Lollapalooza : 20 years and still leading the party

Written by Cal Roach / photos by Julie Collins

August 23, 2011

 

_mg_3216.jpgA few of the folks reading this review may be old enough to remember 1991, the year Nirvana’s Nevermind turned mainstream music upside down and suddenly, for a brief wrinkle in time, there was good music on the radio.  Not just rock and roll, either; the early 90s were a heyday for “conscious” hip hop artists like Arrested Development and A Tribe Called Quest as well as a breeding ground for the merging of black and white cultures, as artists like Rage Against The Machine and Ice-T’s Body Count showcased rap and rock elements actually working together. (Does anybody remember the Judgment Night soundtrack?)  Sure, it all fell apart pretty quickly, but for a while there, it felt like reality was busting through the Hollywood sheen of pop culture.

At the heart of all this was a traveling music festival called Lollapalooza.

 

 

It seemed destined for failure; the guy who dreamed it all up, Perry Farrell, was using it as a farewell tour for his band Jane’s Addiction.  In 1991, not many people had heard of Nine Inch Nails, Living Colour, Fishbone, Butthole Surfers or the Violent Femmes, and with Jane’s about to crash and burn, nobody could’ve predicted that this traveling freakshow would go on to become one of the most influential experiments in music history. In the ensuing six years, every luminary of Alternative Nation _mg_4774.jpgexcept Nirvana would end up playing Farrell’s burgeoning showcase for cutting-edge music of all stripes.  Finally in 1997, with Farrell having abandoned ship the previous year, the Seattle scene in shambles and the airwaves firmly under corporate control again, the last Lollapalooza tour closed with a whimper.

It was Bonnaroo that ushered in the modern festival age, but the legacy of Lolla made it all possible.  So it was a bit of a surprise that none of those legendary 90s performers, sans a Farrell DJ set, appeared in this year’s 20th anniversary lineup. The festival evolved from cutting-edge independence to corporate-driven spectacle quickly as soon as it found its permanent home in Grant Park in 2005, but every year has boasted a significant cache of up-and-comers as well as influential stalwarts from past eras; with so many acts from the 90s still active, it’s a wonder Farrell couldn’t convince any of them to sign up.  One thing is for certain, though: Farrell’s a shrewd businessman, and the festival sold out completely in advance despite being one of the most expensive tickets of the summer.  And even considering the premium price, the talent delivered the goods, for the most part.

 

The Festival Experience

 

_mg_5106.jpgOne of the best things about Lolla, believe it or not, is the food, and this year had by far the best offerings yet.  Dozens of local vendors formed two long rows of eateries (Chow Town) and some of Chicago’s best restaurants were represented (Kuma’s Corner if you like burgers, for instance). In Lederhosen’s Biergarten you could procure giant sausages on pretzel rolls in addition to a decent selection of imported beers (cheaper than Budweiser at Wrigley Field), and the samosas from Juhu Beach were potentially addictive. The longest lines were for slices of quality Chicago pizza, of course. Even if nothing here suited your fancy, this was a wristband festival, which meant you can walk a couple blocks for a relatively cheap eatery or a classy meal and come back whenever you felt like it.  Plus, free water refill stations were plentiful this year; kudos to CamelBak.

Yes, it can be a hassle getting from one end of the mile-long fest to the other, so you’re best off planning your day with only one or two long walks in order to catch the most music possible. The upside: there was very little cross-bleeding between stages, except when the bass from the fantastic new Perry’s tent occasionally overpowered quieter sets on the north end.

This year’s festival grounds were also the cleanest they’ve ever been–the whole time–thanks to an ingenious ploy: why give volunteers free tickets to come in and clean up when you can offer paying customers a free t-shirt for turning in full garbage bags? All weekend, kids were walking around bussing the field, picking up your empty Sweet Leaf Tea cans almost as fast as you could drain them.  All in all, it’s clear that the organizers are committed to making improvements every year.
 

The Rock and Roll

 

_mg_5078.jpgElectric guitars still rule Lollapalooza, and this was a good year for them, as long as they weren’t struggling to project from the PlayStation Stage, where Chicago natives Smith Westerns as well as noisy punks Black Lips were both badly sabotaged by a bad mix that muffled their guitars. Deftonesfared better, although it may have been due to the magnetic presence of vocalist Chino Moreno more than anything else, but at least the guitars were fairly loud.  Deftones are by and large a love-or-hate band, but there’s no denying Moreno’s rousing performance ability; he gives the impression that he’s up there for the hardcore fans rather than trying to win over new ones, and that’s a philosophy that creates fans for life.

