Given the constant turbulence in Detroit, I’ve always considered Chicago as the closest city to Ann Arbor, and the capital of the Midwest. Rather than venture east down I-94, my family always opted to go west a few extra hundred miles.
I familiarized myself with the Loop over Woodward Avenue and Chicago-style hot dogs over Coney Island depots in secret parts of D-Town. I could even trace a map of Grant Park on my palm to help locals navigate the 319 acres of urban greenery.
But add in multiple stages, food vendors, medical tents and an influx of very dehydrated people and Grant Park transforms from the familiar to barely ordered chaos.
At Lollapalooza, you can stop in the middle of a road with working traffic lights and take in old-school rock through one ear colliding with EDM from the opposite side. The diverse, but strictly structured lineup makes for a hit-or-miss schedule spread over four exhausting and memorable days.
Nick Mulvey opened Lollapalooza at Tito’s stage to a low-energy crowd, many of whom were stalling for a nearby act: A position in the schedule no musician would envy. The English singer-songwriter’s elaborate rhythm guitar patterns and lyrics did not make the task any easier.
However, Mulvey’s English roots were not the source of his set’s appeal. The abundance of British-influenced rock makes a soloist unlikely to provide originality. Instead, Mulvey pulled from his musical education in Havana, Cuba, for rich vocal runs that engaged the listless, intimate gathering in a call-and-response.
In comparison to Mulvey’s listening-room style atmosphere, Cuco, at the neighboring Bud Light stage, was a lesson on psychedelics and swagger.
The young hip-hop artist added an interactive screen to an electric instrument ensemble that shimmied with each bump of the drumset. A plume of cannabis smoke saluted him when he, needlessly, asked, “Where my smokers at?” As Cuco fluctuated between dazed swaying and crazed jumping, the crowd matched his every move.
Afternoon festival-goers not inclined to hip hop or EDM hopscotched across a dusty field for the slew of alternative bands at the adjacent Lake Shore and Grant Park stages. People worried about permanent damage to their hearing lounged on a hill like football fans impartial to the final score, just hoping to watch both endzones for a spectacular catch.
Although admirable each in their own right, a general lack of stage presence made the badass and expressive sign language interpreters a better show than the featured performers. The cameramen agreed, often focusing on an interpreter with a ginger Khal Drogo-esque ponytail fohawk who did a more impressive air guitar than the actual musicians.
Seasoned vets Stars, who last played the festival a decade ago, strained to keep non-superfans interested. The vocal pairing between the reserved Amy Millan (of Broken Social Scene) and aged maniac Torquil Campbell clashed poorly live.
While Millan’s angelic voice created a contemplative mood, Campbell went haywire with incomprehensible shouting too far away from his microphone to pick up a signal. Since Campbell largely contributed melodica and tambourine, while sharing vocals with his bandmates who had legitimate instruments, his antics were likely a sign of overcompensation.
The Wombats and Franz Ferdinand followed, drawing crowds of supporters, but fading into the cliches of their respective genres with little impact.
The next two bands to share the expansive field were the standouts of the whole first day. I would nominate them as headliners if the first, LANY, had a longer discography and the second, CHVRCHES, had more intentional set design and choreography.
Paul Klein, frontman of LANY, burst onto the stage with a freshly shaven head and an unintentional mission to bring back sagging pants. At various points, Klein flashed the audience his boxer-briefs, coupling this carefree nature with an extroverted intensity that added depth to the bubbly and relatable set.
Even with a number of technical setbacks, LANY kept the energy level high. While the audio-technicians tried to solve the mystery problem, Klein launched into an impromptu solo performance of “Made in Hollywood” that proved his charisma alone could carry a concert.
CHVRCHES had the task of playing against platinum-selling artist Khalid. They delivered a set that left no regrets for those who passed over the young R&B singer. Despite lead vocalist Lauren Mayberry sporting the stature and speaking voice of a twelve-year old girl, her vocal strength made the open space take on the dimensions of an enclosed stadium.
After these two knockout performances, the headliners for Thursday night were a disappointment from the inaccessible Arctic Monkeys to the unnecessary Galantis — I’m sorry, but what’s the point of watching a DJ “live” — and the mayhem of Travis Scott, which included a naked man, an awkward proposal and an even more cringe-worthy attempt from a fan to snag a photo with Scott.
Although there will never be a consensus on “objectively good music,” fun sets with a broader appeal make a reliable headliner fallback option, which Thursday lacked. LANY’s catchy lyrics, where one listen turns the chorus into a sing-along, could have filled that role.
Similarly, the upbeat electro-pop of CHVRCHES welcomes newcomers rather than only entertaining longtime fans. Plus moving Mayberry’s band into the last time slot would add a more than worthy female-driven act to the all-male headliner schedule.
Matt Maeson kicked off Friday with a hard-to-beat standard for the otherwise weak early afternoon schedule, which included a pitchy cover of Avril Lavigne from Alex Lahey.
