Preface: Washed Out were almost washed out. Lollapalooza 2012 will probably always be remembered as the year of the evacuation. And for good reason, as that was an unprecedented event for this annual Chicago music extravaganza that attracts 90,000 people a day to the legendary & massive Grant Park. On Saturday, day two of the three day festival, a compact yet mighty storm system approached downtown Chicago in the middle afternoon. The storm’s center on the radar was that dark red color you rarely see, with wind gusts of up to 70 mph. At 3:30 pm, with the storm still an hour away and the sky not revealing any of what was to come, Lollapalooza decided to evacuate the grounds, which of course necessitated canceling some acts. Luckily Grant Park is above 3 immense parking garages that served as evacuation areas, before a torrent of rain fell, the sky turned green, the winds were intense, and the sky was filled with the flashes of lightning. It came and went quick though. By 6:30 pm the skys were clear, the festival grounds were re-opened, and the music began anew. Most of us didn’t think the show would go on, not that day at least, but in the end only about 90 min of music was canceled, as the city allowed for the music to go on for another hour past their usual shut-down time.
While the ardent fans of Paper Diamond, B.o.B., The Alabama Shakes, or Chairlift may tell you that Lolla ran scared of some rain and foolishly canceled some shows that people paid good money to see – really, in the big picture of things, those in charge of the festival made the correct call and handled a difficult situation in a commendable manner. With that deadly stage collapse in Indiana last year, of which the horrific video has been burned into everyone’s minds, and Radiohead’s stage incident in Canada recently, it was really the winds and lightning that was to fear and not the rain. If the show had went on and either lightning or wind had caused even an injury the festival could have been blamed – and properly so – for not learning from the past. It could have jeopardized the festival’s future existence. They decided to error on the side of safety, and they should be commended for that. But even more impressively, they were able to keep track of all their employees and get the festival back up and going just an hour after the storm passed. By 7:30 pm that night you would have not known anything odd happened at all, outside of the fact that people’s music schedules were now incorrect.
Other than that quite interesting Saturday afternoon, Lollapalooza was yet another success. Production-wise it was very similar to the years past, in the overall design, layout and execution. Just as it should be, if it’s not broke don’t fix it. The weather on Friday was decidedly warm, but not sweltering, and Sunday was as near perfect festival weather as one can get (80 degrees, low humidity, a nice breeze and sunshine). One noticeable improvement was at Perry’s stage, also known as “the DJ stage”. As stated in our preview of this year’s festival, Perry’s is Lollapalooza’s electronic-music-only stage. It has existed at Lolla for many years, well before other festivals followed suit. Where once it was a small stage tucked into the side of the festival, it is now a massive stage in a large clearing within the park. Rumors were that there was going to be two stages on the grounds of Perrys, but what turned out to happen was that there were two circular structures (about 20 feet in diameter) with a curved screen, a light display, and ample speaker. They were placed well behind the sound board, about half way back of the field the stage sat in. These extra “pods” guaranteed that not only would the stage look very impressive, with it’s apparent three separate sections, but that attendees didn’t have to be near the front of the stage for good sound or to see the visual production.
M83’s Midnight City
Looks take a look at some of the musical highlights from each day.
Friday’s Music Highlights: Friday was probably the best day, lineup wise, of the festival. That’s a gift and a curse, as you will always be seeing good music, but must make hard decisions when bands you like unfortunately overlap. The Black Angels played early, but played a great set comprised of songs seemingly evenly chosen from throughout their 3 albums. They played their brand of thick swaggering psychedelic rock with an appropriate ratio of rhythm to trippy’ness, both because it was 2 in the afternoon and because they were on the main stage and doubtless many in the crowd were hearing them for the first time. Plus you gotta love how they ended their show with a sitar jam. Sharon Van Etten played to one of the weekend’s smaller crowds, meaning it was easy to meander up close to the stage, which is always a nice surprise at Lolla. Her brand of mellow indie rock was more fitting for an afternoon set, as many took in the show laid out on blankets on the grass (which was maybe why the stage crowd was thin). At one point she traded her guitar for what appeared like an electronic harp, which both looked and sounded splendid. There are some who say her brand of music is better situated in an intimate venue and not at a large festival, but it appears she can handle both just fine.
