“I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees.”
Chicago is fortunate to play host to two large summer music festivals. While Pitchfork is generally regarded as the more forward-thinking (at least a dozen bands in this year’s Lolla lineup are P4k alums), Lollapalooza absolutely dominates in terms of size and scope. The Grant Park festival grounds is nearly a mile from end-to-end, and there are always four stages going at once (not counting the Kidz stage and Perry’s Corner). While the fest’s attempts at diversity are often scoffed at as “tokenism,” there were some head-turning appearances this year, including noisier groups like HEALTH and Fuck Buttons, soul singers Mavis Staples and Raphael Saadiq, and pop sensation Lady Gaga (!!!).
The plethora of bands and simultaneous scheduling means that it’s impossible to catch every act that you set your heart on. Following is just a small sample of my more notable casualties: MGMT, Semi-Precious Weapons (during whose set, Her Ladyship was purported to have stage-dived, not once, but twice), The Morning Benders, Social Distortion, Cymbals Eat Guitars, and the unkindest cut of them all, Soundgarden.
But before we get into the meat of the review, here are a few random Lollapalooza observations, in no particular order:
- I totally almost didn’t get into the festival. For some bizarre reason, the press check-in was located on Columbus Drive, inside the park itself. Fellow journalist Akemi Nakamura of Japanese publication rockin’on and myself were bounced from gate to gate until one kind volunteer took pity on us and escorted us over to the press tent where we received our wrist bands.
- The biggest difference between P4k and Lolla? Camelbacks. I swear, I’ve never even seen one of these things until this weekend, and then, all of a sudden, every third person in the audience seemed to be wearing them. I saw a line of people snaking through a crowd with tubes in their mouth, looking like Fremen on their way to bag themselves a sandworm.
- Chicago restaurateur Graham Eliot organized the food tents this year, bringing together some of the biggest names in Chicago cuisine for some top-of-the-line street food. Some of my favorite meals of the weekend included a porkbelly slider with Kim Chi from Asian fusion restaurant Blue 13 and a delicious heavy metal burger from Chicago Institution Kuma’s Corner.
- This year’s program was nice and compact, great for sticking in a cargo pocket, with a really helpful foldout map, but the band write-ups inside were rendered in the kind of syrupy prose that could only have been concocted by an English major who’d just put a bullet in the head of his last hope for ever publishing his novel. An excerpt from The Strokes’ bio: “Well-to-do, good-looking children of celebrities carry a particular burden. They may be privileged and talented but sometimes have to work twice as hard to prove they’re not coattail-riding.”
There was a peculiar poignancy to this year’s festival. Not only was I gearing up for a weekend of diverse popular music, but it was also destined to be my swan song in the city of big shoulders. In the next week, I would be following my fiancé to Bowling Green, Ohio, where she’s pursuing her PhD in rhetoric. And since, by now, she is so used to suffering for the sake of my craft, it came as no surprise to her that my coverage of the festival meant that she was completely on her own with all the packing.
So here, at last, a run-down of all the acts that were worth shrugging off my boyfriendly duties to experience, and a short round-up of the sets that I should have spent filling boxes.
Worth Pissing off My Fiancé For
The first band I caught on Friday was The Walkmen. It’s been over half a decade since I last saw them in concert, but they still looked the same. Hamilton Leithauser was still dressed to the nines in a white button-down shirt and black tie, and he still looked as fresh-faced and clean cut as ever, like a teen extra on Leave It to Beaver or an antagonist from an 80s James Spader movie. Of course, The Walkmen have broadened their catalogue since then, and now the foggy post-punk anthems of Bows + Arrows are intermingled with some gentler, more country-influenced tunes. And while the new stuff sounded good, it was surging tunes like “All Hands on the Cook” and “The Rat” that packed the biggest punch.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Akron’s prophets of de-evolution. Although the band has a deep (and well-respected) catalogue, they’re primarily known to the general public as “those guys who wear flower pots on their heads and sing ‘Whip It.’” Would it be a “greatest hits live” show? A testing ground for Something for Everybody? A half-hearted reunion show? A cynical cash-grab? Thankfully, it turned out to be just a good, old-fashioned media-rich concept rock show. The band took the stage wearing gray plastic masks and vinyl jackets and launched into a six-song set from Something and Oh, No! It’s Devo. The new stuff played well live. Every song was accompanied by a video display on the giant LCD screen behind them, which ran a carousel of Devo-esque imagery: depictions of consumerism, sexual frustration, and banal modernity rendered in a retro-50s-as-seen-through-an-inceptional-MTV lens. They disappeared after “That’s Good” and came back out in black shirts and power domes to play a short set of hits (including the obligatory “Whip It,” after which a sizable portion of the audience cleared out) before donning their yellow jump suits and guitars to play a few cuts off their seminal debut Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo. Watching Mark Mothersbaugh rip pieces off his band mates’ jumpsuits during “Uncontrollable Urge” was a highlight, as was discovering that the queasy, off-kilter “Joko Homo” makes for a surprisingly galvanizing crowd pleaser.
