Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

August 2010 Archives

An occasional blog feature highlighting trends that appear in at least three notable instances in pop culture ...

1. In the late '60s and into the '70s, the neighborhood in the scrubby hills just north of Los Angeles, dubbed Laurel Canyon, became an epicenter for America's post-folk rock and roll. Most of the people who came to define the easygoing sound of SoCal rock -- the Byrds, the Mamas & the Papas, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, the Doors, plus Crosby, Stills & Nash and others -- wound up living in the rustic cabins and cheap homes scattered around the area's winding lanes. They hung out together, they wandered down to the Sunset Strip to jam together, they signed business-changing record deals together.

A new documentary out today chronicles the formation and impact of the above-mentioned bands and a few more. "Legends of the Canyon" tells its story around the recollections of music photographer Henry Diltz, a former folkie who wound up as a lucky hanger-on through most of the Laurel Canyon scene. Featuring interviews with C, S and N, plus several other musicians, scenesters and music industry kingpins like Lenny Waronker (Warner Bros.) and David Geffen (who started Asylum, then later his own Geffen Records), "Legends of the Canyon" is a rose-tinted look back at the flowering of folk-rock and the anecdotes that created a scene and an industry. Graham Nash, Stephen Stills and David Crosby are the most intriguing interview subjects much of the time, with Crosby referring to the hood's creative scene as "yeasty" and discussing his two most admired guitar players in terms of creative tunings: Mitchell, and later instrumental genius Michael Hedges.

American Idols Live makes one dull homecoming concert

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After a season of sharply declining ratings and some disappointing competition, the once-mighty "American Idol" sent its annual package tour onto the road -- and into one of the most troubled summers for concert ticket sales. The Chicago show originally was scheduled for Monday night; it moved back to Saturday after other shows were canceled and the tour was trimmed.

But even if this were another robust summer in America's arenas, the 2010 American Idols Live tour still would have little to recommend it, even at a discount.

Grammy-winning guitarist William Ackerman comes to Chicago this week to perform a concert benefiting Openlands, a local nonprofit protecting natural habitats in northeastern Illinois.

Ackerman doesn't tour much anymore. The founder of Windham Hill Records in 1976, Ackerman sold his interest in the famous instrumental music label in the '90s. Now he produces other artists, records rarely, and performs at house concerts and other intimate venues.

"I want to see people's eyes," Ackerman said in a recent interview from his Vermont home. "These house concerts -- it might be 2 people, it might be 40, sometimes 100. It's so much more satisfying, more immediate and intimate. We just did a show at the Count Basie Theater [in Red Bank, N.J.]. I had 'em turn the house lights up, and got to talking. I like getting dialogue from people. I hope to foster some of that in Chicago. I don't know what it is about this that matters to me at this point in my life. I'm just done with the 'I'm the guy up here and you're the people out there' thing."

Did Anyone Hear This?: Laura Veirs, 'July Flame'

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veirs.jpgOK, so it's August, but as Chicago's summer heat begins waning there's plenty of warmth and light still to draw from Laura Veirs' "July Flame." This is the seventh album from the Portland, Ore.-based singer-songwriter, which means it's even more tragic that more people haven't discovered her by now. This outing might be her tour de force, the best collection of sunny, satisfying songs she's assembled yet.

"July Flame" builds on Veirs' penchant for writing songs about nature and the outdoors, this time perfectly capturing the languid feel of midsummer. The name comes from a variety of peaches she once saw at a farmer's market.

The last three albums from Chicago hard-rock assault team Disturbed have debuted at No. 1, and only a fool would bet against that happening again when the band's fifth album, "Asylum," drops on Tuesday.

Beyond that, here are three more upcoming events to watch for from the band:

1. "Decade of Disturbed" is a documentary chronicling just that, the last 10 years of this band's domination of hard rock, which began with 2000's "The Sickness," which has now sold 4.2 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. "There is a reason the album cover for 'The Sickness' signified what it did -- the birth of an infected monster emerging into the world. It infected its fan base at the core, spreading into a legion of fans that would become a lifelong army," says the film's director, Rafa Alcantara. The film will be screened at 11:55 p.m. Friday at the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport. And guess what: tickets are free!


The Fruit Bats return home this weekend for a concert at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, and that's a good place to start in describing what they're all about. The Fruit Bats are an indie pop band that will sound right at home in the listening room of one of the nation's best folk centers.

Twangy as well as twee, the Fruit Bats are helmed by Kenosha-born banjo instructor Eric D. Johnson. The D. is for differentiate: He's not Eric Johnson the noted guitar wanker, nor is he Eric Johnson from the band Archers of Loaf. He is, however, the same Eric Johnson who's been a member of the Shins for the last four years. He plays guitar, keyboards, does some harmonizing for those indie darlings, and it's a good fit. Both bands have a vaguely similar attention to tone and craft. But landing a gig in the Shins -- that's Johnson's side project, not his retirement score.

"It's weird, because when I joined the Shins people would say to me, 'Congratulations. Finally!' It was like, 'At last, you can quit this Fruit Bats crap,'" Johnson says from his current home base in Portland, Ore. "That was the gist of most people's reaction: 'You've been working hard, and finally you've made it!' It's this reality-TV ideal where it doesn't matter if you're creating something and people are digging it -- finally, you're in the big public eye, good job. The Shins is a side project. Not to take away from them. I love them, and we've known each other for 10 or 11 years. But the Shins allows me not to have to have a day job. The Shins have allowed the Fruit Bats to, well, take flight."

James Williamson saves Iggy & the Stooges -- again

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The re-formed Stooges include former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt (from left),
Iggy Pop, drummer Scott Asheton and guitarist James Williamson.

James Williamson has the best retirement plan ever. After three decades in the computer and electronics industries, Williamson is hanging up his gray suit and going back to his first job -- as guitarist for Iggy & the Stooges.

That makes the second time he's saved this band.

Iggy Pop (a k a James Osterberg) formed the Stooges in Detroit in 1967, allegedly after seeing a Doors concert here in Chicago. He gathered guitarist Ron Asheton, his brother and drummer Scott Asheton, and bassist Dave Alexander -- like-minded brutes who were into loud, raw rock 'n' roll, stuff inspired by blues-based Brits who were turning amps up to 11 before that became a mockumentary joke. With the production assistance of primal Velvet Underground cellist John Cale, they made an explosive debut album that sounded like nothing else recorded in 1969. The first punk rock record? Debatable, but likely.

But after the Stooges' second record, "Fun House," the band practically disintegrated. Iggy spiraled into heroin addiction. Alexander bailed. They lost their record deal. They were doomed. Until Iggy met a mysterious rising star named David Bowie, who made it his mission to midwife another Stooges record.

Enter Williamson, a friend of a friend of Iggy's who was crashing at his sister's place in suburban Detroit.

Poi Dog Pondering returns to Ravinia for annual blowout

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(STNG file)

When Poi Dog Pondering singer Frank Orrall answers his home phone, the caller is treated to a sound rarely heard in the 21st century: the fading ring of an actual telephone bell.

"It's an old rotary phone," Orrall says. "I found it in a thrift shop in Lawrence, Kan. Avocado green, of course."

A perfect detail from a life lived somewhat determinedly in the slow lane. Orrall has led Poi Dog Pondering -- a band sometimes earthy and acoustic, sometimes earthy and electronic -- for two decades, singing a lot of songs that remind us to look beneath our technological trappings and dig into our living, breathing, messy humanity. The band began in Hawaii, took off while based in Austin, Texas, then settled into a patient groove after moving to Chicago in the mid-'90s.


(Getty Images)

David Gray was worn out.

Understand, he'd been making fine folk-pop records before you discovered his "White Ladder" album 10 years ago and made the ruminative song "Babylon" into one of the 21st century's first one-hit wonders. After that, fickle Americans began drifting away again while his popularity remained high in Europe.

But a couple of years ago the hype machine finally had wound down, and Gray found himself without a record deal or a band. He wondered where things had gone missing -- the fanfare, his mates, even his inspiration.

