Buckingham Fountain once. Hallelujah! I love you, legs.
The first act I caught in full were Next BIG Nashville-bound kitchen-sink-pop purveyors Yeasayer. While this band has songs like the infectious "Ambling Alp," that will stick in my head for days on end, I've sat on the fence of loving or just-only-kind-of-liking them since their latest, Odd Blood, came out earlier this year. Their synths can get a little harsh, and at times they remind me too much of Vampire Weekend for comfort. Except it's Vampire Weekend covering Depeche Mode instead of Paul Simon. Opting for "Personal Jesus" over enjoying "The Sound of Silence" has always been one of my policies of truth. Plus, they gave a shout out to all the pasty Jews in the audience, and that made me go, "WOOOOHOOO!".
They sounded good. I think I'm won over.
Next up were Christian non-emo-for-emo-kids Christian rockers, Mutemath. While I'm not a fan, I wasn't about to leave the comfort of the North just to have to turn around and hoof it back across 'Palooza mere minutes into Erykah Badu's set. Even though that's probably where the weed was at. Anyway, I made it through Mutemath's set the way I imagine people make it through church — by drinking.
When the time came for me to stop pretending I was somewhere else and, once again, start paying attention to the goings-on onstage, New York overnight-sensation turned audience-challengers MGMT were starting their set. Anyone who's seen this band at large-scale events (e.g. Bonnaroo '09) probably remembers they were a little rocky and underwhelming in the flesh when compared to how compelling they can be on wax.
Well, I'm happy to report that MGMT are finally starting to come into their own as a live band. They were good. While I initially attributed their growth to writing and recording a more organic album, this year's Congratulations, around a band — songs like "Brian Eno" and "It's Working" off their psych-rock game-changer were obvious highlights, coming off a bit more accessible in a live setting free of fuzzed-out reverb — Oracular Spectacular favorites like the disgustingly smooth "Electric Feel," and the Ween-song-in-disguise "Weekend Wars" were more effective than they've ever been, finally having some propulsive power to them. For me, the highlight of their set, and really one of the highlights of the festival, was a coolly creepy take on "The Youth." While frontman Andrew Wells VanWyngarden had to have been on the verge of heatstroke in his dapper polka-dot coat, his cool demeanor bore no signs of such a struggle. The crowd got down pretty hard to MGMT songs new and old, and absolutely lost it when the band went into "Kids." While the band's show was good, and seemed to actually now work pretty well in the festival environment, I couldn't help but think to myself, "Man, this is gonna be great at The Ryman."
Next up were The National, who will also sound pretty fucking great at The Ryman. Unfortunately, with the sets having been staggered back to back the way they were, catching all of MGMT's set hindered me from staking out a good spot for The National. I could kind of see it — more on screens than in flesh — but I could hear it, and it sounded great. So good that I'll simply renew my description of them at Bonnaroo, which said, "The National are Interpol with interesting parts but worse haircuts." Add bottles of wine to that list.
There couldn't be a better example of the state of rock music in 2010 than that of having Montreal indie-rock torch-carriers the Arcade Fire, going head to head against reunited, dirge-y grunge pillars Soundgarden, at the close of the festival. Going back to Lollapalooza as two simultaneous festivals split between one gigantic park, the effect of the Soundgarden vs. Arcade Fire matchup on the crowd was utterly polarizing — like putting one gigantic magnet at the south end attracting aggro-bro-tards with tribal tats, 35-45 year-old peeps who still listen to everything they own on CD and the people who came to have a crowd-surfing revival, and a gigantic magnet at the opposite end of the park attracting all the hipsters and more "modern-minded" listeners. It also highlighted the difference between today's Lollapalooza and the Lollapalooza of the '90s, as Soundgarden are veteran rockers of the old — having graced the tour twice in its road-travelin' tenure — and the Arcade Fire played one of their early large-scale festival shows at the 2005 inaugural installment of the single-weekend, single-destination festival it is today.
This week the Arcade Fire's latest album, The Suburbs, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard top 200 album charts, and while there is an easy old vs. new generational argument to be made when talking about the band in context of one like Soundgarden, it's important not to overlook how the two other rock acts in the Arcade Fire's company in the
Top 10 are Guns wannabes Avenged Sevenfold and Roses wannabes Buckcherry — bands that share much more common ground with the Soundgardens of the world than the U2s, Springsteens or Superchunks. (Note: Soundgarden's first large-scale tour was as openers on G 'N R's famed Use Your Illusion Tour.)
It probably goes without saying which band I decided to see.
Yet, the dorm-room intimacy of the band's lyrics ("Intervention"), power of their sweeping sonics ("Haiti") and frenetic excitement of their rockers ("Empty Room"), combined for the perfect arc of moods and moments that make a great stadium show. To watch the band play an early album-ballad like Funeral's "Crown of Love" to 40,000 kids with their arms waving side-to-side in unison, as if they were watching Prince play the Superbowl half-time version of "Purple Rain," and then remind yourself that this a band on Merge records is simply mind-blowing. In the days of a dying record industry, indie-rock has managed to produce its first stadium band. Maybe the Internet hasn't killed music.
With his hatchet-job haircut and leaps between the crowd and the drum riser, singer Win Butler has become a bonafide rockstar. Close behind is wife Regine Chassagne, who captivated the crowd just as easily when she took to center stage to sing The Suburbs' instant classic "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountain) to a fevered, fist-pumping sing-along. Such was the case with many of the newer songs scattered throughout the setlist, with center-piece selections like the dramatic "Rococo" and the savage rocker "Month of May" gripping the galvanized audience with an iron fist. The only people who looked more enthralled by the spectacle underway were the band members themselves, and as that vast cast of characters smiled ear to ear, Butler expressed his gratitude for showing such an encouraging response to the new material.
Still, it was songs from their seminal debut, and its dense follow-up, that completely fused the crowd into a single organism of frenzied acclamation. By the time the band hit us with their set-transition-to-end-all-set-transitions — "Power Out" into their signature show-stopper "Rebellion" — being in the crowd felt like sharing in a collective out-of-body experience. That feeling persisted long after Butler & Co. send us packing with the emotional money-shot of a deafening sing-along to "Wake Up." In those moments, they displayed the kind of godlike prowess that is guiding them to the top of the world, but it’s their palpable good-natured grace and humility that will keep them there — like when Butler briefly looked stunned by the loud crowd response to "Keep the Car Running." Plus, now three LPs in, they have a pretty high batting average when it comes to great, great songs. Simply put: This band is unmatched in their time. Even by Soundgarden. Even. By. Soundgarden.
The fact that the band's Lollapalooza set so outshone their intimate, more subdued, but still relatively rousing Ryman show the next night only proves they're a group tailor-made for the grand stage. Or the What Stage, if you know what I mean. June 2011, I'm calling it.
And so ends another summer festival. I've got to admit, being 29 and seeing the Arcade Fire close out Lollapalooza was pretty epic, but I'm still debating whether or not it was as epic as being 15 and seeing Metallica close it. They totally stole the show at time when it was soooooo uncool to like them. Of course, Soundgarden could've done that and I'd never have known. Until next time. ...