Lollapa-loses its original zing  

August 7, 2006


As many participants recently argued during the Chicago City Council debate over the big box ordinance, bigger isn't always better and quantity doesn't necessarily mean quality.

Well, Lollapalooza 2006 was the Wal-Mart of pop-music festivals.

Texas-based promoters Capital Sports & Entertainment gave 40,000 to 60,000 concertgoers each day a lot of bang for their buck Friday through Sunday in a well-organized, tightly policed environment. But too many acts were mediocre; a bland, impersonal, marketing-crazed vibe prevailed, and the site -- which doubled the area of Grant Park used in 2005 -- was so spread out that Lollapalooza became two separate concerts, one in the north at Butler Field and the other south at Hutchinson.

It was simply too difficult to move quickly or with ease between the far-flung stages. Yet sound bleed was still a major problem, with louder performers continually overpowering quiet ones. In the end, fewer stages -- each booked with genuinely top-shelf talent -- would have made for a better experience, though the promoters would have sold fewer corporate sponsorships (sources said companies paid about $100,000 for naming rights) and they would have had to develop a more focused musical aesthetic rather than this year's scattershot approach.

Despite these efforts to let no ticket dollar go uncollected, a huge portion of Chicago was not represented at the fest. Performing as the primary-stage headliners Saturday night, Common and Kanye West delivered spirited sets that marked personal triumphs as their first shows in Grant Park, with their mothers and dozens of friends and family members watching from the wings.

The two million-selling acts are among the most successful artists Chicago has ever produced, and their sets on the shore of Lake Michigan with the skyline as their backdrop should have been a celebration of this city's ascendance as a major force in hip-hop. Yet the crowd that cheered them on was almost entirely white and hardly a mirror image of Chicago. For that, you had to go outside the festival grounds and across Columbus Drive, where about 300 Chicagoans, evenly divided between white and black youth, listened from afar without having to pay $73 a day for a ticket and $3 for a bottle of water, all while being treated as an ideal demographic for nonstop advertising.

"We market to all areas of the city and nation," promoter Charles Attal said at a press conference Saturday with partner Charlie Jones and festival figurehead Perry Farrell. "We can't control who's buying the tickets." Yet while Chicago's two alternative-rock radio stations were a major presence at the fest, none of its powerhouse R&B or hip-hop outlets was represented.

Dismiss these observations as nitpicking, or note that many among the thousands of teen and twentysomething fans seemed to be having the times of their lives. But if Capital Sports truly intends to make Lollapalooza the jewel of the national concert scene and a festival worthy of Chicago, they need to do a lot better, whether those at the concert realized it or not.

Common 'n' Kanye

These shortcomings weren't the artists' fault, aside from the fact that few recognized the festival as something special. They mostly played the same set they do at every other tour stop, avoiding the collaborations that made the original Lollapalooza unique. Again, though, promoters did little to encourage this, with no real area for the artists to mingle, they pulled up in their tour buses, got out, played and left.

The strongest lineup by far was on Saturday. Common kept things old-school, fronting a lean group with keyboards, drums and a DJ, and relying on his charisma and deft verbal skills. Later, Kanye performed a stripped-down version of his spectacular touring show, keeping the sexy female string section and his incredible DJ A-Trak, and overcoming sound problems to deliver hit after hit, as well as giving cameos to fellow Chicagoans Lupe Fiasco, Common and Twista.

The Go! Team created a party atmosphere with its mix of indie-rock, hip-hop and Motown. But nothing could top the group's performance at the Intonation Festival in 2005, when a group of neighborhood kids fresh from the Union Park swimming pool joined frontwoman Ninja onstage to dance.

Saturday afternoon, Hutchinson Field time-warped back to the early '70s as Coheed & Cambria channeled Rush circa "2112," and Wolfmother offered killer heavy-metal sludge a la Hawkwind and Deep Purple.

Song of the summer

Later, rapper/vocalist Cee-Lo and DJ Danger Mouse -- together as Gnarls Barkley -- fronted a 13-piece band dressed as tennis pros, and the duo proved as compelling onstage as on album. They played their hugely popular hit "Crazy" -- but so did the Raconteurs, Kanye and Mates of State. You know you're hearing the single of the year when so many musicians rush to cover it.

Typical of his appearances throughout the festival he founded, living logo Farrell introduced Gnarls Barkley as his "favorite band in the world." Then he left after two songs, accompanied by his wife and a massive bodyguard (think Vin Diesel on steroids) to return to his air-conditioned trailer until his next obligatory cameo.

My final high point of Day Two came courtesy of Chicago pop-punks the Smoking Popes, who mixed a couple of new tunes into their always-rousing greatest-hits set, and sprinkled a bit of the New Wave hit "Turning Japanese" into their own "Rubella." The only thing that would have been cooler was if they played "Crazy," too.

Where there's a Wilco

Taking a break from recording its sixth album, which is nearing completion, Chicago's Wilco on Sunday played a riveting set in Butler Field that included a four-song sampling of new material: lyrical pop songs that seem to split the difference between the lilting material on "Summerteeth" and the more experimental sounds of "A Ghost Is Born."

"It's good to be home," singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy announced. He has rarely sounded better or happier, though his unruly new Grizzly Adams beard is a jarring contrast from his old clean-cut image. Wilco's current lineup of Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt, drummer Glen Kotche, guitarist Nels Kline and keyboardist Pat Sansone once again made a case for being the group's best live lineup, ranging from passages of quiet beauty to crashing noise, and recalling the brilliant show across the field at the Petrillo Bandshell when Wilco premiered "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" live on July 4, 2001.

Hassidic reggae singer, rapper and hippie jam-band leader Matisyahu was the definition of a novelty act: After marveling for five minutes at the odd combination of influences Matthew Paul Miller represents, there was little to hold your interest during an hourlong set. Though he was much less direct in his comments than Smith, and he focused on "what is happening in Israel" rather than the deaths in Lebanon, the singer did ask the crowd to say a prayer for peace "directly into God's ears."

Nearly as inspiring with its mix of art-rock textures and pure pop sounds was Toronto's indie-rock supergroup Broken Social Scene, which easily overshadowed Saturday's set by Vancouver's indie-rock supergroup the New Pornographers, who are simply never as good without Neko Case.

On the downside of Lolla's last day, 30 Seconds to Mars, a k a actor Jared ("My So Called Life") Leto's lame vanity-project alt-rock band, was barely good enough for a Tuesday night gig as a college-town bar band. She Wants Revenge was yet another '80s revival band aping Depeche Mode. And Chicago's jammy dance band Poi Dog Pondering played the same tired party-groove set it's delivered for the last four years.

Chili Peppers, chilly set

Wrapping it all up were the fest's final band and overall headliners, punk-funk boneheads the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The start of their performance was marked by a crowd surge that photographers and security guards described as one of the most violent they've seen, and dozens of concertgoers who collapsed from the heat or were crushed in the crowd were passed over the barricades in a chaotic scene. A senior staffer with Chicago-based S3 Security said there were no serious injuries, and only one arrest.

Throughout their set, the Peppers juggled lame ballads from their recent double album "Stadium Arcadium" with much more aggressive material, though all of the noise amounted to little in terms of artistic accomplishment. In many ways, they were symbolic of Lollapalooza itself: a good idea 16 years ago, grown bland, boring and distressingly mainstream, but with lingering pretensions to greatness it no longer has much right to claim.