"Where does anything go? When you turn the light off, where does it go? Stuff changes, people change, and it happens quickly when you're not looking," Gray says during a recent family vacation in central Italy. "What happened naturally and unconsciously, it's hard to repeat that. We had a rare old time making records and touring the world, and then not everybody had the desire to reinvent it and start all over again. Every time we make a record, it doesn't make a difference what we did last time. It's only a marker for you. You must start over again. That wears people out, and we began to repeat ourselves."

Katy Perry, 'Teenage Dream'

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(Capitol) 2 and a half stars

katy.jpgLady Gaga screams a lot on stage. She scowls, she growls, she strikes rigid, ghoulish poses, evoking her legions of followers with a gnarled little monster claw. She hardly ever smiles. Even walking around for the paparazzi, teacup and saucer in hand, she always looks deadly serious. You'd think someone who hit the big time as quickly as she did and now has the world at her feet would have a little fun with it.

Katy Perry, by stark contrast, is having a great time. At least, that's the image put forth relentlessly in her colorful concerts and on "Teenage Dream," the second pop album from this preacher's kid-turned-saucy starlet. Loaded with youthful exuberance and naked candor, Perry she-bops through a dozen confections as light and fleeting as the cotton candy used as a theme throughout the CD's graphic art.

5-13 cruze hynde 8.jpg

Chrissie Hynde, of the Pretenders, and JP Jones perform May 13 at Chicago's JBTV studios. (Photos by Tom Cruze/Sun-Times)

Chrissie Hynde and JP Jones are slumped in a suite at Chicago's Dana Hotel, utterly discombobulated. Granted, these are rock stars, and it's mid-morning, but Jones -- a feline Welshman, neatly groomed but, he admits, hungover -- and Hynde wear the vacant, resigned stares of natural disaster refugees.

"I don't know what the f---'s going on," Hynde says, running a hand through her trademark black mane. "Every day I look around and go, f---, what is going on? We came over to spend two weeks here, now we're living here. I've never had anything catch fire like this in my career."

She's referring to some intense media and fan interest in her first-ever side project, a rootsy new band called JP, Chrissie & the Fairground Boys. It's a departure from Hynde's three decades leading rock's defiant Pretenders, a moniker that still exists solely because of Hynde's stubbornness and determination in the face of personal tragedy and commercial whim. Last May, without a record even being finished -- the CD "Fidelity!" is finally released this Tuesday -- she and Jones were trotting across the country, including a stop in Chicago, teasing fans with short sets of the new songs.

But the whirlwind promotional tour was even getting to a seasoned road warrior and expatriate like Hynde.

"I'm totally displaced," she says. "I don't know where I am most of the time, or where I'm supposed to be. I don't know if I'm man or woman. I don't know if I'm American or British. I don't know where I live. ... Men think I'm a man. The guys treat me like one of the guys."

"I treat you like a woman, don't I?" Jones asks.

"I don't know," Hynde replies.

The silence that follows that exchange is beyond awkward, but very telling. Everything there is to know about the mournful music and sighed laments on this record is communicated just as effectively in those several seconds of uncomfortable staring at boots. The union of Hynde and Jones is a dynamic musical partnership, but it's based on a star-crossed, May-December romance.

Michael Been, singer for the Call, has died from an apparent heart attack Thursday at a music festival in Belgium. He was 60.

The Call formed in Oklahoma City and rose to a modicum of fame in the 1980s with MTV-fueled hits such as "I Still Believe," "The Walls Came Down" and "Everywhere I Go." The band's sound, particularly Been's volcanic passion at the microphone, was likened to U2 early on, and by the end of the '80s Peter Gabriel pointed to the Call and declared, "[They're] the future of American music." The band's website proclaims them "perhaps the most underrated band ever"; it's a point fans can argue fairly well.

But Been wasn't in Belgium performing with the Call, which hasn't seen much action in a long time. He was running sound for the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club -- Been's son, Robert Levon Been, is that band's singer -- at the Pukkelpop Festival on the same bill with Oklahoma City's Flaming Lips.

Two more summer festivals: North Coast and Sónar

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Pitchfork and Lollapalooza may be past, but wait, there's more! Two more three-day music festivals are on the books in the coming weeks.

The debut of the North Coast Music Festival is Labor Day Weekend, Sept. 3-5 -- a festival back in Union Park, same site as Pitchfork. They just announced their schedule today -- see it here -- from a lineup including Moby, the Chemical Brothers, De La Soul, Lupe Fiasco, Nas with Damien Marley and (wha?) Umphrey's McGee.

Tickets available -- $40/day, $85 for the weekend (limited three-day passes are still around for $75). If you can handle another three-day music marathon.

Then there's this really interesting extra fest ...

Steven Tyler (left) and Joe Perry reportedly are all good and getting along on the current tour.

Always such drama with the bad boys from Boston.

Last summer, the rock 'n' roll soap opera that is Aerosmith finally hit the road after some false starts, but then had to cut it short when lead singer Steven Tyler plunged off a stage in Sturgis, S.D. Tyler was laid up, the tour was canceled, everyone went back to their own lives. For guitarist Joe Perry, that meant working on his own Joe Perry Project, which released a new album in October. For drummer Joey Kramer, that meant publicizing his new autobiography. drummers rarely get a break, especially in the media. For starters, Kramer's memoir, Hit Hard: A Story of Hitting Rock Bottom at the Top (Harper One, $15.99), was published the same week Michael Jackson died. Then, after Tyler's fall, the rumor mill started again around the "toxic twins" -- Perry and Tyler feuding again through the press, Tyler saying he might quit the band, Perry saying who needs him? At one point, Aerosmith was allegedly auditioning new singers.

But once Tyler emerged from another stint in rehab, this time for addiction to painkillers as a result of his injury treatments, the two made up (for the umpteenth time) and a new Aerosmith world tour was announced. The title even has trademark Aerosmith attitude: the Cocked, Locked, Ready to Rock Tour. It has actually been proceeding according to schedule and is still expected to arrive in the Chicago area Sunday night.

"Really," Kramer assured us in an interview from Boston during a brief break. "Everything's copasetic, and the band is playing great." He pauses, then seems to remember to add: "And getting along."

Next spot on the map for Jimmy Webb: Back to Chicago

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webb.jpgListening to Jimmy Webb's stable of once-upon-a-time hit songs -- "Wichita Lineman," "Galveston," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" -- you'd think he had a GPS in his writing room.

The Oklahoma-born songwriter left home at age 16. In short order, he was writing songs for artists in the late '60s and early '70s, songs that became big hits, like "Up, Up and Away" for the Fifth Dimension and "MacArthur Park" for Richard Harris, Waylon Jennings and Donna Summer. Those other hits all belong to Glen Campbell.

Webb, 64, is on the road again, out playing some dates this month to support his first CD in a few years, "Just Across the River." The album features many of Webb's hits reborn in loose new arrangements and featuring guest singers such as Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Jackson Browne, Lucinda Williams, Campbell and more.

"We're in Chicago in a few days, then playing Largo in L.A. -- I've got five sons and a daughter out there, plus my father, who's 87 -- then Seattle, Nashville. I thought it was just a bunch of gigs, but I guess that's a tour," Webb says in his easygoing Oklahoma drawl. He's chatting from his home on the north shore of Long Island, N.Y., where he says he's really a homebody. But in order for home to have real value, you have to be glad to see it again.

Let 'em in: Wings reunion at Chicago Beatles fest

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(Photo by Jeff Elbel)

Those interested in rock royalty, even from the provinces, may enjoy this photo -- a reunion of the band Wings, Paul McCartney's post-Beatles players. Pictured are keyboard player Gary Wright (from left), guitarist Denny Laine, drummer Denny Seiwell and guitarist Mark Hudson. The reunion took place Saturday at the Fest for Beatles Fans at the Hyatt Regency in Rosemont.

Nearly everyone in the Wainwright family writes and performs songs, often about each other. So when one of them passes away, one of the stages of grief is to write an album about the loss. Loudon Wainwright III, the patriarch of this postmodern Carter family, reflected on the death of each of his parents in an album each (1992's "History" after Loudon Wainwright Jr. died, 2001's "Last Man on Earth" after his mother died).