Leading up to Fuck Buttons’ performance, the Sony Bloggie stage looked more like the basement of an old man with a tech fetish than a place where you could expect to see a live band. Except for a lone floor tom, there wasn’t a single actual musical instrument in plain sight (although I did spot Andrew Hung playing a wired-up toy Casio keyboard at a couple points). Instead, there was a long work table piled with unidentifiable electronic equipment: pedals, mixers, a tangled linguini of wires, and a suitcase with what looked like some kind of switchboard. The audience may as well not have been there at all. Hung and partner Benjamin John Power faced each other down like master chess players matching move for move. Their set, heavy on martial drum beats molested by blasts of atonal noise, leaned on last year’s Tarot Sport, but in spite of being the most confrontationally abrasive performance of the festival, I’ll be hanged if there still weren’t a fair share of people dancing.
“We’re running on about two hours of sleep here, so we’re holding nothing back,” Against Me! singer Tom Gabel told the audience three songs into their set. From the moment these guys took the stage, it was pedal to the metal. Power-punk anthems like “I was a Teenage Anarchist” and “Protest Songs” turned the area in front of the stage into a sea of pumping fists. Gabel brought the show to an end by jumping into the photo pit and climbing into the audience. It was the kind of high-octane show I wish more of the bands had been able to bring to Saturday’s punk-heavy lineup.
Wow, so how do I talk about Friday night without turning this review into a treatise on Lady Gaga? Few will come out and admit it, but this year’s Lollapalooza was little more than an elaborate excuse for a bunch of indie kids to attend a Gaga show (“I bought tickets for Lollapalooza, and Lady Gaga just happened to be there this year”). There’s been a lot of back and forth about the young starlet. Is she the fresh kick in the ass that the bloated pop megalith needs to rescue it from obsolescence? A pop artist provocateur who subverts the concepts of gender, fashion, and celebrity even as she exploits them? A charlatan who dresses her shallow gimmickry in quasi-intellectual folderol to mask her lack of originality?
Her Lolla set did little to set these questions to rest, but it did provide something even more important: a totally kick-ass headlining show. Gaga took the stage like Mohammad returning to Mecca. Her last performance at the festival in 2007 was supposedly hailed as a “train wreck” (although I want to point out that I combed through about a dozen online reviews of the 2007 fest, and the only one that I could find that even mentioned Gaga was more than favorable towards her, so I’m not sure what she was talking about), so it’s no surprise that her overall tone was a little triumphant… even to the point of being vengeful. But man, was it ever a show. She created a visual world that I can only describe as an 80s dystopian noir as envisioned by Lisa Frank. Everything was made of corroded metal and glitter. Satiate yourself on a few highlights:
- Gaga in a French habit, aluminum foil robot glove, and clear plastic bra and panties dancing on a subway car that drove through the center of the stage.
- A sheet-metal sedan with a keyboard in its trunk
- Gaga playing a Christmas-tree shaped keytar atop a hydraulic lift
- Former DJ, Lady Starlight, making a brief appearance to dance with Her Ladyship to Metallica’s “Metal Militia”
- A two-story deep-sea fish puppet attacking Gaga with its tentacles (yes, I know deep-sea fish don’t have tentacles, but this one did; what do you want me to say?)
