This was Lollapalooza’s eighth year in Chicago, and in turn my eighth year in a row attending it. I’ve seen it transform from a tiny little four stage festival on one half of Grant Park to a monstrous behemoth of a fest complete with eight stages and multiple blocks of park space. I’ve stood through oppressive heat, severe thunderstorms, a lack of water and restrooms, gate crashers, mud pits, clinically insane crowds/bands, and those tiny little rocks that always seem to get into your shoes. This year introduced a new slice of fun: the total festival evacuation. And here I thought I’d seen everything. In spite of all those things, I’ve managed to have a whole lot of fun and get inspired by music all over again. It’s become a very well run festival, which I suppose is thanks in no small part to a generous volunteer staff and the huge revenues they make from it every year. Are there things that could still be improved? Sure, but it’s more minor stuff that likely isn’t a pressing concern for anyone. I’ll outline some of that, along with the best and worst music of the weekend right now in my Lollapalooza 2012 Winners and Losers.
Let me take a paragraph to highlight the many good non-music things that Lollapalooza did this year. Let’s start with the essentials. The restrooms were plentiful and often not in bad shape, depending on when or where you needed to use them. In certain parts of the park the lines could be 4-5 people deep and you’d walk into a very messy situation. In other parts of the park there were no lines and plenty of toilet paper and other necessities. Call it hit or miss, but if you knew where to look or go, your experience could have varied wildly. The same goes for water. They had these nice Camelbak filling stations featuring filtered water all over the park, but lines for most of them were very long at almost all hours, and it might take you 15-20 minutes just to get a bottle filled. What many failed to realize was that there were many other public water fountains around the park that had virtually no lines. They weren’t advertised with large tents and fancy looking water filtration machines, they were just wooden troughs with a bunch of faucets attached to them. I don’t know about you, but tap water is just fine with me. Chicago’s water in particular is great. If those things weren’t satisfactory enough, the plentiful and wide variety of food vendors hopefully satisfied your hunger for anything and everything. You could get normal fare like burgers and BBQ or go for some pad thai or falafels. There was even a hot coffee stand, which made no sense to me in sunny 90 degree temperatures. Nothing was blatantly overpriced either, except for maybe Kuma’s Corner, which gave you a burger almost half the normal restaurant size for the same restaurant price of $10. It’s a quality product, but if you’re going to skimp at least take the price down a couple bucks. There were also a number of great “greener” options too, including a farmer’s market with organically grown fruits and veggies, along with spots showing you how Lollapalooza is trying to help the environment. You could also get a free cool-looking Rock and Recycle t-shirt if you volunteered to pick up a trash bag worth of cans and bottles that were littered around the park. It’s those sorts of efforts that go a long way to making the Lollapalooza experience enjoyable and worthwhile.
On Friday I managed to see 10 performances, and I’m sad to say that less than half of them were memorable. That doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten them already, but it’s unlikely I’ll be able to tell you about them this time next year. The ones I do recall were special for various reasons. The Afghan Whigs felt like a special treat, because they seemed like one of those bands that might never get back together. Not only has it been worth it, but frontman Greg Dulli seems better and more powerful than ever. You could tell just by looking at him that he’s in a great place in his life and just throws that into his performance. Much of the band’s catalogue is about hatred and self-loathing, but neither one of those things came out of their set.
Part of me knew in advance that Die Antwoord were going to put on a great set. They’re so weird and off-beat that it’s difficult to ignore them. I can’t even call myself a fan of their music, yet I stopped and kept my eyes glued to the stage for 45 minutes while they jumped around, crowd surfed and got the crowd completely riled up. I always thought that Yo-Landi Vi$$er’s chipmunk-like vocals were modulated after the fact, and while they may have just thrown a filter on her live microphone, it seemed pretty legitimate to me. Color me impressed to the point where I might actually pay to see them perform on a non-festival bill.
A big deal was made out of Passion Pit‘s appearance at Lollapalooza, mostly in the wake of a string of cancelled tour dates due to singer Michael Angelakos’ mental health issues. I’m sure there’s a whole host of people that think he somehow “barely managed to pull it together” for their set. Personally I’m sure he’s not nearly in as bad of shape as many of the reports are making him out to be, even if the cancelled dates aren’t a good sign. The last time I saw Passion Pit, it was a few years ago on a small side stage at Lolla. Angelakos asked how many had seen that show, and I think I was one of maybe 20 people out of thousands that cheered. They’ve gotten so much bigger and so much better performance-wise since then. It wasn’t a great set because of the overcoming of obstacles. It was a great set because it was a great set.