Maynard James Keenan, best known as the singer for Tool, has always been an iconoclast, but his other popular band, A Perfect Circle, is a tough nut to crack; it’s as if Keenan created yet another Tool-esque nu-metal band out of pure irony, just to show Staind and Puddle Of Mudd and the rest of their ilk how easy it is. The kicker is that APC is actually good, bolstered mainly by Maynard’s incomparable vocal cords, even if the style is initially a nauseating reminder of the Creed era. So while your first impression when hearing this band crank into a gothic pop-metal cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” might be to vomit, give it a few minutes and try to fathom the point Keenan is trying to make. In many ways he is the anti-rock star, seeking only to expose the hypocrisy of his own profession right in front of every audience, and while the intention may have been lost on the majority of the festival crowd, the power was there in the performance even for those who took it at face value.

_mg_3245.jpgPortugal. The Man can usually be counted on for a spaced-out excursion or two, but the band played it very safe for the majority of its Saturday afternoon set. Forty minutes in or so, the wind picked up and everyone could smell the storm clouds approaching, and Portugal seized on the kinetic energy and sprang to life with a sizzling performance of (what else?) “Chicago” as the crew lowered the video screens in preparation for rain.  But the highlight of the set was undeniable: as fair-weather fans scrambled for shelter, the band played a rollicking “People Say” and, on a dime, shifted into Oasis’s “Don’t Look Back In Anger.”  Fans squirmed into ponchos and garbage bags and huddled under umbrellas while belting out every word with festival-sized smiles on their faces.

Possibly the most electrifying set of the weekend happened very early on. The Kills make a pretty interesting din on record, but nothing compared to the live set they played on Friday. Alison Mosshart is one of the most captivating singers in rock and roll, and Jamie Hince’s guitar playing is exponentially more ferocious onstage, an agonized cross-breed of Angus Young and Buzz Osborne.  You don’t get nearly the effect of the tense chemistry between the two of them on record; their music and body language create a haunting melodrama unlike any other dynamic in modern rock.  Maybe halfway through the set, you might notice that there’s not actually a drummer up there; this band doesn’t need one.

 

The Hip Hop

 

Eminem may have attracted the largest single crowd in Lolla history. Presumably, loads of curious locals bought single-day tickets; the only question was whether they flocked in to catch a pop star, or to catch a fading star while they still had the chance. Em put on a show that satisfied either way; the only folks who could’ve been disappointed were the ones with deep emotional ties to his songs. They may have thought, for instance, “What’s the point of just doing the first verse of ‘Stan’ and then jumping into the next track?” But it’s a mainstream hip-hop show, and the point is to keep the crowd chanting along and shaking their booties, and put on A SHOW, which Mr. Mathers certainly did. The guy looks no worse for wear, and his verbal skills are not diminished, and even if Lady Gaga seems more risqué than Eminem these days, his set was a solid, exuberant, possibly even heartfelt performance.

_mg_8695.jpgA major highlight of Sunday evening was Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley‘s set with Nas. It was fascinating to experience the shifting motifs of the set as each artist performed his own songs with tracks from the duo’s joint effort, last year’s Distant Relatives, spliced in between. Marley is a fierce performer whose eyes can pierce right through you from afar, and his reinventions of his father’s tunes (most notably “Exodus” and “Could You Be Loved”) were not gimmicks–they were inspired new pieces of artistry. Whether it was by association, or that there were a lot of old-school hip hop fans in the crowd, Nas’s own tracks (particularly “Hate Me Now” and “Got Ur Self A Gun”) got at least as much love from the crowd as did the Marley tunes. Whatever you may think of Nas and Marley’s album, as a couple of performers and with this versatile band, they fit extremely well together.

The hype seems to have cooled a bit on Cool Kids since they were CMJ and Pitchfork darlings a few years ago; perhaps it was because they claimed their debut album, When Fish Rode Bicycles, was coming out in 2008 and it only just dropped a month ago. Then again, who cares about albums anymore?  Cool Kids’ MySpace page has been blowing up with new tracks for years, and the hometown heroes garnered an enthusiastic response from fans at Perry’s this year. It was refreshing in the wake of the Odd Future media blitz to see a couple of (relatively) modest MCs with catchy, clever rhymes who don’t need to shock anybody to get their point across.
 

The Beats

 
Perry Farrell has been vocal about his insistence on making electronic music a bigger and bigger part of Lollapalooza, and this year featured a pretty stellar assortment, particularly at his own personal club stage, Perry’s (go figure). Modeselektor was an easy favorite, not only for the electronic duo’s mind-bending mélange of sounds and moods but also for the spectacle of muddied revelers scrambling up and down the slick banks surrounding the stage area. You get a heavy sense of progressive/krautrock influence in the way the two men combine traditional electro and hip-hop beats with quirky and head-spinning effects and samples, an unpredictable stew of sounds but highly danceable at all times.