Friday night, two of Loudon's kids were on stage at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre. Daughter Martha Wainwright opened the show with her powerful anti-love songs, and she acknowledged the new grief hanging over the family following the death of their mother (Loudon's ex-wife), Canadian folk icon Kate McGarrigle. "My songs are already pretty depressing," Martha said, promising she wouldn't be delivering any songs about the loss of her mother. "I don't want to subject you to what might come out now."

Rufus Wainwright, however, though he might rankle at this suggestion, is more his father's son than he realizes. He has no qualms about laying bare his grief and despair before a paying audience, though he's usually less direct, and the first act of Friday night's concert was a highly artistic, touring funeral service.

Kanye returning to the scene of his MTV VMAs crime

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Kanye West was on his best behavior when he appeared on the BET Awards show early this summer, his first awards show gig since last fall's MTV Video Music Awards. After years of acting out at these things, West infamously stormed that stage in September as country star Taylor Swift accepted an award, interrupting her and seizing her microphone. "I'ma let you finish," he declared, "but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time."

So, of course, MTV has booked him for the next show. A source tells Us magazine that the Chicago rapper is booked to perform on the Sept. 12 MTV VMAs broadcast.

His next album is due two days after the show.


Rufus Wainwright has been busy. Lordy, has he been busy.

In the three years since his last studio album, "Release the Stars," he's ping-ponged from one ambitious project to the next. He performed sensational tribute concerts to Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere. He wrote music for 24 of Shakespeare's sonnets and performed them for a theatrical production, "Sonette," with director Robert Wilson in Berlin. He sang Berlioz's "Les Nuits d'ete" in New York. He even composed an entire opera, "Prima Donna," which enjoyed a successful premiere in Britain.

So perhaps it's not surprising that for his return to the recording studio, he sought to back off, downshift, quiet things a bit. "All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu," released this spring, finds the sweeping, murmuring singer-songwriter sonically naked -- just his voice and piano.

"I threatened to do this a while ago," Wainwright says in an interview from a brief oceanside respite before beginning a U.S. tour. "Unfortunately, I needed the proper life circumstance in order to dig into it. Given the sad opportunity with my mother's passing and the exhaustion from working on the opera, the lone piano became my cocoon, shield and confessional."

The 25th anniversary Farm Aid concert recently announced for Oct. 2 in Milwaukee today added some acts to the bill, in addition to the requisite appearances by Farm Aid champions Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews.

Added to the show: Kenny Chesney, Norah Jones, Jason Mraz, Jeff Tweedy, Band of Horses, The BoDeans, Amos Lee and Robert Francis.

Lollapalooza's attendance for 2010 marks its biggest yet in Chicago: 240,000 -- that's 80K each day -- filled Grant Park this weekend, topping last year's three-day record of 225,000 for the weekend.

The extra bodies had extra room, too. The festival grew 35 acres this year, filling 115 acres. This allowed for significantly easier traffic flow north and south, turning Columbus Drive into a mile-long sidewalk, and avoiding the bottleneck around Buckingham Fountain that caused so many missed sets in previous years. Perry's Stage, for DJs and electronic acts, grew considerably, as did the food area.

Still, the increased space allowed for up to 95,000 participants a day. Festival organizers C3 Productions said they capped attendance at 80,000 this year to "focus on flow and room for the patrons" in the new layout, according to C3 spokeswoman Shelby Meade.

Bigger space also meant more fenceline to patrol -- and more opportunity for jumpers who don't want to pay admission.

Lollapalooza: Your reading guide

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Our complete coverage of Lollapalooza 2010, for your morning-after reading ...

Lady Gaga
The Strokes, Jimmy Cliff
Mavis Staples with her new collaborator, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy
Wavves, Los Amigos Invisibles, more Mavis, Drive-By Truckers, New Pornographers
The Walkmen, Raphael Saadiq
2ManyDJs, J. Cole, plus Perry's Stage
B.o.B. is too good to play this early

Green Day
Phoenix, the xx, Grizzly Bear, Edward Sharpe, Warpaint
Spoon, Gogol Bordello
Chrissie Hynde, Social Distortion, Blues Traveler
Wild Beasts, Stars, the Soft Pack
Perry's Stage
The Verve Pipe at Kidzapalooza
The Morning Benders

Soundgarden, Cypress hill, Yeasayer, Blitzen Trapper, Ike Reilly, Freelance Whales
Arcade Fire, the National
X Japan's U.S. debut
Erykah Badu was a ba-dud
The Cribs with Johnny Marr
Company of Thieves
Nneka, plus Miniature Tigers

Soundgarden played Sunday night, but their first show in 13 years was actually Thursday night at the Vic.

Interviews ahead of the big show with X Japan, Devo, Kidzapalooza stars, B.o.B., plus a look back at Lady Gaga's performance at Lollapalooza 2007.

Plus, there were a lot of kids jumping the fences at Lolla this year.

Other than music ...

• The food at Lolla stepped up a notch this year. Here's one tasting, and another, plus a Q&A with Graham Elliott.
You dudes and your bandannas.
• Non-ticketed tourists denied seeing Buckingham Fountain.
• The heat, lord, the heat.
• Lolla's environmental hub, Green Street.

Finally, watch highlights from the fest this Friday on cable.
Switchfoot lead singer Jon Foreman on Sunday. (Tom Cruze/Sun-Times)


Some bands from the last loose pages of the notebooks ...

Sunday morning was surprisingly delightful and refreshing for several reasons, which were focused in one area of the park. Rain showers and breezes cooled things down briefly, the Sony Bloggie Stage benefited from this more than most because of its tree-lined, green surroundings, and one of the first acts to grace this stage was Chicago's Company of Thieves. Playing to a remarkably full crowd at this small side stage, the Company played hard. With her band giving its all behind her, singer Genevieve Schatz danced all over the stage, wailing with abandon -- throaty in her range, breathy above it, never stopping to think about which was which, just going for it. This isn't a complex band, they play pretty basic pop-rock, but they were certainly spirited Sunday morning, closing with "Oscar Wilde," a popular download from their latest album, "Ordinary Riches." They were joined on the final number by pirouetting youngsters from Framework Dance Chicago; it was a little "Fame," but fun. When the show wrapped, the people around me gave it three "wow's" and a "holy crap." I heartily agreed.

Lollapalooza 2010: The TV show

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Andrew Well Vanwyngarden of MGMT. (Scott Stewart/Sun-Times)

Missed Lollapalooza this weekend -- or just want to see the highlights again? A one-hour special will round up the Grant Park concert festival's best moments, airing at 7 p.m. Friday on the Fuse cable network.

The show should include interviews with MGMT, Perry Farrell, Cypress Hill and more, plus an exclusive acoustic performance by Phoenix and some behind-the-scenes footage with B.o.B.

It doesn't seem like frontman Chris Cornell has aged much since Soundgarden
split 12 years ago.
(Nam Y. Huh/AP photos)


If, on balance, Lollapalooza 2010 seemed a little underpowered in the rock category, it wasn't for a lack of effort by the last band standing. Grunge godfathers Soundgarden closed the festival in thunderous fashion on its biggest stage.

It sure didn't sound like 12 years had passed since the band split up. It didn't look like it, either, or at least Chris Cornell hasn't aged much. Peering out from under youthful, flowing locks, he prowled the stage and leaped into the crowd during "Outshined." (Guitarist Kim Thayil, on the other hand, now sports a gray goatee.)

The band downplayed its biggest hits ("Fell on Black Days" was slow and understated, while "Black Hole Sun" came late in the 90-minute set) in favor of brute strength. Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd stacked towering grooves or tunneled deep in the terra, Thayil commanded punishing riffs and slashing chords, and Cornell roared with rage or howled in self-pity. They muscled through the blast-furnace blues of "Searching With My Good Eye Closed" and showcased the grunge era's quiet-loud signature shifts in "Blow Up the Outside World," thrashed furiously through "Jesus Christ Pose" and dredged up a snarling version of "Let Me Drown."

