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Feature Mon Aug 10 2009
Reviews of this past weekend's festival are slowly coming in over the wires as our staff recuperates and adjusts our eyes from the glare of the sun to the gleam of the computer screen. Nevermind the blisters, here's our look back at Lollapalooza 2009 (with further updates as bulletins arrive).
Another Lollapalooza is in the books. This year's festival had its highlights and lowlights, just like any other year. Some headliners mailed it in. Some bands you've never heard of blew minds at 1PM. 99% of the audience were good people. The other 1% were a nightmare. (That doesn't even include all the people from California who couldn't wait to tell you how much better Coachella is, or those still wearing Bonnaroo wristbands like a trophy.) There were sound issues on most stages at one time or another, but each stage also had its sonic pinnacles helping make very good performances become great. And local acts like Dark Wave Disco and the Hood Internet owned their time in front of national audiences. Instead of a chronological recap, I've put together something a little different. It's impossible to list everything seen, but below are some of the very good and bad that I'll remember from Lollapalooza 2009.
Most Positive Surprise: Miike Snow's music had eluded me until Saturday afternoon. Sounding like Goldfrapp or the Field, the Swedish band laid down a set of mostly minimal piano-driven electronica. Heavy hitter "Animal" drew numerous cheers from the crowd, but then sent them packing at its conclusion midway through the set. Now having listened to some of their studio versions, it's not difficult to hear why Miike Snow hadn't come into my scope. The music's nothing to write home about, but the live versions were heavy and full of life with dominant thick grooves.
Best Cover Song: Peter, Bjorn & John working Joy Division's "Transmission" into their epic "Up Against the Wall" was stellar. All set Peter, attired as if he were off to a country club afterward, was the star of the show - singing with all his might, running around the stage and engaging the audience. But his "dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio" screams were sung like a madman as the "Up Against the Wall" beat barely wavered when they transitioned into the cover.
Most Obvious Instance of Phoning It In: Lou Reed did not care whatsoever about playing a show. The 15-minute delay before his set pushed everyone else back the rest of the evening (creating horrendous sound bleed when Band of Horses and Jane's Addiction fought for Butler Field later on) and the set list left a lot to be desired from one of the true legends to play Lollapalooza 2009. Beginning with "Sweet Jane" was a highlight, but the excessively long arrangements killed any momentum and were not terribly festival-appropriate. Seven songs in about an hour is verging into Flaming Lips-at-Pitchfork territory. And that's not a good thing.
Curmudgeon of the Weekend: During TV On the Radio's upbeat and animated set on Saturday afternoon, two little girls were dancing on the side of the stage. They could not have been more than 10 years old. TVOTR was firing on all cylinders and these girls were clearly digging it as they danced around like little kids do - bouncing up and down, arms flailing, pure joy on their faces, etc. Apparently, that's not allowed, especially if you are two feet over a line to keep 20 feet from VIPs and artists. So a stage hand had them move and stop. All I could think was, "Really?!" I know most people seeing TVOTR wouldn't be caught dead dancing, but to put two little kids back in their place for having a good time seemed a bit overboard.
Best 1-Song Set: I arrived at Lollapalooza a little too late on Saturday to catch most of one band that I really wanted to see — Constantines. However, I did get to catch one song by them. And, oh, they made "Young Lions" worthwhile with guitars held over heads, Bryan Webb's voice on the verge of hysteria and pummeling riffs leaving an audience in awe. (Later that night at Double Door, "Young Lions" wasn't nearly the force it'd been in the hot sun.)
Greatest Popularity Underestimation: Passion Pit on the Citi Stage was a scheduling error if I've ever seen one. Most bands playing the stage on Balbo Drive had modest crowds fitting within its limitations, but Passion Pit's lightweight electronic pop is clearly way more popular than Lolla organizers knew. With the crowd stretching far and wide, it was reminiscent of Girl Talk's set on the same stage last year (though maybe even bigger). The band, obviously overjoyed with the large audience, put forth maximum effort and worked the thousands into a frenzy, especially with songs like "Sleepyhead" and "The Reeling." It was absolute pandemonium.