Metric, hot off the heels of their new album ‘Synthetica’, they played to the weekend’s first “full size” crowd, as it seemed the majority of the attendees made their way to the north end of the park to catch these Canadian neo new-wave rockers. They placated the crowd with ease. Their live show has more rock in it than one might think if you just heard their albums. Lolla has always been a rock n roll friendly event (more on that later), but Metric wasn’t playing to the crowd as it seemed that raw energy is something that comes natural to them. Of course, Emily’s (the lead singer) honeyed vocals, and their electronic-like attention to their rhythm section act as a balance. It was part rock, part new wave, part pop, but an overall entertaining set. These guys are not a 1 album band, and that’s always good to see. Next, SBTRKT put on a show that was much improved over their Bonnaroo set, this author felt. They were not placed at Perry’s stage, as one might assume, but instead at the wonderfully intimate, and shaded, Google + stage (which is surrounded by trees and is the first stage to be in the shade as the sun goes behind downtown). This apparently brought out the natural musicians in this British dance music duo, as they weaved drums, keys, and horns into their bass-laden songs. They jammed their way into their wildly-popular song Wildfire in an adroitly planned manner that was unlike the last two times this author has seen them play live. They are clearly improving as a live act.
Band of Skulls played a set that proved them as a band that records good albums, but whose songs sound considerably better live. Is that a problem or a blessing? Who knows. Either way this 3 piece band thoroughly rocked their audience. Their songs all came off with a gritty strut to them. It was toe tapping and mosh friendly. Better than any other non-headliner act of the weekend did they remind the crowd of the simple pleasures of loud electric guitars and drums.
Also occurring this afternoon was Die Antwoord. After dealing with a few pesky security guards, the sideshow to a zef-side show was more than a gift. The trio in their south afrikaanz style rap regarded their masses in confusion with ninjas and infernal babies all in lovely orange jump suits. Their heavy bass and dub like beats were only an accoutrement to the true art which were a pair of Pink Floyd undergarments.
Up next was of the best 1-2-3 show series of the weekend. NERO had the sunset spot at Perry’s and continued to put on a magnificent show. This British DJ duo are usually considered a dubstep act. But their music is really quite more nuanced than that, as they move between 80’s inspired prog house and stuff that is almost like techno-pop, but never takes itself too seriously. When the dub n wub did come in, it was meaningful and made for crowd awing crescendos. NERO demonstrated that they understood that to “drop it” on the audience with true effect, something needs to be built up in the first place. This is even more true in dubstep, where many somehow believe going full blast – at all times – is the true essence of the genre (Zed’s Deads, cough cough). NERO easily proved otherwise. The only negative about their set was that it overlapped with M83‘s. Luckily though they were playing at the nearest stage and within 5 min of leaving Perry’s one could be in M83’s crowd so as to catch the second half of their show.
And quite the show it was. While the band has become well known in part due to the wispy & dreamy feel given to each song on their recent successful LP ‘Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming’, their live show did not lean so much in that direction, even though at the same time it wouldn’t lose anyone who liked them for that reason. The drums and guitar were much more present, 2 parts rock for every 1 part electro. But this a vibrancy to their performance. Midnight City was played excellently, but wasn’t played as the last song nor was it their best, which surely was a surprise to some. After that came a jammy and edgy rendition of A Guitar and a Heart, followed by a beautifully spacey & sincerely uplifting version of Couleurs. It was just after the sun had set, the sky a pink’ish blue, with an ecstatic crowd just eating up every moment. Good vibes were aplenty at the crescendo of that show.
And then came one of those wonderful moments that music festivals are made for. Within moments of M83’s last guitar note fading into silence the main stage, which was just about 200 yards away, immediately came to life with bright lights and loud sound as The Black Keys immediately dove into their set with their raucous Howlin’ For You. The Keys have really upped their visual show since ‘El Camino’ came out. An LED screen some 40 feet high, placed behind the band, made sure there was plenty to keep your eyes fixated up as the woofers were turned to 11 for their low-end-laden toe-tapping blues rock. The Black Keys played close to 20 songs, to a massive crowd which was eating out of their hand. Many were happy to end the day there. However, this author decided to check out Bassnectar at Perry’s for the last 30-45 min of the festival. Having seen Bassnectar at last year’s North Coast Music Festival, and not being impressed, it was a wonderful surprise to find myself really digging his set. Besides the crowd being in a fantastic neon frenzy, Mr. Nectar was really infusing an element of southern trap rap music into his songs. It was gritty, urban, and fun-loving. It was a great end to what ended up being, for this author, the best single Lolla day since 2010, when they just had one of their most memorable lineups.