Lollapalooza: X Japan makes U.S. debut, wins converts

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Thumbnail image for x japan.drummer.jpg
X Japan's Toshi Deyama (left) and Yoshiki Hayashi kept Sunday's Lolla crowd pumped up. (Tom Cruze/Sun-Times photos)

The other night, referring to the small crowd for the Strokes and the triumph of Lady Gaga, I quipped that rock is dead. I stand corrected.

Making its U.S. debut -- after forming in 1982 and re-forming in 2007, with massive popularity in its home country -- X Japan took to the Lollapalooza main stage Sunday afternoon and delivered a spectacular, almost operatic performance of big ballads and speed metal.

Lollapalooza: Arcade Fire brings the heat at the end

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Arcade Fire's Win Butler at Lollapalooza on Sunday night. (Scott Stewart/Sun-Times)


Twitter, if you haven't learned this by now, is full of lies. Sunday night, for instance, the Twitterverse was full of cruel rumors aimed at festivalgoers at either end of the park during this final night of Lollapalooza 2010. First, news spread that Eddie Vedder was in town. The mind reeled -- maybe we'd get an appearance with south-field headliners Soundgarden, maybe a duet with Chris Cornell on "Hunger Strike"? Nothing happened. Then came word that David Bowie was going to appear with Arcade Fire, headlining the park's north side. He's done it before, albeit a few years ago. Again, alas, nothing doing.

But who needs Bowie? Arcade Fire emerged onto the stage from a bath of amber lights, underneath a video screen showing sunsets, horizons, billowing clouds. Then they launched into "Ready to Start," a song from their acclaimed new CD "The Suburbs." The band's return to Lollapalooza could be likened to Lady Gaga's -- once on a smaller stage (in 2005), they now return as triumphant, headlining scenesters. Sunday's performance proved it was no fluke.

Arcade Fire lays down bombastic hootenannies, squeezing every ounce of drama from its dense, epic arrangements and lyrics of challenge and hope. Win Butler, grandson of lounge-era bandleader Alvino Rey, and Regine Chassagne led the large ensemble through an hour of what the Waterboys used to call "the Big Music." An hour and a half set built slowly, full of little pop suites that crept around the stage and eventually exploded with the propulsive force of, um, the band's fiddles, accordions and hand percussion. From the machine-gun rhythms of "No Cars Go" to the encore of "Wake Up" (what was, in previous years, the Bowie moment), the band cemented its updated art-rock thesis, attributing the previous work of Talking Heads and Mercury Rev but also more mainstream bluster like Springsteen and, especially when Butler sang "Rococo," Neil Young. Somehow, Arcade Fire gets away with everything, no matter how high the moon they're shooting for, and Sunday night's set ended with a distinct ring of validation.

Lollapalooza: Badu? Ba-DUD.

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A mohawked Erykah Badu looked and acted the diva Saturday evening. (Tom Cruze/Sun-Times)


One of my most anticipated festival sets turned into a flop when neo-soul star Erykah Badu, the self-proclaimed "analog girl in a digital world," apparently forgot to wind her watch. Whatever the cause, she took the stage nearly 20 minutes after her scheduled 5 p.m. start, then spent an equal amount of time feeling her way through a sleepy amalgam of half-hearted song snippets, among them the new "20 Feet Tall" and two versions of the older "Appletree".

She looked every bit the diva in red eye shadow, huge feather-shaped gold earrings and a dome-topping dyed-blond mohawk but acted the part to an embarrassing degree. "Don't forget I'm an artist, I take my [music] serious," she lectured at one point. Hey Erykah, don't forget each one of these fans paid more than 200 bucks to be here.

Though her big band was finally able to uncork its talents and run with "Didn't Cha Know," by then all but the true believers in the crowd were long gone. Minutes later, with Badu still in midsong, Wolfmother cranked up its monster rock machine on the adjacent stage. Whatever Miss Amerykah meant to end with was simply blown away.

Lollapalooza: It's the Cribs, not the Smiths

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The visage of former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr looms large over the Cribs playing
Sunday afternoon at Lollapalooza.


How did the Smiths' Johnny Marr become indie-rock's hired gun?

Since the dissolution of the Smiths, Marr has played with a lengthy list of other stars -- from the Pretenders and Neil Finn to Modest Mouse and now the Cribs. They don't seem to pick him as much as he picks them up, sidling up to them like a swinger and telling them how much he loves their music. His cred -- the ringing, complex guitar he contributed to the Smiths, not his proximity to Morrissey -- makes them salivate and, voila!, Marr stays employed.

His work with the Cribs in their early-afternoon set Sunday at Lollapalooza sure seemed like that: work. It's not like he's adding much more than muscle to this band, a trio of brothers before Marr joined a couple of years ago -- no distinctive Rickenbacker, no skipping "This Charming Man" kinds of melodies. Just good, hard grinding with the other Jarman boys (singer-guitarist Gary, bassist-singer Ryan and drummer Ross). Which is no complaint; he holds the line solidly -- doing his bit on the side of the stage with confidence and a general lack of expression -- while Gary and Ryan are free to caterwaul and fling themselves (and their melodies) all over the stage. His chords underneath the desperate squeals of "Cheat on Me" certainly sounded like the Marr we (older fans, that is) could easily recognize, and then finished with use of the whammy bar and a slide. But as the last song disintegrated in feedback, with Gary and Ryan rubbing their instruments on their amps for maximum noise, Marr was putting his jacket back on. Shift's over.

A focus on Marr, however, is just another tragic result of a Gen-X Smiths fan at the helm of this particular report -- an unjust diversion from a perfectly good, punkish rock band. The front Jarmans are the real entertainment, Ryan of the bowl haircut and spit-out lyrics, Gary of the pigeon-toed, neck-straining leaps toward the mic. For "Men's Needs," Ryan leapt to a lower platform, pricking a brief solo before the girls in front (wearing Smiths T-shirts). The Cribs lash out at their own songs, yelp-singing and thrashing around, knocking over mic stands without a hint of script. A labored "Be Safe," with jagged video accompaniment of some guy whining about "the complacent ones" (eye rolling here), completely stalled the band's momentum midway through the set, but they rallied.

Lollapalooza: Coming down the home stretch

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I went to bed wishing for a dose of thunder to enliven Lollapalooza. I meant it in the sense that we could use some hard-hitting rock to pump up what's been an underpowered festival so far, but it seems the weather gods took me literally. Back at festival grounds this morning, raindrops ping the tent where I type. So far, though, it's only a gentle, soaking shower--enough to muck up the already saturated fields, but no lightning or significant wind.

Last night my colleague Thomas Conner took the lead on Green Day's headline set, and his review rightly laments the band's blusterous excess. "Know Your Enemy"? I've seen it, and it was them. And what a missed opportunity: With the nation stuck in a stubborn economic slump that's put millions of Americans in unemployment lines--even as tens of thousands more still slog on foreign battlefronts--the times practically cry out for the kind of bracing reality check and cathartic call to arms that only a righteous, relevant rock band can deliver. Given their "American Idiot" pedigree, we know Green Day were capable of meeting that challenge, but Saturday, they didn't try.

Rain aside, today's already off to a strong start thanks to the Nigerian soul singer Nneka. I'll have more to say on her in a later post; for now, I'm off to the north end of the park for the likes of Dodos, Blitzen Trapper and Ike Reilly.

Meanwhile, we'll see if the rain dampens the fence-jumpers, who were downright brazen yesterday. Local blogger Robert Loerzel has more on that, including good photos. Note: I've updated our own reporting on the incident with a security official's account of injuries suffered in the melee, and subsequent arrests. For further reading on all things Lolla, check out Thomas's roundup of links to our Sun-Times coverage.

Lollapalooza: Pack your poncho, and other reading

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Uh oh, rain. A swath of light rain stretches form Chicago due west, with storms in northwestern Illinois. It's all drifting to the southeast and might not trouble the bulk of Lollapalooza's afternoon. But it will heat up today, reaching into the 90s for the first time this weekend. So pack your poncho (no umbrellas, please, people behind you want to see the band) and your water bottle, and look for the booths where you can fill your water bottle for free.

Beyond this blog, other reading for today ...

