With the rain completely out of the forecast and temperatures dipping back into the 80s, things were certainly looking up for Sunday at Pitchfork. Just about all of the muddy spots in Union Park from Saturday’s storm were now cleverly covered up with some quick dry solution and a whole bunch of carpet square samples. One of the big product placements over the weekend was a company freely handing out recycled carpet squares so people could sit on the ground without getting their pants dirty. I doubt becoming patchwork quilts atop mud pits was their original intention, but at least it was functional and made walking around easier. There was plenty of great music to watch as well, so join me after the jump for a recap of the third and final day at Pitchfork Music Festival.
Category: show review (Page 2 of 6)
What’s a summer music festival in Chicago without a little rain? Or a lot of rain? This year marked the first time in its 10 year history that Pitchfork was forced to evacuate the grounds due to severe weather. A similar incident happened at Lollapalooza a couple years back. Unlike that event however, organizers waited until seemingly the last minute before pulling the plug. That’s not intended to say that they did anything wrong, but rather tried as hard as they could to keep things going until they simply couldn’t anymore due to safety concerns. They made the announcement to please exit the park, and then less than two minutes later a massive, bone-soaking rain poured down complete with a lightning show for the ages. People gasped at the sky lit up while also running with panic due to the extremely intense downpour. Of course minutes after evacuating the rain stopped and about 30 minutes later Union Park reopened and the day continued. The grounds were a bit muddy in spots for the rest of the day, as one might expect, but overall the schedule wasn’t disrupted much and the situation was handled with relative professionalism. But what about the music? Read on past the jump, and I’ll share those details with you, dear reader!
Ah, the hallowed grounds of Union Park. How nice it was to return for yet another year, this time in particular to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the Pitchfork Music Festival. Upon my entrance to the park I took a little tour, primarily to get the lay of the land and see what was new compared to years past. In short not much, though the smaller Blue stage has been angled a little differently this year, made a little larger and given a video screen. As a result of the small tweak, what was once a largely shaded area thanks to trees now has a bit more sun but also a bit more space to accommodate larger crowds. That aside, it’s everything in its right place. Here’s a recap of all the music I saw today, which was more a tasting portion of a lot of artists rather than full meals. Details after the jump…
My Morning Jacket are at their core an outdoor ampitheatre band. The music they make, in all of its triumphant goodness, can be so expansive that even the largest of rooms would have trouble holding it. That’s a big part of the reason why they’re often asked to play music festivals, and do so with the sort of wild abandon reserved for the headliners they are. Looking through their copious tour archive, I wasn’t entirely surprised to learn that My Morning Jacket’s last four shows in Chicago have all taken place at festivals and/or outdoor venues. The last time they played inside was in late December 2008, where they blew the doors off the Chicago Theatre for two nights in a row. It’s taken them seven years to return, which is probably how long the venue needed to repair and reinforce the “damage” from last time. Of course now they’re even bigger and more popular band with a few radio hits under their belts, so for 2015 a two-night stand becomes a three-night stand. Out of concern for my safety and the thought that the 94-year-old venue might not survive the 72 hour rock and roll punishment it was about to endure, I decided that attending the first show on Tuesday night would probably be the smartest choice. Immediately following the show I can tell you my biggest regret was not getting tickets to all three.
It began with a waterfall. Specifically, the psychedelic-looking one that graces the cover of their new album. It was projected onto a gigantic white sheet that covered the entire front of the stage. The first few plinks of keyboards rang out from behind the sheet, as did Jim James’ voice at the beginning of “Believe (Nobody Knows),” the opening track on The Waterfall record. As the song approached the first chorus, a blinding white light flashed on from the back of the stage, revealing the massive shadows of a band that many consider to be larger than life. It was a playful start to the show, and the curtain finally fell once they got around to the chorus for the second time. A massive cheer erupted from the crowd as the band was fully and exultantly revealed. I’ve seen a couple of other artists pull a similar stunt at the start of their shows, and honestly it’s effective even if it’s not original.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra are difficult to pin down. This is something that has only increased in magnitude over time. On his recently released third album Multi-Love, the band’s primary architect Ruban Nielson might as well have titled it multi-influence as he takes a signature lo-fi psych-pop sound and infuses it with elements of funk, soul, blues, disco and much more. The one thing holding it all together is the record’s overarching thematic exploration of polyamory (hence the title) and the impact one woman had when she joined Nielson’s already established family. While stylistic expectations and societal norms may be upended, the overall focus stays strong and prevents things from totally going off the rails. A similar approach has made its way into UMO’s most recent live shows, and was on full display this past Saturday night for a wild and funky set at Lincoln Hall.