Who would have thought that by the end of Lollapalooza, I would come to miss the dreary Friday afternoon rain? Annoyed by the Friday weather, I ended up waiting until 3 pm to leave for Grant Park, figuring I could wait out the rain. I arrived during the tail end of Ben Folds' set to a sea of umbrellas and muddy feet. Luckily, I got there just in time to hear two of my favorites — "Kate" and "Army" — and grab a decent spot for The Decemberists. The Decemberists played The Hazards of Love in full, and the sun finally peaked it's head over the clouds. After their set, I literally ran to grab a good spot at Andrew Bird. The crowd at Andrew Bird, at least on the right-hand side of the stage, seemed unfamiliar with his music and completely disinterested. I could barely hear Andrew over their chatter, which was a big disappointment after his epic set Thursday night at Schubas. He played many of the same songs as on Tuesday night, though he threw in "Tables and Chairs" and "Opposite Day". I ended up skipping part of Depeche Mode to catch Mr. Bird over at the F.Y.E. stage, and in the process overheard part of the Kings of Leon set over at the Budweiser stage. Sorry to say, I really don't understand the hype surrounding this band. Even live, they just sounded like a generic rock band. The Andrew Bird line took a bit longer than expected, so I only made it over for the last song of Depeche Mode's set before the encore, "Never Let Me Down Again". They came back out to perform "Stripped" and "Personal Jesus", and I got to witness Dave Gahan prancing about the stage. All in all, a good night.
The first part of my Saturday was spent wandering around the festival grounds. I caught a couple songs of Perry Farrell's set, though I couldn't quite make out who the "special guest" was. I caught bits of the Arctic Monkeys and No Age, but mostly just explored the festival. I finally settled on Lykke Li, dressed in all black and twirling around the stage. Her set was sparsely attended, but she was up against TV On the Radio and Rise Against, so I suppose that is not much of a surprise. She performed most of Youth Novels and threw in a cover of Kings of Leon's "Knocked Up". I started to get dehydrated so ended up missing the first half of Animal Collective's set in search of water and a smoothie. All for the better, I guess, since once I made it over to their stage, their set completely bored me, and the crowd around me didn't seem that into it either, so I headed over to catch a good spot for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. When the YYYs played the Aragon a couple months ago, I remember Karen O saying that it was the largest crowd they had ever played for. Now, playing a crowd multiple times that size, Karen O was noticeably nervous, and even forgot the lyrics to "Maps" mid-song. They still put together a fun performance, with giant eyeball balloons released to the crowd (which a few troublesome boys attempted to throw onto Lake Shore Drive) and a lot of dancing.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs "Maps"
Sunday was the most jam-packed day of must-see artists for me, although unfortunately I missed Bat For Lashes due to traffic. Next up was Dan Deacon, who, during his set, made the crowd rub each other's heads, kneel down on the ground with hands in the air, and form a dance circle. After that I wanted to head over to see Vampire Weekend, but I had such a good spot at the Vitamin Water stage that I didn't want to give it up, as Cold War Kids were up after that. So I watched Vampire Weekend from afar, and heard they referenced John Hughes and his importance to the Chicagoland area, so good on 'em for that. Cold War Kids were full of energy, and ended their set with two big crowd-pleasers, "Hospital Beds" and "St. John". The next set was the biggest debacle in Lollapalooza weekend for me, Snoop Dogg vs. Lou Reed. Since I was already over on the south side of Lolla, I ended up going with Snoop Dogg, who gave a somewhat disappointing performance, although the crowd seemed psyched to see him regardless. He seemed to spend more time talking about weed and chanting his own name rather than performing any songs, although I'm still excited to be able to say that I've seen Snoop Dogg live. Next up was Jane's Addiction, which was unexpectedly the highlight of Lollapalooza for me. Perry Farrell was completely electric, jumping around and strutting about the stage in white and gold bellbottoms. The day ended with an adorable proposal on stage, and Perry's urgings to help bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago. I woke up today completely sore and sunburnt, but this weekend was definitely worth it.