Soundgarden plays tonight, reunited after 13 years. But their first show was Thursday night at the Vic.

An interview with Yoshiki from X Japan, playing at 4 today.

You dudes and your bandanas.

Lollapalooza takes over Grant Park, so tourists visiting Chicago this weekend are denied seeing one of our most famous landmarks: Buckingham Fountain.

Which, of course, means that when it heats up today, we can jump in it.

Plus: more food options!

Lollapalooza: Get your dance pop, and more

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Thomas Mars (left) and Deck D'Arcy of Phoenix. (Brian Kersey/AP)


The sleek pop band Phoenix isn't far removed from playing "a club in Chicago that was smaller than this stage," as frontman Thomas Mars put it, but they filled the second headliner's role with style and ease. Bathed in white strobes and colorful spots, the fine-featured French gents opened with their fizzy recent single "Lisztomania," then kept up a brisk pace. Though the band showed little of its somber synthy side, that was the right choice: Better to save the atmospherics for the film soundtracks (Mars is director Sofia Coppolla's paramour and frequent collaborator) and tonight, just let the big crowd dance.

Dance-pop was the watchword on the north end throughout Saturday, in fact, as Spoon, Cut Copy, Metric, the xx and Stars each played their particular angle on the two main stages.

I've seen the xx three times in the past five months, and this gig fell between the other two on the spectrum: It didn't quite match the trio's near-perfect Lincoln Hall appearance this spring, but exceeded their halting SXSW set.

Fact is, the xx seem like such creatures of the night, purveyors of such a dark, slinky sound, that I half expected them to simply melt into puddles of black liquid upon exposure to the brilliant afternoon. Instead, they more than held their own before an uncomfortably dense and expectant crowd.

Lollapalooza: Gogol Bordello, Spoon

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Spoon lead singer Britt Daniel wore white while the rest of the band wore black. (Brian Kersey/AP)


Gogol Bordello could be just the band to emulate Lollapalooza's brand for sensible nonsense. The band, big enough to fill a starting lineup at Wrigley Field, could double as a theater troupe from Romania, each of the musicians exhibiting their individual character and style, even if some of it -- how about that firebrand pixie zooming back and forth across the stage? -- felt contrived as we eased into Saturday evening.

While others sagged under the heat, this band played best in the daylight as everything they did was action-packed in a live show that was physically exhilarating. Lead singer Eugene Hutz never allowed the momentum to pause, as one song neared its end, he immediately summoned the next. Rubberbanding around the stage, Hutz led group chants and musical breaks. Despite the dense layering on songs like "My Companjera" -- including accordion, fiddle and many-sized drums -- the disparate elements were seamlessly orchestrated and never sounded overbearing.

Spoon played a set that mixed cerebral lyrics and abstract sound noodling with power chords and dance riffs.

Thumbnail image for AFI.Davey.bk.ap.jpg
One of many glam poses by AFI frontman Davey Havok. (Brian Kersey/AP)


The bookings at Lollapalooza routinely stretch back in time, but sometimes the split in years is an ugly rip. That was the case for AFI, the early millennium pop-punk band that sounded trapped in a time capsule of heavily processed guitars, harsh electro-beats and quasi-operatic vocals courtesy of lead singer Davey Havok. The band's set allowed Havok to jump off monitors and strike many stock glam poses.

Blues Traveler was another band that appeared dusted over. "Run-Around," their 1995 Grammy hit started the band's set, which allowed fans to renew their familiarity with singer John Popper's uniquely sweet voice and busy harmonica flutters. But while that revisiting was welcome, what followed was a sharp turn into jam band clichés, such as lengthy soloing that left whoever was not in the lead position looking bored. Even Popper took a few cigarette breaks to pass the time. Late into the set the band moved into unexpected territory with a cover of Radiohead's "Creep." Slowed and set to a quasi-reggae beat, the song still lost all its teeth and didn't provide any tension, or chills.

Lollapalooza: Green Day plays on ... and on and on

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Billie Joe Armstrong spends much of his time onstage getting the crowd revved up.
(Nam Y. Huh/AP)


Friday night, Lady Gaga enjoyed the surprise addition of fireworks to her show, courtesy of a fortuitously timed barrage from the Bears' family night at Soldier Field directly behind Lollapalooza's main stage in the south end of Hutchinson Field in Chicago's Grant Park. Saturday night, pop-punk trio Green Day brought their own.

In a two-hour-plus set, singer-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool filled the stage with good ol' rock 'n' roll stage antics. Here's a band that has actually gone Broadway, creating a stage musical out of their hit concept album, "American Idiot." But instead of loading down their show with scripted theatrics, they relied on the basics -- pyro, fireworks, pulling people on stage and endless exhortations to fans to put their hands in the air.

Lollapalooza: On the fence [Updated Sun., 3:30 p.m.]

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Fence-jumping kids are a perennial bane of festival security, but they seem to be stepping up their game at Lollapalooza this year. Yesterday's incidents (photos in the Flickr set embedded here) look like child's play compared to what witnesses said was a coordinated group assault on the barricades along Lake Shore Drive at the northeast corner of Butler Field, shortly before 3 p.m. today.

Concertgoers in the vicinity reported that from 30 to 60 young people scaled the six-foot chain link fence on the east (lake) side of the drive, then crossed traffic and hopped a smaller mesh fence on the divided highway's west (park) side. Rather than trying to climb the next six-foot metal fence they encountered, the group worked together to push it down and swarmed over it. They did the same thing to topple a third fence, finally rushing into the park itself.

The Sun-Times arrived on the scene to find a large number of police, security and medical personnel herding several jumpers toward a waiting police wagon. At least nine individuals--both men and women--were in handcuffs.


Asked whether Lollapalooza has seen a spike in fence-jumping or subsequent arrests this weekend, a festival publicist downplayed the incidents as "the usual tomfoolery."

Update: A top security official who responded to the incident said two security employees were hospitalized with injuries sustained at the hands of gate-crashers. One suffered a concussion when struck by the fence the group overturned. Another was restraining a jumper he apprehended when a second "blindsided" him with a blow to the head.

The official put the number of crashers in the incident at 40. Those caught were turned over to Chicago police, arrested and variously charged with assault, property damage and trespassing. (Most jumpers are simply escorted from festival grounds.)

A third security staffer reportedly required treatment for an arm injury stemming from a separate altercation.


Saturday lunch hour and the north field of Lollapalooza is lurching and leaning into the straightforward rock of the Soft Pack. This San Diego quartet effects nonchalance -- "Here's a new song. Whatever." -- but plays like they mean it, filling the park, already packed with reddening bodies, with a grinding, fat-bottomed sound. They're the Fall, no, now they're the Hives. Matt Lamkin is as exciting singing lazy "all right's" and "oh yeah's" as he is roaring with conviction that you should "Answer for Yourself." Basic and emboldening, the way a Saturday morning should be.

In the park's Petrillo Band Shell, next came the Wild Beasts. Such nice blokes, these British boys. Not beastly at all, thanking us kindly for our attention and wishing us a wonderful day. And the music, all chiming guitars and soaring vocals. Just beautiful.

Until you start hearing what they're singing about. There are tales of hoodlums running wild in the streets, "scaring the oldies into their dressing gowns." There are serious threats against "any rival who goes for our girls." The title track of the British band's sophomore CD, "Two Dancers," recounts almost "Clockwork Orange"-like violence: "They dragged me by the ankles through the street / They passed me round them like a piece of meat." The disc's opening track, all humming synthesizers and beautiful bass lines and wood-block rhythms, finds singer Hayden Thorpe, sounding like a demented Jimmy Somerville, howling, "This is a booty call ... my boot, my boot, my boot up your ----hole." Alas, there was no one posted to the sign language station for this show; demonstrating those lyrics would've been added entertainment.

