by: Tedward B Bouillon
For three days every year, I become a resident of Grant Park, here in Chicago. I eat, sleep and breathe live music. I dance and jump around more in 72 hours than I likely will the rest of the year. Bigger and better than ever, Lollapalooza is back in 2011 proudly celebrating the 20th year of its tumultuous history. Wrist band secured, I pass through the gates and into a park transformed. I know where I’m headed first: Perry’s Stage, named for Lollapalooza founder and Jane’s Addiction front man Perry Farrell.
The revamped Perry’s stage offers more space, more lights and more sound. A lot more sound. With the enclosed barn-like roof overhead, the light displays are brighter and the sound is great from wherever you stand, even from outside the tent. This became abundantly clear to me as the Bloody Beetroots Death Crew 77 – a live band incarnation of Italian DJ Sir Bob Cornelius Rifo’s electro house duo – took to the stage and wasted no time in getting the crowd churning. Offering only a few breaks to catch your breath in the increasingly stuffy tent, the bass keeps bumping and the “Death Crew” keep rolling out the hits. The addition of guitar, piano and drums to their set blends seamlessly with the Beetroots’ electronic sound and makes such crowd-pleasers as the Steve Aoki collaboration Warp even more exhilarating. One of the best sets of the weekend, I could only wonder why it was scheduled for 5pm and not along with the weekend’s headliners. I’ve hit the ground running.
As the Beetroots depart, the stage is quickly transformed. It’s amazing how efficient the crews working Lollapalooza are these days, able to completely change the look of the stage in just 10 minutes flat. The only downside to this is the fact that they’ll cut off artist’s sets whether they’re done or not once they reach the end time of their set. Like an overblown Oscar speech, I saw several acts cut short, having not watched the clock. Perry’s somehow gets packed even tighter as sweaty teens make their way toward the stage for Skrillex. Kids are climbing on the air conditioning units, instantly responding to the frenetic bass music he wields like an over-caffeinated monkey. A couple slip-ups didn’t faze the audience, even after Skrillex admits to hitting the space bar on his laptop, bringing his set to a grinding halt. Skinny, sweaty limbs begin to flail again as he starts it back up, but I’m already on my way to the next set, eager to escape the rabid masses.
I make the Music Unlimited stage in time for the last 20 of A Perfect Circle. Instantly I hear the familiar vocals of Maynard James Keenan (who headlined with his primary gig, Tool, in 2009) and a much more mellow sound than the harsh thumping bass I left behind. The crowd is huge and half are sitting on the grass and I understand why as I’m lulled into rock submission by the masterful quintet. The mood is chill and the figures on stage are mainly static, yet the relatively somber tone doesn’t diminish the beauty and depth of their sound in the slightest. The super group – perhaps one of the last times chances I’ll get to see them – represent rock better than most bands at this year’s festival and it’s awesome to get to see such a precise, harmonious performance among some of the more frenetic, amateur sounds of Lollapalooza.
Taking a break to grab overpriced refreshments, I sit on the sidewalk and watch with amusement as a rag tag team of security staff attempt to stop a small group of shirtless, plaid-short wearing intruders who hop the fence like Olympic high jumpers. Something tells me they’ve done this before. Without any police to assert any real authority, they’re left to try and block the intruders’ paths, which proves most unsuccessful – and chase after them with their golf carts. If I pumped enough iron, that could have been me and I could have saved myself $185. Alas… After an energetic set from Canadian electronic duo Crystal Castles, listened to from afar, we make our way back to the southern end of the park for one of the evening’s main events. This year we see four acts go on in the headliner time slot, giving fans more choices than ever and it’s a good thing too as the event is expecting record attendance, selling out tickets well in advance and accommodating an estimated 90,000 fans per day.
