Preface: Back in the spring when it was announced that Lollapalooza was going to expand its geographical size and number of attendees, confused caution was the reaction at first blush. Where are those people going to go? Another stage… but why? Lolla’s numerous stages have always been well situated, sitting opposite each other on the north and south end of Chicago’s Grant Park (beautifully slammed between downtown and lake Michigan), with distinguished Buckingham fountain in the middle. Yet the beautiful – but immense – fountain always created the dreaded middle grounds bottleneck, which made traversing from one main stage to the other an investment of time and energy.
Not so anymore. By expanding the fairgrounds and letting people walk on the ajacent street (Columbus avenue) they allowed themselves for an easier entrance system, an abundance of extra porto-potties, more open relax-space, and not to mention a whole new stage set pleasantly surrounded by trees. And this is with 240,000 people showing up. Well played Lolla. You learned from your mistakes of the past and make every year more pleasurable. Also, thanks to the festival-weather-gods for 3 days of sun and moderate warmth (was that an apology for the heat and rain of last year?).
Day 1: Devowas pretty amusing & silly, but a good act to catch from a distance as one geared up for the weekend’s activities. Multiple outfit changes, a wild mid-show video, and Whip It wasn’t even the best part. Matt & Kim then came on to bring their brand of playschool-rave music. These two were extremely happy to be playing their drums and keyboard and tried to entice the crowd to become just as beaming as themselves through playing an abundant array of booming, quasi-cathcy, 2 min party songs. And in between each song they comically demanded more energy from the audience. They insisted that green-man be crowd surfed (and were quickly obliged), jumped into the crowd and even did some stage climbing. They were sincerely into the vibe and it was surprisingly contagious.
Quickly after that it was time to scurry off to The Black Keys, a perennial Lolla act, who played this year with a 4 man set as opposed to the former 2. It was a success as seemingly they were able to draw the crowd in more. Everlasting Light, off of their new album “Brothers” was a highlight. The set was gritty, bluesy, but also groovy when it needed to be. Their sound was vastly improved from last years performance. After that it was off to the newest, shadiest (in terms of sun-light), and most intimate, “bloggie” stage to catch the latter part of Jamie Lidell. This was a random, but solid, decision as he really impressed with his stage presence & funky jams that easily got everyone dancing. After just a taste of the classic & aging reggae artist Jimmy Cliff it was off to see Lady GaGa, because you just gotta see what “the world’s biggest star” will bring to the table.
GaGa didn’t impress, especially with all the hype about her wildly expensive stage. There was too much “be what you wanna be” banter inbetween songs. It’s okay when an artist tries to push a positive agenda alongside their music, that can come with the territory. But this show’s message became quickly redundant, and started to take away from the music. Performance-wise there was a feeling that something else crazy was going to happen, soon, maybe. It never materialized though. And while I am sure her fans were happy, it’s doubtful she created new ones out of those who were just there to see what the hell was going to happen.
However, that’s why there are more than one main stage at festivals such as this, and The Strokeswere playing on the other one and started their set a little bit after GaGa. Looking extremely rock n’ roll – decked in leather, sun glasses and confidence; they swagger-rocked their way through their set, playing all of their celebrated songs but none of their brand new material (they are keeping those cards close to the chest apparently). Their stage wasn’t memorable, but the music sounded great, and they provided for a enjoyable end to the first day’s festivities as darkness descended upon Chicago’s north skyline.
Day 2: The real fun on day 2 – usually the most emphatic day of any fest – kicked off with England’s new subdued-sounding indie stars, The XX. This three piece band is unique in that their drummer uses a couple drum machines as opposed to an organic set. This gives their sound an edge, even within downtempo songs, and the ability to gut-check the whole crowd with some fierce low-end sounds. Intro, VCR, and Crystalized were all thoroughly enjoyable, as the crowd sang (or at least hummed) along with every song. The only down side came with an abrupt ending, coming over 15 min before expected. Apparently the beating sun, or just having one album to play from, can be limiting for a new British band on a world tour.
Yet this provided for just enough time to refill on my jug o’ wine (yes you could buy full bottles of chilled-wine, which is maybe the best festival option ever due to it’s ability to simultaneously limit bar & bathroom trips) and grab some grub before off to one of the smaller, yet spacey and cooler, stages for Royal Bangs. This group really impressed the crowd, many of whom undoubtedly were as unfamiliar with this Tennessee 3-piece as I, yet were drawn by the sounds as they walked by. Their brand of fun, strut’ing, rock is highlighted by gritty, party-friendly guitar hooks and spirited vocals. They walk an interesting line between glam-rock and southern-rock; it was very contemporary yet novel and provided for one of the best surprises of Lolla.
Then it was off to what was maybe the most intriguing stage and setting of all of Lolla, Perry’s DJ stage. Flanked by rows of trees, this stage boasted one massive screen (maybe 35 feet tall) behind the DJ and a smaller one in front. Even during the light of the day the visuals were clearly visible, and clearly formidable. Joachin Garraud was spinning at this time and it was great to relax in the mid afternoon under some trees as repetitive thumping and a plethora of frolicking kids provided for good entertainment.