_mg_6287.jpgBeats Antique combined digital sounds that spanned a wide variety of exotic and familiar territory with a quirky assortment of live instrumentation and enthralling performance art beyond anything else all weekend.  The crowd was small but dedicated, a blessing that allowed anyone who so desired to get close and watch Zoe Jakes’ mesmerizing belly-dance hybrid act. At one point, she emerged playing a bass drum and somehow made that sexy. The swirling mixture of Middle-Eastern overtones, jazz and hip-hop beats and sound collages of indiscriminate origin made for a truly unique aural/visual experience.

Pitted against Coldplay, Muse and Girl Talk, Ratatat still drew an impressive crowd to the Google Stage for the final set of opening night. The Ratatat sound is instantly recognizable: high-pitched twin guitar leads like Thin Lizzy on Pixie Stix, belligerently archaic organ textures and various sound effects that may or may not evoke drug experiences, all strung together over relentlessly catch beats. That may sound tiresomely happy; luckily, there were extremely violent videos projected behind the performers during many of the songs, which was just a bit difficult to comprehend. As disturbing as some moments may have been, they didn’t stop any bodies from shakin’ to the infectious grooves.
 

The Jams

 
_mg_6970.jpgThere was precious little treasure for jam-chasers at Lollapalooza, as usual, but there were moments. Exhibit A would be Saturday’s co-headliner My Morning Jacket. The band gets plaudits for its live show for a number of reasons: lots of really good songs, an exuberant, physical performance, especially by fearless leader Jim James and his giant mane, and plenty of loud, bombastic guitar work across the board. MMJ is the hippie band that it’s okay for indie snobs to like, and while the crowd was decidedly smaller on the north end than for Eminem to the south, James gave this performance everything he had, captivating fans and bowling over plenty of curious first-timers.  Early on, the band took “Off the Record” for a spooky ride, but inexplicably, still refused to expand on the endless possibilities of “Lay Low.”  “Mahgeetah” got a pretty decent workout, but it was “Dondante” that blew minds on that Lolla night; moody ebbs and flows and crests, anguished guitar work by James and a pretty fantastic sax outro from Carl Broemel. James was in less-than-perfect voice, but his charisma rose above it, and as expected, this was one of the top sets of the weekend.

While it is far from safe to refer to Ween as a jamband, even though the group counts plenty of hippies among its eclectic cross-section of fans. But a Ween show plays out like one long, anything-goes bout of improv; nothing is polished, everything seems spontaneous, and there are a couple of weirdo not-actual-brothers onstage named Dean and Gene who you’d swear are just doing whatever comes into their heads. In fact, you are guaranteed plenty of improv, like – on this day — the always-dynamic “Buckingham Green,” which sometimes delves into pure metal but didn’t get too crazy here. One of the great things about Ween is that, even without actual hits, the band intuitively picks the best songs from every album to play live; even the somewhat disappointing La Cucaracha had “My Own Bare Hands” and “Your Party,” two quintessential Ween tunes that were both highlights of the Lolla set.  Unfortunately, by the time they got around to “Roses Are Free,” there wasn’t enough time left for a jam, but it was at the end of a crazy hour of intensely bizarre yet perfectly paced rock and roll and… whatever kind of music “Mutilated Lips” is.

_mg_4536yyy.jpgSomewhat surprisingly, it was Foo Fighters who brought the most impressive explorations of the weekend.  Frontman Dave Grohl developed a lot of lame, patronizing rock-star tendencies over the past decade or so, and some fans (ahem) may have gotten sick of being asked repeatedly if they were ready to rock. The band had been on hiatus following its weakest album (2007′s Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace) and ensuing tour, but this year’s predictable “back to our roots” move actually seems to be valid, as evidenced by this fest-closing show. A fresh arrangement for the “My Hero” outro led to a sinister noise jam, and “Breakout” featured some fantastic group improv. The band took “Stacked Actors” for a long thrill ride just like in the old days (including some “Heartbreaker” action by Grohl). Even the tight power-punk blast “Monkey Wrench” got stretched out. Sure, most of this stuff is very similar night after night, but the point of seeing a show is to see how songs evolve when the band plays ‘em live, and no one could accuse Foo Fighters of getting stuck on album arrangements. After 15 years, this is still one of the best arena rock bands on the planet.

Just before the final tune of the night, Dave told the crowd a story about going to the first Lollapalooza in Los Angeles with Kurt Cobain while they were making Nevermind: “Me and Kurt went down and sat in the audience, and we thought ‘Oh my God, music is fucking changing.’” He then brought out Perry and thanked him “for changing music forever,” and it was all very deserved and heartfelt…but while memories of that feeling may have flooded back into the consciousness of Generation X for a minute, it’s sad that nostalgia is the only way to get there nowadays.  Lollapalooza is a lot of fun, but there’s not a trace of revolution in the air.

 

For more from Cal Roach, head over to You-Phoria.com

 

Click the thumbnail for photos From the Fest by Julie Collins / Rose Mountain Photo

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