During the breaks, when Gaga was taking five and changing outfits, the video displays showed prerecorded segments that depicted Gaga eating bleeding hunks of meat, getting vomited on by a model, and just wearing creepy, post-apocalyptic-looking masks (one of them, I swear, was the same one that Slipknot’s DJ wore on their first album cover). It was all incredibly engrossing, but it begged the question, “What, if anything, is the guiding vision behind all of this?” There was an attempt at a narrative winding its way through the show, Gaga and her loyal companions braving a threatening world to reach The Monster’s Ball, where everyone can be whatever they want. Somewhere tied up in all of this is a moral about self-actualization and believing in yourself in the face of adversity, but then where do the fucked-up bondage masks fit in? Oftentimes, her stage banter just seemed to fall flat, like when she railed on about how much she hates money, a curious sentiment, considering how much of it she obviously needed in order to afford a setup like the one she utilized.
Possibly the most fulfilling part of her whole performance was when she took a break from her larger-than-life disco-grotesque to play a mini-set at her piano. There, dressed in the sequined bra and panties she’d made the night before her 2007 performance on the BMI stage, she took on an almost conversational tone with her fans. When she talked about her love for music and for rock ‘n’ roll, it really came off as genuine and unaffected, and her performance of “Speechless” and new song “You and I” struck a perfect balance between familiarity and ostentation.
Overall, her performance was perfectly typical of Gaga herself: often invigorating, at times perplexing, but never even for a moment dull.
Gogol Bordello’s reputation as a live band is the stuff of legend. Eugine Hutz and his motley crew of international vagabonds did not disappoint. Their performance was marvelously ramshackle, with Hutz, backup singer/dancer Elizabeth Sun, and emcee Pedro Erazo careening across the stage like super-heated gas molecules. They stuck primarily to this year’s Transcontinental Hustle. While I didn’t care much for the album, the songs seemed right at home in a live setting: grimy and rousing, with great sing-along choruses. The band closed with a pair of fan favorites from their first record, breakout single “Start Wearing Purple” and “Sacred Darling.” The band’s relentless energy and familial camaraderie went a long way towards helping me to forget that, by that point, I’d pretty much been on my feet for a day and a half.
I sprinted across Grant Park in the rain to catch the beginning of HEALTH’s opening set on Sunday. In spite of their 11:30 time slot and a steady downpour, there was a pretty good showing of fans. Totally worth it, too. The L.A. noise punks did a great job balancing the chaotic songs from their self-titled debut with their newer and more accessible material. Of particular interest was “Drugs Beach,” which has been making the internet rounds for the past month or so. Its slow, ethereal build to a buzzing drone proved as cathartic as anything in the band’s catalogue, and magnificently dramatic to boot. Guitarist John Famiglietti took center stage, the black curtain of his hair closing over his face like a death shroud as he thrashed from side to side. Jupiter Keyes floated between a guitar, a partial drum kit, and a series of knobs and effects pedals (the fabled zoothorn, perhaps?). Compared to these two, singer Jake Duzsik seemed almost sedate. He hung around in the background next to drummer Benjamin Jared Miller, only coming out from behind the mic for a caterwauling rendition of “Heaven” that bled into “Die Slow.” They wrapped up with the shimmering, acid-etched dance number “USA Boys,” and set the bar awfully damn high for everyone who had to play after them that day.
It’s been a little over a year since I last saw The Antlers playing their first-ever Chicago show at the Pitchfork Music Festival. What a difference one year can make. Their Pitchfork set was intimate, the songs swathed in noise but still so fragile that a sudden move would have splintered them into a thousand pieces. But even though their Lolla set list was almost identical, what I saw was a completely different show. Their recent tour with The National has taken them to bigger venues, and as a result they’re making an even bigger sound. With the layers of drone peeled back, shoegazy tracks like “Kettering” and “Atrophy” blossom into honest-to-goodness rock songs. Only “Two,” already a fairly crowd-ready indie rock anthem, remained more or less untouched. Peter Silberman and crew also debuted a couple of new songs: one an up-tempo, dancey number, and the other displaying a kind of ping-pong chime effect. Both songs seemed to signal that the band might be moving into a happier, more hopeful place — musically, at least — for their next album. I felt a weirdly maternal pang in my heart as The Antlers left the stage, like I’d just dropped my firstborn child off at college. These bands, they just grow up so fast…
Maybe it was just the equipment-related delays that kept fans waiting for nearly 15 minutes, but X Japan seemed like one of the most anticipated sets of the festival. Not a surprise, considering that, in spite of their nearly 30-year legacy, Lollapalooza 2010 marked the Japanese prog metal band’s first American show. Front man Toshi worked the crowd mercilessly, and the audience seemed all too eager to comply. There was no shortage of crossed forearms raised overhead when the singer cried out, “We are…” and waited for the fans to scream back “X Japan!” Their sound was a curious mashup of hair metal balladry and speed-metal shredding, and every song took on grandiose, operatic proportions. A lot of the classical accouterments to their compositions came pre-recorded, but at one point Yoshiki slid out from behind his drum kit to play the piano accompaniment to guitarist Heath’s mournful violin. They were one of the more left-field acts to play the festival this year, and all the more welcome for it.
