In my 13 years of attending Lollapalooza, I’ve had a number of people ask me why I go when “it’s so terrible.” While calling the festival “terrible” is absolutely a matter of opinion, it’s one that’s held by a wide range of people. To most, the idea of spending multiple days in the vast wasteland of Grant Park with 100,000 (per day) of your closest friends is nearly the equivalent of torture. It’s hot and sweaty with lines everywhere and access is tiered by how much money you’re willing to pay and nothing sounds great in the park and a whole host of other complaints. I’ve heard them all, and none of them have deterred me from continuing to go year after year. I understand too, and those grievances are not entirely unjustified. But in my view those issues are also a bit short-sighted.
Lollapalooza may be, as Jim DeRogatis puts it, the music equivalent of “Walmart on the lake,” but I’d argue that the damage it causes every summer is pretty much worth it if you’re going for the right reasons. Specifically I’m talking about the music. If you LOVE live music, Grant Park is not the ideal venue to see it in. Neither is a space where tens of thousands of people (many drunk or on drugs) are all crammed together trying to find the best sight lines. Some are even content to simply talk the entire time and ignore what’s taking place on stage. But where else are you going to have the chance to see 170+ artists over a four day period at a cost that falls somewhere around $350? Economically speaking, you won’t find a better deal than that. Were you to choose 10 artists each day that you’d be interested in seeing perform live and add up the costs of tickets to individual venue shows from each, the total price would be at least double. Hell, I spent nearly the cost of a full weekend Lolla ticket to see Paul McCartney this year, when his prior Chicago show was at Lollapalooza. Also, festivals can serve as a music discovery engine. You can easily wander from stage to stage and stop when you hear something good. I’ve found more than a few new artists at Lolla over the years by stumbling past during their sets.
My grand point is that if you’re there solely for the music, the atmosphere doesn’t matter nearly as much. Unfortunately, most Lolla attendees aren’t there for the music, or at least don’t make it a huge priority outside of a handful of bands they truly love. That’s part of the problem, and one the fest feeds into by creating plenty of distractions for those less musically inclined. Have some food! Wander into the merch store! Check out some tents devoted to various causes! Hang out in some hammocks or check out the wine bar! And new for 2017, strap on some roller skates or play an arcade game! Hey, if it keeps randos who don’t care about the music away from the stage, then more power to you. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself at Lolla if I wasn’t there to watch as many artists perform as possible.
Which finally brings me to Lollapalooza 2017, aka the year things got better but also worse. Let’s start with the good. They improved the restrooms considerably. Entire sections were devoted to urinals, while the traditional plastic port-o-potties were replaced with slightly nicer ones that actually had porcelain toilet bowls that flushed. For once, I didn’t dread using the restroom. At least not at first. Because we can’t have nice things, the very clean and very easily accessible restroom areas slowly descended into chaos as the weekend progressed, until finally on Sunday night I used a urinal that had “Fuck the Police” written in giant letters across it, while a large turd sat below – clearly the result of someone who didn’t have the time or foresight to wait in line to use an actual toilet. This is why we can’t have nice things. In a less disgusting change for the better, this year Lollapalooza also upgraded their video screens. These new gigantic HD displays surrounded the two biggest stages, and made viewing performances from a distance much, much easier. No complaints about those, and I hope they continue to invest in them for the future. Lastly, I’ll say nice things about the roller rink and arcade that were added this year, not because I skated or played any video games, but because I found them to be fun distractions that fit well with the overall aesthetic vibe of the festival.
On the negative side, I’ve only got one complaint, but it’s a major one. It seemed that this year Lollapalooza was struggling with lineup flop sweat. The festival celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2016 and because they had “50% more artists than usual” requesting to perform, the decision was made to expand from three days to four. When it was announced organizers said it was a “one time only” thing, but they also weren’t about to turn down that extra money, so the change became permanent. And in all honesty, last year’s lineup wound up being pretty great – enough to justify the extra day. Not so much for 2017. Maybe it was how they scheduled it, but there were multiple periods this year where music lovers were left with artist choices that went from bad to worse. Obviously there are fan bases for SUICIDEBOYS and The Drums, but neither are exactly critically acclaimed nor particularly dynamic live performers. Yet they were on two of the main stages at the same time on Thursday. The same can be said for Vance Joy and Royal Blood on Saturday. Not meaning to be too insulting, but there’s very little original or novel about either artist. Sunday forced the choice of Milky Chance vs. London Grammar on you, and it was a little tough to get excited about either.