British rock trio, Muse, take the stage to a massive crowd, still full of energy as the first day reaches its peak. They waste no time in getting their fans moving to some of their more recent work. As their rendition of the Star Spangled Banner squeals from front man Matthew Bellamy’s guitar, fireworks from an unrelated event at nearby Soldier Field erupt in the distance. Coincidence aside, the explosions in the night sky only add to the excitement. The 105 minute set flew by as the crowd sang along to their better known work, often encouraged by the words displayed on hexagonal monitors above the stage. Not only was I pleased to hear some of their older work that I hadn’t seen live before (such as Citizen Erased from their 2001 sophomore album Origin of Symmetry) but was pleasantly surprised by some of the variety they brought to their set in the form of partial covers of such songs as the Animals’ House of the Rising Sun and Ennio Morricone’s haunting spaghetti western anthem Man With a Harmonica from Once Upon a Time in the West – which, to my delight, launched straight into neo western-themed Knights of Cydonia, bringing the first night to a close.
The next day I’m up bright and early, ready for another day of good music. I’m not exactly an early riser, so by ‘early’ I mean the crack of noon. You’re unlikely to find me at any of the earlier sets in the day. What can I say; I paid to be at the festival, not the other way around. Plus I’m getting old – by Lollapalooza standards, of course. Regardless, I make sure not to miss Death From Above 1979. Although the duo disbanded in 2006, they’ve made their presence felt at festivals this year, having temporarily reunited to bring their raw, manic sound back to the stage. For those of you unfamiliar with the Toronto-based dance-punk act, imagine the White Stripes on a heavy dose of uppers with the gain turned all the way up. Needless to say, they were unrelenting, they were raw and they rocked the festival harder than any other act Saturday.
After a couple completely forgettable sets at Perry’s, courtesy of French producer, Joachim Garraud (really? Sandstorm is the most creative you can get?) and Dutch DJ, Chuckie, who illustrated well that it can be hard to put your finger on the differences between a good DJ and a bad DJ, but when it barely feels like a step up from the radio, you know which side of the fence they’re on. Bored with their efforts, I spent way too long in a line for food. While the offerings may be better than the Taste of Chicago at this point, but all I can think is I’m not sure which is worse: the lines for food or the lines for the crapper? It’s a close race. After inhaling a rather lackluster pulled pork sandwich, I found myself at the Playstation stage before one of last year’s biggest surprises, Oakland-based Beats Antique. Without the addition of much new music in their repertoire, I wasn’t sure how they would add to last year’s performance, but with a bigger stage, giving them more room to play and the addition of more beautiful, drum-wielding ladies accompanying hypnotizing belly dancer and band member Zoe Jakes’, they managed to pull off an even more diverse, entertaining performance. It might be easy to overlook all the instruments they utilize in their performance, same goes for the fact that at one point, the band’s two principal musicians – David Satori and Tommy “Sidecar” Cappel – switched places to play each other’s instruments. It was subtle, but certainly speaks to their versatility. Add to this their finale which included animal masks and well, we’ll see how they top this in the future, as I’m sure they’ll be back again.
Completely uninterested in seeing Eminem I made my way back to the usually reliable Perry’s. There I caught electronic artist Pretty Lights (aka Derek Vincent Smith) putting on a set that was perhaps more an impressive light show (appropriately) than musical performance. The stripping off of half the panels on the roof at Perry’s made it a more bearable environment and that combined with the Colorado native’s trip hop-infused samples made for a better-than-anticipated evening. Those who complain about electronic music usually focus on the lack of originality in much of their work and while sampling and remixing are more a matter of creativity than originality; it’s hard to find a lot of originality in an artist like Pretty Lights. Did that matter? Not so much.
After a late night at the Bottom Lounge, who seem to have become a destination for festival after-parties (primarily thanks to the fledgling North Coast Music Festival) I got off to a slow start Sunday. The last day is always the hardest. I barely made it in time to catch the last 10 or so minutes of Daedelus – something of a mainstay at festival stages these days – whose base heavy beats I could hear all the way from the park’s main entrance. I was glad to have seen him the night before, even if it did mean staying well after my train had stopped running.
