leave your inhibitions at the door
This past weekend was my annual pilgrimage to Chicago to attend Lollapalooza, a 3-day music festival on the city’s scenic lakefront. It’s the brainchild of Perry Farrell, lead singer of Jane’s Addiction. If you are like me (i.e. old enough to actually fart dust) you’ll recall the first Lollapalooza in 1991 was a tour that brought together several acts together for a one-day festival. In that first one, I recall seeing – Henry Rollins, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Butthole Surfers, Living Colour, Ice-T, amongst others. We left before Jane’s Addiction because we knew nothing about pacing ourselves. Now we know that we can’t carb-load at the beginning of an 8 hour music fest. And by carb-load I mean drink beer.
This idea of taking the most eclectic line-up possible in one tour was groundbreaking. Most tours usually have a band or two that went from city to city or would have some bands drop and some join through the course of the tour. There were several other copycats to follow including jam band oriented H.O.R.D.E (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere), the all female Lilith Fair (chick central, but none wanted anything to do with your pork sword), and Vans Warped Tour (for angry young punkers who ended up getting a ride home in mom’s minivan).
Fast forward many years, including some rough patches, to 2005. After a year hiatus Lolla was reinvented as a one-city, one-weekend festival in Chicago. There were only four stages at the time, but the lineup was stellar – including The Pixies, Cake, Dashboard Confessional, Weezer, Widespread Panic, Liz Phair, Billy Idol, the Killers, and Death Cab for Cutie. It was a smart move by the promoters to avoid the logistical nightmare of schlepping all the bands and their equipment all over the country. The smarter move was to donate much of the proceeds to Friends of the Park. This allowed the festival to grow to 3 days, 8 stages, and 130 bands for 270,000 people without any resistance from the City.
With so many bands playing simultaneously, you’ll run into situations where you’ll have to make a choice. Granted, it’s not Meryl Streep shit,but for music lovers it can be tough. It’s surely possible to catch a little of each, but I’ve found that I missed out some memorable moments. In past years, I had to choose between
– The Killers vs Jane’s Addiction – Winner: The Killers
– Kanye West vs Nine Inch Nails – Winner: Kanye
– Kings of Leon vs Depeche Mode – Winner: Depeche Mode
– Lady Gaga vs The Strokes – Winner: Lady Gaga
This year the big dilemma came on Friday night with Muse, Coldplay, and Girl Talk scheduled for the same time slot. I’d heard Muse was great in concert, but I wasn’t that familiar with their catalogue and I’ve seen both Coldplay and Girl Talk twice. In the end, Coldplay won out as it’s harder to see them live. But damn Girl Talk’s awesome. (If you’ve never heard of him, here’s a write-up from the New York Times.)
There are two things in particular I love about Lolla. In many cases, the headliners do not tour regularly so it’s quite possible you will see some stellar performances by hugely popular acts. In 2009, I saw Radiohead, a reunited Rage Against the Machine, and Kanye West. Those are three monster acts in one weekend. But the bands alone don’t make a stellar performance. You need a good crowd and, generally, the Lolla crowds hold up their end of the bargain. Imagine a party of 40k people dancing to Snoop Dogg or Matisyahu in the middle of the day. And the volume and intensity of the crowd isn’t lost on the performers as they work extra hard to please.
The other thing I love about Lolla is the joy of discovering a new band. It’s where you arrive at a small stage in the middle afternoon with no expectations and come away with a new favorite. This happened to me with Girl Talk and Mumford & Sons. I hadn’t heard of either going in, but they proceeded to blow my socks off. Apparently Lady Gaga played a tiny stage in 4 years ago, but I missed it. From all accounts (besides hers) it was a complete train wreck, but it would’ve been cool to have said “I saw her when…” This year the acts I’m rushing to download are British rapper Tinie Tempah, New Zealand’s Naked & Famous, and Long Beach’s Delta Spirit.
Here’s a list of the acts that I saw (with my sporadic notes):
Naked and Famous – Exactly how pure pop should sound
Delta Spirit – Hard to place a finger on what they are. Getting rock, soul, southern boogie.
Foster the People
The Kills – meh, another duo
The Mountain Goats
Tinie Tempah – Maybe the first time that an act had people handing out schwag – posters, cds, stickers. Why don’t Coldplay’s cousins work the crowd?
Skillrex – Perry’s, the DJ stage, has grown over the years to where it’s a monstrous tent that holds 10k people – and it still wasn’t big enough.
Coldplay – Third time in as many years seeing them and this was their first big show in the US in a long time. They were in great form and much more stripped down – fewer big arrangements, no costumes, and less theatrics. Just a band putting all their energy into their music.
Mayer Hawthorn – a white soul singer from Ann Arbor. (Woohoo!) To call this guy retro-soul in the lines of Adele or Winehouse would be an insult. Retro implies something new, this is straight Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield.
Big Audio Dynamite – Saw them twice before in the late 80s. In retrospect, you can see how their cross-genre music hiphop, punk, electronic, rock – influenced a lot of other crossover acts. They’re getting a little old, but it was great to see that Mick Jones (The Clash) still has a lot of energy.
Pretty Reckless – This is the band fronted by Taylor Momsen of Gossip Girl fame. If you haven’t seen the show (like me) you might remember her as Cindy Lou Who from the Jim Carrey Grinch movie. Their song “Just Tonight” is actually really good, but it’s been overshadowed by her antics, skimpy outfits, and wild interviews. All signs point to her being the next Lindsay Lohan. I thought for sure that her first show since turning 18 would be legendary. Not so much. Her voice was good, but couldn’t keep up with the gigantic heavy metal sound of the backing band. And the only “entertainment” came from two underwear-clad girls who jumped on stage.
Eminem – His sobriety and seriousness was a big part of the show, so his set list skewed more towards newer material. He was in great form but, but very intense throughout the show. Cameo performances were great – Bruno Mars for “Lighters” and Skyler Grey for “I Need a Doctor” – but it would’ve been great to see more of them.
Noah and the Whale
Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr – Not exactly the best musicians technically-speaking, but a ton of fun – especially when covering Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” and Whitney Houston’s “I will always love you”
The Cars – They sounded great, but they are getting really old – next to zero energy.
Nas and Damian Marley – Best show of the day. A ton of energy and crowd had a blast.
Foo Fighters – Torrential (mild understatement) rainstorm didn’t phase the crowd, which motivated the band to play harder. Lots of energy from the band and they sounded great, but I was starting to get tired of the extended drum and guitar solos.
Deadmau5 – I ditched Foo Fighters to catch this Toronto-based DJ. I was surprised to see a DJ get a main stage, and amazed that he had a bigger and wilder crowd than the Foo Fighters. According to some 30 yr olds I was hanging with – best concert of the weekend.
I almost got my ass kicked during the Foo Fighters show. Frontman Dave Grohl started yapping about hating seeing bands with laptops on stage; that real rock and roll is about guitars and drums. It was at that point where I yelled “Fuck you” back at him. Of course it was when there was a silence in the crowd. And, of course, the overgrown fratboys around me didn’t really appreciate it.
But I stand by my comment. It was sad to see that Grohl has become a Rockist. Thing is, rap and electronic music has been around since the 70s and has had a huge influence on the cultural landscape. And there’s no difference between guitar effect pedals, synthesizers and laptops. (Hmmm, sounds like the Molecular Gastronomy debate) One look at the Lolla crowd and you’ll see that Grohl is getting to be an old grump – these are young kids who not just appreciate, but are absolutely fanatical, about all kinds of music. I’d say a lot of these “non-musicians” capture the spirit of Rock & Roll better than an aging posers banging away on their guitars. What a dick.