Call me a snob if you must, but just because an artist has some radio hits doesn’t automatically make them good or worth your time. To a degree, they make music for casual fans – those that don’t listen to much music in the first place, who automatically accept and embrace whatever band is pumping out of nearby speakers under the assumption that it must be good. If you can live your life that way, taking what’s being given to you without questioning, exploring and coming to your own decisions on what’s good, I feel a little sorry for you. There’s joy to be found in the fringes, but if a festival like Lollapalooza doesn’t give you those fringes then you can wind up trapped in a sea of mediocrity. Hence my criticism of their booking/scheduling for 2017. There were still plenty of great moments (that I’ll highlight in a minute), but fewer than usual with more duds and dead spots that almost make one want to take some time away from the stages and explore some of those aforementioned other options and activities happening in Grant Park. My advice, which organizers absolutely will not take, is to revert back to the three day format. With one less day for bookers to worry about, the quality vs. quantity will be more even-handed and they can ensure that music fans of all types can be satisfied better. It worked quite well for a decade before they added that fourth day, and I see no reason why it wouldn’t work in their favor again.
Lastly, I want to take note of some fantastic performances from Lollapalooza 2017. While I’m a little disappointed I didn’t stumble upon some incredible new artist this year as I often have in the past, there were still a few surprises that caught me off guard in a very good way.
White Reaper put on a better than good performance on Thursday, which was a wonderful way to kick off the festival.
But it was Cage the Elephant’s day, and arguably entire weekend, as their wildly unhinged set was so fun that it was just about all anybody could talk about. I still can’t stop thinking about it, and am under the firm belief they’ll be headlining Lollapalooza sooner rather than later.
As for headliners, while we only got 3 songs from Muse, they managed to make the most of it as everyone went completely nuts in the pouring rain to massive jams like “Psycho” and “Hysteria”. Had they been able to continue their performance in the rain, it likely would have gone down as one of the greatest in Lolla history.
I remain firm in my conviction that The Lemon Twigs are a band to watch, and they delivered yet again on Friday with another stunning set that hopefully won them many new fans.
Then there’s the always reliable Run the Jewels, who continue to assert their dominance with every performance. While they didn’t bring any special guests with them, they did pull some random guy up from the crowd with a sign asking if he could rap “Legend Has It”. The whole thing was a blast, really.
Saturday saw a very accomplished set from Highly Suspect, a band that on record might seem like your typical alt-rock fare these days but who are secretly hiding guitar skills so impressive that even some of the greats would probably approve.
And I have to compliment Mac DeMarco for a typically bizarre and hilarious set that ended with a couple of covers for which he didn’t know the lyrics (Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” and The Champs’ “Tequila”), and the obtuse noise pollution that is “Chamber of Reflection”.
Overall though, it felt like Lollapalooza saved the best for last, since Sunday was packed with remarkable performances. Lo Moon managed to impress and give me chills with their ambitious and ambient epics.
Joseph seemed to be having a blast as their incredible vocal harmonies sounded even better in person and gave life to tired bodies.
Car Seat Headrest continues to evolve as a live band, often switching things up on the recorded versions of tracks to take them down interesting detours.
The Shins have also grown significantly since I last saw them a few years back, seeming more at home in their own skins, having fun and running through a set list that includes almost all of their best songs.
Finally, Arcade Fire put a nice little bow on the entire four days with a strong performance and set list that pulled from across their entire catalog. Let’s just say they were wise to minimize the number of songs played from their unfocused new album Everything Now.
So that about wraps up my thoughts on Lollapalooza 2017. It was a pretty good time this year, as it is just about every year, even when the music wasn’t quite up to par. Let’s hope they literally get their acts together and do a better job with booking for 2018, tough as that has to be in the current 4-day structure. At least everything else ran smoothly and resulted in few to no inconveniences for those who knew what they were doing. Will I be back again next year? Probably, out of tradition mostly, but it’s my sincere hope that maybe one of these days they’ll finally manage to assemble one of the greatest festivals of all time.