But the Mercury Prize-nominated Wild Beasts are a surprisingly great festival band, their cinematic songs and layered effects luring half-interested fans to the sun-baked pavement in front of the band shell. The sun is warm today but not brutal, and occasional relief from clouds add to the dreamlike feeling, especially with the right music. Thorpe sings mostly in an airy falsetto, a rare treat in modern rock, and it's more than a gimmick. It's difficult to imagine this music wrapping around another kind of voice, not with that light, vibrating timbre to the bass, not with that ringing Johnny Marr-ish guitar. Yes, there's the Smiths reference. Listening to the Wild Beasts, it's not unrealistic to trace the family tree of their leering, melodic style back through Gene (the Smiths of the '90s) to the debut of Morrissey, another daring high-scale singer. Bassist Tom Fleming takes occasional lead singing duties, too, alternating between a low bellow and his variation on the upper register as he did on "All the King's Men," from "Two Dancers." Earlier material had more spunk, a livelier step ("Brave Bulging," "The Devil's Crayon"), but the show came to a big, satisfying finish with the new "Hooting and Hollering."

But wait, there's more. Beyond this music blog, here are some other Sun-Times reports from Lollapalooza this weekend ...

More music reports on our Our Town blog, including the Verve Pipe at Kidzapalooza, Warpaint, @ManyDJs and daily reports from Perry's stage of electronic acts.

Lisa Donovan checked out the spiffed-up food row and sampled several treats.

Entertainment columnist Dave Hoekstra reports on Chicago soul legend Mavis Staples' set on Friday, with new collaborator Jeff Tweedy from Wilco -- plus their comments on Lady Gaga.

Plus links to all the coverage, plus photo galleries, always here.

Lollapalooza Day Two: Everybody into the pool

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Early-arriving fans are dipping their toes in the cool pool of Lollapalooza Day Two, and on the north end, they eased in with the smooth sounds of the Morning Benders.

I saw this young Berkeley-via-Brooklyn foursome at SXSW in March and came away wowed. Now I'm happy to report they've clearly used the subsequent months to further refine their stage performance. The new album "Big Echo" proves they can pull off pretty, hazy pop songs, whoa-oh harmonies and pensive falsetto in the controlled studio environment (see debut album "Big Echo"), but this set showed them increasingly able to put this uncommonly reflective formula across live.


Following up on an unresolved note from yesterday--when I couldn't get an attendance estimate from Lollapalooza itself, and a source in festival security guessed high--publicist Shelby Meade today said she expects a crowd "near 80,000" each day. That would be well shy of the authorized capacity of 95,000. Meade says the goal is to keep festivalgoers comfortable by using this year's expanded acreage to diffuse a throng not substantially larger than in years past.

A final item for now, this one for the foodies: I recommend the pork belly tostada from the Wicker Park taco stand Big Star.


Lollapalooza debut: X Japan finally comes to America

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X Japan, that country's wildly popular and grandiose rock band, makes its Western hemisphere debut at 4 p.m. Sunday at Lollapalooza.

Click here for a feature about the band and an interview with its founder, Yoshiki, and here's Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell chatting with Yoshiki, too ...

Lollapalooza centers on Lady Gaga's Broadway bluster

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Lady Gaga performs Friday night at Lollapalooza in Chicago's Grant Park. (Tom Cruze/Sun-Times)

Early this year, Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell said Lady Gaga's performance would be the "centerpiece" of this summer's sixth annual concert festival in Grant Park. He said $150,000 was spent on the staging for the pop star's Monster Ball Tour theatrics.

In a conversation backstage Friday afternoon, Farrell said, "Did you see how many trucks she has? 18! And one of them is just for her wardrobe."

At this point, after a rise in the pop culture that defines meteoric, Lady Gaga is the centerpiece of any space she inhabits. Her gravity sucked most of the total crowd -- estimated by Farrell at 80,000 strong Friday -- from Friday's other headliner, the Strokes. The guy standing next to me throughout Gaga's show? Wearing a Strokes T-shirt.

So rock is dead, and somehow Broadway won. Lady Gaga's performance was a highly scripted, bewildering, bedazzled psychological drama, with production values right off the Great White Way.

Lollapalooza: The north end, part 2

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Many of Lollapalooza's most memorable performances have come in Butler Field at the north end of Grant Park, where the Petrillo bandshell and a temporary main stage host some of the festival's biggest acts. It's where Iggy Pop and his fans unforgettably distilled the catharsis of rock, Iggy writhing in a mad dancing mob of them that overwhelmed the stage. It's where the Flaming Lips unleashed their zany flying circus, Lou Reed reclaimed his legacy and Sleater-Kinney said goodbye.

There were no such a-ha moments on this first day of the festival's sixth year here. But Friday's headliner, the Strokes, never were an a-ha kind of band. Arriving in a hail of hype nearly a decade ago, its calling card was its studiously detached cool. "I don't wanna change your mind, I don't wanna change the world," Julian Casablancas sang. "I just wanna watch it go by."
Annie Norris (from left), Amanda Rose, Megan Davis and Hannah Vandeventer, all 17-year-olds
from Phoenix, are dressed in their Lady Ga Ga finest.
(Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times)



Some random observances from the first day of Lollapalooza...

GA GA FOR GAGA: Lady Gaga's diehards were out in force early, in costume and holding down their spots in the front rows at the big stage in Hutchinson Field even before noon -- more than eight hours ahead of show time. (Word is Gaga popped up near a side stage late afternoon with Semi-Precious Weapons.) ...

SCHEDULING SNAFU: Raspberries to the Lolla bookers who put two simpatico soul acts, Mavis Staples and Raphael Saadiq, head-to-head at 2 p.m. at opposite ends of the park today. It's not like the weekend offers a wealth of similar sounds, and you can bet lots more folks than me weren't happy to have to miss one of the two. ...

SECURITY, SO FAR: It would stand to reason that security should be improved on the park's west side by pushing the perimeter away from the main stages, all the way to Michigan Avenue in some cases. After all, The worst security breach of past years here came when hundreds of concertgoers rushed a gate during Rage Against the Machine, but that circumstance seems unlikely given the current setup. (Even so, it's hard not to be mindful of the July tragedy at the Love Parade festival in Germany, where 19 people died and hundreds were injured by trampling in a panicked crowd.) ...

BUSTED! Even so, security personnel and Chicago police have had their hands full with fence-jumpers on the east side, along Lake Shore Drive. Around 1 p.m. a group of more than a dozen jumpers was quickly run down, rounded up and marched out, handcuffed together in pairs. Another jumper nabbed after 6 p.m. was heard to complain that security staff had dirtied his "$150 shoes." ...

POOR PLACEMENT: A quibble with the reconfigured main stage in the northeast corner of Butler Field: The fans now face away from the iconic skyline, while the artists get blistered full-on by the afternoon sun. ...

TSK TSK: The takes-one-to-know-one award goes to stoopid '70s rawkers Foxy Shazam, who harangued the crowd for being "dumb white people." ...

KUMA KARMA: Want a big, tasty hamburger from Kuma's Corner without the horrendous lines that plague the Belmont Avenue metal bar? Just hit their Lolla booth, offering the Kuma, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden burgers. ...

MLB BINGO: As in the past, I'm amusing myself between bands by looking for hats or T-shirts representing all the pro baseball teams. About halfway there already, with bonus points for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Montreal Expos caps spied in the crowd.

Lollapalooza: The north end

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I've spent most of Friday in the north end of the park, where the schedule in the early going confirmed the conundrum of booking such a gargantuan event: You can offer something to everyone, but it's practically impossible to develop any sort of theme or particular aesthetic. Acts on the two main stages spanned scuzzy melodic punk (Wavves), Latin party music (Los Amigos Invisibles), classic soul (Mavis Staples), southern rock (Drive-By Truckers) and chiming power pop (the New Pornographers).

Music got under way with Wavves, vehicle of guitarist and singer Nathan Williams. Though he's garnered underground buzz for more than a year now, this gig showed the strides he's made with a killer new rhythm section. The hirsute dudes Stephen Pope (on drums) and Billy Hayes (bass) used to back the late snot-rocker Jay Reatard, and here they added dirt and urgency to Williams' tossed-off punk-pop.

