Color Wars: Looking back at the hues of Lollapalooza 2012 [Vids,Pix,Words]
Diversity was a major selling point of the original Lollapalooza. Anyone who’s never seen video of Perry Farrell and Ice-T staring each other down as they perform the Sly Stone classic “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” should probably google that immediately. I don’t want to suggest anything other than coincidence here, but the “Black” and “White” nature of the headliners’ names was hard not to notice (not to mention the undercard). Top that off with Jack White’s color scheme and one band of each gender, and you could get the feeling that this is a festival of extremes and no middle ground. That’s not at all the case, but the theme of diametric opposition was nowhere more apparent than the epic struggle between rock and roll and EDM each night. Grant Park felt like a cultural battlefield every night, except the vibe was admittedly peaceful and mostly respectful, and nobody suffered. In a fierce musical competition between styles and/or scenes, everybody wins.
Arrival on a sweltering Friday afternoon was soundtracked by The White Panda, bass booming from the expanded Perry’s DJ area. Having this stage so close to the main field on the south end would occasionally result in bullying of the mellower artists at the Sony Stage, but overall it was a great setup; the trees surrounding Perry’s provided much-needed respite from the sun and it was easy to slip away from the bigger-name action and relax with some beats. Particularly good was Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, whose eclectic percussion samples, waves of noise and soothing Britpop vocals made for a wholly enthralling, not-too-frantic afternoon set, danceable but in an afterparty/chill-out-room sort of way. (Unfortunately, I had to miss the Black Angels’ set during this slot.) No doubt Bassnectar’s set here Friday night was a killer way to end night one, based on the last ten minutes as he outlasted The Black Keys; any night that ends with a Motörhead remix ends well.
So the electronic spectrum was particularly strong on Friday, but there was no denying the rock attack. A strong contender for best set of the day was Tame Impala, who managed to blow minds despite significant equipment/sound problems (which plagued the Sony Stage all weekend). Frontman Kevin Parker blamed the heat; “One of my pedals has melted,” he apologized halfway through the set, which got the engineer off the hook, perhaps, for the patchy guitar sound. As a result, this may have been the least psychedelic Tame Impala set ever, and Parker was forced to let his relatively clean wailing sell the songs, which turned out to be no problem at all. He’s got a David Gilmour-esque narrative quality to his lead guitar playing (and that’s not to mention the iconic descending riff from Pink Floyd’s “Money” that snuck, slightly altered, into TA’s new single, “Elephant”), and through several super-slacker garageadelic jams, the only missed opportunity was not playing a Sabbath cover. Parker is a commanding presence, an indie rocker with swagger–is that coming back? Has that even been a thing before? Like it or not, improv is infiltrating the hipsterverse, and Tame Impala is at the forefront of the operation.
Sadly, there is only one stand in all of Grant Park that sells decent beer; it’s just north of Buckingham Fountain, well within earshot of the nearly extinct dinosaurs of Black Sabbath who shook the Earth from the Bud Light Stage. The band’s lone U.S. appearance of the year was hampered only by the nu-metal stylings of fill-in drummer Tommy Clufetos, who seemed determined to put his stamp on the material, exactly what nobody wanted. He didn’t diminish the power of monumental songs like “The Wizard” and “Behind The Wall Of Sleep,” though; he was only a mild annoyance musically but surely a significant absurdity to diehard Bill Ward fans.
Meanwhile, Black Keys were staking the first claim to Supreme Garage Superstar, throwing down the gauntlet for Jack White. When you multiply critical and commercial success, the Keys are the reigning rock band of the moment; Timbaland ain’t got nuthin’ on Dan Auerbach in the insanely catchy pop hook realm, and devotees of radio are bracing for the herd of soundalikes about to rise up. But while Brothers and El Camino showcase an increasingly mainstream sound, the songs from those albums received a blistering, bluesy makeover live, sounding like they could’ve come from the band’s ten-years-prior incarnation. The band is augmented by bassist Gus Seyffert and keyboardist Jon Wood for much of the set nowadays, but it is undeniably still a two-man show; Patrick Carney’s rough-and-tumble drum gallop is inescapable, but he showed unusual finesse at times, particularly throughout this incredible performance of “Everlasting Light.”
While there was nothing overtly unpredictable about the set, it was a delight start to finish for anyone with a passion for the dirty-sweet grind of an electric guitar in the hands of a dude who has devoted his life to the thing. Auerbach has a great singing voice too; even his falsetto is full-flavored and kind of manly, but his guitar sounded more like an animal, and it howled and growled and generally made a spectacle of itself to cap a really good day of festy music.
