Tuesday, August 05, 2008

the BIG Lollapalooza recap

So, after having a few difficulties at O'Hare I finally managed to get myself back on a plane to Vermont and got in last Monday around 9:45. After using the past week as a means of decompression from the sleep deprived, nicotine fueled madness that was my Lollapalooza weekend I am finally ready to recap. God, so much to talk about...where to start? Well, I suppose I can start at the beginning.


So, I got into Chicago about an hour late, after having been delayed in Philadelphia. So, I managed to snag a train into the city and walked the four or so blocks to Grant Park. I got in around noon, not too late but it meant that I had missed the first set I had wanted to see that day, Swedish singer/songwriter Sofia Talvik. In any case, I walk through the gates, dispose of my backpack with the spectacular new bag check tent and head immediately over to the AT&T stage (yeah, in case you didn't know, Lollapalooza names their stages after their corporate sponsors) to see Holy Fuck. I was quite impressed with the scrappiness of their live performance. It was much more energetic than I was expecting, which was a pleasant surprise. I had listened to their albums in the past and thought of it in a "ho-hum-whatever" kind of way, but their live show was much better than most tracks on their albums.

I left a few minutes early from Holy Fuck so I would be able to catch Manchester Orchestra's set at the Citi stage, just across the field. If you have heard Manchester Orchestra's debut full-length, "I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child" you know that it has got a Brand New-esque sound to it, but a little bit softer. Their set had a whole lot of the soft going on, but was way to laid back for a 1:00 set. I ended up staying for their entire 45 minute set, hoping that at some point they would inject a little bit of energy into the proceedings. They never did.

Having already seen Rogue Wave I decided to forgo that set in favor of producer/singer-songwriter Butch Walker at the Playstation stage. When I arrived he was in the middle of a cover of Neil Young's fantastic song "Only Love Can Break Your Heart". It was an okay cover, not the greatest but passable. I watched him finish his set (pretty standard rock singer set) before rushing across the field for a glimpse of The Go!Team. That was ten pounds of fun in a five pound bag. After an hour of jumping, dancing, hand waving, hand clapping, and whathaveyou I was getting a bit peckish, grabbed some food and sat on the grass to watch Duffy.

For whatever reason I find myself being a bigger fan of Duffy (an arguably bigger corporate production than fellow British soul-throwback Amy Winehouse) than any other female soul-throwback artist that are floating around. Her performance was fairly subdued, but when I'm sitting on the grass, eating moderately overpriced Pad Thai I don't need a huge show. She looked like Dusty Springfield (always a plus in my book) and the girl has a great voice. I was happy.

At this point I made the first misstep of the festival, and it was a major one. I had the choice of doing a Gogol Bordello/Mates of State pairing or a Black Keys/Cat Power pairing. I chose the later. There was nothing wrong with the Black Keys set, really. It was well performed, rollicking, etc. But from what I heard about Gogol Bordello's set it was epically insane. I heard a rumor (still unconfirmed) that frontman Eugene Hutz drank a bottle of wine during the first fifteen minutes of the set and spent the remaining 45 minutes in an ecstasy of drunken singing. Sounds like fun. The problem was really with Ms. Chan Marshall's set. I know she is touring in support of her new cover album, but I think a set that mixes the covers with original material is a good set. The only original material she played was at the end of the set, and by that time I had to go so I could try and weasel my way into a halfway decent spot for Bloc Party/Radiohead. If I had gone to the Gogol/Mates of State pairing there wouldn't have had to be any weaseling involved.

By the time I got across the park there was already a huge crowd waiting for Radiohead's set, still nearly two hours away, to start. I did manage to get a not terrible spot behind the soundboard and held my ground for the two hours. Bloc Party played a fun set that was mostly older material, which surprised me a little bit. Nothing really surprising about their set, but it was fun anyway. After they were over I had hoped to be able to hear Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, who were playing on the opposite stage, but there were too many people around me to be able to hear much of anything. So, we just waited for Radiohead.

