Preface: There once was a time when the word Lollapalooza referred to a large lollipop, no joke. Technically the word is defined as “a person or thing that is particularly impressive or attractive.” Well one would have to think that an 8 stage music festival taking place at the height of summer, situated in a park encircled by one of the world’s most breathtaking skylines, would qualify as impressive and attractive – right? However, that wasn’t always the case.
This year Lollapalooza celebrated it’s 20th birthday. When it started, in the summer of 91′ as a touring festival, it hosted what was literally “alternative” music. Acts like Jane’s Addiction, Nine Inch Nails, Ice-T & Body Count & Living Colour were not the normal and popular bands that we think of them in hindsight. This was in the time immediately before Nirvana’s album ‘Nevermind’ actually popularized a new type of music and sounded the death throws of hair rock and the music of the 80’s.
Fast-forward 20 years and Lollapalooza has now morphed from a traveling one day “alternative” music circus, to an annual world-renown three day event situated in Chicago’s Grant Park, where tens of thousands of music fans make a pilgrimage for all types of music genres and tastes. That being said Lollapalooza, especially compared to contemporary music’s direction, has always retained a rock n roll undertone to it’s lineup and crowd. It also has a very positive and interesting relationship with it’s surrounding, as it has an extended contract to take over Grant Park for the many years, and because millions of dollars every year go to the Chicago Park system from the profits. But let’s get to the music…
Friday: The Naked and Famous took to their stage early in the day. This electro-rock act from New Zealand, despite their early slot time, drew a pretty good sized crowd, which was clearly populated by people who had fallen in love with their wonderful debut album ‘Passive Me, Aggressive You’ and not just people there to check them out casually. Their set was clean and cohesive, as they played in mid 80’s weather that clearly made them sweat but not fall off of their game. After that Grace Potter and The Nocturnals were playing the north stage and it was possible to catch a tad of their act before heading back south for the beginning of Foster The People. Last summer Grace played Chicago at the North Coast Music Festival to a crowd of about 200 people, a little bit different than the thousands who eagerly awaited their set on this day. That growth is pretty impressive, and this fact wasn’t lost on the band as they were visibly enjoying their stage time with gusto.
Doubling back to Foster The People it really wasn’t possible to get near the action. These guys have been getting much love recently as their hit single “Pumped Up Kicks”, a wonderfully catchy and unique song, has made itself known all across the country. But on this day, to this author, they didn’t produced anything to be considered menial, but it wasn’t memorable either. But that was okay because that meant one could head over to the Google + stage, which was sublimely situated in a secluded part of the park surrounded by a semi-circle of full grown trees about 50 yards from the stage, to catch the very-talked-about group known as Le Bucherettes. Fortunately the crowd was easily manageable and a front row view was easily attained. At first their brand of minimalist (there were three musicians), yet aggressive and edgy, blues/punk influenced hard-rock was hard to grasp and buy into – at least compared to their album. Slowly though, after a couple numbers, their provocative and diehard rock n’ roll ways began to get under one’s skin and excite the hears, eyes, and mind. They also provided for one of the most memorable moments of the entire weekend (yet unfortunately the camera man wasn’t as this show, d’oh!). During the second to last song their drummer began to look and act a little sick, and apparently had an upset stomach. In between that and the last song the man gets up, walked a bit away from the drums and threw up violently and repeatedly into an open area in the photo pit. In truth, he puked his brains out, it took him about a full minute to satisfy himself – only to then immediately play a song which called for his most aggressive playing of the set, and the most memorable drumming of the whole weekend by far. One can’t be sure whether this was a stunt or not, but it really actually doesn’t matter with a feat like that, it was one of those rare “holy shit, that’s rock n roll!” moments. After that feat a photographer standing adjacent turned and said, ” I think that’s the best thing I am going to see all weekend.” It might not have been the best, but it was one of them no doubt!
Shortly after that improbable occurrence it was time to mellow things out with a set from The Cults. These guy’s brand of summer-friendly, reverb-heavy, indie pop worked well in the pre-sunset-thank-God-it’s-starting-to-cool-down time of the day they played. They revealed that their sound isn’t entirely reliable upon the post-production that a studio album affords a band, although with that being said the vocals could have been more understandable. After stopping for some scrumptious soft shell tacos with beans and rice it was time to check out Perry’s DJ Tent and catch the end of Skrillex. Perry’s stage has been evolving yearly, from a small DJ booth at a tiny stage in the trees, to a tall and circular stage, to this year’s 40 foot tall tent lined with lights & strobes throughout as well as a massive array of LED screens on the stage. However Skrillex didn’t do it for this author, as the highly repetitive & seemingly predictable nature of his style of Dub Step didn’t really live up to the setting and hype. This then left for some room to catch OK GO’s ironically catchy pop/rock, as they were decked out in differently colored comically bright full suits, before heading back to Perry’s for Afrojack. His take on progressive house proved to be a much more dynamic and refined styled of DJ music than he predecessor on the same stage.
