Radiohead at Lollapalooza: Good, but not great

August 2, 2008


In 1994, the fourth year of the original incarnation of Lollapalooza, the then day-long traveling alternative rock festival crossed a threshold.

In an experiment to test the strength of what the current promoters call “the brand,” tickets for the Chicago show were put on sale before any acts were announced, and they promptly sold out. Then, Nirvana was confirmed as the headliner, bringing together the most important band of its generation and the best summer concert tour.

Nirvana wound up canceling a day before bandleader Kurt Cobain was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, signaling the beginning of the end of the alternative era. But the rest of that year’s performers — the Smashing Pumpkins, the Beastie Boys, the Flaming Lips, Nick Cave and A Tribe Called Quest among them — still comprised the best lineup that Lollapalooza Mach I ever had.

The reinvented destination festival in Chicago has crossed a line in its fourth year, too: As British art-rock heroes Radiohead headlined Friday night in Grant Park with their first American performance in support of the widely acclaimed, pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth release of “In Rainbows” (2007), the new Lollapalooza sold out for the first time, and Austin, Texas-based promoters C3 Presents said 75,000 fans filled Grant Park’s Hutchinson Field by the end of the day.

Playing unopposed, 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 — even though 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), Barack 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.