You could say similar things about Black Sabbath‘s set. Tommy Iommi has been sidelined recently with a cancer battle, and it’s resulted in delays to their reunion and a very small number of tour dates. Case in point, not only was Lollapalooza Sabbath’s only North American tour date, it’s also the last one scheduled. I realize there’s a new album on the way and a likely tour behind it, but if things suddenly head south, it might have been their last-ever show. Boy was it a doozy. While there was much comedy to be pulled from it, the songs themselves stood as tall and classic as ever, and Iommi’s guitar work ensures that he’ll be remembered fondly for decades to come.
Saturday was far shorter of a day for me, not only because I showed up a little later than the day before, but also because of the severe weather that rolled through and caused a 3 hour evacuation of Grant Park. A bunch of acts were cancelled, and others were delayed in a revised schedule. Still, there were two great things to come out of it. The first was the early afternoon set from GIVERS, who got me very excited and very energized because they were very excited and very energized. If you’re doing it right, you throw that positive energy out into the world and the world sends it right back at you. It just makes me think that GIVERS are destined for bigger and better things.
The worst part about Saturday night was that I didn’t have enough time to fit everything in that I wanted to due to the extended schedule. There were people counting on me to meet them at the Jane’s Addiction/Franz Ferdinand aftershow that started shortly after 10, and the revised headliners were set to finish up around 10:45. As I was headed for the exit, I was able to catch an early 15 minutes of Frank Ocean‘s set. It was a very classy affair, fitting for the sort of music he makes. He inflected the songs I heard with the same raw and honest emotion that’s all over his album of the year candidate Channel Orange. His voice was like melted butter, too, even smoother than you might imagine. I truly regret having to leave and miss the rest of it.
In terms of sheer numbers, Sunday had the highest percentage of really good acts than any other day. White Rabbits were a serious kick in the pants to start a day when I was already physically and mentally tired from the two days before. Like GIVERS on Saturday, they brought some serious energy and enthusiasm that just made you want to jump around or dance. They even turned some of the weaker songs on their new album Milk Famous into worthwhile jams that exuded a certain life-affirming essence. The crowd seemed to love every second of it, and so did I.
There was something scary about the proposition of seeing Sigur Ros perform in the daylight. Then again, anybody who’s watched the Heima DVD knows they did that a bunch of times when touring around Iceland. Still, I thought their songs would be less affecting standing in the middle of a muddy field in the baking sun. The thing about them is their songs just sound so huge that hearing them in a wide open space like Grant Park felt almost perfect. The breeze that kept rolling through during the songs contributed to the icy glow that permeated every moment of their set. Jonsi didn’t even speak a word of English the entire time, but he didn’t need to. It was one of the only moments all weekend that brought genuine tears to my eyes because of how glorious it was. The only thing that moved me more was trying to think of how powerful it would be for 90 minutes in the dark.
The members of At the Drive-In have been quite clear that their motivation for getting back together was almost 100% monetary. They want to cash in, and are only accepting tour dates if the offer is high enough. I’m not expecting them to return to Chicago ever again as a result. But all I wanted was to see them once. I was so influenced by their music growing up, and seeing old live footage only made me more jealous that others got to experience such greatness. Now that I have, I’ll confess: it lived up to my expectations. I may have been standing in a mud pit with the sun beating down on my face, but every second ATDI were on stage was exciting. A lot of that was thanks to frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala, who jumped off things and threw microphone stands and had some pretty funny between song banter. I am tempted to start calling him Cedric Lion now, as he joked about Snoop Dogg’s “reincarnation” as Snoop Lion. The songs sounded great too, even in spite of some small “technical difficulties” that put things on hold for a few minutes.