After this it was time for the headliners; one had the option of attending Muse, Coldplay, Ratatat or Girl Talk – quite the decision to be made. Not having seen Girl Talk before, it was time to catch one of his well-known dance parties, having previously seen the other options. Well, one crazy dance party it was, indeed! The crowd was amped beyond control, unfortunately literally, as they had to stop the music once for a period of time to let some over-heated kids out of the up-front crowd. And while his set was undoubtedly enjoyable and a sight to see, musically it didn’t come off any different than if you put on one of his albums through incredibly loud speakers. In retrospect maybe Coldplay would have been the better choice, as they apparently enthralled the crowd enough to warrant about 4 sing-along encores.
Saturday: This was arguably, on paper, the day with the least amount of must-see acts and, not regrettably, afforded for a more relaxed day with less stage-to-stage running and a bit more wandering, eating and people watching (not a bad thing!). Death From Above 1979 was impressively raucous and entertaining, both in terms of crowd and the music. A feat which is more impressive when you realize their music is usually created solely with an electric bass and the drums, something which translate to being leagues more impressive taking it in live than via an album. The Local Natives, who are fresh off of the successful release of their debut album, were shortly after. The crowd was unusually large for a band with one album that peaked at #160 on Billboard, again displaying how record sales are no longer a proper metric of a band’s popularity. Their set, however, was slightly lackluster outside of the last 20 minutes. Whether it was the heat, or the fact that it was by far their largest crowd (they reminded us of this a couple times), one can’t be sure. But oh well, this afforded time for a Bayou Dog (consisting of smoked andouille sausage, red beans & rice, blackened shrimp and red remoulade & chives all on a texas toast bun) from Franks N Dawgs before heading over to Lykee Li. The crowd at Li’s show was the largest of the whole weekend for her stage (Google +), which can happen when your recently on the cover of SPIN. She played a good mix of songs from her previous two albums, of personal note is her intoxicating & catchy “Dance, Dance, Dance”, which got the crowd moving just like she wanted it to.
The headliners of Saturday that one had to choose from was My Morning Jacket, Eminem, Beirut, and Pretty Lights. As Pretty Lights was going to be playing without a live drummer, as is the case currently, it no longer had as much of a draw to this author. As My Morning Jacket started half hour earlier than the other acts – playing for an impressive 2 straight hours – it made sense as the place to start on this evening. Standing at their stage, which was on the north side of the park, one could already tell that Eminem was going to get the majority of the crowd on this evening as there was an abnormally comfortable amount of space in the crowd. It was packed, no doubt, but the difference in crowd was still tangible and actually added positively to the experience of their show. And what a show did they throw. MMJ opened up with the first two songs off of their recent new album ‘Circuital’, Victory Dance and Circuital. Both of these numbers are exciting crowd pleasers and it was a choice decision as a opener, one can only assume they captured many first-time listeners. However, as this writer came was in high school during Eminem’s shot to stardom, and having never seen his show before, catching some of the show was in some ways a must. Em clearly had the largest crowd of the weekend, as it was harder to get any closer than about 100 yards away in the middle of the set. With some of his crew from D12, Royce Da 5′ 9′”, and a cameo from local star Bruno Mars, Eminem placated the rap fans in the audience. However, there was a limit to feel of a genuine performance in this show that was somewhat disappointing. Many times the large video screen on the stage would play the music videos associated with whatever song was playing. But this requires a rigidity to the performance, and at time Eminem could be heard rapping over his own lyrics, which can really bring down a hip hop performance. That being said, the crowd was markedly into it, and the air was thick with energy. Luckily it was possible to hang out for a while, catch a couple numbers from Em’s groundbreaking first couple albums (the one’s he should always be remembered for) and then double back to catch the end of MMJ. In doing so it was possibly to catch them play their epic number Touch Me I Am Going To Scream (part 1 and 2), which made one feel like returning to the north stage was indeed the right call after all.
Sunday: The last day of this year’s Lolla was arguably the best, on paper. However, the weather Gods apparently felt like challenging that reality, but not right away. Walking in the completely under-used north entrance of the park it was possible to easily catch the end of Noah & The Whale’s introspectively upbeat brand of pop/rock before heading over to the shaded Google + stage to catch a little Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. Wearing shirts that said “Your Ad Here”, these guys play a brand of genially toe-tapping indie rock, in which they occasionally like to challenge us to think different about the corporate influence in the American life. Their first album was titled “It’s a Corporate World”, so they are pretty direct with this message. It was clear that this band is a relatively new one, but not in a negative way, after all their debut album only dropped 2 months ago. They definitely seemed flattered by being at Lolla, and by their healthy crowd of fans. Their song We Almost Lost Detroit was an apparent crowd pleaser, even though this author liked Morning Thought the most.
