[Lollapalooza has rocked Chicago for six straight years as the reincarnation of a '90s music festival founded by Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell. Last weekend, Chi-town native Marisa Ptak soaked in Lollapalooza 2010: three days of music, heat, rain, and fashion. Below, her dispatch from the festival, with enough new tunes to last the rest of the summer.]
FRIDAY – Day 1 – Get your Ga-Gas Out!
Approaching Grant Park on Michigan Avenue, perceptive listeners could discern strains of B.o.B. singing about beautiful girls, a fitting homage to hordes of Lady GaGa-inspired vixens streaming through the entrance to Lollapalooza. As if the lycra, glitter, and feathers weren’t enough of a spectacle, GaGapalooza vied for Best Costume Design with Devo fans who had dusted off their mechanic’s jumpsuits and dome hats for the afternoon’s revival Devolution.
Early arrivals were rewarded with Balkan Beat Box, the Brooklyn brainchild of saxophonist Ori Kaplan, formerly of Gogol Bordello (another 2010 Lolla perfomer), and drummer Tamir Muskat of indie rockers Firewater. Though their debut album, Nu Med, was critically acclaimed, adding Tomer Yosef to the group and 2010’s Blue Eyed Black Boy earned the band on a spot on one of the main stages. “Hermetico,” punctuated by Kaplan’s Arabic saxophone refrain, had the audience on their feet and dancing a Trepak that would have made Tschaikovsky proud.
Balkan Beat Box, Hermetico
Hometown representation came via Mavis Staples, who made her Lollapalooza debut 60 years after the Staples Singers started on the south side of Chicago. Staples, her sister Yvonne, two other backup vocalists, and a bass, drums, and guitar trio resonated with the intergenerational crowd that flocked to hear the 70-year-old gospel legend. Even twenty-something hipster agnostics raised a praise hand, shouted out blessings, and rocked to “Wonderful Savior” and “Only the Lord Knows.” Featuring songs from her upcoming album, You Are Not Alone, Staples invited the record’s producer, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, onstage with his acoustic guitar. Their collaborative performance of the title track drew passersby headed to catch The Drive-By Truckers; later Staples’ rendition of Pops’ classic “I’ll Take You There” got the crowd to dance.
Lollapalooza, like most major music festivals, has multiple major stages—two at Grant Park’s southerly Hutchins Field as well as two at the northern Petrillo Band Shell—and four smaller stages. Friday’s lineup presented many tough decisions, as festival goers had to choose between simultaneous concerts such as supergroup The New Pornographers and 80s revival Devo, as well as Akron, Ohio’s no-nonsense Black Keys and the synthesizer-driven dance party of Hot Chip. Dodging Devo Energy Domes, New Pornographer listeners were treated to playful, acoustic whimsy Vancouver-style. All original band members were prominent figures in Vancouver’s indie rock scene and have been prolific in the decade since their first album, Mass Romantic. The band enjoys making music together, as evidenced in rousing performances of “Crash Years” and “Mass Romantic,” where drummer Kurt Dahle’s forthright rhythms juxtaposed against the lush, complex vocal harmonies of A.C. Newman, Kathryn Calder, and Neko Case. The crowd had at least doubled in size by the time the New Pornographers closed with “The Bleeding Heart Show.” Hearts were bleeding, alright—for an encore.
The New Pornographers, “Mass Romantic”
The New Pornographers, “The Bleeding Heart Show”
Hot Chip delivered a visceral, dance-infused performance for those who chose the London quintet over the tried and trueness of The Black Keys. Founders Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard were boyhood friends at Elliot School in London who have since released four albums. Their still-boyish tenor vocals hummed over electropop rhythms as the audience danced across muddy baseball fields to “One Life Stand,” “Over and Over,” and “One Pure Thought.”
