Brendan Benson performs during the Raconteurs set Friday at Lollapalooza. (Scott Stewart/Sun-Times)
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. But the rest of the lineup of the Smashing Pumpkins, the Beastie Boys, George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars, the Flaming Lips, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, A Tribe Called Quest, the Boredoms and L7 was nonetheless considered the best that Lollapalooza Mach I ever had.
The reinvented destination festival has crossed a line in its fourth year, too: With Radiohead set to headline Friday night, the new Lollapalooza sold out for the first time.
Approximately 75,000 fans are expected to fill Grant Park tonight. And though tickets are still on sale for Saturday and Sunday, promoters hope to come close to selling out those nights as well.
Will the music this weekend match the sounds of that memorable day at the then World Music Theatre in Tinley Park 14 years ago? That remains to be seen, but we can hope.
And now, on to the fun, after the jump.
The one-sentence review*: Bang Camaro, 11:30--11:45 a.m.
(*It literally is impossible to see every band at Lollapalooza, but in an effort to cover as much music as possible, sets that I caught some portion of will get at least a sentence each.)
A massive Boston collective that prides itself on having nearly 20 people onstage at once, most of them "lead singers," this schticky ensemble reveled in recycled riffs from hair-metal heroes who'd be much better forgotten--and I'll avoid any attempt to work a "bigger is not necessarily better" metaphor.
The one-sentence review: K'Naan, 12--12:15 p.m.
Somalia-born rapper and poet K'Naan was effective and inspiring during his spoken-word passages and freestyle raps, but he sounded like just another rambling hippie jam band once the backing musicians kicked in. Hey, dude, don't bogart the khat!
Black Lips, 12:15-1:15
Atlanta's goofball garage-rock/psychedelic-chaos combo definitely has put on more memorable shows: This was a rare example of none of the musicians getting naked, puking or otherwise committing some form of drunken debauchery during an hour-long set. Nevertheless, it was the first unqualified highlight of the day: a joyful explosion of energy and melody interspersed with the occasional interstellar overdrive outer-space freak-out. The hippies should pay attention to these guys.
ON THE SCENE
To protect and serve: Your tax dollars at work
The presence of Chicago's finest at Lollapalooza always has been proportional to such a large crowd, just like at any other big event in Grant Park. But this year, in the wake of the shootings at Taste of Chicago, there's an ominous new addition.
The "Mobile Surveillance Unit/ICX Tactical Platform" is a big, ostentatious, elevated crane/hydraulic lift that can raise a small, fully enclosed, air-conditioned pod equipped with a battery of video recorders and capable of comfortably housing three or four officers to operate them while hovering about 40 or 50 feet above the ground. It's positioned in the northwest corner of Hutchinson Field to record the crowd in front of two of the festival's four main stages, presumably to sort out--and prosecute--troublemakers, should the need arise.
It also would seem to be the best seat at Lollapalooza for seeing Radiohead tonight, but that's beside the point.
In any event, concertgoers, remember: Big Brother/Mayor Daley is watching you. And you have to wonder if he's working to figure out a way to crack down on traffic ticket scofflaws from up there at the same time.
Political activism or just more rock-star hero worship?
Situated right next to a voter registration tent in the center of Grant Park is a blue and white tent marked "Obama Store." Items for sale include "Got Hope?" T-shirts (after the "Got Milk?" design, $15), YWC/ "Yes We Can" plastic drinking cups ($10), Obama bracelets ($4) and various posters, bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets.
Nowhere to be found: The McCain Boutique.
First laugh-out-loud T-shirt of the weekend
"With a shirt this cool, who needs pants?"
The one-sentence review: Rogue Wave, 2--2:15
Mildly danceable but generally overly twee New York bliss-pop. Yawn...
The day's second strong highlight, and well worth the much heftier price Lollapalooza had to pay to woo the group away from Pitchfork.
"This is a song about the sun," bandleader Anand Wilder announced as a massive crowd filled the Hutchinson Field at the southern end of Grant Park, undeterred by the blazing orb overhead or the 87-degrees-and-rising temperature.
Much better live than on the 2007 album "All Hour Cymbals," the Brooklyn group delivered an ethereal but uplifting performance that mixed shoegazer psychedelia and more timeless mind-altering sounds and rhythms from around the world, evoking Chinese Gamelan and African tribal trance drumming, Eastern European grooves and Middle Eastern drones all at once.
ON THE SCENE
So much for "the greenest festival"
In keeping with the tree-hugging ethos of Lollapalooza's founding figurehead Perry Farrell and the efforts of promoters C3 Presents to be the best possible tenant Chicago's "People's Park" could have, efforts to recycle and minimize power consumption are everywhere in evidence, joining the fest's carbon offsets to lend credence to Farrell's statements that this is "the greenest festival."
Sadly contradicting those efforts, however, are a dozen city buses parked around the park on its perimeter, engines idling to keep the air conditioning running and serve as an emergency respite for concertgoers in danger of heat stroke.