Prior to Saturday, I had seen Unknown Mortal Orchestra perform twice. Both times were at outdoor music festivals, which was nice because their sound pairs nicely with nature. Yet fests are also built as variety pack samplers to give you a good taste of what an artist has to offer but may not be the truest representation of what they’d do in a typical show in the confines of a dark venue. What struck me about those previous UMO sets was how genuinely relaxed Nielson and his bandmates were, to the point of spending about a quarter of the time seated on the stage with legs crossed just playing guitar. Sometimes it’d be in service of the song, while other times it’d be part of some extended jam session that included effects pedals and plenty of knob turning. It only took two songs at Lincoln Hall before Nielson sat down, turning the outro of II track “From the Sun” into a jittery, radiating piece of white noise. While the idea was smartly conceived, particularly since that song has plenty of room for deviation from the recorded version, the execution in this case was a little less than ideal. Playing with effects simply for the sake of playing with effects can come across as a bit aimless if you’re not careful, creating the reaction of, “just end this already.”
In contrast, a little more than halfway through the set the band took single “So Good at Being in Trouble” and extended it to encompass some incredible guitar and drum solos. When a band fires on all cylinders like that, it can make for a truly transcendent experience, as this certainly was. It also served as a great reminder of how ridiculously talented of a guitarist Nielson is. No matter if he was jamming for fun or playing an intricate part because that’s what the song required, the way his fingers would fly around the fret board and pluck those strings was almost always a treat to behold. The real shame is that he didn’t do more of it. Of course when your set primarily focuses on your new album which doesn’t feature as many guitars let alone solos, there’s no point in trying to shoehorn them in. Actually Nielson put down his guitar towards the end of the night for a synth-heavy performance of “Stage or Screen,” which freed him up to climb atop some speakers on the side of the stage as well as pull off a funky spin into the splits as a capper. That was arguably the most fun he had all show, though the loud cheers from the crowd and people yelling “Ruban!” kept him smiling for much of the evening.
Speaking of the crowd, their passion and energy was nothing short of infectuous. There was an older gentlemen standing in front of me, likely in his mid-50s and dressed like he had just come from a fancy dinner, who spent most of the show jumping around, dancing and just generally having the time of his life. He might not have looked like the average Unknown Mortal Orchestra fan, but in many respects he showed more enthusiasm than a lot of people who are half his age. Part of me wonders if his fanaticism pushed others to more freely express their own by dancing and singing along. Things really picked up at the end of the set, with the one-two punch of 2010 single “Ffunny Ffrends” and 2015 single “Multi-Love” subtly placing emphasis on how much UMO has evolved over these last few years. The double-barreled encore of new songs “Necessary Evil” and “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” then offered up a closing salvo, the gleeful smiles and writhing bodies connecting with each melody to ensure the future of this project will be anything but unknown.
Like Acid Rain
From the Sun
How Can You Luv Me
Ur Life One Night
The World Is Crowded
So Good at Being in Trouble
Swim and Sleep (Like A Shark)
Stage or Screen
Can’t Keep Checking My Phone
“It’s great to be back at the Empty Bottle,” Mackenzie Scott (aka Torres) told the packed crowd during her headlining set on Thursday night. “This is my third time here. I love this place.” If the extensive applause and cheering from the peanut gallery in response was any indication, the place and the people in it love Torres too. It was two years and seven days since her last visit, and much happened in her world during that gap. An extensive amount of touring helped build Scott into an even more dynamic live performer that only further solidified her fan base. She also found the time to write and record a sophomore album Sprinter, which was released earlier this month to widespread critical acclaim. To say things are better than they’ve ever been in the Torres camp appears to be accurate, and she only further proved that with her set at the Empty Bottle.
Immediately upon taking the stage on Thursday night with her three piece band, Scott pulled out a lighter and set some sage ablaze, waving it around the stage and out into the crowd. It was perhaps the most peaceful moment of the evening, as the music that followed was frought with high emotions that would eventually explode in pure cataclysmic fashion. The intensity began to build from the first notes of opening number “Son, You Are No Island,” which may be one of the quieter and more spare moments from Sprinter but carries with it an underlying threat as the guitar picking gets faster and the vocals become increasingly strained. Throwing the one-two punch of “New Skin” and “Sprinter” early on brought the noise level considerably higher thanks to some heavy guitars, but it wasn’t until “Cowboy Guilt” halfway through the set that things felt like they had truly shifted into fourth gear. That particular song diverted the most from the recorded version, in this case for the better by fully embracing its more aggressive elements and revealing this whole other layer that had otherwise been simmering beneath the surface. With the flood gates open, “Strange Hellos” arrived like the tidal wave it is and much of the crowd quickly tapped into that energy by jumping around for a bit. Some music writers have noted that the new Torres record is reminiscent of vintage PJ Harvey, and in that exact moment the performance also felt cut from that same cloth. Revelatory feels like the right descriptor to use for that mid-set section, a true glimpse into what Scott is like at her most focused and powerful.
