Lollapalooza makes its mark---good and bad


August 6, 2006


In 1935, trumpeter James C. Petrillo persuaded city officials to begin hosting free concerts in Grant Park. A leader of the musicians' union, Petrillo was a notorious opponent of phonograph records, believing they would lead to the homogenization of music, destroying its local flavor and decimating the concert scene.

In some ways, ol' James might have been thrilled that Lollapalooza took over Grant Park for three days starting Friday, attracting 130 bands and thousands of concertgoers. (Organizers wouldn't quote specific attendance for day one, but sources put the number at 40,000 to 50,000.)

Grant Park record

On the other hand, Petrillo probably would have balked that, in addition to charging for the concert, Texas-based promoters Capital Sports & Entertainment sold corporate sponsorships for every stage at the event. Chicagoans may have been calling the landmark venue in Butler Field the Petrillo Bandshell for more than half a century, but this weekend, it bore the name of a designer sneaker.

There's no denying that Lollapalooza made history during its second year as a destination festival: It was the biggest concert Grant Park ever hosted. But it was also one of the most commercial, with a bland and impersonal vibe. It was ambitious, fan-friendly and well-run, despite problems such as the painfully long hikes between stages. But it could have been taking place anywhere --Austin, Cleveland, or the dark side of the moon, corporate sponsors willing -- and it lacked the sense of community seen at the recent Pitchfork and Intonation fests, much less the Lollapalooza tours of the early '90s.

Musical terrorists

Yes, there were plenty of musical highlights on day one. There just weren't as many as there should have been, with 31 bands on the six main stages.

In the thankless role of kicking the whole thing off at 11:15 a.m., Chicago power-pop quartet the Bon Mots were a jangly treat, delivering an energetic show before a crowd that included several people who held up posters cheering their friends on.

As a cooling breeze blew off Lake Michigan, the Denton, Texas-based psychedelic-folk band Midlake spun gossamer webs of intertwining melody lines, hypnotizing many fans who sat cross-legged on the grass. A few hours later, another group of Texas-to-New York transplants, the Secret Machines, offered a different take on similarly spacey sounds, propelling their trippy guitar and keyboards with the unrelentingly brutal rhythms of drummer Josh Garza.

Nearly as potent was the high-energy Britpop of the English trio the Subways, which recalled the explosive chaos of vintage Nirvana when guitarist-vocalist Billy Lunn threw himself into the crowd, climbed the lighting rig, harshly criticized corporate-rock radio and finally threw himself head-first into the drum set to end a set full of fiery anthems such as "Rock & Roll Queen" and "Oh Yeah."

Wrapping up the day in Hutchinson Field were musical terrorists Ween, who have survived countless musical transformations -- all of them bizarre -- en route from a basement four-track duo to one of the most popular groups on the jam-band scene. (I've never understood these weirdos' popularity in that world, but bassist Dave Dreiwitz told me it all started when Phish covered a Ween tune.)

Dose of nostalgia

The last on my list of Friday's high points was the Raconteurs. Making their first appearance in Chicago, the group leaned heavily on songs from its first album, "Broken Boy Soldiers," but its garage-pop gems sounded even better live as Brendan Benson and the moonlighting Jack White shared the spotlight. The biggest surprise: a cover of the hit "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley, one of Saturday's most anticipated acts.

Panic! at the Disco also played some fitting covers -- the Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight, Tonight" (with its homage to "the city by the lake") and "Karma Police" by Radiohead (which played what still ranks as the single best show I've seen in Grant Park). But the quickly rising, Fall Out Boy-endorsed Panic! didn't do justice to those songs or its own, which are a gimmicky mix of generic pop-punk and '80s cabaret-disco.

The Editors and Cursive both drew from different '80s sounds, heavy on the Smiths, the Cure and Echo & the Bunnymen, but neither was inspiring onstage. The Violent Femmes provided the dose of nostalgia that Billy Idol added last year, playing a set that I've seen at least a dozen times. And then there was the Chicago jam band Umphrey's McGee, which offered its twist on the Grateful Dead by injecting a hint of progressive rock.

As Umphrey's endless, meandering solos wafted over Grant Park like billowing clouds of pot smoke, somewhere, James C. Petrillo had to be wondering about the smell.

Sleater-Kinney says goodbye with style


A fond farewell to Sleater-Kinney, plus other notes from Friday's Lollapalooza's action.

The goodbye girls

At one point, after Sleater-Kinney announced its impending "indefinite hiatus" but before the band scheduled two goodbye gigs in its hometown of Portland, Ore., Lollapalooza seemed set to host the trio's last show. A band that for 12 years embodied punk's DIY ethic, closing its last chapter at this overstuffed corporate buffet? Better it didn't turn out that way.

As it happened, Sleater-Kinney wound up playing at the Petrillo bandshell, a stage already infamous in rock lore for hosting the last Replacements show in July 1991.

The Mats' awkward farewell came after the band had soldiered on several years too long; in contrast, Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss departed with dignity, respect and acclaim intact. They never overstayed their welcome, never made the same record twice, and remained a potent live act to the last.

With darkness falling Friday, the women used every familiar weapon in their arsenal for their last road show. Brownstein marched and leaped, jabbing needle-like lead lines into Tucker's brawny chords. Their voices meshed and separated, Brownstein the plain-spoken counterpoint to Tucker's force-of-nature howl and shriek. And all around them was Weiss, stomping or swinging or smartly checking the pair's fury just before it becomes chaos.

Brownstein is usually the band's mouthpiece on stage, but she didn't acknowledge the occasion except to thank the crowd.

Of course, their fans knew what they were seeing. Front and center, two young women wore T-shirts with a picture of the band and the words, "Later, Sleater."

They walked away smiling.

I'm only bleeding

Last year, stages placed too close together left unhappy fans straining to hear favorite acts over the din of whatever other performer was playing nearby. A much larger layout was supposed to solve the problem this year, but the results so far are a mixed bag. Sound bleed was a particular problem at Petrillo, where the restrained synth-pop and vocal interplay of the Toronto band Stars was overwhelmed by the clamor of Jeremy Enigk from an adjacent stage, and later a drummer for demure folkies Iron and Wine was seen nodding to the sharp beats of rapper Lady Sovereign.

Same old song

A sampling of cover songs heard on Lollapalooza stages Friday: Radiohead's "Karma Police" and Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight, Tonight" (appropriate for its reference to the "city by the lake"), both by Panic! at the Disco. Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You" by Eels. The Grateful Dead's "He's Gone" and Gram Parsons' "Hickory Wind" by Ryan Adams.

Fight for your right

Outside the gates yesterday afternoon, a comedy troupe heckled concertgoers from a mock picket line, waving signs that opposed music and advocated quiet instead.

Their best slogan? "Silence of the Jams."