Prior to Sunday night, I had never seen Jack White perform as a frontman for a band. I’ve seen him in The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, but he’s more of a co-bandmate than an actual leader. Of course both those projects are decidedly weaker than The White Stripes, where he only had Meg because he needed a drummer. He played material from all those bands during his headlining set, along with a bunch of stuff from his freshly minted debut solo album. He’s considered by many to be one of the greatest living guitar players, and proved that with a number of intense solos that more often than not left jaws on the floor. The Whole thing left me very impressed with White more than I ever have been before. Both his male and female backing bands are filled with accomplished musicians too, as two of my favorite people, organ player Ikey Owens and drummer Carla Azar have made contributions to other bands I love. Put all that greatness into one set, and you’ve got something worthy of headliner status.
With the good comes the bad, and while I like to accentuate the positive, it feels too one-sided if I forget to add the negative. Not everything about Lollapalooza 2012 was great, but I also want to emphasize that not everything that lacked greatness was terrible by comparison. There were plenty of things that happened over the weekend that were merely okay or decent, but failed to distinguish themselves above the fray. I will not be mentioning those things at all, so if you’re curious about what I mean, just check out my recaps from Friday, Saturday and Sunday to find out what bands I fail to mention in this piece. To name a few, sets from The Shins, Sharon Van Etten, M83, Bloc Party and Chairlift were all perfectly good but not quite great. I try to keep the really bad stuff to a minimum, so here’s what didn’t quite work for me at Lolla this year, in short form.
Before we get to the music, let me say a word or two about the worst thing to happen at the festival in general. I realize nobody can control the weather, and the evacuation on Saturday due to severe storms was necessary. They surely didn’t want a repeat of the multiple stage collapses that have happened this past year, often resulting in multiple deaths. Better to clear the park than risk somebody getting seriously hurt or killed. The way they rescheduled the bands was fair given the situation they were in, but the overall cleanup felt a little poor. I’m sure they were doing the best they could, but when one half of Grant Park was a slick mud pit for all of Sunday, I’d like to think they could have done just a little better. I saw some quick dry and woodchips had been thrown down, but their effectiveness varied depending on the location. What they really needed were some large wooden or plastic boards to put down on top of the mud. Of course that still wouldn’t have eliminated the smell of manure that permeated the air near all the muddy spots. So yes, if I have one real gripe about this year, it was the conditions of the grounds post-storm. That, and the small amount of additional sound bleed that resulted from the Perry’s stage being completely uncovered this year. Last year they had a huge tent, which kept it quieter but also became so stuffed with people it became an oven. They got rid of the tent out of concern for safety, but the increase in sound wasn’t welcome in the direction of the other stages, in particular the Sony Stage, which was closest in proximity. Not much can be done about that one, I suppose, but I wanted it noted.
As for music, it pains me a little to call any band a bunch of “losers” as the heading above suggests. Let’s just say any artist mentioned here had a somewhat poor set. Maybe they were having an off day, or maybe it’s symptomatic of something larger, but for whatever reason it didn’t work for me. I’ll start on Friday with Yellow Ostrich. During their performance, they allowed a guy on stage to propose to his girlfriend. I’ve got no issue with that, and actually think it was really cool of the band to let him do that. What wasn’t cool though was the rest of their set. They kept having sound problems, which didn’t help anything. As a three piece, for whatever reason they sounded very sparse and quiet for most of their performance too, not exactly great for a festival atmosphere. I’ve heard a guitar and drums duo make more noise than Yellow Ostrich did. They also lacked energy and conviction, something that the best artists had in spades. While I’m hesitant to call the entire thing a mess, it didn’t reflect well on the band.
Saturday’s big musical misfire came courtesy of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I’m sure defenders of the band will come out of the woodwork to say I don’t know what I’m talking about and that they were great. From what I saw and heard, all the fans watching loved every second. I had trouble hearing though because their off-key renditions of RHCP classics were being sung into my ears on all sides. But one thing I do want to emphasize: Flea was perfect. The man is a legendary bass player, and between his excellent playing and amusing stage banter, he was the only good thing about the band’s set. Anthony Kiedis had a few issues. His vocals often bordered on flat and inexpressive, never quite hitting the high and low end of things but playing it safe right in the middle. Then it seemed like he forgot some lyrics. When you’ve got a several album catalogue, that’s a little understandable, but moreso if you’re also a member of a group called the AARP. Last I checked, Kiedis isn’t a senior citizen. As for Josh Klinghoffer, he’s not even in the same league as John Frusciante. His guitar playing wasn’t sub-par, but pretty bland overall. As for the set list, it was songs from their so-so new album I’m With You along with a handful of required hits, which is about what you’d expect from the band these days. Would I have liked it better with a different set of songs? Possibly, but some of those other issues wouldn’t also have been different as a result, I think.