Daedelus was followed by Chicago rap duo The Cool Kids. Don’t get me wrong, I think they’re talented writers, skilled lyricists and in the right setting, they can entertain a crowd as well as any rap act. Here’s the thing: with a crowd as big and unruly as that at Perry’s, it’s hard for them to engage everyone, which seems to be their style. Without that personal connection to their fans, they come off as unorganized and, as they ran out of time before the end of their set, that seemed all the more apparent. I was impressed however, that they were able to transport me back in time! It was like the year 2008 all over again. They made mention of their new album several times but there didn’t seem to be a lot of new music, instead it was like a bigger rendition of the exact same set I saw in 2008. While they did attempt to add a little variety to their set with a third vocalist, her abilities were in question from the moment she opened her mouth, as her vocals fell flat and killed what little interest I had left for their set. Better luck next time, guys.
The afternoon was saved by the next artist to take the stage at Perry’s: Switch. It was surprising to the see the place empty out after the Cool Kids finished, but I’ll assume it was due to two things: first of all, the online schedule and print schedule had conflicting reports of who had the 5pm time slot and second, people probably don’t recognize the name Switch. They should though, since he makes up one half of electro dancehall artist Major Lazer. Once he started, the crowds gradually returned. Teasing the audience with hints of that familiar beat from Major Lazer’s Pon De Floor, he worked turned up the heat until he had the place boiling, finally laying down the crowd-pleaser. Much more subtle than an artist like Girl Talk (who played to a full house Friday night), Switch was a great finish to my time at Perry’s for the weekend.
And with that, the skies opened up and all but the least sensible patrons ran for cover. After about a half hour of trying my best to stay dry (a totally futile pursuit), I made my way to Damien Marley & Nas. The set was already drawing to a close by then, but I arrived in time to witness a great balance of rap and reggae. Nas and Damien Marley complimented each other nicely, which isn’t always easy for even two musicians of the same genre to do. A rendition of Bob Marley’s Exodus seemed a real crowd pleaser, despite the meaning likely being lost on suburbanite teens whose $215 tickets probably weren’t even paid for out of their own pockets. The performance was well received though, and provided a great distraction from my damp clothes, having lightened the mood significantly.
I happened upon Manchester Orchestra on the Google+ stage, nestled in the trees, a pond having formed not far from the stage after the downpour. Kids splashed in the puddles as the Atlanta indie rockers belted out song after song. They played a great, energetic set with a surprisingly strong sound for being a smaller stage. They paid tribute to a late friend of theirs with their final song, a touching gesture and a great finale.
As I made my way to Bud Light stage at the north end of the park, it became very clear that there was more rain on the way. The clouds looked even more ominous this time and within minutes, the rain drops began to fall. Starting earlier than scheduled, Deadmau5’s set burst into action at the same time as the storms began to roll over the park. Everyone was soaked instantly, but this time it didn’t matter. As the lights shot from the stage, I looked back and saw people dancing as far as I could see. There was nothing else to do and for a moment, it was total euphoria. The discomfort of having completely soggy shoes sunk in as quickly as our feet did into the mud. While the storm let up eventually, Deadmau5 never did, keeping the crowd cheering and dancing with an overwhelming visual display (which apparently was still toned down from what he had planned, due to the rain) and of course, his flawlessly executed electro house style. Highlights included a Daft Punk mash-up of Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger, as well as hits Sofi Needs a Ladder (featuring title artist SOFI, herself) and Ghosts ‘N Stuff. It might have been the best performance I saw all weekend, despite my newly ruined pair of sneakers. After escaping the mud pit that Grant Park had become, cheers filled the city streets and I bid adieu to the festival for another year. And so begins the countdown to Lollapalooza 2012.
Tedward Boullion is a special contributor to Outside the Dial and we value his opinion tremendously. Email him, tedward at outsidethedial.com