The Black Keys, Tighten Up
Hot Chip, One Pure Thought
To Gaga, or not to Gaga, that was the question at the end of the night and the former overwhelmingly prevailed. Performing in 2007 as one of Lollapalooza’s reportedly underengaged side acts, Lady Gaga was Friday’s undeniable headliner. Holding an increasingly intoxicated audience captive for two hours, however, was a tall order for GaGa’s single-album repertoire. Though she delivered much spectacle, the concert teetered on tethers between rock opera and after-school special. Each song featured a signature costume change—from disco bra to tasseled lampshade, bleeding heart zealot to holographic robot, sparks-shooting underwear to nun habit paired with translucent rubber dress—and GaGa’s reappearance with each change inspired renewed audience fervor. Still, “Monster Ball”—a journey she promised would set her fans free from society’s conformist judgement—was repeatedly disrupted by pseudo-therapy sessions in which she: bashed bullies who thought she was too skinny or too weird to succeed; lamented the forces that trap teens behind high school facades; and celebrated gains in the LGBTQ movement. “I didn’t used to be brave,” she said. “I was made fun of in school. I got told ‘No,’ but you made me brave. I’m gonna be brave for you.” Despite a strong encore that left the audience—what remained after two hours of self-indulgent impromptu speeches—dancing to “Poker Face” and “Bad Romance,” some were left wondering whether to cheer for more or tell friends, “I GaGo!!”
SATURDAY – Day 2 – Indie Boys and American Idiots
Oppressive summer weather didn’t keep fans away from another stellar lineup on Saturday. Zach Schwartz and Pat Spurgeon of Rogue Wave nudged early arrivals awake with the soulful “Eyes” and “Love’s Lost Guarantee,” both of which imply that these rogues have suffered their share of heartbreak. “Lake Michigan” met with riotous approval from fans on the shores of that Great Lake. Schwarz and Spurgeon’s buoyant vocals, floating over pulsing acoustic guitar, guaranteed that “no one was on Lake Michigan,” but rather on its shores reveling in Rogue Wave’s music.
Fans of indie rockers Stars and the xx may been a bit disappointed. Stars’ vocalist Amy Millan’s voice is ethereal and haunting, but her soft, nuanced vocals didn’t translate well in Lollapalooza’s outdoor setting. What did translate was the band’s lush instrumentation, particularly in “The Night Starts Here” and “Take Me to the Riot.” British buzz band the xx was similarly plagued by minimalist instrumentation ill-suited to the large, outdoor venue. That said, Stars collaborator and associate Metric jolted listeners back to attention. Both Emily Haines and James Shaw of Metric were previously bandmates with Stars’ Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell, respectively, and both lived in Brooklyn in the 90s with the future members of the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs. The Metric set offered a balanced vitality that had all eyes on Haines and feet moving to hits like “Help I’m Alive” and a cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My.” During a weekend dominated by male performing acts, the dynamic presence of Haines, perhaps the era’s Debbie Harry, was a standout.
The xx, Crystalised
Stars, Take Me To The Riot
Though many Lolla-goers poo pooed Green Day as “has beens,” and opted for the French buzz band Phoenix instead, Billie Joe Armstrong proved naysayers wrong, telling fans “You guys paid your f**king hard earned money for these tickets and I’m going to give you a f**king show you’ll remember for the rest of your lives.” He did. With a set list aimed to please any generation of Green Day listener, the band opened with several songs from the band’s 2004 comeback American Idiot and most recent album, 21st Century Breakdown, then proceeded to weave in old hits from Dookie—much to the delight of thirty-somethings thrown back to their flannel-clad heyday. Proving true the adage that any good concert is incomplete without a good cover, Armstrong doled out medleys that would have earned him an ADHD diagnosis in any elementary school worth its salt. Smirking playfully at the audience, Armstrong chased “When I Come Around” with an instrumental riff through “Iron Man” and “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love,” into a sing-along of “Sweet Child of Mine,” closing out the medley with “Highway to Hell.” Fans may have been winded, but Armstrong wasn’t as he tore through the greater portion of Dookie’s hits. It must have brought a tear to his eye—no doubt showing signs of age underneath generous eyeliner—to see that his breakthrough album still inspires fans to skank and mosh.
Sunday – Indie Royalty
Moshing would have been messy business Sunday morning, which arrived amid windy showers. Nneka, one of relatively few nonwestern global rockers in this summer’s lineup, brightened an otherwise soggy morning with bilingual (English and Igbo) Nigerian hip-hop. Those who had only seen Nneka’s photographs, a vision of youthful beauty, were surprised by her mature, textured contralto. Addressing violence, hunger, and capitalism, Nneka’s hope for social and political change pervaded songs like “The Uncomfortable Truth” and “Heartbeat.”