Ah, well: Everything's a tradeoff. Did I mention it's 87 out here, with the mercury rising?
The one-sentence review: The Kills, 3:30--4:15 a.m.
Uninspired and uninspiring indie dance-rock indulgence, a lot like a broken... like a broken... like a broken... oh, never mind.
(I should add, though, that vocalist Alison Mosshart did briefly keel over in the heat, and her partner Jamie Hince just kept playing until she got to her feet again.)
ON THE SCENE
The V.I.P.'s--a little less V.I. this year?
Whether promoters have heeded complaints that the lavish V.I.P. areas occupied too much of the prime shady real estate in the park over the last few years, or they simply sold fewer of the pricey three-day "LollaLounge" passes ($850 per person) and even more ostentatious private cabanas (parties of 20 and up, $1,500 per person for the "premier section," $1,250 per person for the "prime section"), there's no denying that these areas are much smaller in 2008--and those in the "cheap seats" no doubt applaud.
With the sell-out crowd comes long, long lines
By midday at the main entrance to Lollapalooza, as more and more concertgoers no doubt left work early to arrive in the park before Radiohead, the lines for entry seemed to stretch on forever--one group of kids told me it took them 45 minutes to gain admittance--and plenty of hopefuls were marching up and down Columbus Drive still in search of spare tickets. Dream on.
Also adding a lot of congestion this year: The layout of the festival has been made a lot more constricted and rigid, with north-south (and vice versa) traffic narrowly confined along set paths thanks to a lot more fencing. For anyone planning to see, say, half of a band's set at 5 and the other half of another group's at 5:30 on the far end of the park--well, you'd better think again.
Gogol Bordello, 4:15-5:15
Having seen Madonna's favorite gypsy-punk band in a more intimate--hence much crazier--setting, I expected a lot from bandleader Eugene Hütz and his shaggy-haired ensemble. But they just didn't deliver in the vast space of Lollapalooza's marquee stage at the southern end of Grant Park.
After the third or fourth violin solo, it all just started to sound like Frank Zappa noodling on top of a Ukrainian wedding band.
In other words, the long stretch of afternoon doldrums is proving to be even more dire than I'd feared.
Mates of State, 5:15-6:15
The second boy-girl duo of the day on Hutchinson Field's northern stage proved to be a breath of fresh air, arriving just as the first breezes of the day started to blow off Lake Michigan and things were finally cooling down (a bit).
Formed in Lawrence, KS, and now based in New Haven, CT, keyboardist-vocalist Kori Gardner and drummer-vocalist Jason Hammel craft fragile but gorgeous indie-pop, and it stood up well in this wilting setting, shimmering and jangling in all the right ways.
Bloc Party, 6:15-7:15; Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, 7:15-8:00
Once again, the best laid plans of mice and Jim have been waylaid by the sheer massive ordeal of traversing Lollapalooza: I'd hoped to catch some of the Raconteurs and a bit of the Cool Kids in the northern end of the park before Radiohead, but it just takes too long--and, I admit, it's too much of slog in this heat--to keep going back and forth while writing in between. So I've ceded the northern end of the park to my friend and colleague Anders Smith Lindall while I cover the south.
Unfortunately, that means seeing the British New Wave of New Wave dance band Bloc Party again, after its rote rehashing of Joy Division, Gang of Four and the Cure failed to impress me at the South by Southwest Music Festival a few years ago or at the Intonation Festival in Union Park in 2006. And this set merely proved that things haven't gotten any better, with the group churning out its generic rock-disco choogling as guitarist-vocalist Kele Okereke whined inanities like, "Mercury's in retrograde/Mercury's in retrograde."
Reason No. 495 why Okereke is a poseur: He was wearing an Obama T-shirt (purchased at the Obama Store, I wonder?). Did I mention he was British?
Also a veteran of Union Park: former Pavement frontman Malkmus, though to be fair, he really wasn't any stronger at the Pitchfork Music Festival in 2007 than he was at Lollapalooza, alternating between rather pointless and clumsy jams and disconnected, unfocused, pointlessly obtuse indie-pop.
The crowd was polite for both these acts, but let's face it: Scattered highlights aside, day one has pretty much all been about killing time until Radiohead. And many of the thousands in Hutchinson Field were staring at the southern stage where Radiohead will perform even as Malkmus was playing to the north behind them. That had to be a sad sight from where he was standing.
Radiohead, 8-10 p.m.
Then, finally, the much-anticipated headliners took the stage.
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.
Hutchinson Field was an endless sea of human bodies, with the crowd three times larger than the one that saw the band here in 2001. With daylight still clinging stubbornly until after 8:30, however, and the stage facing north instead of using the city skyline as its backdrop as it did during the band's last show in the city's front yard, the vibe simply wasn't as magical.
Nevertheless, the British art-rockers did their best to create an enveloping modern psychedelic buzz 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 "Nude," "Idioteque" and "Bodysnatchers," 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.