Los Amigos Invisibles stirred its crowd to dance with a good-time blend of funk guitar, disco beats and the rhythms of the band's native Venezuela. When Julio Briceño sang, "I like to move it," he was speaking for the flag-waving masses at his feet.
Mavis Staples embraces recent collaborator
Jeff Tweedy.
(Tom Cruze/Sun-Times)

Her recent records "We Won't Ever Turn Back" and "Live: Hope at the Hideout" have shown the Chicago native gospel and pop legend Mavis Staples at the peak of a late-career creative renaissance, but with her new disc she's shooting for broader commercial appeal. Due in September, "You Are Not Alone" was produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and will be released by Anti Records, both strong crossover credentials among the demographic that takes its music cues from NPR. That crowd was out in force today; by far the biggest ovation of Staples' set came when she introduced Tweedy, who strummed a little rhythm guitar and added backing vocals to a pair of songs he wrote for her. The new tunes ranged from a capella church fare to dusty soul and swamp rock; Mavis also pleased her apparent new converts with reliable romps through the Staple Singers standby "I'll Take You There" and her classic rendition of the Band's "The Weight." Here's hoping this treasure of Chicago and American music gets a greater share of the acclaim she so richly deserves.

The afternoon's easiest pivot, stylistically speaking, found Mavis Staples followed by Muscle Shoals progeny Patterson Hood and his guitar battalion, the Drive-By Truckers. The band has earned its chops as a sort of thinking man's Lynyrd Skynyrd, and they delivered plenty of meat-and-potatoes Southern rock shot through with hip-swiveling soul. But the best tunes in this set came from Hood's sidekick, Mike Cooley, who delivered memorable turns of phrase ("she woke up sunny-side down") in a deep, broad, classic-country voice.

Over on the awkwardly named Bloggie stage, I tried hard to care about Cymbals Eat Guitars, a four-piece likened by its many admirers to Pavement. Its sound approximated something of those slack-pop antiheroes, at least in terms of a shared propensity for puncturing melodies with paroxysms of fuzz, but I didn't hear the hooks or wit.

Back on the big stage, New Pornographers turned out a fine set of the chiming, wordy pop that's the band's familiar stock in trade. Featuring fellow songwriters Neko Case and Dan Bejar under the benevolent command of frontman Carl Newman, the band seemed revitalized on its latest album, "Together." Here they sounded confidently expert in turning out the cascading harmonies of "Testament to Youth In Verse," and the precise, pealing melodies of "All the Old Showstoppers" lived up to the song's name.

Lay of the Lolla-land

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This year's Lollapalooza map -- more pedestrian-only acreage throughout -- offers the prospect
of more comfort for fans.
(Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times)


At Lollapalooza 2010, the most noticeable change is the layout; this monster has a bigger footprint than in years past, reaching west of Columbus Drive all the way to Michigan Avenue between Jackson and Balbo.

It isn't an entirely new concept; Lolla 2005 also offered stages west of Columbus, though the street remained open to traffic. This year's map offers fans the prospect of greater comfort -- if the crowds disperse over a greater area. At least it seems likely to ease the bottlenecks that often formed around Buckingham Fountain and elsewhere, since the hordes moving between the Butler (north) and Hutchinson (south) fields now have the option to walk on the pedestrian-only Columbus, too.

The greater acreage has a different appeal to organizers: They were given the green light to sell 95,000 tickets this year, up from last year's capacity of 75,000. At this writing, the festival's publicist had not responded to requests for the weekend's expected daily attendance figures, but a senior security official said he expected it to approach the near-100,000 daily maximum.

Security's greatest pre-show concern appeared to be the condition of both main fields. Waterlogged from recent rains and bearing the scars of the heavy equipment used during setup, Hutchinson was alternately muddy and spongy, especially up front, while Butler featured sizable puddles of muck. And this was before the crowd had really started to arrive.
Are we not old men? Perhaps, but that didn't stop Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh from leaping about
the Lollapalooza stage Friday afternoon.
(Tom Cruze/Sun-Times)


Is Devo sympathizing with humanity's plight, or just making fun?

In what was surely the most subversive set at Lollapalooza today -- Lady Gaga's still to come, but she seems merely flashy and bawdy rather than really subversive -- 1980s icons Devo blasted their modern folk songs about the plight of the working man and the diminishing of humanity in our automated world. Jogging on stage in gray uniforms and "Phantom of the Opera"-like half-masks, these plainly old men seemed to be rolling with the wonderment of being back at Lollapalooza, which they played years ago when it was a traveling festival (and even then were the quaint ol' vets). "It's 2010!" said Bob Casale, midway through a dynamic, multi-media set. "And we're here to f---ing whip it again!"

Singer Mark Mothersbaugh leapt about the minimalist stage -- just a drum set, two synth stands and guitars, spaciously arranged -- looking extra robotic, wearing mirrored shades over his mannequin mask. But though their music has the rhythm of machinery, these are songs about the sad and worsening state of man. Even an old hit like "Girl U Want" has Mothersbaugh singing, "Look at you with your mouth watering ... she's just the girl you want." It's a common theme to Devo songs, blippy and innocent as they may appear on the surface. Look at yourself, they say. Be aware of your "Uncontrollable Urge," fight against "Going Under." Pay attention, because Madison Avenue is exploiting your urges and your apathy to make you buy things. And, hey, so are we.

As they sang "What We Do" ("breeding, pumping gas, cheeseburger, cheeseburger, do it again"), silhouetted images of various product icons flashed on the screen behind the stage, icons like the PlayStation controller and other basic "necessities" being hawked several hundred feet behind the crowd amid a forest of logos. It's machine music about reminding ourselves that we are men, not necessarily de-evolving, and it sounds as important today as it did in 1980 when computers and synthesizers were newfangled. After all, as Mothersbaugh sang to close the set -- after jumping around with pom-poms, again either cheering this downward slide for our species or trying to empower us to reverse it -- "A man is real! Not made of steel!"

Devo was bookended late Friday afternoon in the south end of the field by opposite ends of the energy stream. The Big Pink played beforehand, defining dullness. A limited grayscale instead of a declaration of color, they whined through a short set of electronic drone and drudgery ("fall like dominoes, fall like dominos," zzzzz). After Devo, however, came the perkiest kids in indie-rock: Matt & Kim. Every now and then, one of these coupled drum-and-something duos comes along, but never as relentlessly cheery as Matt Johnson (vocals, keyboards) and Kim Schifino (vocals, drums). Opening with one of several instrumental fanfares they'd play, Johnson asked both Schifino and the crowd, "Are you ready to get wild?" It takes some doing to pump up a festival-size crowd when you're only two strong, but these two have tactics. Schifino smiles so wide and so hard its almost threatening, the kind of unwavering grin you can only learn in realty school or have drilled into you by Sue Sylvester. Johnson doesn't allow the keyboard to hem him in; he jumps, he kicks, he climbs, he strikes Grecian urn poses. He had to catch his breath after only the third song. The songs -- "Good Old-Fashioned Nightmare," "5K," "Light Speed" and, yes, "Lessons Learned" (the one with the video of them stripping down in Times Square) -- with Johnson's plunky, piano-lesson melodies, don't always live up to the party vibe of the hosts, but they throw a lively one nonetheless. and Kim -- "the perkiest kids in indie-rock." (Tom Cruze/Sun-Times)


Mid-afternoon Friday in the south field at Lollapalooza was about being old-school.

The Walkmen have been together 10 years. They manage to sound relatively fresh while drawing upon sounds and song styles much older than themselves, namely the squeezing, wheezing Dylanesque singing of Hamilton Leithauser, the 1950s-echoed guitar of Paul Maroon and the eerie cocktail organ of Walter Martin. Here's a band that began -- born from the ashes of short-lived but explosive Jonathan Fire*Eater -- all about creating certain instrumental tones. But the acquisition of Leithauser wound up deepening not only the sound but the songwriting. The new songs played from the band's upcoming next album, "Lisbon," due Sept. 14, are rich tales of wary living ("You're one of us or you're one of them," Leithauser shouted over and over) and worn romance ("There's a girl that you should know / she's from my not so long ago"). In a white button-down shirt, with sleeves rolled up, and a black tie, he leaned into the microphone, plungering his tenor through the very top of his sinuses for an incredible elongated moment during "All Hands and the Cook." One wonders how he maintains his voice over the course of a tour, but he sounded great here. Looking forward to the next disc.