Saturday’s Music Highlights: Saturday was of course the day of the evacuation, and everyone’s story in that respect will be different. This author was planning on first seeing Paper Diamond, but about half hour before he was to go on I received word they make take action concerning the approaching weather, which anyone who had turned on the news earlier that day knew was coming at some point in the afternoon. With my camera man taking an unused garbage bag to put his equipment backpack and hide it from the rain, the sky turned green and the rain came down almost sideways as we made it back home (and quickly ordered Chinese food). For a couple hours no one knew what was going to happen. Talking with friends who were either in the hotels or the underground parking garages (which became little parties in many instances), it was clear no one knew what would happen, but everyone was ready to go back should they let us.
Sometime around 5:30 or so the festival sent out tweets saying the gates would be open at 6:00. Upon arriving you could tell there was a little bit of confusion and chaos in the air but it seemed all of the employees were still there, and since it was now oddly enough a beautiful evening and most people had somehow stayed dry, people’s moods stayed elevated. It has to be said again, Lollapalooza did a great job both evacuating and re-entering 90,000 people with a minimal sacrifice of music – and little of safety.
One of the first bands to re-take the stage was the new band FUN. The band’s Nate Ruess’ performance was absolutely phenomenal. On top of his incredible vocal talent, his showed an ability to engage the audience and move them into a frenzy was impressive. Another good find on this day was Walk Off The Earth, this up and coming YouTube sensation is more than just harmonic instruments. Their diverse musical talents were coupled with a sincerely positive stage performance.
tUnE-yArDs seemed to eagerly play to their lolla crowd, no doubt counting their blessings they weren’t scheduled an hour earlier and still got to play a full set. These guys are just good fun, and even more so in a festival setting. Bizness went over especially well with the crowd. Next was Washed out, a chill wave band that plays music that is often, well washed out, with reverb and effects. But this was not as true in their live show as much as in their albums, which makes sense. It wasn’t the best played show of the weekend, but right at sunset, the mellow feel of their music worked well. Calvin Harris had the first bit of darkness over at Perry’s, which of course was when their extensive LED setup could really show off it’s own capabilities. However, on this night, Calvin wasn’t really doing it for this author. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t interesting, as their was a large mud pit in the back of the grounds in which many a messed-up kid were playing around in it like they had never seen water and soil combined in their life. Some were wrestling, some sliding, and a few even ardently making out. As long as you were at a safe distance, it was some pretty awesome people watching.
The two headliners of the evening were the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Avicii. Avicii is just a 22 year old European DJ who quickly accelerated to the point where he is on a headlining stage (not Perry’s), and has a prodigious stage/visual set up. Avicii stands atop a massive white face, upon which intricate projections are put, so as to make it look like the face is singing, or doing a variety of other things. While the music was not without it’s charm, it was a little poppy and predictable. However, with this unique visual display, and the relatively mellow and fun loving dance crowd, it’s a show worth taking in.
On the south stage was RHCP. With the birth of their relatively newly formed quartet, Frusciante’s friend and replacement, Klinghoffer tore up the show Saturday night along with expected friends Flea, Anthony Keidis, and Chad Smith. Their show consisted of traditional RHCP sound with the new touch of Klinghoffer’s metal axe. The sound was a bit heavier as compared to Frusciante’s clean and lightly distorted solos and mid-riffs. Nonetheless, Fleas funk was not amiss in their profound encore with Give it Away sending the Lolla patrons back to their mud-filled rock n roll depths.