Sunday night's surprise proposal
Highlights and lowlights seemed to come in pairs this weekend in my Lolla experience. Beginning with Friday, the obvious low was the rain, but hometown group Hey Champ gave me a reason to get there early as they made their Lollapalooza debut. They rocked the Chicago 2016 main stage and even got something resembling a dance-party-mosh-pit going at the front of the crowd after lead singer Saam Hagshenas told the crowd that next track might melt their faces. The rain didn't spoil their set one bit. Even if you were soaked by mid set, you could pretend you were one of the sweat-drenched dancers from the video when they played "Cold Dust Girl" (the one that got them signed with Lupe Fiasco's 1st & 15th label).
If you needed an uplift at any point during the day, Perry's was the place to be. Listening to a somber group like Fleet Foxes or even STS9 can be a downer in the rain, but it's hard to be sad around upbeat dance music. The Bloody Beetroots tore out a set that could actually make dancing in the rain and mud more fun than if it were dry and sunny. The rain finally let up some time around 7, but by then (if you made it that long) you were already soaked to the bone (with frozen fingers--thank goodness for this year's koozies). I was on the south end watching of Montreal at about this time and realized I was getting pretty drunk. You could thank the 20oz beer cans, or just the fact that the rain might have made you drink more. I thought it was a great call on selling the large cans, which meant I would have to make fewer, less frequent trips to the bar, but they stopped selling them on Saturday--rumor from the bartenders was that people just got too drunk, but the more likely rumor was that security pulled them because they could become dangerous projectiles if thrown. Either way, it made for another plus and minus for the weekend.
Sunday had it's own major pros and cons, starting with Lou Reed's 6:30pm set on the Budweiser main stage. It was amazing to see such a legendary musician play his renowned hits (even if it was lost on a lot of younger fans), but his set got off to a rough start beginning 15 minutes late and looking to suffer some sound problems the first few songs--with Reed not looking too happy about it. But the problems seemed to have been resolved and Reed hit his stride and ended the set with a long avant garde drone that led into The Velvet Underground song "I'm Waiting For The Man."
Another performance I never dreamed I would see live was the original lineup of Jane's Addiction (especially playing "Been Caught Stealing," but that was a personal favorite moment). Things got off to a rough start here as well, thanks to that delay that started with Reed's set. Band of Horses played in between on the PlayStation stage across the field and obviously started late as well, but they played even later than they were delayed, pretty much ruining the spectacular (I mean, there was a helicopter for a spotlight) opening for Jane's Addiction. They opened with "Mountain Song," but I could hardly tell over the volume of the music still coming from the other end. I understand that the problem started with Lou Reed's set, but if anyone was going to get the shaft here it should have been Band of Horses over Jane's--especially on Perry Farrell's turf. It's pretty bad form to play over the party host's set (which still started 10 minutes later than scheduled, but probably couldn't wait any longer because of the city sound curfew). If anything they should have shared the delay, both shaving 10 minutes off since Jane's started late anyway, but I digress. Needless to say the sound bleed upset me to no end, but Jane's Addiction made up for it ten fold.
I've seen Perry Farrell perform many times at Lolla over the years, with Satellite Party and with friends on the Kidzapalooza stage, but I've never seen him fit anywhere as well as the frontman of Jane's Addiction. That man was meant to front this band. From the helicopter opening to the dancers dressed as the cover of Nothing's Shocking to drummer Stephen Perkins playing against doctor's orders to Perry's kids taking the stage to the marriage proposal--there were almost too many highlights to count. Jane's Addiction were fitting end to another great year.
