Lollapalooza Day Three

August 9, 2009


1 p.m.: Things are off to a slow start here on the third and final day of Lollapalooza 2009 in the southern end of Grant Park. The heat already is stultifying--the dashboard reading on my Mac says it's 90 degrees--and I just got word that, in addition to a heat advisory in effect until 6 p.m., though there is no hint of it at the moment, a severe thunderstorm warning has been issued "with large hail and strong winds" later in the day.

Last year, on the Monday after Lollapalooza when the tornado-warning sirens went off for the first time I've heard since I moved to Chicago in the early '90s, I called the city to ask what evacuation plans were in place for Grant Park in the event of severe weather during the concert or any other major event. Chicago emergency management personnel declined to answer, citing security concerns in the event of a terrorist attack (!).

It seems fairly obvious that if the weather turns dangerous, people in the north of the park will be herded into the underground parking garages below Millennium Park. In the south, the plan is less clear: It would be a long walk to Soldier Field or the Field Museum across Lake Shore Drive, and it's about a mile to Millennium Park in the north. The hotels on South Michigan are a considerable hike, too, and they probably couldn't shelter 30,000 people in a hurry.

Let's hope we never have to find out.

As for day three's opening sounds in Hutchinson Field, the wispy tunes of the London-formed, Brooklyn-based pop band Alberta Cross drifted off the stage and floated away over Lake Michigan with precious little to remember or mark them as unique.

Meanwhile, onstage now, the Syracuse, N.Y. pop band Ra Ra Riot is jangling away, with its genteel melodies enhanced by sawing cello and violin. But the group's songs are no more noteworthy.

The band is playing to a crowd that already numbers about 10,000 however, and listeners are just sort of standing politely in the dusty field, sweating and baking under the bright sun.

2:30 p.m.: Onstage at the northern end of Hutchinson Field, Brighton, England-based singer and songwriter Natasha Khan, a.k.a. Bat for Lashes, spends her hour-long set transforming the usual Lollapalooza block party vibe into something more akin to a Renaissance Faire or Pagan/Wiccan ritual, performing the enchanting songs from her 2006 debut "Fur and Gold" and the more recent "Two Suns." Justly acclaimed in the U.K.--the former was nominated as album of the year for the prestigious Mercury Prize--Khan is a cult heroine here at best, and the crowd is inexplicably much more spares for her performance than it had been for Ra Ra Riot just before her.

It's a shame, because people missed out on one of the most distinctive voices at the festival. Comparing her vocals to those of Kate Bush, Bjork and Tori Amos isn't saying she's unoriginal--just that she shows all the potential of becoming a star in that league, especially since she's every bit as hypnotic onstage as she is on record.

3:30 p.m.: "I can't tell you what a thrill it is to be a Lollapalooza," Mikel Jollett, the guitarist-vocalist of the Airborne Toxic Event, says midway through the mid-afternoon set by the Los Angeles-based alternative rockers. And he sounds sincere, since he's leading the sort of group designed for this kind of experience.

Mind you, that's "alternative rock" of the sort of generic style that came to be codified in the mid-'90s after the commercial breakthroughs of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and others, not rock that actually is alternative in attitude or to mainstream classic-rock radio sensibilities, a la most of the acts in the early years of Lollapalooza. The band bulldozes forward with prime U2 stadium bombast propelling every ringing chord, tinkling keyboard, thundering drum beat and hyper-romantic lyrical wail, and the crowd responds with the expected wave of energy.

Not for nothing did Adam Clayton tell people this was one of his group's new favorite bands when U2 did their odd radio interview appearance at Metro earlier this year.

The band's hour-long set is nothing original or particularly memorable. But it's at least a temporary diversion to fend off the heat-induced midday drowsiness.

4:30 p.m.: Keeping the energy level high in a very different way--and with a crowd of ecstatic dancers filling the area in front of the stage to prove it--Dan Deacon, the celebrated electronic composer from Baltimore, fills Hutchinson Field with pulsating, polyrhythmic waves of sound.

Think of Philip Glass and Steve Reich jamming with Kraftwerk and Daft Punk, and you'll have a rough idea of the joyful grooves created by his ramshackle mini-orchestra. The sound was more controlled--and thus more powerful--when he performed at Metro a few months ago. (He seemed to be thrown at the start of the set in Grant Park by some sort of technical difficulties.) But his 60-minute slot was nonetheless another high point for the weekend.

5:30 p.m.: "You guys are going strong for a Sunday. Some tough motherf---ers. Baked, fried, rained on... and still sober," Ezra Koenig, the leader of Vampire Weekend, says midway through its late-afternoon set.

Actually, although the crowd now stretches with a shoulder-to-shoulder mass of humanity from one end of Hutchinson Field to the other, no one seems all that super-enthusiastic after so many hours in nature's sauna. But the Brooklyn preppie quartet does its best to stir the masses with its hipster rewrite of Paul Simon afro-pop.

While I disliked the band's self-titled debut album, released in January 2008, and I think the songs are getting pretty tired by this point, the irrepressibly bubbly quartet won me over at the Pitchfork Music Festival last summer, largely thanks to the deft, multi-layered rhythms of drummer Chris Tomson. The band is verging on annoying again here, though, probably because those drums just don't have the same impact in this vast open space, while the obnoxious lyrics about the joys of yachting, Oxford commas and Izod sportswear seem more out of place than ever blasting over the sweaty throngs (though certainly the people in the luxury cabanas can appreciate them).

