With each year, the giant outdoor music festival held in Chicago’s scenic Grant Park has continually outdone itself, bringing together the Gagas and the Green Days of yesterday and today. Complete with two headlining stages at the northernmost and southernmost ends of the park, the festival also has four lesser stages, a separate kids’ stage and the perennial Perry’s tent, where DJs spin from the moment the festival opens until the end of the night.
Surrounded on all sides by Chicago’s looming, picturesque skyline, T-shirt vendors and religious crazies (whose “Rock and roll will damn your soul” placard almost made the weekend all on its own), the festival boasts three days of music from hundreds of performers, local food vendors, non-profit and political advocacy groups, quirky sponsors and plenty of free water and accessible restroom facilities throughout the park.
It seems like the stages and the stories get bigger and better every year — if the first two days of Lollapalooza are any indication for the future of grand-scale outdoor music festivals, I like where we’re headed.
Friday afternoons at Lolla are typically worse attended than the rest of the weekend, no thanks to the demands of the working week and the Man’s efforts to keep us all down. Unfortunate, then, that hip-hop heatseeker B.o.B. was doomed to one of the earliest slots in the day — a brutal 11:30 a.m. post at one of the festival’s larger stages.
An early highlight was Mavis Staples, the legendary soul singer of Staples Singers fame who recently teamed up with Jeff Tweedy (from “The Wilco Band!” as Staples introduced him) to write and record a new album of gospel-tinged soul. Tweedy appeared onstage twice, softly strumming an acoustic guitar stage right as the 71-year-old Mavis let loose on classics ranging from “I’ll Take You There” to The Band’s “The Weight.”
On the other side of the festival, The Walkmen had just finished a set of raw, garage-rocking Britpop led by Hamilton Leithauser’s signature throat-tearing drawl. New tracks from the band’s upcoming album, Lisbon, were well received, and older tracks like “In The New Year” sounded almost like modern classics.
At Perry’s, Stones Throw Records founder and artist Peanut Butter Wolf (aka Chris Manak) was spinning a set of hip-hop classics, ranging from Snoop and the Beastie Boys to Wu-Tang and MF Doom. Deftly scratching and mashing the records and accompanying video simultaneously, Manak brought some tasteful old-school flavor to the rave-ready crowd.
Then there was Devo. Emerging in silver space-age costumes, the band played tracks from its new album before breaking into the New Wave classics and donning those signature Energy Domes, now in turquoise. Frontman Mark Mothersbaugh was as undeniable as ever, his nerdy charisma unflappable.
Back on the northern side of the festival, Dirty Projectors was creating its own brand of musical geekery, rooted instead in complex polyrhythms, melodies, arrangements and lyrics about Gatorade. One of the strongest and most hypnotic performances of the weekend, the Brooklyn six-piece played a pitch-perfect set, with lead singers Dave Longstreth and Amber Coffman stretching their ranges with shiver-inducing results.
Headliner Lady Gaga, who spared no expense in creating the “Monster Ball” of her current tour, emerged to tens of thousands of screaming teenagers and 20-somethings on a stage that looked more like a Broadway production of “Rent” than a pop music performance. But Gaga will be Gaga, and by the time she had overdramatized her way through bouts of musical theater and motivational speaking, it was clear that, apart from the dance-crazed diehards, many left disappointed and confused.
Those who did leave Gaga early (or were wise enough to not go at all) were treated to a historical performance by newly reunited NYC heroes The Strokes. Aided by an incredible light show, the band was dead-on, playing now-classic tracks from its first three albums perfectly and with roof-igniting energy and ease. For a band that’s admittedly back together for the money, it sure sounded like their members still love to play together — one could nearly forget that frontman Julian Casablancas is almost as big of a diva nowadays as Lady Gaga.
After Friday night, the rest of the weekend promised to be pretty incredible — and Saturday didn’t disappoint. With early sets by The Soft Pack and The Morning Benders, whose breakout albums launched them from indie darlings to 2010 festival mainstays, those who wanted a little more guitar with their Lolla were satisfied early on.
The feel-good pop-rockers of Blues Traveler emerged with chromatic harmonica blazing, playing the band’s own ’90s hits along with a Sublime cover, and bookending their fittingly sunny set with songs from the “Team America: World Police” soundtrack.
Back in the shaded Sony bloggie stage toward the center of the festival, psych-rock group Warpaint played a sleepy, meditative set that entranced the midday crowd — most of whom seemed to have showed up to give their ears a rest from the more aurally demanding artists on the other stages.
Grizzly Bear emerged on the Budweiser mainstage as Lolla veterans, though its crowd this year easily outsized 2008’s performance on a tinier side stage. Frontman Edward Droste apologized for the Brooklyn quartet not being much of a festival band — but you wouldn’t know it by its passionate reception as the crowd sang along in earnest to Droste and Daniel Rossen’s songs from last year’s Veckatimest. Another clear highlight, Grizzly Bear may have finally freed itself from its reputation as a sleepy live band — and it’s about time.
Next up was Spoon, who played tracks from last winter’s eclectic Transference and dug deep with a track from A Series of Sneaks. Along with Grizzly Bear, the band also played “Modern World,” a Wolf Parade cover with all the signature minimalism and disjointed percussion that Spoon seems to write in its sleep.
Sandwiched between Grizzly Bear’s and Spoon’s sets was Social Distortion, whose influential ’80s punk blared from the main stage on the southern end of the festival. Younger members of the audience not familiar with the pop-punk pioneers might mistake them for ripping off more modern acts like Green Day, and it’s a shame they played prior to Billy Joe and the gang instead of after.
Back on the Budweiser stage, French indie rockers Phoenix played an incredible set, complete with yet another sublime, seizure-inducing light show and spirited performances of “1901” and “Lisztomania.” The band stretched tracks like “Love Like a Sunset” from 2009’s stunning Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix to well beyond the 10-minute mark, giving the blissed-out and transfixed crowd the best show of the day.
Performances like those of The Strokes and Phoenix gave Sunday’s artists some big shoes to fill. But with amazing shows and happenings all around, each one furthering the momentum the Lollapalooza machine has created, even a little Sunday rain could never prevent another amazing day in Grant Park.