After peaking like that, everything else is going to feel a little lesser in comparison. Thankfully “Honey,” the popular single from her 2013 debut, offered up a satisfactory slow burn that acted as a bit of a salve. Perhaps the most tender and beautiful moment of the set came at the very end, with the quiet ballad “November Baby”. For a few minutes it was just Scott and her guitar, with one of her bandmates contributing to harmonies as needed. But unlike the album version, the full band jumped in for a gorgeous crescendo that just felt like icing on the cake. Scott stepped away from her microphone and over to the edge of the stage, cracking a smile as she looked out into the crowd. Once the last notes had been played she quickly asked people near the front if they had a lighter for her sage. And so in perfectly cyclical fashion, things ended the way they began. Of course that doesn’t take the epic single-song encore of “Ferris Wheel” into account, which certainly represented a sobering way to end the night. “There’s nothing in this world I wouldn’t do / To show you that I’ve got the sadness too,” Scott sang with pathos and grief. Part of the reason Torres has found success has been because her lyrics feel personal, yet relatable. It was clear as she exited the stage that the entire crowd, myself included, was also afflicted with the sadness. Whether that was due to personal pain or simply because the show was over, everybody felt it on some level. Kind soul that she is, Scott stuck around near the merch table to greet fans and offer up hugs as needed.
On May 14, 2013, Lady Lamb (Aly Spaltro) played a headlining show at Schubas in Chicago. She was very sick with a cold and by all accounts barely made it through her set. “If I recall correctly,” she said on Wednesday while reminiscing about that night, “I couldn’t even sing most of the songs, so I asked the crowd to sing along with me.” Quite a few people cheered when she said that, to acknowledge they were there and that she was telling the truth. Shows like those are the sorts that both the audience and artists remember clearly, because they’re far from what could be considered normal. Then again, I’d like to think that just about every Lady Lamb show is special and unique in its own way, which is why when Spaltro returned to Chicago to play the Empty Bottle with Torres about a month and a half later, she was 100% healthy and arguably even more memorable for her powerful and intense solo set.
Nearly two years to the day since her sick performance at Schubas, Spaltro returned on Wednesday night to headline the venue once again. Not only was she in tip top shape, but was also armed with a brand new record called After as well as a backing band to help bring her songs to life in a much fuller way. Things immediately got off to an elaborate start with the multifaceted “You Are the Apple” from Lady Lamb’s 2013 debut album Ripely Pine. In the grand tradition of starting strong and then going stronger, After single “Billions of Eyes” surged to life next, which got the crowd moving a bit with some serious head bobbing and a bit of a sing-along. At one point a couple people began to clap along with the beat, but unfortunately nobody else joined in so that stopped pretty quickly. Still, it was clear early on that people were connecting with the songs, they just showed it in a variety of ways.
For her part, Spaltro did a great job of mixing things up, really putting her three piece setup to good use with some of the louder and more aggressive numbers like “Bird Balloons” and “Spat Out Spit,” then giving them a mid-set break to play some quieter stuff like “Sunday Shoes” and “The Nothing Pt. II” solo. Those moments when it was just her voice and guitar really brought back the intimacy of her shows from a couple years ago while also infusing the set with greater doses of pathos and heart. The between song banter was a similar shade of earnest, with Spaltro expressing real gratitude for Chicago and everyone who came out to support Lady Lamb, which included her own Aunt Fran. I had the privilege of standing right behind Aunt Fran next to the stage for the duration of the show, and she was positively beaming with pride the entire time.
At the very end of her 90 minute set, Spaltro once again sent off her bandmates and closed by playing “Ten” solo. “This is my favorite song,” Aunt Fran whispered to her friend as the first notes rang out. It comes across like a diary entry brought to life, complete with the little moments and vivid imagery that we remember from our childhood. In one of the final verses, Spaltro sings the lines, “We were singing along / To every word of the songs / That helped make us who we are.” If the tear-streaked faces in the crowd were any indication, Lady Lamb’s songs have done their part to help shape lives in a similar fashion.