6:45 p.m.: Snoop Dogg is in the house, having just taken the stage before the largest crowd I've seen in Hutchinson Field at Lollapalooza since the unopposed headlining slot by Radiohead. It's hard to believe there's anyone up north in Butler Field for Lou Reed; indeed, Anders phoned shortly before the 6:30 sets started to say, "It's been like old-fogies day up here all day!"

Marched onstage by an impeccably dressed posse from the Nation of Islam, within the first 10 minutes of his set, Snoop and his hype men resort to almost every played-out cliché in live hip-hop:

"Wave your hands in the air!"

"Say 'ho!'"

"Say 'hell!' Say 'hell yeah!'"

"What the f--- is his name?" "SNOOP DOGG!"

"Where my ladies at?"

And, of course, "What do we do all the time?" "SMOKE WEED!"

This does not augur well for much originality to come.

Cliché-ridden and generic in an entirely different way, Snoop was preceded in Hutchinson Field by the Cold War Kids, emo-leaning indie-rockers from Fullerton, Calif., that could well have been the slightest act of the day--a considerable achievement given how much competition there's been.

People in the north and south of the park reported to Anders and me that food service stopped for an hour right at dinner time in the VIP areas and the Lolla Longe because the caterers were told they might have to quickly evacuate the park if the threatened severe thunderstorms rolled in; one told Anders that the evacuation plan was, "They just open all the gates and everybody has to leave the park."

Thankfully, the weather threat seems to have abated.

7:30 p.m.: Also thankfully, Snoop seems to have gotten all the tired hip-hop call-and-response routines out of his system with that opening salvo, and he goes on to deliver a fairly focused and hard-grooving collection of jams spanning his long career, displaying just enough of that unique stage presence and that famously laconic, drawling style of rhyming to remind music lovers why he was famous before reality TV and slapping his brand name on sleazy porno flicks.

Nothing Snoop does is particularly impressive musically. But he certainly succeeds in kicking the party up a notch, and as observed frequently over the course of the weekend, that seems to be the crowd's primary concern.

Lou Reed, the 67-year-old solo artist, founder of the Velvet Underground and godfather of punk, was Lollapalooza's only legend and despite a distracting reliance on a teleprompter, he didn't disappoint.

From the iconic snarling riff of "Sweet Jane" through a feedback fusillade that became "I'm Waiting for My Man" and finally "Walk on the Wild Side," Reed and his seven-piece band powerfully asserted his enduring influence.

8:30 p.m.: The Los Angeles quartet Silversun Pickups, often cited as another of the second-generation shoegazer bands devoted to undulating waves of psychedelic guitar as well as garnering comparisons to early Smashing Pumpkins, deliver an impressive set that would have a.) made a lot more sense on a smaller stage, b.) made a lot more sense programmed after something other than Snoop Dogg, and c.) would have been more satisfying in a block of like-minded music that included, say, theNewNo2 and Dan Deacon.

As it is, the crowd that still fills much of Hutchinson Field mostly seems to be waiting for the final act of the night here in the south, the Killers, though by the end of Silversun Pickups' set, which closes with a bevy of wailing guitar that sounds eerily like a tornado siren, they have been somewhat won over.

10 p.m. At last, the Killers open their big closing set with "Human," the first single from the band's third album, "Day & Age," memorable as much for an instantly catchy melody as it is for the strangely incomprehensible and grammatically incorrect refrain, "Are we human/Or are we dancer?"

In my opinion, that snippet of chorus sums up everything about this band: Sure, it has hooks, but heck, everything always seems just a little wrong with its songs, from the sometimes comically pretentious, wannabe-Bruce Springsteen lyrics, to the ultra-derivative formula of mixing a little Cure and some Smiths with a dollop of old-school glam a la Queen, David Bowie and T. Rex.

And it's impossible for anyone with a modicum of taste to avoid wincing in disgust when singer Brandon Flowers croons, "Don't you wanna come with me? Don't you wanna feel my bones on your bones? It's only natural!" Eew, ick.

On the other hand, well, just try not to sing along with "Mr. Brightside" or "Midnight Show."

After all that has preceded them, the Killers at least come across as good dumb fun. And along with the fact that it never did storm here today, that's more than enough to send the multitudes home happy.

Meanwhile, Anders Smith Lindall reports from Butler Field in the North:

As for Jane's Addiction, the alternative nostalgia act opened its set with a much-buzzed stunt as a helicopter circled Butler Field, its searchlight sweeping the crowd, which was about a quarter of the size as the one for the Killers. But the showy gimmick was upstaged by Band of Horses, which kept playing at the adjacent Petrillo Band Shell because Reed's set ran 20 minutes over, pushing everything back.

With two bands playing in the same field at the same time, the end result was cacophony--and not the good kind.

(Read much more of Anders' take on Lollapalooza Day Three in his blog post to follow.)

* * *

And so, after 90 minutes of Flowers and his mates, Lollapalooza Year Five comes to an end--though not for me, as I am now off to Metro for the world premiere of Them Crooked Vultures--an after-show that happens to be the most anticipated set of the weekend, marking the new collaboration between Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, Queens of the Stone Age band leader Josh Homme and Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl.

That I'll cover in a separate blog post--if I don't collapse first.