When I walked out of The National’s headlining slot at last year’s Pitchfork Festival, I knew right away that they were a band standing on the threshold of something big. And while the success of this year’s High Violet bore my predictions to fruition, I was curious about how their growing celebrity would affect them. Other writers have dismissed the band for displaying U2 grandiosity, but I can’t agree with that assessment. The National are definitely a band with mass appeal, and one that knows how to capitalize on that in a live setting. Their songs, so somber and melancholy on record, become stirring and epic in a live setting. The band could easily dissolve into falsity and empty melodrama in the hands of the wrong front man, but Matt Berninger keeps them consistently grounded. Last year, I wrote somewhat dismissively of Berninger’s awkward stage antics, but I no longer believe that his tics and peculiarities are solely the result of drunkenness. There is a smallness and humility to his presence that persists no matter how the music swells around him, and it preserves the sense of intimacy to such a degree that, even though I was crammed shoulder to shoulder so far from the stage that I could only watch through the LCD screen, I felt like I was seeing The National play in a 200-seat capacity bar. Every time he wanders away from the mic or walks up to the edge of the stage and bellows at the audience, it’s like he’s reeling under an incoherent frustration, like the music is pushing towards a release that he’s too feeble to attain. And when that release does come, in the form of balls-out rockers like “Abel” and “Mr. November,” Berninger gives himself to it without reservation, hoisting himself up onto the photo-pit railing, wandering out into the audience and uncorking a larynx-shredding scream that we don’t hear nearly enough of in the band’s recorded output. This is a group I find myself liking more and more every time I see them.
Undoubtedly the cruelest dilemma of the entire festival fell on Sunday Night. It was the kind of choice no child of the 90s should have to make: go and watch titanic grunge icons Soundgarden break their rusty cage and run, or stay and listen to Canadian indie rock monsters Arcade Fire read from their neon bible? After a heart-rending internal struggle (the aftermath of which, I could only imagine, looked JUST LIKE the final scenes of Akira), I opted for the latter. And for a while I was none too happy about it. It didn’t help that, for their first two or three songs, Arcade Fire were waaaaayyyyy too quiet, and while they were plucking out “Neighborhood #2,” I could totally hear Kim Thayil piledriving through “Outshined” all the way over on the other side of the park. These feelings of regret persisted until the band lit on “Haiti.” A sleepy Caribbean-flavored ditty, it’s an oft-overlooked song from the group’s first album, and one of my favorites to begin with, but believe me when I say, HOLY SHIT DID THEY ROCK THE FUCK OUT OF THIS SONG. I mean, the guitars were just blazing, and Regine Chassagne walked right up to the mic like she fucking owned it and belted the lyrics out at the top of her lungs. It was at that moment when I suddenly remembered, “Oh, yeah. I LOVE Arcade Fire.”
I didn’t experience any more revelations quite on that level during the rest of their show, but it was a good one nonetheless. I was a little disappointed at how seldom they dipped into Neon Bible (only three songs: “Intervention,” “No Cars Go,” and “Keep the Car Running”), but I was suitably impressed by the new stuff they trotted out for us, particularly “Rococo” and “Month of May.” The hefty remaining balance came from their debut Funeral, including “Neighborhoods #3,” during which, in some bizarre act of cosmic synchronicity, two guys actually almost got into a fistfight right in front of me.
