Fans rush gates for Rage at Lollapalooza

August 3, 2008


As rap-rockers Rage Against the Machine headlined Saturday at the southern end of Grant Park on the second day of Lollapalooza, the reinvented, now allegedly family-friendly destination festival for the first time recaptured a measure of the energy, chaos and danger of the original alternative-era concert.

When the group took the stage at 8:30 p.m., it instantly turned the packed crowd into a violent, thrusting mass of bouncing, seething and sweating souls. And, sad to say, Rage Against the Machine’s notoriously raucous fans were every bit as boneheaded in 2008 as they were when the group made its first Lollapalooza appearance in 1993.

For the first time, the festival sold out Friday and Saturday with what promoters said was a crowd of 75,000 per day. Friday night, all of the concertgoers filled Hutchinson Field to see headliners Radiohead, who played unopposed. Saturday night, the crowd was divided between hometown heroes Wilco headlining in the northern end of the park, and Rage Against the Machine in the south.

But the latter definitely caused the biggest scene the new Grant Park Lollapalooza has witnessed in the last four years.

Within the first three songs, vocalist Zack de la Rocha was urging the crowd to calm down and “please take four, five, six steps back,” in between railing at “the cops and f---ed-up politicians.” Within four songs, security was reporting two fans forcibly ejected, one of them riding away in a squad car, and emergency personnel were treating numerous people who passed out in the heat during the rush toward the stage.

Then, a little more than half an hour into the set, a crowd that festival security personnel and witnesses estimated as ranging between 500 and 2,000 people rushed a guarded access gate on Columbus Drive near Balbo Drive to gain admittance. These fans had been listening to the show from the grass across Columbus Drive until someone led the charge and others followed, and the sudden rush was only stopped when a dozen Chicago Police officers arrived on horseback.

Police then proceeded to close Columbus Drive, though officers onsite declined to comment. Lollapalooza promoters could not be found for comment Saturday night.

Despite the chaos, it all seemed a little forced and predictable. Rage Against the Machine is a nostalgia act in 2008, and its fans were simply partying like it was 1993. As in the past, the most genuinely revolutionary thing about the band was Libertyville-bred guitarist Tom Morello, who miraculously mimicked the sounds of scratching turntables, dropping bombs and wailing sirens with six strings and a guitar pick, even though he sounds much more relevant today in his acoustic activist guise as the Nightwatchman.

While all of this was happening in the southern end of Grant Park, Jeff Tweedy and his band mates in Wilco delivered as strong a performance as they ever have while wearing outlandishly colorful Nudie suits. Still, it was slightly disappointing for the fact that Sen. Barack Obama did not appear.

The musicians are ardent supporters and have done several fundraisers for the Democratic Presidential candidate, and rumors swirled over the last two weeks that he might drop by. Campaign officials finally quashed that possibility late Saturday afternoon, and it probably was a strategic move, given the recent criticism from Sen. John McCain that Obama is more of a celebrity or a rock star than a qualified leader.

On Friday, the sound during Radiohead’s set was as strong as I’ve heard from the New Millennial Pink Floyd in concert, and bandleader Thom Yorke was in good voice — or at least as good as his serpentine warbling gets — despite an illness earlier this week forced the cancellation of what was to have been a surprise charity gig at the Chicago Theatre on Thursday.

The British art-rockers did their best to create an enveloping modern psychedelic mind-warp with the otherworldly guitars and synthesizer burbles of Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien contrasting with the very human drumming of Phil Selway and Yorke’s alien melodies. Despite standouts such as “Bangers and Mash,” “Nude” and “Idioteque,” however, the set never really gathered much momentum, falling into several sleepy lulls that weren’t even dispelled by the fireworks over Soldier Field around 9 p.m.

Late in the set, Yorke admitted the band was dragging a bit, saying, "We're a little jet-lagged." But the famously anti-globalization, No Logo-championing activist made no comment about politics or the fact that he was performing on the stage sponsored by AT&T, which last year censored Pearl Jam as it lashed out against President Bush.

The bottom line: A good but not great evening from Radiohead—though Radiohead at its least extraordinary is arguably still better than any other band that spans that gap from Lollapalooza Then to Lollapalooza Now.

Among the other musical highlights on day one were Atlanta’s Black Lips, which unleashed a joyful explosion of energy and melody — though sadly, playing at the start of the day at this now family-friendly event, they avoided the usual drunken debauchery.

Later in the afternoon, with temperatures hovering near 90, the Brooklyn group Yeasayer delivered a cool, ethereal but uplifting performance that mixed shoegazer psychedelia with more timeless mind-altering sounds from around the world, including Chinese Gamelan, African tribal trance drumming and Middle Eastern drones.

Moonlighting White Stripes frontman Jack White was a revelation fronting his side project the Raconteurs. He yowled and writhed, choking notes from his guitar like he was wrestling a wildcat, all in the service of his own songs — sharp sonic firecrackers — and the sweeter, sunnier tunes of his fellow guitarist and singer Brendan Benson.

Then there was the day’s favorite hometown team: Cool Kids, the precocious pairing of South Siders Chuck Inglish and Mikey Rocks, whose skeletal beats and quick-witted tag-team rhymes recalled a hip-hop heyday that occurred when these MCs were still in diapers.

On the down side, while organizers claim they’ve finally learned from past problems with sound bleed, using computer analyses to tweak each stage’s audio, the sonic sludge from hair-metal orchestra Bang Camaro leaked into the hushed crowd watching Swedish chanteuse Sofia Talvik. And when Rogue Wave’s pretty pop battled Manchester Orchestra on an adjoining stage, frontman Zach Rogue cracked, “Ignore the noise behind us.”

After four years in Grant Park, the promoters should just admit that these embarrassing sonic clashes will only be eliminated when acts aren’t forced to play on adjacent stages at the same time.

As for the scene in the park, while Lollapalooza always provides plenty of prime people watching, this year, Big Brother is staring back.

In the wake of the shootings at Taste of Chicago, the Chicago Police Department has rolled out a new piece of equipment, the “Mobile Surveillance Unit/ICX Tactical Platform,” an ostentatious lift that elevates a small, fully enclosed, air-conditioned pod equipped with a battery of video recorders to film all of the action in the crowd from high above their heads.

The second oddest non-musical spectacle: a blue and white tent designated as the “Obama Store.” Items for sale include “Got Hope?” T-shirts (after the “Got Milk?” design, and selling for $15), YWC/ “Yes We Can” plastic drinking cups ($10), Barak bracelets ($4) and various posters, bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets.

Nowhere to be found: The McCain Boutique. It seems as if the Republican Presidential candidate might have a point when he laments that he can’t match the rock-star appeal of his Democratic opponent. Maybe a showdown between Obama and Jack White or Thom Yorke would be a more even match.

Sun-Times freelancer Anders Smith Lindall contributed to this report.