BY ANDERS SMITH LINDALL
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."
They supplied half of what you might call Lolla's Night of the Living Dead: Soundgarden played the original touring festival in 1992 and '96, then crawled from the grave this April to return from what Cornell last night called a "short little break."
Likewise, notorious party rappers Cypress Hill hail from the Lolla classes of '94 and '95. They preceded Soundgarden in Hutchinson Field, with B-Real, Sen-Dog and DJ Muggs picking up right where they left off 15 years ago: In a hazy cloud of green smoke. As expected, this set was a nostalgic victory lap packed with odes to weed, a la "Insane in the Brain." (By the way, can someone explain how it's not OK for Kid Sister's fans to party freely in Millennium Park, but Cypress Hill can expound to tens of thousands on the finer points of illicit pharmacology? And while we're asking questions, is this really the highest-profile hip-hop Lolla could offer? The festival previously booked the likes of Kanye West, Common, Atmosphere and Snoop, among others. Wouldn't this have been the right year for a Jay-Z headline set?)
Fans let down by Erykah Badu's late-afternoon flop would do well to check out Nneka. Despite the unenviable assignment of playing first yesterday, which put her on a huge stage before a tiny crowd in a steadily falling rain, none of that diminished her enthusiasm or muted the shimmering soul sound that bubbled with a reggae lilt. What's more, Nneka proved that not only could she sing, but she played a lovely nylon-string guitar on several songs.
Back on the north side, guitar-wielding guys would rule a bill topped by the Arcade Fire, the National and MGMT. But in the earlier going Yeasayer was an exception, their dizzying synth pop frequently piling up three or more keyboards and an equal number of intertwined vocal lines. Sitar-like electric leads arced and tribal toms rumbled through the mix.
Just when the very last thing we needed was another blues-rock combo centered on guitar and drums, along came the Dodos with a fresh twist on the tired concept. Even on a superficial level you can tell they're different; in the mid-afternoon at Petrillo, drummer Logan Kroeber got hectic on his kit, but Meric Long had an unmistakable sort of woozy sound to his guitar playing, and yes, that was a vibraphone hammering and ringing in the din. Then hints of Long's lyrics filtered out ("between the sheets, under the rain, your face is pale, your lips are red") and another, deeper, darker layer drew the listener back in.
At its core, the Portland, Ore. band Blitzen Trapper plays appealing Crazy Horse-style roots rock filigreed with choir-worthy harmonies, which means I really should love them. But whether it's the discs "Wild Mountain Nation," "Furr," the new "Destroyer of the Void" or the band's live show, I always stumble over their proclivity for unearthing other '70s-era relics that to my taste are better left buried, among them macho guitar riffage paired with stone-faced seriousness and a latent tendency to jam. Sunday's set was no exception, and I found myself wanting to wander.
Nearby I checked in on Ike Reilly and his band the Assassination, whose rib-sticking heartland rock resides far from the cutting edge of fashion. Nearly a decade after the album "Salesmen & Racists" gained him notice, Reilly's still writing richly detailed, sardonic portraits of characters fumbling in and out of love, and his band is still driving them home with sweaty camaraderie. Their crowd was small but they weren't watching the clock; these locals are lifers who play for the love of the game.
I also caught a bit of the young NYC outfit Freelance Whales, who styles itself a mini Arcade Fire but played lilting pop too airy and clean for that comparison. Judah Dadone sang in a quaver and his mates added sweet vocal parts over twinkling, almost folkie tunes. The secret of the small side stage where they played was that it was completely shaded, and for the fans hiding out here, Freelance Whales offered unobtrusive sonic wallpaper well-suited to a cool loll in the grass.