Black Keys @ Lolla- “Little Black Submarines”
Saturday started off innocently enough; the early highlight was a relaxed Umphrey’s-esque set by Moon Taxi, but interrupting Neon Indian around 3:30, Lolla spokespeople came onstage and told everyone to calmly leave the grounds in advance of the approaching thunderstorm. Many fans apparently felt this was an arbitrary gesture; the childish indignation (i.e., “This is BULLSHIT, man!”) was pretty hilarious. Surely these kids have weather apps on their phones…but whatever. When day turned to night in the span of an hour and the fierce lightning and horizontal rain appeared, everyone was probably grateful to be under some sort of shelter. There was no official word on whether or not the festival would even continue for the evening until 6, when it was announced that the park would reopen…at 6. So we were lucky to get back inside in time to catch the last couple songs of The Tallest Man On Earth, which were great, but damn.
This year’s event was largely bereft of old geezers (no, that’s not a Sabbath pun) who might’ve shown these kids a thing or two about how to perform (such as Love And Rockets in ’08, Lou Reed in ’09, Mavis Staples, Jimmy Cliff and Devo in ’10, etc.), so it was up to Franz Ferdinand to get the party started back up after the storm. No, they’re not exactly ancient, but it was tough to imagine these Scots’ straightforward dance-rock fitting into the modern Lolla landscape. But rock was winning the battle thus far, and FF’s live show leaned decidedly in a punk direction, shedding the studio sheen in favor of a pogo-inducing guitar speedrace, and it was quite invigorating. If the storm had deflated the spirit of the fest, the boys of Franz breathed some life back into it.
Following this, it was a tense twenty minutes or so in the friendly confines of the Google Play Stage as a small gathering waited impatiently for Twin Shadow to finish soundchecking. When George Lewis Jr. finally came out to play, there was only a half hour left of his time slot. And holy shit, did he make the most of that half hour. If you listen to his albums, you get a moody, low-key synthpop/new wave feel, like you’re either in a seedy after hours chill-out room or crying alone in your bedroom. This was an all-out guitar assault; the band Lewis has assembled turned out to be an incredibly intuitive and powerful ensemble, crafting monumental crescendos of post-rock din to augment Lewis’s own impressive guitar heroics and tear-your-heart-out emotive belting, and underneath it all were those magnificent Chris Squire-caliber basslines, supremely melodic, intricate and danceable all at once. When George sang “Please leave us alone/When we’re dancing,” even though the song itself is far too depressing to be a festival anthem, it came off like the birth of a new motto for live music fanatics of all stripes. This was easily the best 30 minutes of Saturday and one of the best sets of the weekend.
Almost as good, though, was Frank Ocean, who might’ve gotten skipped if it weren’t for Avicii dwelling on a single sample motif for so damn long it got nauseating. Tim Bergling is an entertaining presence behind the tables, and the Swedish DJ phenom knows how to keep the beats rolling but his set really lacked dynamic in the early goings; minus-one for EDM. Ocean was this year’s token Pitchfork-darling R&B guy, but it turns out he’s way more than that. He’s at the top of the heap in terms of magnetic stage presence, soulful voice and, um, rockin’ live band? Yes indeed, perhaps Uncle Perry started this crazy traveling circus twenty-plus years ago with the destruction of genre in mind, the merging of cultures to the point where it was just one big suspension of humanity through music, and despite the polar opposites of the night’s headliners (sorry Chili Peppers, “Red” wasn’t one of the weekend’s chosen colors) these two side-stage sets felt like we were entering a plane that had no plausible ID3 tag.
Ocean’s performance was like the perfect melding of Marvin Gaye and Bruce Springsteen, populist working-class soul with as much grit as beauty. Eschewing any semblance of “Hotel California,” the new arrangement of “American Wedding” sucked the collective heart of the crowd into its throat, and we all hung on every word of Frank’s aw-shucks between-song banter like he was a long-lost friend in confessional mode. It was an incredibly communal, familial atmosphere, draped over disbelief; this cat is a huge star just rising, and we were all a part of the comet-tail during the last hour of Saturday night.
Red Hot Chili Peppers @ Lolla- “Under the Bridge”
When White Rabbits toured with The Walkmen back in 2008, they were a ramshackle garage/psyche/pop band that relied on gaudy, manic vocal harmonies that flowed like 100-proof vodka and knocked you on your ass. After a disappointing sophomore effort (2009’s It’s Frightening), the band fell off the radar somewhat, but if Sunday afternoon is any indication, they lost none of their onstage potency. The impact is more polished, more professional, and if anything more powerful than when it seemed like they were barely keeping it together. The focus has shifted away from the vocals and more to the piano talents of Stephen Patterson; he controlled the momentum for most of the performance, although those classic percussion hooks are definitely what put the wiggle in “The Plot” and “Kid On My Shoulders.” Unlike in ’08, White Rabbits edged out The Walkmen on this day. They’re probably tired of being described as “reliable,” but that’s what The Walkmen are; reliably awesome, no doubt, and blessed with one of the greatest underground rock singers ever in Hamilton Leithauser.