There were a few extracurricular Lollapalooza-related activities I attended over the weekend, and because I’ve not talked about them, I feel like I should devote a little time to some of the best things I saw all weekend, music festival or no music festival.
Before the festivities started on Friday, I was privileged enough to attend a special pre-show party being put on by Filter Magazine and S.O. TERIK. It was at Logan Square Auditorium and featured sets from Neon Indian and Twin Shadow. Neon Indian was up first, and their set was problematic to say the least. Logan Square Auditorium is notorious for having sound issues, and it took almost the entire set for the band to finally get it right. In the meantime they were stuck with a bad mix that included very loud synths and very quiet vocals. The guitars and drums didn’t have much luck either, and so most of the songs came out sounding like one large mess of noise. When you could make out Alan Palomo’s vocals, they were often off-key, giving the impression he probably couldn’t hear himself in the on stage monitors either, because otherwise he would have been embarrassed. Then again, he was very apologetic about the whole thing, also explaining that it was their first show in months, so they were a little rusty. I’ve seen Neon Indian perform three times before, and this was easily the worst I’ve ever heard them. It was one of the worst performances I’ve heard from a band in a long time, actually. Worse than anything I saw at Lolla that I just outlined above. But unlike some of those other bands, I know Neon Indian does great work because I’ve seen it happen multiple times. I’m sure the other aftershows and their actual festival set went far better, and I imagine they’ll also be great the next time they come through town. Twin Shadow, on the other hand, took Neon Indian’s example and refused to start their set until the sound was perfect. Okay, so it wasn’t perfect, but it was close to it even as they stopped to make a few small tweaks early on. The band stuck mostly to their great new album Confess, which was exciting to hear those songs performed live. It was a thrilling and energized set that had people dancing like crazy. There was also plenty of free alcohol so I’m sure that helped. It also caused a problem though, as two guys got into a fist fight directly in front of me. After security took them away, Twin Shadow frontman George Lewis Jr. told the crowd he saw the fight, and that anybody looking to cause trouble should go outside. He then opened a 3 liter bottle of Jack Daniels and passed it into the crowd. I was halfway back and it was nearly empty by the time it got to me. In spite of everything I had a good time, overall that night, and I hope everyone else there did too.
My Friday night aftershow was at the House of Blues and featured the double bill of Washed Out and tUnE-yArDs. If you’ve seen either of those bands before, you know it’s a special treat to see them live. Washed Out was up first, and having never seen them before I was worried they’d be just like their records: beautiful and sleepy. I actually call Washed Out my “musical Ambien” because I often fall asleep to their records. The great news is that they were very loud and changed their songs a bit to make them lighter and more danceable. The crowd went right along with it, and moved with the beats. I can’t call it the most engaging or entertaining set in the world, but it was an admirable effort and I look forward to seeing Ernest Greene & Co. growing even further as live performers in the future. tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus was watching Washed Out’s entire set from the back stage balcony (I could see her), and she not only danced a little herself, but complimented the band when she was out on stage. Then again, that’s kind of her nature. Considering I named tUnE-yArDs’ last album w h o k i l l my favorite album of 2011, of course I have a natural inclination to love seeing those songs played live. The last time I saw Merrill Garbus and her band, it was at the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival. I was very impressed with her live technique of looping her vocals, percussion and other random sounds to recreate her record piece by piece. With time, she’s only gotten better at it, and that voice of hers is one of the most powerful things in music today. She actually started her set on stage by herself, just babbling African-sounding gibberish into her looping microphone until she had a whole choir of noises going a capella. After a few minutes of that, accompanied by mindless cheering from the crowd, she started to play the drums before shouting, “Do you want to live!” like it was a life or death proposition. The crowd shouted back, “Yeah!” and that back-and-forth exchange was like a fire igniting everyone in the room. I wrote earlier about how essential passion and energy were to an artist’s set, and how the right crowd will give it right back. This tUnE-yArDs set was the perfect equation, a collection of fans that knew exactly what they were getting and treated it as such. “This is our last club show ever,” Garbus proclaimed early in the set, “so you guys are gonna get it tonight.” What she really meant was that the band has been on tour for months now and the only shows they have left are festivals, though the phrasing “last club show ever” makes me think the plan is to go bigger for touring from here on out. With how strong her performances are and how she keeps expanding her fan base, that’s no surprise. So she really did give it to us in the sort of incredible show that you never expect will happen until it does. After a long day of standing on my feet and being exposed to 90 degree heat, to end it with such an amazing and powerful show made the whole experience worth it. I wouldn’t trade that set for anything in the world. Not only was it the best thing I saw all weekend, it’s probably the best thing I’ve seen so far this year. It pushed me to the boundaries of my own emotions, with exuberant joy one minute and heartfelt tears the next. In some ways they’re the exact same emotion. I can’t recommend tUnE-yArDs more, and hope you’re able to see them should the opportunity arise. I avoided seeing their official Lolla set because I knew it would lessen that House of Blues experience. It’s a memory I want to cherish and hold close for as long as possible.