This is when things got interesting. For a reason that was never made explicitly clear, the VIPs were unable to stand on-stage while the band was performing, so where did the have to go? That's right: around the soundboard. So, while I thought I had managed to steal a halfway decent spot, my pristine real estate was ruined by a group of about 35 or so people who blocked most of the view of the stage. If I stood on my tiptoes I could see Thom Yorke et al., so I was inconvenienced but not completely fucked. Plus, I had only waited for an hour and a half. But I was standing right next to a girl who was shorter than I and been waiting for over five hours in one spot to see Radiohead, and she tearfully confessed to me that the only reason she had wanted to come to Lollapalooza was to see Radiohead. To SEE them. I felt bad for her. I also felt bad for the VIPs, too. They had no control over where the festival promoters would place them and they had to suffer the wrath of a very angry crowd. VIP ticketing is the next big innovation in festival-going experiences. And I have few problems with this development. People pay extra money they should get perks and benefits that those of us who didn't pay the additional cost don't. However, when the experience of VIP pass holders is coming at the expense of those of us who don't have the financial resources to get VIP passes, that is a very real problem for festivals like Lollapalooza who are trying to become "destination festivals." Inevitably the presence of these people inconvenienced maybe three hundred fifty concert-goers. Maybe a bit more, but it was still a fraction of the 75,000 people jammed in Grant Park that day. It was our bad luck, really, but this type of thing needs to be thought through by promoters. EVERYONE deserves to have a good show, and no one deserves to have their experience come at the expense of people who are just as, if not more, passionate about music as the people who can shell out a grand per ticket.

As for Radiohead, they rocked. I have heard that seeing Radiohead is like a religious experience for some people. My own reaction was quite that grandiose, but they did play "Fake Plastic Trees" (my personal favorite Radiohead song) while fireworks shot off and that moment ranks quite high on my list of Best Individual Live Songs. And they closed with "Idiotheque", which was a very good way to end a very good first day.


So Day Two began kind of like Day One. A pretty energetic performance by a pseudo electronica band, Does It Offend You, Yeah? Pretentious band name aside they gave pretty solid live performances of songs off their debut album, You Have No Idea What You Got Yourself Into. From there I headed over to the BMI stage and caught Innerpartysystem. Their ep sounds like Mute Math bought a few more synths, but their live show was surprisingly good. The came out charged up, and their energy was transferred to the crowd and by the end of the set (which ended fifteen minutes early) everyone was really amped. I was actually kind of surprised.

One thing that separates Lollapalooza from other destination festivals is the Kids stage (called Kidzapalooza). As some may know, it's where big name acts come and play sets for the wee ones that aging hipsters dragged with them. Jeff Tweedy stopped by, as did G. Love, Mason Jennings, and the John Butler Trio. Plus the stage is surrounded by kid friendly tents and attractions. It's good stuff. So, after Innerpartysystem I thought I would drop by and see what the fuss was all about. The band that was on, fortuitously, was the Matt Pyor fronted kid music band The Terrible Twos. Basically it was the New Amsterdams playing kid music. Matt Pryor has always been a man who wrote great pop songs, and he managed to make children's music fantastically listenable. It was so listenable in fact that I couldn't tear myself away and as a result I almost missed Foals, who were playing nearby.

I did manage to catch half of Foals' set, and it was good stuff, if not terribly enthralling. From there it was a brisk walk past Buckingham Fountain to catch DeVotchKa. Again, it was good stuff if not terribly enthralling. About halfway through I decided to head over to the nearby Bud Light stage to get a good spot for the upcoming Explosions in the Sky. This was the one slot all weekend where I had a legitimate problem deciding if I should see Explosions in the Sky or Brand New. In the end I chose EITS and am so glad that I did. I had seen them twice before and this was by far the best I have seen them. Their set list was fantastic, even if it was truncated because of the festival setting. They played The Birth & Death of Day and Your Hand in Mine back to back. It was pretty epic, made more so by the beautiful Chicago skyline as their back drop. I think that it was probably the highlight of the weekend. Everyone was super chilled out and completely into what they were doing, and I'm not alone in this sentiment as several publications have agreed on how excellent their set was. Star making was how it was described by the gents at Spin.

The four hour block on the north side of the park was pretty fantastic as EITS were followed by Okervil River, who were in turn followed by Broken Social Scene. BSS started off slow, but once they were joined by Amy Milan (of Stars) the set picked up and ended with the fantastic It's All Gonna Break. No Ibi Dreams of Pavement, though. Oh well, you can't have it all.

