The biggest 'Looza

August 5, 2008

BY Jim DeRogatis Pop Music Critic

In its fourth year as a reinvented destination festival in Grant Park, last weekend's Lollapalooza was the biggest and best Chicago has seen.

Yet aside from the lingering questions about corporate sponsorships, sound bleed, the impact on the local music scene and the difficulties of accommodating a massive crowd of nearly 225,000 over three days, the core question remains:

Is this the ideal way to hear live music?

The answer is that no matter how good any of the more than 100 acts were, they invariably would have been better enjoyed in the more comfortable and sonically superior setting of a great rock club, a theater or a much more contained festival.

Lollapalooza is more about the spectacle and the sensory overload: It's a day at Six Flags rather than a celebration of great art. Yet as long as the emphasis during the key summer concert season continues to focus on the festival model, we'll just have to search for our musical high points amid the many amusement-park distractions.

Here's a look at some Saturday and Sunday high points for me and free-lancer Anders Smith Lindall:

The Ting Tings

The best of several two-person groups to perform at the festival, the Ting Tings from Salford, England, were even better live during a Saturday afternoon set in Hutchinson Field than on their debut album "We Started Nothing." Frontwoman Katie White and drummer and vocalist Jules De Martino are a joyful explosion of danceable, melodic, sugary sweet and highly caffeinated energy in concert, and by the time they got to their hit "That's Not My Name," 20,000 were happily singing along.

The Gutter Twins

It takes a truly extraordinary band to transform a sunny Saturday in the park into the early-morning hours at a derelict bar on Bourbon Street or an S&M club on the Lower East Side, but then Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan are two of the most extraordinary singers to emerge from the alternative era. The former leaders of, respectively, the Afghan Whigs and the Screaming Trees set a high standard that other veterans of the first Lollapalooza era had a hard time matching through the rest of the weekend.

Explosions in the Sky

A welcome example of less-is-more at a more-is-more festival, this Austin, Texas, quartet made its bones doing soundtracks, and during a plum late-afternoon spot on the north end's biggest stage on Saturday, Munaf Rayani and Mark Smith's languid, liquid guitar lines meshed and swirled in no particular hurry, inviting listeners to enjoy the beauty of the ride. (ASL)

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings

The Dap-Kings are old-school, disciples of a day when audiences had to work to see a star, so Jones never just comes out on stage with her hot band; they play a few songs to warm up the crowd first, and this set was no different. She finally entered to this introduction: "Ladies and gentlemen, the super soul sister with the magnetic je ne sais quoi!" What followed was a classic R&B clinic replete with sassy shouting and even a little mashed-potato step that one hopes the likes of the much-hyped British wannabe soul sister Duffy stayed around to watch; her own set was strictly going through the motions. (ASL)

Jamie Lidell

This English soul man provided a perfect late-afternoon pick-me-up on Saturday, drawing inspiration from heroes such as Stevie Wonder and Prince to get a sun-baked crowd clapping and swaying to the funky rhythms, all building to a peak with a wonderful a cappella finale.

Lupe Fiasco

At twilight on Saturday, Chicago's Wasalu Muhammad Jaco built on the promise he's shown at many earlier shows and truly kicked things up a notch at the biggest gig he's ever played here, on Lollapalooza's marquee stage. Resplendently dressed in white from head to foot, he led a kicking 22-piece band complete with horn section and choir from a powerhouse opening with "Kick Push" to "Daydreamin'," which was reworked as a gorgeous, soul-filled slow jam, to a triumphant, stretched-out set-closing "Superstar." And that is exactly what he is.

The Octopus Project and Brazilian Girls

The third day of Lollapalooza got off to a blissful start under clear blue skies Sunday with two great electronic quartets providing a very soothing contrast to the pointless Saturday night chaos of Rage Against the Machine. The Octopus Project explored gorgeous ambient soundscapes rife with analog synthesizer and the impressive theremin playing of Yvonne Lambert, while the modern exotica of Brazilian Girls, who actually are from New York, was all about the sultry, slinky, oh-so-cool sexuality of frontwoman Sabina Sciubba.

Kid Sister

"Who'd have thunk it, Chicago?" Melissa Young, the favorite daughter of suburban Markham asked early in her set. "Main stage at Lollapalooza -- what the hell?" But the meteoric rise of this sassy rapper, who has yet to release her debut album, is warranted, as evidenced by the climax of her set with the indelible single "Pro-Nails."

Amadou & Mariam

Lollapalooza deserves credit for presenting foreign pop stars such as Manu Chao (2006) and Café Tacuba (last year), and festival bookers carried on the tradition this time around with Amadou & Mariam. The married pair from Bamako, Mali, plays some of the most vibrant, compelling pop on the globe. And with rhythms rolling, guitar lines twinkling and the duo trading vocals, they turned in a set at the Petrillo Bandshell worthy of a far greater crowd. (ASL)

Iron & Wine

Frontman Sam Beam's transformation continues, from the soft-strumming bedroom confessor of his early home recordings to the widescreen visionary who helmed an eight-piece band on Sunday. Adding vibes, keys, steel guitar and Califone's Ben Massarella on assorted percussion to the standard guitar, bass and drums, Beam's ensemble pleased a big Butler Field crowd with waves of elegant, thrumming folk-rock. (ASL)

Gnarls Barkley

One of the most celebratory sets at Lollapalooza in 2006, Gnarls Barkley came across as an irresistible party band, and everyone wanted to join in the fun: Several other bands playing the festival that year covered the group’s signature hit “Crazy,” though multi-instrumentalist and producer Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) and vocalist Cee-Lo Green (Thomas Callaway) delivered the best version. This time, the group toned down the outlandish costumes, came out dressed as a cross between a nerdy wedding band and Century 21 real estate salesmen, and mined the darker psychedelic soul vibe of its second album, “The Odd Couple,” which was wonderfully rewarding in a creepy/groovy way.

Kanye West

Finally, as darkness fell on Sunday after a long, hard weekend of sun, music and masses of people, Kanye West took the stage at the southern end of Grant Park amid clouds of fog and a battery of blinding lights representing a slightly scaled-down version of the Glow in the Dark Tour he took through arenas. The show actually benefitted from paring back on the high-tech theatrics, because it made the rapper — and us — focus on the music, and he delivered one hit after another with an unflagging explosion of energy.

Nine Inch Nails

Meanwhile, closing things out at the northern end of the park, Trent Reznor’s set was awaited by throngs of questioning fans: Would he uncork a grand-scale spectacle to match his band’s fabled performances at the original Lollapalooza? And would anything like the rowdiness of the previous night’s Rage Against the Machine show happen again? In the end, neither occurred. The set opened with crashing waves of intense industrial rock that the crowd matched by surging forward, but security and medical personnel appeared well-equipped and in control throughout. And soon Nine Inch Nails was losing steam and plodding through ponderous, slow instrumental passages.

Sun-Times free-lancer Anders Smith Lindall contributed to this report.