Should have been packing
The Big Pink
Electro-rock duo The Big Pink were poised for a good set on Friday afternoon. Founding members Robbie Furze and Milo Cordell were joined by a touring drummer and bass player. They sounded fine as long as they stuck to the British new wave + shoegaze formula, but the more they scaled back the fuzz, the more rickety and small they sounded.
Yeah, I know, I’m really putting my reputation on the line by knocking Blues Traveler here, but seriously, how do these guys keep ending up at Lollapalooza (THREE times since the festival has been held in Grant Park)? I think Perry Farrell must have struck some Faustian bargain back in 2005 to have the biggest music festival in the Chicagoland area, but in exchange, Blues Traveler had to play every other year. Blues Traveler’s set encompassed all (er… both?) of their hits, and John Popper, a.k.a. Chubby Dave Matthews with a Harmonica, graced the audience with his virtuosic blues harp playing during each of what felt like several thousand jams. They even worked in a couple of covers, “What I Got,” by Sublime and Radiohead’s “Creep,” turning those two staples of 90s alternative into cheeseball soccer-mom rock.
Back in college, my love for this band was unseemly. I was a first-generation Despair Faction member (with the t-shirt and the only two issues of Under the Rose ever printed to prove it), which is why it was so painful for me to watch these guys go from being a mediocre hardcore band to a super-cool goth punk band to stand on the cusp of becoming more, only spiral down into becoming just another shitty emo band. Their performance on Saturday still displayed the piss and vinegar of old. Davey Havok is a commanding front man, striking rock star poses atop his monitor, swinging his mic around like a weapon, and throwing it onto the stage in disgust. I wish that I could say the same of the music. The new songs lack the dynamism of classics like “The Lost Souls,” or “The Prayer Position,” trading melody and songcraft for a bland “hard, fast, and whiney” paradigm. Another difference — and I feel incredibly shallow and petty for bringing this up — is Havok’s hair. It’s God-awful, like some kind of faux-pompadour with shaved sides. When Havok first started growing his hair out and wearing foundation back in the early aughts, it was pitched to the fans as “The real Davey Havok, all through with covering up.” It’s hard not to see his heteronormative superstar makeover as a betrayal, like all along he’s just been casting around for the image that would ingratiate him to the largest number of paying customers.
I was fine with “Green Day the pop punk band.” I was a kid in the 90s. I’ve got mix tapes with “Brain Stew” and “When I Come Around” on them, just like everyone else. But then, during the dark days of the Bush administration, they made their GREAT BID FOR LEGITIMACY in the form of 2004’s American Idiot, and somehow, for some reason, no one called “Bullshit.” Suddenly, I was just supposed to accept the fact that I live in a world where Green Day are taken seriously. So, yeah, I guess I’m not exactly an unbiased observer when it comes to this band, but I still tried to come to the show with an open mind. I needn’t really have made the effort; Green Day have become almost a parody of bombastic rock excess. Come on, guys, you write four-minute pop songs; do you really need to drag EVERY song out an hour while you pump the crowd for applause? Honest-to-God, they could not go a single song without pulling some teen or child out of the audience and bringing him/her up on stage. Awesome if you’re that kid. Less awesome if you’re one of the 80,000 people in the audience listening to the same three-note bridge for 10 minutes while it happens. And I could have made a fucking drinking game out of the number of times Billie Joe Armstrong yelled, “Chicago!” The first part of their set comprised their “grown-up” songs, “Holiday,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Know Your Enemy,” and the like. It was about 45 minutes before they touched anything 90s, “Nice Guys Finish Last” off Nimrod. Too little, too late. Sunday was going to be a long day for me, so I decided to call it an early night and rest up.
As Arcade Fire lit into their final song, I snuck out of the crowd and made my way towards the main gate. I glanced around at the throngs of concert-goers freely traversing some of the busiest thoroughfares of the city, and I tried to drink in the moment. Through the pain and the thirst and the exhaustion, I tried to force the scene before me into a snapshot. I had some rough days ahead of me: lots of stuff to pack, lots of phone calls to make, lots of preparations to see myself through to Ohio (lots and lots of groveling at the feet of my increasingly frustrated fiancé). But all that was for later. For now, I was in the heart of one of the greatest cities in the world, coming off a three-day celebration of music and culture. Ohio, you may take my body, but my heart belongs on the shores of Lake Michigan.
[Photo: J. Longstreet]