Finally, the day ended with the headlining set by Rage Against the Machine. Rage have always been a particular favorite band of mine, from way back in the day, and when they reunited for a few festival dates last year I, of course, had to see them. So, I saw them in New York City at Rock the Bells last July. This show blew that one out of the water. The band was tighter, more energetic, and angrier. The crowd was a little pushy, forcing lead singer Zach de la Rocha to ask people to calm down and take a few steps back three different times during the set. Once things calmed down a bit and the band got to play without having to stop it got to be a great set. They played Wake Up, which included the speech that I have been hearing so much about, but didn't get to see until this time. It was a spectacular way to end the day.


By the time Sunday rolled around I was losing steam a bit. I showed up in time for Austin based indie-electronic act The Octopus Project, which was a fun way to start the day. The passed out balloons before their set started and asked the crowd to blow them up, hold the ends of the balloons, and release them at the appointed time during their opening song. It was something that I had never seen before and made for quite a sight when the balloons were finally released. Unfortunately their set was cut short by festival organizers before they could play their closing song (a song I really wanted to see them play) Truck.

The next act was one that I had been waiting to see all weekend. The Weakerthans. I darted across the park to make sure I would be right at the barrier when they came on at 1:15. But when I arrived there was a rumor circulating throughout the crowd. The Weakerthans had canceled. There must have been some mistake, I thought to myself. But a quick check with the guy manning the soundboard confirmed the worst, the Weakerthans had, indeed, canceled. I would later find out via the Lollapalooza message boards that their bus had broken down on their way to Chicago. Dejected, I grabbed a bite to eat and checked out some of the second stage acts. All were more or less unimpressive, but it killed time until Nicole Atkins took that Citi stage at 2:15.

Nicole Atkins is, without a doubt, one of the best female singer-songwriters out there, and her live set, while not the greatest thing since sliced bread, was certainly enjoyable and a great listen. She was followed by Black Kids, whose set was one of the greatest things since sliced bread. Their debut album, "Partie Traumatic" is incredibly infectious and their live show carried all of that energy on their album to the stage. Like The Rapture last year, you couldn't help but dance.

I moved to the north end of the park once again to catch the last half of Iron & Wine's set. I showed up not expecting much, but was pleasantly surprised by the laid back vibe of the crowd and the band. It was just what I needed at that point in the afternoon. The following set back Celtic punk band Flogging Molly was anything but laid back. I had seen Flogging Molly while they were putting time in on the Warped Tour five or six years ago, but didn't remember them all that well. I'll remember this time. I had planned on leaving early to get a halfway decent spot for GirlTalk, but I just couldn't pull myself away. The energy level was just so high and the crowd was so stoked that you couldn't help but get pulled into what was going on on-stage.

I did manage to get to GirlTalk by the time he started, but when I got there the Citi stage was insanely packed with every frat house 'bro' (with requisite girlfriend in tow) and hipster in the park. Getting a halfway decent spot was out of the question. I missed Greg Gillis when he made his way to Middlebury in January, but was interested in seeing him recreate his mash-ups live. It was quite an experience, and it was here that I first heard THE rumor of the weekend: Barak Obama was going to introduce Kanye West when he took the stage at 8:30.

I got out of GirlTalk early to go see the National. The first half of the set was incredibly unimpressive (though I heard later that the set picked up for the second half, go figure), so I headed back across the park so I could see if there was anything to this Barak Obama rumor. If there was some validity behind it I couldn't miss it. I managed to see part of Mark Ronson's set, and his special guests Phantom Planet, who played, really, their only hit, "California" toward the end of the set. That was kind of nice to be able to catch.

Then Kanye came on...without Senator Obama. Fooled again. I had heard about Kanye's light show and his excellent live show, but it just wasn't for me. So I did something I'm not sure I'll ever do again, I left one headliner mid-set to go catch the other headliner, Nine Inch Nails. I'm glad I did. It was a much more interesting show. Where Kanye's light show was just, eh, whatever, Trent Reznor and Co. (who included drummer JOSH FRESE!) had one of the most impressive stage set ups I have ever seen. At one point Reznor stood behind a screen that was completely static, except for the place where he was standing, which gave way to a blank spot for him wherever he moved. I'm not doing it justice, but suffice it to say, it was impressive. I'm not sure it was the capper that the weekend deserved, I think I would have preferred a Radiohead closing night show, but it was a good show nonetheless, and a great weekend.

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