BY ANDERS SMITH LINDALL
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."
Then, they played sharp garage pop with little apparent effort. Now, it's been more than four years since the band's last album. Following a solo effort by Casablancas and various side projects from other band members, the Strokes reassembled last year; Lolla bookers surely figured there would be a new disc to promote by the time this gig arrived. That it hasn't come out yet suggests that whether the Strokes have a successful second act in them remains an open question.
In judging this set, an optimist would note that the band looked and sounded in fine form. Clad in his ubiquitous black jacket and shades, Casablancas worked himself up to a ragged howl; guitarist Nick Valensi and drummer Fab Moretti led the charge through a familiar catalog, and the likes of "Take It or Leave It" and "Someday" still threw off sparks.
But a pessimist would counter that the Strokes could have played the same set at Lolla '06. Even their sense of timing was unchanged: Here the band went on 15 minutes late, more or less blasted away for an hour, and walked off almost 15 minutes early.
In stark contrast to such concision, Jimmy Cliff reveled in excess. At 62, the reggae greybeard's voice remained satisfyingly reedy, he was limber enough to end a song with a leap into the splits, and his big band was stocked with smooth pros. But he wasted far too much time and energy choreographing the party, leading singalongs and teaching dance steps.
A take on his protest classic "Vietnam" suffered from a didactic update to "Afghanistan." And with respect to his watered-down cover of "I Can See Clearly Now," the less said the better. It wasn't quite dross on the order of "Don't Worry, Be Happy," but it was close. Beneath all the pandering to the party-hearty festival crowd, it was hard to recognize the man who in his signature song "The Harder They Come" declared, "I'd rather be a free man in my grave than living as a puppet or a slave."
I'm sorry to say that late-afternoon sets by the Black Keys and Dirty Projectors likewise left me cold. And I'm sorrier still that I missed both Jamie Lidell and Peanut Butter Wolf entirely (to say nothing of Raphael Saadiq, as noted earlier). But one of the lessons of attending any massive music event is that you can't be everywhere or enjoy everything, so better to celebrate the best of what you see and not kick yourself for what you don't.
On that note, though today's program in the north end was underwhelming on the whole, it still delivered expected highlights from the New Pornographers, Drive-By Truckers and Mavis Staples. Here's hoping tomorrow gives us at least one true a-ha moment.