BY ANDERS SMITH LINDALL for the Sun-Times
When an 800-pound gorilla is performing on one stage, you really don't need another one anywhere else. When that gorilla is named Marshall Mathers, you don't need a second headliner. In other words, although Eminem and My Morning Jacket played simultaneously at opposite ends of Grant Park on Saturday night, there was only one megastar on the premises.
Even so, My Morning Jacket played to what surely ranks with the largest crowds the band has seen. They proved they belonged.
Always and forever Southern rockers at heart, Jim James and friends have made a career of pushing their sonic and stylistic horizons. The experiments haven't always worked, but they've made the band much harder to pigeonhole, and this set showed its versatility. They opened with a pair of soul-inflected new tunes, "Victory Dance" and the title cut from this year's disc "Circuital." "Gideon" started as a piano-driven ballad that could have passed for classic Elton John before James strapped on his Flying V and touched off a grease fire.
"Off the Record" bounced along in a spongy reggae groove, then mutated into a space-funk keyboard section and finally a broiling guitar showcase for James and Carl Broemel. "I'm Amazed" highlighted what remains the band's most unique single asset, James' eerie, lonesome wail. And the old favorite "Golden" stayed faithful, a folksy strummer that glowed with keening steel and gorgeous high harmonies.
Owing to a new micro-targeting strategy in which this year Lollapalooza has slotted four performers at the end of each night--not just two as was typical in the past--the Eastern European-inflected indie band Beirut also was a nominal headliner, albeit on a side stage.
Front man Zach Condon's vocal style is theatrical and a bit stiff, his band highly stylized. Signature songs like "Postcards from Italy" were decorated with trumpets and a trombone playing gypsy-brass fanfares, or an accordion and tuba that evoked a Czech or German beer hall, and "Elephant Gun" eased from a graceful swirl to a satisfying stomp. Meanwhile the new "Santa Fe" and especially "Vagabond" from the band's just-released album "The Rip Tide" showed Condon's evolution as a songwriter increasingly focused on the flesh and bone of a tune, not just the costume it wears. That development is likely to continue; Condon is startlingly gifted, but still just 25. Here's betting he hasn't released his best, most fully realized album yet.
Another rising young star with an idiosyncratic style, the Swedish singer Lykke Li drew an even bigger crowd to the same stage a few hours earlier. Diminutive in stature with long, red-brown hair and olive skin, Li has a stage presence that far exceeds her physical size. And though she commanded attention, she did everything with restraint, staying firmly in the pocket of her polished band's ringing, classic pop. Her chiming bell of a voice made a beautiful bummer of cuts like "Sadness Is a Blessing" and even did justice to the Burt Bacharach chestnut "(Don't Go) Please Stay."
Elsewhere Saturday, nostalgia for the Eighties seemed inescapable. Some bands made it explicit with cover songs: Even Fitz & the Tantrums, whose R&B-inflected sound could come from any era, took on "Sweet Dreams" by the Eurythmics, while the young five-piece Dom mixed fuzz pop with moody melodrama whose source they copped to in a faithful reproduction of the Cure's "Boys Don't Cry." Others followed the form in their own material, to varying degrees of success. The Chain Gang of 1974 should be paying royalties to New Order, while the Drums injected a bit more of their own personality.
Then there were the Deftones and Ween, bands who were actually around in the Eighties. The former filled the sunny afternoon with sonic storm clouds, rumbling and churning behind furious front man Chino Moreno. The title track of the band's new disc "Diamond Eyes" showed Stephen Carpenter as heavy as ever on guitar, dredging up slabs of black sludge that Abe Cunningham thrashed to pieces on drums.
Reassuring anyone who doubted that a bunch of gray-hairs could be juvenile, Ween opened with "Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)," then proceeded to play demolition derby with every pop form from funk to reggae to proto-metal. Gene Ween was his usual frazzle-haired, bug-eyed interlocutor, on the model of Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka if slightly less manic. It's a shame they played the north end of Grant Park, a mile away from the air-conditioned cabanas Lolla provides its most luxe guests, if only for the lyrics of "Bananas and Blow": "I'm stuck in my cabana," Gene sneered, "living on bananas and blow."