The real fun began next as indie superstars Spoon took to the north end’s main stage. They sounded superb playing their brand of clean-cut, grooving indie rock, playing a mix of material off their latest album “Transference” as well as those that came before. Chicago has always supported Spoon well, and Lolla was no exception, the crowd was ready for them and they for the crowd. It was one of the best sets of the festival, and this can be said even though the end was missed – due to a need to run and catch the latter half of Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros. As people climbed in the trees and 20+ people danced on stage the crowd erupted into a dance-frenzy for their hit song Home. It provided for the most community-like feeling of the festival, even ending with a song in which they asked the entire audience to sit down for, which they did. That was a new festival experience for yours truly, and was actually a pretty cool little trick.
Cut Copywas the next stop, and even though getting up close wasn’t going to be an option they were great to listen to from a comfortable spot across the field while I positioned myself for the next show, Phoenix. As Cut Copy’s brand of banging, yet touching and mature, electro-beats crescendoed and came to an end the sky was darkening into a murky blue and soon the beginning of Lizstomania was heard and the latent energy in the massive crowd was immediately awoken. Playing many of their new tracks off “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix”, as well as a few older ones, they completely plied the massive crowd (which they humbly explained was the “largest they had ever played in front of”). But the whole set was not one this attender would see, as they finished their master-piece 4-movement track, Love Like A Sunset, it was off back to Perry’s DJ stage to catch the end of Empire Of the Sun’s act (with full band). This act was by-far the most decorated stage, per square foot, of the entire festival. Numerous incredibly wild actors, dancers, and fake musicians (as in people playing massive, yet fake, light up guitars) littered the stage in front of the daunting visualizer screen. Needless to say, when they played We are the People and Walking on a Dream, things got a little silly as the substantial crowd released their last bit of energy from the day into song and dance. (note:Greendayalso played at this time, which this author did not attend, yet was informed that at 2 1/2 hours they were by far the festival’s longest performance, yet was also told by many that their set was predictable and that there was too much non-musical activity.)
Day 3: Somehow waking up on Sunday was possible, although it was a sluggish procedure, as the first act this author was to see was Yeasayer.These ascending NYC-based rockers were a good afternoon choice as they provided for a bit of prancing energy, yet are still enjoyable to taking-in in a more relaxed and audiophile manner. Soontherafter it was back to the shade of one of the smaller stages for Scotland’s Frightened Rabbit, whose version of “lonely rock” was more upbeat that expected, but still didn’t impress more than as some necessary background music during a calmer moment of the day.
Very quickly though it became time to post up early for MGMT, one of this year’s most anticipated acts. Having heard the commonplace assertion by so many that their live performances are completely lackluster, yet loving both their albums, my curiosity was extremely peaked for this performance. Well, at least on this day, MGMT did not get the memo about being poor performers. I don’t know if it was the tens of thousands of people there, but something got them on their A-game. Off the new album they played It’s Working, Song for Dan Treacy, Brian Eno, I Found a Whistle, and ended with their spectacular Congratulations. Of course the peak of audience energy (maybe of the entire festival) was released upon hearing Electric Feel, Time to Pretend and especially Kids (which was their obvious crescendo before playing Congratulations). You could feel the earth move beneath you as everyone jumped together, crowd surfers dotting the horizon everywhere, as the boys even came down into the crowd to shake some hands. Yeah, I left still wanting to hear Siberian Breaks, but all together they really shinned and left me desiring more. I think that much of the frustration people feel towards their shows comes from people wanting a rave (because of their first two hits), when they are really an all around progressive, audiophile-friendly, psychedelic-rock band that has a couple rave-friendly songs.
After MGMT it was a sprint to the other side of the park to take in the last half hour or Cypress Hill. Their shows are usually pretty similar throughout the years, yet always entertaining. The single of their new album, Rise Against (produced by Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine), was pleasantly rock’ier than it sounds on the album. Speaking of rock, the next act to catch was the blast-from-the-past SoundGarden, who was by far the loudest (in a good way) band of the festival. They brought back their brand of slothy-blues grunge rock with an impressive vengeance, aided by an imposing array of strobes that circled both tv -screens and the stage itself.
I couldn’t help but thinking that this, more simple setup, looked superior to GaGa’s and found it to be the most impressive visual stage of the fest – until, that is, I went to the last show of the festival, Arcade Fire. Armed with a tv screen that was somehow situated within a massive projection screen center stage above the band (in addition to the stationary two screens that already flanked the stage). Arcade Fire made sure that no-matter where you stood on the field you could be thoroughly delighted, as all of their dyanmic and creative visuals were a good balance between being trippy and showing the musicians to those in the back of the crowd. I didn’t expect these Quebec’ians to be a solid festival ender, but their brand of positive, toe-tapping, complex indie-pop-rock provided for a solid termination to a marathon of a three day urban musical extravaganza.
In Conclusion: Spoon into Edward Sharpe, MGMT, and Arcade Fire were probably the highlights from my subjective viewpoint (to see the full lineup, read reviews, and see pics/video go here). There were a couple scheduling decisions that were poorly done, putting similar bands at the same time with a lineup which was so diverse in it’s array of music genres (specifically the aforementioned Phoenix + Empire of the Sun & Spoon + Edward Sharp). But as Marlo from HBO’s “The Wire” says, “I think you call that one of those good problems…” Overall though the best part about this year’s festival was the expanded grounds, ease of movement, and relative lack of long-lines. It’s great that Lolla doesn’t stay static and tries to push the envelope a little bit each year. My prediction for next year; Perry’s DJ/electronic stage will become an even bigger destination and maybe a main stage – with even crazier visuals.
See you next year in Chicago’s Grant Park for Lollapalooza 2011!
by Sean Brna
Photos from Jesse Zryb, thanks for sharing Jesse!