The Saturday aftershow was a big one. Franz Ferdinand and Jane’s Addiction were on the bill at the Aragon. As I outlined earlier, after the storms pushed the curfew back in Grant Park, the music out there was going until 10:45 PM. This show started at 10 PM, meaning I had to leave the fest early to get to the aftershow in time for Franz’s set, which had a start time of close to 11. I regretted ducking out most on Frank Ocean’s Lolla set, but seeing Franz Ferdinand was actually a welcome reward. Either I haven’t listened to their albums in awhile or I simply forgot about how great they are live, because their performance was shockingly great. Maybe it’s that they’ve been pretty dormant these last couple years and getting their sea legs back on the road has awakened something within them. Whatever it was, I had a really great time hearing everything from “The Dark of the Matinee” to “This Fire” to “Ulysses” to “Take Me Out” and “Walk Away.” They chugged through all their hits and knocked them all out of the park with the vitality of a much younger, much hungrier band. They played a new song too, called “Right Thoughts! Right Words! Right Action!” that fit in well with everything, and even had a sort of Futureheads vibe to it. At the very end of their set they all put down their guitars and went nuts on the drum kit. Four guys pounding out polyrhythms one one kit, complete with strobe lights was an utterly invigorating and fitting conclusion. I’m now quite excited to see what their next record is going to sound like. In discussing Jane’s Addiction, I’m of two minds. The first mind says they’re an important ’90s band that has lost their way in recent years, what with the break-ups and Eric Avery’s indecision about whether he’s going to stick with the band or not. Their most recent stuff hasn’t been of the highest quality, and they practically acknowledged that via the set list of a dozen songs, only two of them being newer. Now my other mind says that Jane’s Addiction is a band ripe for parody. Perry Farrell has always been a character, but he just seems more and more cartoony with each passing year. So while I loved hearing classics like “Mountain Song” and “Summertime Rolls,” I had a running commentary going with the people around me about the things Perry would say or do next. He told a story or had corny banter before almost every single song, had an odd fascination with a wide-brimmed hat, and chugged red wine straight from the bottle. When he asked the crowd, “Do you love me?” I chuckled at his egocentric behavior. Surely he needed that affirmation even as I’m sure he received plenty of praise all weekend long. Whatever gets you through the day, Perry. Dave Navarro looked like he was a little embarrassed to have to deal with Perry’s spotlight, so he almost made it his business to play as mechanically as possible. When Perry took a moment to give him credit for all his great work, Dave looked like he really didn’t want to be there. The whole show was really a spectacle, and I’m actually quite pleased with how it turned out. I saw a couple video cameras mounted on cranes during the show, and I’m wondering if the band filmed it for a future DVD release. If that’s the case, I promise to record my own comedy commentary track and post it to YouTube.
So after this very, very long piece summing up my Lollapalooza 2012 experience, I’m pleased to say this ends the text portion of my festival coverage for the year. I will be posting a small photo set to the site shortly, along with the full thing on Facebook. Be aware, not every photo is a close facial profile, so if you see a tiny ant-like figure that I claim is Jack White, just know that I tried. If you’ve read this whole thing, thank you for doing so, you are my hero. If you skipped around and read the parts that looked amusing, well, I appreciate that you took the time to read at all. It’s been a wild ride and a wild weekend. Should I do it all again next year? I’m a little beat up and wary, but might be up for the challenge. We’ll see what the lineup is like. Until then, it’s back to our regularly scheduled programming.