There are hundreds of bands in the world who still do nothing but imitate Mogwai. Sigur Rós is not one of these, but it sounded like one for the first few songs of its highly-anticipated set at the Red Bull Stage; “Svefn-g-englar” and “Varúð” are both very straightforward examples of the gibberish>play louder and louder formula. Yes, sometimes there are actual words, but they’re not sung to be understood; the meaning behind Sigur Rós lyrics is almost always listener-assigned. There were some intense peaks, particularly when the horns would go nuts, and the essential “Hoppípolla” sent the crowd into raptures, but the subtleties that set this band apart from the post-rock pack were lacking until the last couple of songs. “Hafsól” is Radiohead-caliber and -esque, although the tapping bowed guitar core of the song is like no other band. The untitled final song (the last track on 2002’s () album) built to a walloping crescendo only hinted at on the studio version, shattering the most intense musical memories of the weekend. In broad daylight, Sigur Rós transfixed a crowd of thousands with pure musical bliss.
Lolla features at least a couple of legendary reunions per year, and At The Drive-In certainly qualifies. The band played a handful of dates in April including Coachella, and reports indicated an oddly lethargic Omar Rodríguez-López; those reports were no joke. He took nothing away from vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala, whose energy and often hilarious banter made up for Omar’s lack of interest. The still-unrivaled music–Relationship Of Command is the only post-hardcore album you will ever need–sounded fantastic, even timeless, so fans could either join in Omar’s disdain for this cash-grab nostalgia trip or be grateful that he played the old tunes competently and that the rest of the band seemed to give a shit. With eyes closed, it was a brilliant set.
Jack White. He paved the way for The Black Keys to get huge, who in turn made the world safe for Jack’s transmogrification into a pop star. At this point, in terms of pallor, personal peculiarity, seemingly pretentious public persona and performance prowess, White is approaching Michael Jackson levels. He inspires obsession in a boldly calculated fashion, but also through unbridled talent and an unrivaled commitment to performance as art. He’s the rare example of a musician whose substance lives up to his extreme theatricality and mythology. He just released perhaps his weakest collection of songs ever, his solo debut Blunderbuss, after breaking up his cultishly adored band, The White Stripes, last year, but if he tried to tell me that his entire career was only preamble, preparation for getting out on tour with these musicians he played with at Lollapalooza, I’d believe him.
If he tried to tell me that jamming with Jimmy Page, however awkwardly, during the making of It Might Get Loud, had no influence on him, I’d laugh in his face, though. If there’s been one guitarist since Page that gets the tight-but-loose aesthetic, it’s White, and particularly on “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known” and portions of the “Cannon” medley you could imagine yourself (for a brief moment) under different stars, circa 1970 as Zeppelin was tearing you a new face. Whereas Dan Auerbach was the essence of Claptonesque fluidity on Friday night, Jack played the grungy, passion-over-precision maestro on Sunday, destroying the validity of the term “shred” for most other guitarists.
It would be pointless to suggest that this solo endeavor is better or worse than The White Stripes were, but obviously White’s ambition exceeds what he and Meg could accomplish alone. The head-scratching concept of Jack not playing guitar on “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground” actually turned out amazingly well; he manned the keys and turned the tune into a Band-esque shuffle, and the quaint, Elton John-ish ditty “Take Me With You When You Go” blossomed into a virtual “Bohemian Rhapsody” of proggy dramatics (relatively speaking, of course). The players he had onstage with him made (The Buzzards and The Peacocks–guess which is which!) up possibly the two best rock and roll bands at the festival, assuming you factor Jack into both. There wasn’t a ton of improv, but both bands succeeded in turning on dimes to the occasional mystery whim of their leader within and between songs, a communal intuition far beyond just being good musicians.
It was Jack’s flesh-rending guitar work more than any other single factor that carried the show, though. Obviously, “Ball And Biscuit” was ridiculous, the type of energy you experience more as electricity slicing through your soul than as sound. The set closed with the Stripes’ biggest hit, “Seven Nation Army,” and it featured the deepest, least-musical guitar tone possible; it sounded like a two-ton steel brick being dragged across concrete. When it was all over, the crowd chanted the guitar riff all the way to Michigan Avenue and beyond, à la Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” in 2010. Still waiting to hear reports of crowds singing any Justice songs on their way to the train station…
Jack White @ Lolla- “Take Me With You When You Go”
Check out more Lollapalooza videos on the Lollapalooza YouTube Channel.
For more from writer, Cal Roach, check out You-Phoria.com.
— Honest Tune Magazine (@HonestTuneMag) September 8, 2012
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