Next it was on to the south stage to catch a blast from the past, The Cars. This was one of the bands that was most intriguing when the lineup was released months ago, as The Cars just got back together and released a new album after over 20 years of hiatus. And while their popular songs were fun to sign along in the crowd with, the show was fairly insipid and bland. With no visuals on stage, and little enthusiasm (or even movement on stage) from the musicians themselves, coupled with a tendency to sound slightly off-time, their set really came off as a mediocre one. It was one of those shows where you take a break and sit down on the ground while talking to friends. Unfortunately the next show was also a bit of a downer, but for a different reason. Portugal. The Man apparently was unable to do a sound check, and it showed. Their volume was awkwardly low, with the vocals almost not being present at all. You could not hear the complexity of their psychedelic influence, and it just wasn’t worth the effort. But sometimes those events are blessings in disguise, as it afforded time to stop for a legendary burger from Kuma’s, before heading on to see Best Coast.
Best Coast’s show was interesting, to say the least. There was a downpour that, quite literally, began and ended exactly when their set did, with scary accuracy. And it wasn’t just some rain, it came down in droves. But at least it was coming relatively straight down, allowing for anyone with an umbrella to stay quasi-dry and consume whatever libations you had at hand (such as the sports bottles filled with red wine which one could purchase!). The band, and the crowd, went with it though as the music never once stopped. And in fact their California fuzz pop styles actually fit with the rainy mood quite well, and it was pretty cool when the sun finally came out (with the requisite double rainbow) at the end of their last song.
Next up was a band that is a Lolla veteran, Manchester Orchestra. Yet unexplainably, and wonderfully, they were also playing at the smaller Google + stage. And even though they seem like a big enough band to be on one of the larger stages (they were the last time they played Lolla), seeing them at a more intimate stage was sensational. On this day Manchester played in a seemingly more laid back manner, as they let a little bit of a jam-like influence into their hard rock. By playing exceptionally interesting segues between their songs, and letting the crescendos take on a feel different than on their albums, they played one of the more engaging and enthralling sets of the weekend. Those guys are, simply said, the real deal.
For headliners on Sunday one could choose from Deadmau5, Foo Fighters, Kid Cudi or the Cold War Kids. And while it was tempting to catch a show from one of the most respected rock groups around, it was more tempting to see the unveiling of a new visual setup, from the artist who already had the world’s best visual show. We are of course talking about Deadmau5, who was the only DJ to be placed outside of Perry’s tent. He used to have the all-digital screen in the shape of a tilted cube (in which his DJ equipment rests), backed by an array of vertical LED lights. Now he still has the tilted cube (thankfully, that thing is stunning), but behind him is a massive full LED screen that is cut into 4 quadrants by X-shaped trusses lined with strobes and moving lights. Then a bit into the show up went 3 shapes, best described as 3D boxed-triangles, that are completely lined with some kind of digital screen capable of replicating 3-dimensional images. It really needs to be seen to be properly understood, words don’t do it justice.
But not all the visuals were provided by the Mau5, partly because Chicago’s skyline sat behind his stage, but more so because nature also decided to join the party as another hard downpour began immediately as the set did (quite literally the rain came down exactly as the first bass tone ran out from the speakers, which was odd for this kind of occurrence to happen twice in a few hours). At this point everyone was committed to the idea of being wet and muddy, so the rain only added to the adrenaline and exhilaration of the moment and created for quite the memorable experience. Deadmau5 played a set filled with ebbs and flows, saving his very aggressive stuff for the end, and only moving there slowly and with the appropriate teases. The rain eventually died, just in time for Sofi to come out and provide the vocals for One Trick Pony, which was good fun. Just as Deadmau5’s music transcends any specific electronic genre, so does his show transcend a DJ performance. With the overbearing visual show, the emotional ebb and flow, and the super hyped energy of the crowd, there is a feeling akin to the deep-release energy of a rock show, yet with the movement inspiring aspect of electronic music. It was quite the killer experience, and aside from the people who were throwing mud everywhere, was the absolute perfect way to end the Lollapalooza weekend.
Conclusion: One of the best parts about this particular festival is that each year there is another positive change. Last year they expanded the grounds by taking over all of Grant Park, opening up Columbus Ave to foot traffic and allowing room for 2 more large stages and plenty of non-stage space as well. This year they decided to further expand Perry’s into a super massive tent and invite some of Chicago’s foremost eateries for the two chow towns (there were nearly 40 restaurants). One knock, maybe they didn’t plan on a sold out fest (last year wasn’t sold out all 3 days), but they could have used slightly more portos. In fact the entire festival should really consider cutting the crowd size from 90,000 a day to around 80,000 – even if they had to charge more. A request no one is really expecting to get filled, but it’s worth saying nonetheless. Overall though it was quite an epic music festival in which one could easily run the genre gamete, with all the amenities provided by not camping somewhere. There was good food, great music, all in a easy accessible fantastic setting. And hey there was even a little rain and mud just to make sure you remembered it was a music festival. Bravo Lollapalooza, see you again in 2012!
Written by Sean Brna
Photos by Dan Schlaff
For more photos from Lollapalooza 2011 click here.