Festivals are probably my favorite thing to do with my time. If you told me to sleep on the ground, wrap my hair in a bandana, and use a port-a-potty for 5 days while I listen to nothing but hundreds of live music acts, just tell me where to sign up. Obviously so, Lollapalooza rolling into our little city is one of the more exciting times for me, and with only a small contribution made from the fact I get to shower and sleep in my own bed. Unfortunately however, a more widespread disappointment about the lineup this year came with my ticket to the fest, but I didn't let a mild resentment towards the people taking my $300 rain on my Lolla. In fact, the rain itself didn't bother me at all, it was the muted sound, and muted enthusiasm that did.
Friday in hindsight was the best day of music by far. The phenomenal Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears surprised me by taking themselves to the vitaminwater stage and never letting go. They just released their debut album Tell 'Em What Your Name Is this past March but their blues and soul riffs go back for decades. Joe Lewis sings out a set of hits and all the Honeybears motor along in wonderfully sincere good moods. It's nothing less to say that this show was a blast, turning my underwhelmed feelings about lineups and clouds into literally forgetting that it wasn't a sunny afternoon in the city. Lewis scotch tapes pin-ups to his guitar, sings "Bitch, I Love You", and orchestrates so as much soul as possible leaps out of the two Buddy Holly-like guitar players . We all got the same things bringing us down and Joe just wants us to dance along to them. Among some of the more unduly hyped bands that got stage-times at this year's Lolla, the number of people appreciating Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears during the beginnings of both the weekend and the band itself was a good reminder of why you come to these things early.
Wandering around in a new enthusiasm I checked out a bit of Dark Wave Disco. The Perry stage was an excellent touch to the festival's attempt to bring some more dance music to the alt-rock scene. The stage itself set up a great other world among the trees outside the North end of the park, and sometimes it filled up to beyond its own good. As you walked past it for the rest of the weekend you could always peek your head in to see what kind mood was being made with the bass thumping this time around. Dark Wave Disco, however, played MGMT's 'Kids' in its entirety adding nothing more than a slightly louder and more elaborate bass beat, so I left. Bon Iver was finishing up at the Playstation stage in all his wonderful, I-wrote-this-album-in-a-cabin, glory. His songs off last year's For Emma, Forever Ago translated surprisingly well to a festival setting, filling the crowd and eventually making us unintentionally but not regrettably late for STS9.
STS9 and Thievery Corporation were the two best decisions I made the whole festival. STS9 packed the Chicago 2016 stage and literally just chilled out and played mind-blowing music for an hour or so. Thievery Corporation likewise brought out all the stops and filled the stage with musicians and some of the most beautiful guest vocalists I've ever seen. Crowd control measures may have muted some other performances, but Thievery Corporation just saw this as more dancing room, giving the crowd more contact than it would see the rest of the weekend. When bands such as these take the stage in no hype, in no expectation, in no ego except for who they are, it makes you remember that these festivals are less about the names, places, dates, t-shirts, and Budweiser and more about standing in fields and dancing with 80-odd thousand other like-minded people. And when the music's good, it's good, you don't care who says otherwise. I've seen and done this in the dust of Manchester, Tennessee, the mud of Glastonbury, UK, and in the shadows of the skyline of Chicago, IL, and all the comparisons, $300 ticket prices, and sleeping arrangements fall apart to the pure enjoyment that comes with standing outside and listening to great music with several thousand other like-minded people.
Remembering my opinions on the latest efforts of Skeletal Lamping and the subsequent tour (not be mentioned here, because I should just get over it), I waved hey to Barnes and the rest of Of Montreal as I walked passed on the way to Andrew Bird. What a great guy and a great set of music in a great city. Andrew Bird loves playing here and you could tell he really enjoyed the newest Noble Beast songs that have made it to his set. A little girl no older than 5 danced and gave peace signs to all her company and I have to say that's exactly how the rest of us felt as well. 'Effigy', 'Not a Robot, but a Ghost', and 'Anonanimal' floated us on into our evenings just like Bird's spinning gramophone intends. And children aside, I honestly did not expect the amount of adults straight up rocking out to 'Imitosis' and 'Tables and Chairs". But I'm glad we did, what a great song. Here we were enjoying our Chicago pride and our whistling boy with the violin; Andrew Bird, we loved it.