After that, as Chicago's Mavis Staples took the stage in the north end of the field, a younger soul icon brought his own lessons in old-school on the main Parkways stage: Raphael Saadiq. Once a pioneer of New Jack Swing (we can now justifiably giggle at that label) in the group Tony! Toni! Tone!, Saadiq now looks like a traveling education in classic soul, complete with almost 12 band members in black Blues Brothers suits. He can lay down smooth, supple grooves, with a band that sounds as if they could back B.B. King later tonight, and talk sexy to the crowd simply singing, "Yeah, yeah, yeah," and then punch it up with a rock 'n' soul hit like "So Lady." Staples rocked the north end of the Lollapalooza field Friday afternoon. (Tom Cruze/Sun-Times)

Lollapalooza 2010 starts, rocks and raps with B.o.B.

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(Photo by Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times)

11:30 a.m. in the sun, and the sixth annual Lollapalooza in Chicago's Grant Park is under way. Already people are lined up at the bars, and the faint breezes are redolent with sun lotion, damp lawns and -- there it is -- a little marijuana smoke.

The first act of the day is one who doesn't deserve the crappy time slot: B.o.B., a chart-climbing hip-hop newbie with one of the year's best-selling records. He's a double-edged attack -- one minute spitting quick, punchy rhymes at the growing crowd, the next playing guitar like an indie rocker, even covering a little of Vampire Weekend's "The Kids Don't Stand a Chance." (There's a cynical joke in there somewhere about the kids about to be assaulted by corporate shilling for three days ...) Atlanta's B.o.B. can deliver something for everyone. "Letter From Vietnam" is a guitar ballad, a '60s -- or maybe just Lenny Kravitz-like -- protest song. He picked up a guitar for it, then asked permission to keep playing it, as if he were breaking some rules to crossover back and forth. He held up his hip-hop, taunting us with "Past My Shades" and making the women in the crowd smile with "Nothin' on You" ("Beautiful girls / all over the world ..."). He mixed the rock and the rap in "Don't Let Me Fall." Fun, cheery, a good opener to the weekend's smorgasbord.

The fields are filling up, and be warned: They're not completely dry from the rain earlier in the week. Several spots are still squishy, with the potential for turning into complete pudding once the weight of thousands squeezes the water out. Don't wear your favorite shoes.

Thomas lolla.JPGThe gates just opened, and some sooners have already
staked out the only tiny patch of shade in Hutchinson Field.

Lollapalooza: Sweating, packing, streaming

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The best news: The weather forecast for Lollapalooza this weekend looks pretty fabulous. Cool (for August) and dry. Low 80s, clear and not humid on Friday and Saturday, then hotter toward 90 and a very slight chance of rain on Sunday. No sweat. Well, yes, we'll sweat, but it might not be so oppressive.

Packing up tonight? Be sure to check your bag against Lolla's list of what you can and can't bring through the gates. Your stuff will get searched, so plan for a smooth, hassle-free entry. There's also a broader FAQ for questions about disability access, medical and safety concerns, how the exit/entry process works, etc.).

Also, check out this gallery of fashionable essentials to include on your jaunt to the park.

Stuck at work or at home this weekend? Watch the live stream here. It's an abridged and slightly delayed broadcast, mind you, but it should provide the appropriate fix.


Performers exclusive to the Kidzapalooza stage this year include
Chrissie Hynde (from left), the Verve Pipe and former Live singer Ed Kowalczyk.

Are you excited to see Chrissie Hynde's new side project at Lollapalooza?

If you weren't yet aware that the Pretenders leader is on this year's schedule, it's OK. She's performing -- as JP, Chrissie & the Fairground Boys -- on the kids' stage.

Once again, adults -- with or without children -- might want to pay attention to the lineup on the Kidzapalooza side stage at this year's three-day annual rock festival in Grant Park. Hynde is there and only there. So are veteran '90s alt-rock acts like Thenewno2, the Verve Pipe and Ed Kowalczyk from Live.


Gerald Casale (from left), Mark Mothersbaugh and Bob Mothersbaugh of the band Devo perform April 17 at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, Calif. (Getty Images)

'Twas an esteemed watchdog of modern society who once said, "I say, whip it. Whip it good!"

The music of Devo is chirpy and chilly, perky and punky, and the pioneering synthesizer band's early hits are enshrined in the seeming fluff of 1980s pop culture. But when Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale assembled the band in the late '70s, they had serious social commentary in mind.

The annual Farm Aid concert, supporting the family-farm fund, will return to Lake Michigan this fall with a show scheduled for Oct. 2 at Milwaukee's Miller Park baseball stadium.

This is the 25th anniversray Farm Aid event, dubbed Farm Aid 25: Growing Hope for America. Farm Aid board members Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Dave Matthews will perform, with other artists to be announced.

Farm Aid's 20th anniversary concert was held at Tweeter Center (now First Midwest Bank Amphitheater) in Tinley Park near Chicago in 2005.


Neil Young performs at the 20th Farm Aid concert near Chicago in 2005. (AP file)


Lollapalooza is already crowded enough, so there's no room for clones. Which is unfortunate, because sometimes -- with two hot bands performing on different stages at the same time -- you wish you could be in two places at once.

Here are some day-by-day, hour-by-hour suggestions on making these life-changing decisions ...


Which band in this year's Lollapalooza lineup has accomplished all of the following?

  • Sold out a 55,000-seat arena -- 18 times.
  • Created and popularized its own form of glam.
  • Sold 30 million albums.
  • Recorded a classical album with Beatles producer George Martin.

It ain't Lady Gaga.

The band is X Japan, the biggest rock band in Japanese history. The quintet came together in 1982 (originally called just X, but John Doe had something to say about it), disbanded in 1997 and re-formed in 2007. They started as a speed metal band with delusions of grandeur and evolved into a power-ballad powerhouse. Their shows are equal parts Anthrax and Celine Dion.

In their homeland, their presence still creates Beatlesque hysteria, with screaming fans and impenetrable throngs. When the founding guitarist, Hideto "Hide" Matsumoto, died in 1998, nearly 50,000 weeping mourners crowded the funeral; last May almost twice that number mobbed a memorial service marking the 12th anniversary of his death.

But thus far, only Asian fans have had these opportunities to go wild for X Japan -- because the 4 p.m. Aug. 8 performance at Lollapalooza in Chicago's Grant Park will be X Japan's U.S. debut.

Lady Gaga performing at Lollapalooza in 2007. (YouTube)

Thumbnail image for gaga07.JPGLady Gaga isn't known for subtlety or subdued performances, and when she headlines the first night of Lollapalooza 2010 next weekend, she'll no doubt deliver an earful and an eyeful.

Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell already has admitted to spending up to $150,000 for the production of this single, two-hour performance. Lady Gaga's current Monster Ball tour features 15 over-the-top costume changes, plus a giant gyrosphere, a flaming piano, a neon car, a series of skits and an enormous squid attacking her onstage.

It's a long way from a clunky synthesizer and a disco-ball bra.

Lady Gaga performed three years ago on a side stage at Lollapalooza, long before she conquered the pop-culture world. She wasn't even blond yet.

It was Aug. 4, 2007, day two of the festival in Chicago's Grant Park. A small crowd of about 500 gathered to watch a brunette Lady Gaga, then 20, take the BMI Stage with her partner, DJ Lady Starlight, in the middle of the afternoon. During a 45-minute set, the Ladies played synth-driven dance-pop, including the songs "Boys Boys Boys," "Dirty Ice Cream" and "Disco Heaven."

Lady Gaga strutted across the small stage, singing, dancing, occasionally jabbing at a synthesizer, which she had set up just low enough so she'd have to lean over -- flashing her cleavage -- to operate it. She wore a black bikini, the top of which was adorned with chains (which she made herself), with high black stockings and heels. Her one costume change consisted of swapping the black bikini top for a mirrored one that turned her breasts into disco balls.

Lady Gaga before her 2007 Lollapalooza show.
(Photo courtesy BMI)

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