Maeson showed his nerves during soundcheck, running through his songs up to the last minute and incessantly chain smoking. However, every musician knows a little anxiety gives urgency and authenticity to the performance. Dressed in all white, Maeson provided soulful, raw vocals with his father slaughtering the occasional guitar solo.
Among the series of smaller artists, the BMI stage, known for introducing artists like Chance the Rapper and Lady Gaga, presented pop-punk band Mainland. Located beneath a tunnel of trees, the area lured people to the shade for some new music.
In an interview with The Daily, Mainland lead vocalist Jordan Topf described the origins of the band’s name, “The first time I heard the word ‘mainland,’ my mom told me a secret she kept from me my whole life about a time when she was 18 and fell in love with this professional surfer and moved to Hawaii with him to have a secret marriage. She ended the marriage because she missed the mainland of California. It’s this hidden piece of her story that resonated with me when we were trying to find a name. We’re all from California and that became the genesis of our name.”
Although based in New York City, the California-roots of the band members shine through their East Coast veneer as they explore darker subject matter through bright hooks.
Anticipation for Post Malone overshadowed James Bay whose evening set unfortunately turned into an opening act for the rapper. Eager Post fans occupied the front area and many did not hide their disinterest in Bay’s highly contrasting musical style.
Regardless, Bay put on a masterclass on guitar and vocals. Unlike other attractive rockstars, Bay left no question that his talents lie in his music and not just his looks.
Traditionally, sets end on the musician’s biggest hit. After a late rendition of “Let It Go,” the crowd braced for the possibility of “Hold Back the River,” Bay’s other chart-topper. Sensing the anticipation, Bay led the audience in an extended karaoke of the song’s bridge, “lonely water,” before letting the dam break.
A few years ago, during the wave of popular alternative music that benefited The 1975 and Mumford & Sons, The Neighborhood playing the relatively small Tito’s venue would have been a surprise. However, since their breakout single “Sweater Weather,” the band has struggled to create songs distinct from one another with each verse reminiscent of the last and not in a way necessary to make an album cohesive. Played one after the other live, the similarities become more apparent and turn memorable tunes into uninteresting repetitions.
Even with the promise of Bruno Mars and The National to close the night, the craze around Post Malone made the popular rapper feel like another headliner. An hour before his start time, the crowd began chanting his name. Post teased this suspense, waiting through a ridiculously long intro before walking on stage with his signature Red Solo cup.
No amount of hype can mask the inanity of his lyrics, but the simplicity of his lines allows for such an excited atmosphere. Some bands have to run around the stage and jump into the crowd to rile up the audience. Post barely paced across the empty stage with no other instrumentalists or particularly fancy set pieces besides the occasional burst of fire. Still, it seemed everyone from the festival packed in to see his performance.
Unsurprisingly, Bruno Mars also drew a massive audience. His repertoire of endless hits left some question of which would make the cut. For old favorites like “When I Was Your Man” and “Marry You,” Mars tweaked the tempo and amount of backup instrumentals to add freshness to these radio station staples.
Songs from his recent Grammy-winning album 24K Magic came packaged with smooth dance moves and the sporadic guitar solo from Mars, confirming him as a multi-dimensional talent. His set felt less a performance and more a living being with each aspect rehearsed to perfection for maximum entertainment.
The scorching heat did not steer people from the festival grounds, though more than usual opted to sit in the shadow of the fences rather than stand in the direct sunlight.
Lovelytheband started the day with cheerful originals and an amusing cover of Genuwine’s “Pony,” or as lead singer Mitchy Collins put it, “A song about a horse that I promised my mom we wouldn’t play again.”
However, Sir Sly, the next band to take Lake Shore stage, showed how best to perform for a live audience. Vocalist and primary songwriter Landon Jacobs used his restlessness and unpredictability to elevate the band’s dark tracks.
He stood on the barrier to high-five the audience a number of times and ended the set, after an impressive jam session, by attempting to swallow the microphone. But Jacobs’s parade around the stage with the microphone in his mouth paled in comparison to his decision to climb all the way up the stage trellis and lean out like a calisthenics artist. The security guards looked concerned and feigned catching him, which would improbably break his fall, but let the show go on.
Catfish and the Bottlemen also roused the crowd with on-stage shenanigans. Frontman Van McCann balanced a precariously tilted mic stand against his mouth as he wailed on guitar. A young crew member had to run out several times to untangle the cord, but the fans loved the move. The band mixed blistering instrumentals with unforgettable lyrics to deliver a proper rock’n’roll session.
Pale Waves and Daniel Caesar both put on a display at the more modest American Eagle stage. Simply put, they were too big for their venue. Although Pale Waves drew from a limited discography, each song was as catchy and enjoyable as the last, bringing emo-rock back into the light.
For Caesar, the crowd spilled out into the street and up trees. His tracks dipped seamlessly from one to the other and, with Caesar’s voice fading behind the instrumentals, felt more like an aesthetic than a music performance.
