Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys performs Friday at Lollapalooza in Chicago's Grant Park. (Russel A. Daniels/AP)
BY ANDERS SMITH LINDALL
For the Sun-Times
If it's Grant Park in August, replete with blistering sun and smothering humidity, then this must be Lollapalooza.
If the title up top didn't tip you off, it's not Jim DeRogatis behind this particular post but a guest contributor, longtime Sun-Times pop-crit freelancer Anders Smith Lindall. I'll be popping in here on DeRo's blog throughout the weekend to give you my own glimpses of the festival from every angle I can muster.
3:05 p.m.: Yes, it's stinky hot out here already. The good news is there's an occasional light breeze, and despite the persistent overnight rains the baseball diamonds in Hutchinson Field are only muddy in patches. No doubt those spots will be baked solid soon.
Things kicked off in the south end of the park with BANG CAMARO, a Boston-based phalanx of metalheads the official program compared favorably to the Polyphonic Spree. Although Camaro may approach the Spree's sheer numbers onstage, they have none of the white-robed psych-rock choir's trickster sense of humor. The pun's almost too obvious: Bang Camaro was indeed a car wreck of an opener.
A SONIC TECHNO-FLOP
Lolla organizers claim they've finally learned from past problems with sound bleed, including reportedly using computer analyses and Google Earth crowd photos to tweak each stage's speakers for optimal effect. But none of those fancy tactics were worth much against the sonic sludge that leached from Bang Camaro's big stage into the hushed crowd watching Swedish chanteuse SOFIA TALVIK, nor did they seem to appease ROGUE WAVE frontman Zach Rogue, whose pretty pop band battled bleed from MANCHESTER ORCHESTRA nearby. "We've got some competition," Rogue told the crowd, "but we'll persevere together. Ignore the noise behind us." Memo to Lolla bigs from the Common Sense Desk: Such sonic clashes will only be eliminated when acts aren't playing on adjacent stages at once.
BIG BROTHER IS HERE
There's an odd contraption parked in the northwest corner of Hutchinson Field. It's a big spider-legged-looking Transformer of a vehicle topped by an ominously flashing blue light, and it belongs to the Chicago Police Department. An officer attending to the thing termed it a "mobile surveillance unit." Seems that the city's finest can climb in the cab (it's air conditioned and encased in tinted glass), power up the vehicle and be extended up to a bird's-eye viewing perch with a 360-degree range of vision. Most importantly, the officer said, the unit has "some pretty high-tech cameras," kind of like the city's pervasive red-light cams on steroids. Lolla lovers, you're being watched.
The official Lollapalooza news conference with PERRY FARRELL and other festival honchos isn't scheduled to happen until tomorrow, but Farrell was in the media area giving one-on-one interviews this afternoon. In a chat with WBBM-TV (CBS Channel 2), Perry had this to say about Lolla-Chicago's development over time: "It's like when you see a girl, a cute girl. Then you see her four years later and she's gorgeous! She's a woman." The Jane's Addiction and Porno for Pyros alum turned festival impresario also said that Lolla's annual contribution to the Parkways Foundation give him "pride of ownership" of the trees and shrubs planted on Grant Park's lakeside flank in recent years. Finally, according to Farrell, "a few thousand" tickets still remain for the weekend.
CREATIVE CROWD CONTROL
Lolla has always offered stageside viewing platforms for performing artists, their guests, members of the media and assorted others with such access. But this year security has a neat new trick to track capacity on the biggest stage at the far south end of the park: To climb atop the riser, you have to get one standard playing card from a deck dealt by the friendly security guard at the bottom of the stairs. When those cards run out, the platform is full. During an impressive set of krautrock-inspired instrumentals from the HOLY F*CK earlier today, I'm proud to say I got the first card. It's not often I've been dubbed the Ace of Hearts.