Haunted by the inability to let go of the biased visions of drunk people in clubs singing 'Sex is on Fire' , I was unenthused but willing to hear Kings of Leon, that is until they turned the sound down for perfectly logical but disappointing reasons. This unenthusiasm for the headliner seemed to stretch not just through me but through every crowd and even clearly the fest heads themselves for the whole weekend. We all knew we weren't really here for these bands. I paid for my ticket to see about 10 bands in the whole festival, and I don't think I'm alone in this feeling, knowing the amount of people who only went one day, or couldn't find even 10 bands to justify the ticket price. So what was left was, after the great experience of Friday's music, a weekend of seeing bands like Coheed and Cambria (who had a surprisingly large audience) just because there was nothing else to see, and leaving Lollapalooza headlining acts with muted lights and sounds early just to beat the rush on the way home. All rights are most definitely reserved, as Lollapalooza had to take serious precautions against the crowd issues it experienced in 2008, and could not live up to the talent and atmosphere that filled Grant Park this time last year, but standing there at the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who pulled out a spectacular show for not even being one that anyone intended to pay for, to me it was just not the experience that was worth it. Festivals such as these are becoming victim to their own culture, I fear, banking on people buying tickets because of the name and the expected experience than the music. Lineups this year were plagued with less than spectacular headliners. Bruce Springsteen was marketing a greatest hits album and realized there are about 100,000 people in Tennessee that will go see him because their camping on a farm for a weekend. Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, and Kings of Leon may be seeing the main stage as their new way to an audience without music videos to do it anymore. And the more respected names are losing Bob Dylan and The Dead to Rothbury Festival, making us all figure out how long of a drive it is to Michigan, instead. By no means do I think we're doomed, but Lollapalooza's lineup seemed to tread dangerously into Pitchfork territory, and for the amount of physical and monetary effort a single fan puts into one of these festivals, a chart-topping pop act with the sound turned down, an old timer without the energy or desire to put himself into the show, and coattail riders to popularity are not worth it.
Lou Reed was the ultimate of disappointments that mirror my feelings about Lollapalooza in general. We lead into the performance watching Neko Case be crazy, lovable, and country and listening to Dan Auerbach knock the socks off of the Playstation stage behind us. With this fabulous afternoon rolling along, I counted minutes (and then fifteen extra) in excitement until Lou Reed took the stage. But sound problems and apparently little effort or energy culminated into him completely ditching his guitar during one of his songs and stringing out Paranoia Key of E into Velvet Underground excesses that were less return trips to the tremendous glory of Lou Reed and more lead ins to wondering whether or not he forgot he was playing a song. And I know he's old, and I know I respect him more than almost any artist, but it's not demanding to expect him to remember the words to the songs he wrote, for the sake of Lollapalooza, rather than use the teleprompter that he even had trouble reading during the show. That's a lot of heroin.
Lollapalooza is Chicago's. Walking around Grant Park becomes like another world for this weekend, and the cab ride back does nothing to take you away from it each night until the whole festival is over. Surrounded by the skyline, Lollapalooza does in Chicago what other festivals need giant farms and isolated distances to create, a working community of music artists and fans expressing themselves and the joy around them. Ultimately whatever the schedulers, Budweiser, Playstation, Greenpeace, my friends, or that falafel stand guy can try to make me do or see doesn't change that we all came here to have a blast, and we had one. Everyone puts in their efforts, picks up their proverbial recycling bag of cans, and gets a free tshirt. Complaining about it is all done in perspective and ultimately it can be said, well done Chicago, we put on a festival!