Of Monsters and Men’s My Head is an Animal
Sunday’s Music Highlights: One of the best parts about music festivals, it’s no secret, is finding great music that is new to you. While Friday was the every-minute-is-planned day, Saturday the interesting weather day, Sunday became the beautiful day (80 degrees and sunny) in which this author went searching for surprises. Of Monsters and Men played in the late afternoon in the pleasantly shaded Google + stage. It was a show very reminiscent of Edward Sharpe’s set in 2010, which was at the same stage. At both shows the place was packed, so much that people climbed into the trees, but with a decidedly calm and friendly crowd. At both shows the crowd sang along with the songs and was palpably joyous. Having never heard one song of their before, it was wonderful to find out I enjoyed most every song they played. The band was enjoying it also, which is always nice to see.
Miike Snow was another find for this author (yes, their popularity it well established, but one can’t hear everything). This electro rock band put on a furiously enjoyable set. They were all awash with sweet halfway through their set, even though this day wasn’t warm. But their nuanced, at times dancey, material requires a lot of movement. It also inspired movement. Their last two songs, Animal and Black Tin Box, were utterly sizzling and reminded the crowd that sometimes electronic music sounds better when human fingers still create the sounds. They made new fans of many in the audience that night.
To end the weekend the two headliners on Sunday were Justice and Jack White. Justice, like Avicii the night before, played on the northern main stage. The north and the south stages are of comparable size. Yet the south stage faces a much larger and wider audience grounds, allowing it to have three rows of speakers put into the audience. And while the north stage’s grounds aren’t as large, they do gently slope downward toward the stage. This means that one has excellent sight & sound lines to the stage even in a thick crowd. So for DJ shows that entail complex lighting & visual schemes this stage is where you want to be. It worked well last year for Deadmau5, and again this year for Avicii and Justice. The French duo though took a very different approach, a refreshing approach, to a tier-1 DJ stage scheme. Of course they had the bright-light cross front and center, as they always do. Below the booth was a wall of electronic music equipment, or so it was supposed to look like. At one point it split in two side to side and a synthesizer then came forward out of blue light, which was intriguing musically and optically. They were flanked by walls of what looked like legitimate Marshall amps, at least at first. Behind them was a large LED screen, that was used minimally, and behind which rows of moving lights sat. Their sound, and look, on that night was one of good old fashion rock n roll – at least as much as a techno show goes. They weren’t going to blow your mind with lasers, they’d rather have light up amps and secret pianos. It was a welcomed different vibe, or combination of vibes to be more specific. Rock and electro, it seemed a fitting feeling to end the festival with.
Conclusion: Taking a look at a music festival is necessarily a subjective process, unlike critiquing an album or a concert, in which everyone is exposed to the same material. Everyone’s path and experience is different, and even more-so with the expansive festivals, of which Lollapalooza and it’s 90,000 people a day certainly qualifies. However, this year Lollapalooza continued to show they know how to properly plan and execute a massive festival. The food was excellent, varied, and bountiful (shout out to Franks n’ Dawgs and their-texas toast hot dog buns!). They freely supplied water, via fountains and high powered filling stations, and even had camel-back filling stations (unfortunately, free water is now rare among festivals and does deserve mention). The lines were usually manageable for drinks, bathrooms, and food. And most memorably, they safely handled a complete evacuation and re-entry within a few hours. People were upset, it was a lose-lose situation and a hard decision, but attendees should be glad they erred on the side of safety.
Musically, for this author, Friday was one of the better days Lolla has ever organized. Initially it was hard not to think the lineup would have been better if Friday’s solid & overlapping acts were spread out amongst the other days, but in retrospect everything worked out just fine. The highlight of the weekend was Band of Skulls into NERO into M83 into Black Keys into Bassnectar. Not only because each act played great sets, but because one could move from each of these acts without really ever hearing any stop in music. It was an afternoon/evening of elation. Those moments, those special hours where talented live music never stops and only changes, are why we go to festivals. It’s why we put up the arduous process, and cost, of actually getting into a fest and in front of that stage you want. But when it all finally works out, it’s worth it in a way that’s hard to put into words.
Well done making it work out for again another year, see you in 2013 Lollapalooza.
Written by Sean Brna
OurVinyl | Editor
Thoughts on Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Die Antwoord, and Walk Off The Earth were from Danny Srisawasdi.
To see the fantastic full photo gallery from Lollapalooza 2012 click here.
Photos done by the superb Max Rasche. Thanks Max you rock!