Nneka, The Uncomfortable Truth
Many Chicagoans in the audience for Company of Thieves might remember hearing the local band at open mic nights around the city three or four years ago. With only one released album, 2009’s Ordinary Riches, the concert was more or less a performance of those 12 songs. Nevertheless, Thieves’ lyrics are smart—“Oscar Wilde” is informed by Victorian Era literary criticism—and Genevieve Schatz’s vocal stylings are expansive, ranging from edgy accusation to pensive lamentation. Keep a radar gun on this band, which will likely perform on a Lollapalooza main stage in the future.
Company of Thieves, Oscar Wilde
Company of Thieves, Pressure
Though many Sunday festival goers arrived with their sights already set on the North Stage’s evening lineup—MGMT, The National, and Arcade Fire—sleeping until twilight would have been a major oversight. Those who had been lulled into indie crooning oblivion during Company of Thieves woke from their reverie when The Cribs, screaming, urged listeners to “Cheat on Me,” and Hockey’s new wave “Song Away” reminded listeners that the recent resurgence of 80s synthesizer pop can delight, rather than revolt.
By far, one of the day’s highlights was London folk rock band Mumford and Sons. Wielding not just acoustic guitars and string bass, but also banjos, mandolins, and a dobro, Mumford and Sons delivers complex harmonies and wholesome lyrics. Ballads “Awake My Soul” and “Lover of the Light” inspired pensive stillness on the main stage lawn, whereas during“Roll Away Your Stone” the audience danced a reel that rivaled bluegrass frolicks at the Carter Family Fold. (Fun Fact: Mumford and Sons booted Susan Boyle out of her No. 1 spot on top albums in Australia.)
Mumford and Sons, Awake My Soul
Mumford and Sons, Roll Away Your Stone
Yeasayer and MGMT lived up to their reputations as must-see live acts. Yeasayer vocalist Chris Keating kicked off the set by telling his audience, “wishing never solved a problem” then launching into the politically loaded “Tightrope,” featured on the Dark Was the Night compilation. The band’s polyrhythmic beat and dissonant harmonies were a striking contrast with MGMT’s psychedelic pop-rock. The North Stage’s sound system did little to enhance MGMT’s mixing and Andrew VanWyngarden’s vocals were often drowned out by synthesizers, but that didn’t bother the primarily teenage audience a bit—they were pleased with a patch of grass in a claustrophobically crowded arena, a dance party accompanied by hits “Electric Feel” and “Kids,” and fake IDs in their pockets.
The National’s Matt Berninger illustrated that a vocalist is only as strong as his accompaniment—in this case, brothers Bryan and Scott Devendorf and Aaron and Bryce Dessner. Berninger is physically staid, cupping the microphone with both hands and gently swaying from foot to foot. His drama comes from a resonant, haunting voice that growls one second and pleads the next. The National’s setlist was balanced, vacillating between the subdued—“Runaway”—and invigorated—“Slow Show”—with music from older albums and their recent release, High Violet. The only shortcoming was the crowd, which drifted to the opposite stage for Arcade Fire before the concert had ended.
The National, Terrible Love
All acts led towards the weekend’s grand finale, Arcade Fire, who played opposite Soundgarden. The band’s mere physical presence oozed spectacle, with enough instrumentalists to support orchestral scorings. As at their show in New York last week, the setlist was listener-friendly, featuring audience hits from their first two records and few from their latest, The Suburbs. “Intervention” and “Keep the Car Running” from Neon Bible retained the original’s expansive sound and one could easily transport herself to the band’s 2006 recording studio, a converted Quebec countryside church. The encore, “Wake Up” from Funeral, swept exhausted, grime-covered fans into one final sing-along, just the kind of moment Perry Farrell may have envisioned back in 1995 during the original Lollapalooza.
Marisa Ptak teaches English in the Chicago public schools. A native of the South Side, she now lives in Wicker Park, the Park Slope of the Second City. She believes in communal ethos.