Nevertheless, no one created as visually-distinct an aesthetic as St. Vincent. From dressing her background musicians in masks and fishbowl haircut wigs to her neon guitars and outfits and smeared lipstick to the video parts with inexplicable gyration and disembodied dancing, everything added to her whole enigma.
At times the visuals overpowered the music to the point of distraction like when a masked person in a black trench coat followed her around stage and even played her guitar. Amid the commotion St. Vincent remained detached and moved with doll-like stiffness while standing on an off-center platform. She made a small motion to kneel and work her magic on guitar before rising and returning to a still state.
She only stepped off the platform for her last song to scream, “You’re the only motherfuckers who can handle me,” and launched into her heartbreaking tribute to the late David Bowie, “New York.” St. Vincent may require an eclectic taste to handle her performance, but her music is solid, digestible rock with a tinge of ultramodern arthouse.
The spectacle of St. Vincent would make her as good a headliner as the cultish Vampire Weekend. The preppy band earned their mystery from delayed releases of their anticipated albums.
They teased the crowd throughout the set, playing “A-Punk” three times in a row to open, pretending to leave the stage 30 minutes early and announcing their new album, but not performing a single track. Although Vampire Weekend lacked the pizazz of The Weeknd on the other side of the park, who set off fireworks as frontman Ezra Koenig lamented playing opposite a superstar, the band satisfied longtime fans and introduced newcomers to their smart hits.
When a festival as popular as Lollapalooza has a day where tickets aren’t sold, there is cause for concern. The entrance gates, normally packed with people emptying hydration packs and hiding paraphernalia, were noticeably thinned out. However, the ticket sales don’t measure merit, only the popularity of the artists.
Sunday presented smaller and newer artists, but still had noteworthy performances. The Vaccines and Portugal. The Man’s gigs were engaging and strong contributions to the day. Meanwhile bands like Frenship and The Coronas tried their best, but their mediocre music and denial of their awkward stage presence led to passable sets.
On the other hand, the first band to take Tito’s stage, Superorganism, embraced their awkwardness. The eight-person band filed onto the stage in raincoats, shaking tiny bells like zombies possessed by a Christmas spirit.
Their uber-chill attitude and deranged dancing made the set feel like watching friends being weird in their living room together. Essentially, though, that is how Superorganism makes their music.
In a modern-age story, frontwoman and teenager Orono Noguchi met her much older bandmates through falling into a Youtube-recommended-videos wormhole, bonding over memes and maintaining a friendship over Skype. Now the band live together in an apartment in London that doubles as their DIY recording studio.
Internet references fill their music, which represents the voice of the digital-era generation. Their large band allows for different personalities to contribute to the track, resulting in a new brand of synth pop for screen-obsessed Millenials and Gen-Zs.
In addition to typical festival stages, Toyota and Bud Light set up tents for stripped sets featuring up-and-coming artists. Before his BMI performance, Mikky Ekko took over Toyota’s Music Den. Ekko’s silky, bold voice felt way too big for the little tent. He paid homage to his breakout collaboration with Rihanna, “Stay,” and emulated a smoothness and urban sexiness that belied his Nashville background.
Usually, a black screen or light display serves as a band’s backdrop. However, Manchester Orchestra opted for natural scenery, making visible the treetops and sky behind Lake Shore stage. The non-manufactured effect tricked the eye into imagining the band standing on top of the world.
While on their record, lead singer Andy Hull’s delicate voice mixes with softer rock instrumentals, Manchester Orchestra’s live set sounds much harsher and loses a bit of the meditative quality of their music.
Bands often have to adjust their style for live audiences, though, and account for an acoustically open space. For a band as seasoned as Manchester Orchestra, they understood a harder, louder sound transfers better to a festival setting.
In contrast, Cigarettes After Sex could never amp up their music and still retain the same mood. The band members never moved from their original spot on the stage except frontman Greg Gonzalez who stepped casually from behind his microphone for reserved guitar interludes.
The crowd appreciated this calming break from the anarchy of other performances. Even mother nature joined the vibe as monarch butterflies and dragonflies chased each other around Gonzalez’s head and floated over the audience.
For the final day, Odesza headlined at Bud Light stage to a relatively small audience. Although the electronic duo tried to counteract the challenges of live DJ sets through performing their own original music, not just remixed old pop songs, and incorporating guest appearances and live instruments, the set felt unworthy of closing the four day festival.
An opening drumline promised an entertaining extravaganza, but instead became the peak moment of the performance. In cliche EDM fashion, Odesza attempted to cover up the unexciting image of a DJ standing behind a desk with stock images of space and bright colors.
For everyone not extremely invested in EDM music, the duo were a disappointing way to end an otherwise admirable and varied festival schedule.
Lollapalooza 2018 confirmed why the Chicago music festival attracts people from all over the world for four jam-packed and exhilarating days.