MS.com humbly presents correspondent Ben and his dispatch from the city so CHI, it’s bashful.
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A few years ago, when I was living in Chicago, I impulsively decided to participate in the Music Aptitude Test that was sponsored by Tower Music and Rhino Records. As I bent feverishly with a #2 pencil among a large group of test takers (most of them male and all of them badly in need of some sunlight), I learned that my knowledge of music was not nearly as detailed as I thought it was [Quick! Without Googling, who replaced Phil Collins as the lead singer of Genesis?]. I also learned that Chicago is a city whose residents take their music very seriously.
Perhaps this is what prompted Perry Farrell to choose Chicago as the perfect place to locate the (formerly migratory) Lollapalooza concert festival. For three hot summer days last weekend, over 100 bands – along with 60,000 concertgoers – took up residence on the near South Side of Chicago in beautiful Grant Park.
The four “primary” stages (all brandishing such anti-establishment, workers-of-the-world-unite names as the Bud Light Stage, the AT&T Stage, etc.) were set up so that two large stages faced each other on each end of the park. There were also several other “secondary” stages for smaller acts.
If you were lucky enough to want to see bands that played consecutively at stages located on the same end of the park, the effect of this layout was actually rather great. A crowd would gather around one stage for a concert. Then, as the band at that stage played its last note, the band on the stage facing it would immediately begin to play, prompting the concertgoers to turn around abruptly and trudge en masse to the other side. Those who sat with picnic blankets in the grassy area between the two stages did so at their own peril, as the stampede-eye picture below illustrates:
If you were unlucky enough to want to see bands that played consecutively at opposite ends of the park, this unfortunately meant that you needed to budget a 15-minute walk from one end of the park to the other.
If you were really unlucky and wanted to see two bands that were scheduled to play on opposite ends of the park at the same time you faced what Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot called a “cruel overlap.” Notable cruel overlaps included the times that concertgoers were forced to choose between seeing My Morning Jacket and seeing the Raconteurs or between seeing the Flaming Lips and seeing Common.
Thus, for any one person, seeing all of the bands at Lollapalooza (or even all the “really good” bands at Lollapalooza) was simply impossible. That said, most of the ones I saw were quite good, a few were excellent and only a few were less-than-good. What follows are my own highlights and lowlights among the bands that I was able to see.
Far and away the standout band I saw on Friday and perhaps during the entire festival was Sleater-Kinney, which was playing one of its very last shows together and did so with an appropriate and at times almost desperate level of passion and ferocity â€”particular standout songs were “Sympathy” from One Beat, which never fails to awe me whenever I see it performed live, and “Wilderness.”
Also excellent on Friday was Jack White’s band/project/whatever-the-hell-it-is the Raconteurs, who were among the relatively few bands that paid tribute to the cross-pollinating tradition of the early 90s Lollapaloozas by playing a fantastic (I’m toldâ€”I was already migrating to the other side of the park to see Sleater-Kinney) cover of Gnarls Barkley’s damn near ubiquitous summer hit, “Crazy.”
UK rapper Lady Sovereign was also a standout, whose performance resulted in a truly impressive (and frequently repeated) crowd falsetto of “Make way for the S-O-V!!!” Closing Friday band Death Cab for Cutie was also excellent.
Other Friday bands were a bit less impressive. I haven’t listened to the Eels much in recent years but Mark Everett’s set was a little too heavy on feedback for my taste. Stars continue to be a band that, despite several tries, I just “don’t get.” And, in case there was any remaining doubt, the Grateful Deadification of Ryan Adams now appears to be nearly complete. Not only was much of his set devoted to six-minute Jerry Garcia-esque blues jams (including a cover of the Dead’s “He’s Gone”â€”which was actually pretty good) he seemed to have a bad case of the munchies himselfâ€”as evidenced by a rather odd (and more than a little bit woozy) monologue devoted to his love of eggs, or as he pronounced them, “eeeeegggggggs . . .” All righty, Ry! Time to go to the next stage.
Saturday seemed to have been earmarked as the festival’s “hip-hop day” with a closing set by Kanye West (sound problems marred the early part of his set – or perhaps it was just where I was standing) and an inspiringly upbeat set by fellow Chicagoan Common.
As far as crowd reaction, however, neither of these excellent performers held a candle to Gnarls Barkley. The members of which came to the stage dressed in white tennis uniforms with matching headbands (and racquets). Their set was fantastic with Cee-Lo at one point offering his fans a moving and deeply felt sermon paying tribute to liberty, freedom, and topless female crowd-surfing.
Although I had been most excited to see the New Pornographers, I actually thought that their set was a bit less energetic than other times I have seen them. Seeing them reminded me that the indie music fans of the world collectively owe Kathryn Calder a round of drinksâ€”she’s a great keyboardist, does a great job with the NPGs female vocals and always has to deal with confused audience members who can’t quite figure out if she’s Neko Case and disappointed male audience members who were hoping to get a Neko bra thrown at them. Poor Ms. Calder has one of the hardest jobs in music today.
I had never seen Calexico live and thought they were good, if a little heavy on mariachi-style horns. I would have liked to have heard a little more from the Garden Ruin, but I must admit that I had to leave early to catch Gnarls Barkley.
I also greatly enjoyed the Dresden Dolls – whom I had heard of but never heard before the festival. Lead singer Amanda Palmer has a voice that can knock you over and Brian Viglione’s drumming was like a missile barrage. Their cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” was not to be missed and was certainly one of the best songs I heard all weekend.
Lyrics Born didn’t really do much for me, but was popular with all of my friends and had one of the most responsive and animated crowds I saw at the show.
If you still get a charge out of that old copy of Blood Sugar Sex Magik under the driver’s seat of your car or have been able to stay loyal to Wilco in spite of its last studio album, Sunday was likely to be a very good day for you. For everyone else, it was probably the weakest overall day of the festival . . . which is my official excuse for why we didn’t arrive until after 3 pm.
I thought Andrew Bird, whom I had heard much about but never heard before, was excellent and resolved to get more of his stuff. The almost Near Eastern quality of his otherwise-hard-to-classify violin sounds was truly hypnotizing in a way that I can only compare (albeit very imperfectly) to a Philip Glass composition.
Our next band was the Shins. Although I otherwise love them, unfortunately, at least from where we were sitting, the band seemed to be having some serious sound issues that made them very difficult to hear from the back. Shaking angry fists at the sound booth, we decided to turn our attention elsewhere.
With a weak camera battery, I had to be a bit more sparing of my shots. The one below is of She Wants Revenge, who I had never heard before but thought sounded okayâ€”even if (to my post-adolescent ears at least) they sounded so much like Joy Division they should be paying the estate of Ian Curtis royalties. Good sound quality though.
Other bands from Sunday included Matisyahu, who sounded great and was one of the few artists I saw during the concert whom Perry Farrell extended the courtesy of an encore. He also was one of relatively few artists during the weekend to address – in the form of a prayer – the current conflict in Lebanon.
Finally, with an 8 pm flight back to New York to catch, and the only available musical entertainment for us being Blues Traveler, Poi Dog Pondering and the Reverend Horton Heat (sorry, but a fairly firm “no” to all three from me), we spent the rest of our day walking around the Buckingham Fountain area and taking in the sights before whisking ourselves away on the Blue Line to O’Hare.
All in all – a few performance bumps notwithstanding – it was a very solid weekend and well worth the $130. I would definitely recommend next year’s festival to anyone who can go.
Oh yes, and here’s your obligatory cute-baby-in-a-tie-die picture (cue the Youngbloods’ “Get Together”):