Updated 8:25 p.m.: An event on Lollapalooza's scale can be an overwhelming sensory experience. It's very crowded, very hot, very loud, there's always music happening somewhere that you just can't miss, and it seems like the most important thing to see is always the furthest away. What's more, if you're writing about it, you've got time pressures, plus you're always looking for a little nugget, a new twist, a subtle and telling detail that will illuminate a larger point. In the biz these anecdotes are called "color," and after just a few hours immersed in the Lolla tidal wave I'm already on color overload--and hey, there's a woman in a red volunteer shirt, striding purposefully across the field, the shirt hiked up to reveal a bare, round and very pregnant belly that she's cooling as she walks with a battery-powered fan. I have a notebook full of stuff like that.
The point is, with all these stimuli and the constant search for color, you can get distracted from why we're really here: The music. And don't get me wrong, I've seen a lot of strong performances so far. Earlier there was Rogue Wave, practitioners of pretty pop yet unafraid to break their lilt with bursts of fuzz. There was YEASAYER, whose swirling melodies and bubbling polyrhythms are captivating in a club setting and translated well to the great outdoors.
And as the afternoon wore on there was the BLACK KEYS, who fashioned primordially simple blues and rock from just three elements: Dan Auerbach's voice, his snarling guitar, and Patrick Carney's punishing drums. On the big stage at the park's north end, their fast songs pummeled and screeched; the slower ones suggested a creeping sense of menace.
CAT POWER could hardly have approached her set more differently. Subtlety is Chan Marshall's strength, and while that's not typically an asset in a festival setting, here it came through. Marshall seems to have finally conquered the nerves that used to bedevil her live shows; she strode the stage comfortably and interacted both with fans and her veteran band of sensitive players anchored by drummer Jim White, who even found a weary, mournful side to Creedence's usually scabrous, sneering protest standard "Fortunate Son."
ELVIS IS IN THE BUILDING
Okay, so he doesn't have the dynamic power of the King. But on a day mostly devoid of star power--is there a more anonymous rock icon than Thom Yorke?--Jack White was a revelation. Fronting the RACONTEURS, White yowled and writhed, choking notes from his guitar like he was wrestling a wildcat. Maybe he should have dialed back the aggression a bit: He broke a string on his acoustic almost as soon as he touched it. A tech quickly re-strung it--and White broke it again. Of course, his energy wouldn't have been worth much if weren't in service of White's songs--sharp sonic firecrackers--and his fellow Raconteurs guitarist and singer Brendan Benson's sweeter, sunnier pop tunes.
SHOUTING OUT CHICAGO
Among the afternoon's nods to the Windy City: Rogue Wave played their ballad "Chicago x 12." DUFFY hollered, "Hello Chicago!" Then the Welsh singer laughed: "I've never said that before!" And Cat Power, in one of her few asides, offered a few sing-song bars of "Chicago (That Toddlin' Town)."
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.
WORDS TO THE WISE
The first day of Lolla hasn't been without its snafus. Lines at the gates have been long, even early in the day, with waits of some 45 minutes just to get in. But patrons say queues formed outside the main entrance on Columbus Drive from both the north and the south--and that even as the line forming from the north wrapped all the way around the park onto Lake Shore Drive, the line forming from the south was short and flowing smoothly.
That long north-south traipse from one main stage to another can be a killer, especially in the midafternoon sun. But there's a secret: walk on the sidewalks hidden in the groves of trees on either side of the main pedestrian artery. It's cool, shady and hardly crowded. In fact, you may not want to leave.
CATCHING SOME RAYS
Some may remember this blog from last year, when in addition to regular dispatches on Lolla's stages, sights and sounds, I offered a running tally of major-league baseball apparel sighted in the crowd. In the end, I saw a hat or shirt--or tattoo--for every team save one: The lowly Tampa Bay Rays.
But it's a new year. The Rays are atop the American League East division. And in the crowd waiting for the Raconteurs I saw not one but two blue caps emblazoned with the team's logo, a white interlocking TB.