Multiple studies done over the last decade have pretty much all determined that our own personal tastes in music become established between the ages of 14 and 24. As these are the most formative years of our lives, from puberty to the completion of our education in high school and college to the friends and social groups we settle into, it makes sense that this would be a testing ground for the kinds of music we like. The reason I bring this up is because at the tender age of 19 I discovered the band Cursive. To be fair, I discovered a LOT of bands at that age and have continued to for a good decade since, but for one reason or another Cursive holds a special place in my heart. Their 2003 concept(ish) album The Ugly Organ very blessedly blurred the lines between alt-rock, indie, punk and emo so it provided a rather easy entry point for music fans of all stripes and colors. Working at a college radio station in the Midwest also brought the band to my attention, and few were the days when you couldn’t find me in the DJ booth jumping around to “Art Is Hard” as it blasted over the airwaves. ‘Twas a simpler time. But I digress. The point being, The Ugly Organ was a record I really got into and apparently a whole lot of others did as well. So much so the band decided to reissue it last fall with a bunch of bonus material, and follow it up this winter/spring with a two month U.S. tour in celebration. The band finally reached Chicago at the tail end of that for a sold out show at Lincoln Hall on Wednesday night. Here’s what happened. (cue Law & Order ::dun dun::)
One of the more noteworthy things about The Ugly Organ is that it’s Cursive’s only release that prominently features the cello. The band recruited cellist Gretta Cohn in 2001 to play on the record and tour in support of it, but in 2005 she left to pursue other interests and was never replaced. While Cohn did play a show or two with Cursive recently when they stopped in New York (where she now lives), she hasn’t rejoined the band or anything like that. The good news is that all of the other stops on this tour did have a cellist to help ensure that the album was properly brought to life, not to mention the bonus of adding cello parts to a bunch of other songs across the Cursive catalog.
Unlike a majority of bands who have adopted the trend of performing a classic album from front to back, Cursive decided to shake things up a bit because they didn’t want to be like everyone else. That was clear right from the beginning of their set, which kicked off with “Sink to the Beat” from 2001’s Burst and Bloom EP followed by “Big Bang” from 2006’s Happy Hollow. Those were but a couple of many interesting choices the band made across close to 90 minutes and 21 songs. Yes The Ugly Organ was technically played in full, but there were detours taken along the way to throw the crowd off and celebrate other records in bits and pieces. Of the non-Organ records, 2009’s Mama, I’m Swollen got the most love, but not by much. The biggest surprise of the night was probably “Excerpts From Various Notes Strewn Around the Bedroom of April Connolly, Feb. 24, 1997,” a song that appeared on a 2002 split EP called 8 Teeth to Eat You. That, or the song “Nonsense,” which was found on the Saddle Creek 50 compilation. Both of those tracks actually are included in the deluxe reissue of The Ugly Organ so it makes sense that they’d be played, but context aside they’re absolutely rarities and not the sort of songs you expect to be performed live pretty much ever.
As for The Ugly Organ itself, let’s just say it’s the sort of record that holds up really well. The 1-2-3 punch that is “Some Red Handed Sleight of Hand” into “Art Is Hard” into “The Recluse” still hits with the same force, only this time you’ve got a room full of people shouting along to every single word. “Art Is Hard” in particular is just a powder keg that set a lot of people off. Similar things could be said about the late set heroics from songs like “Bloody Murderer” and “Sierra,” the latter of which kicked off the encore. As great of a time as the crowd seemed to be having, the band looked like they were having a blast too. Frontman Tim Kasher seemed to suggest that the tour had been going on forever and they were all a little worse for wear, but there were no telltale signs outside of a couple small coughing fits that Kasher had between songs. Illnesses can be tough to recover from when you’re on the road and are unable to rest or take really good care of yourself. So long as it doesn’t degrade the performance though, such things are manageable. Turns out a night honoring The Ugly Organ was anything but ugly. It’s my sincere hope that Kasher and the rest of Cursive take inspiration from that record and this tour as they write and arrange material for their next effort. The world could use more albums like it.
Let me set the scene: It’s a Saturday night at the end of January in Chicago. According to the weather reports, something wicked this way comes. Specifically, a monster snowstorm set to pile on more than a foot of the white stuff between Saturday and Monday morning. It has the real potential to be a record breaker too, possibly capturing a coveted spot on the Top 10 biggest snowfalls to ever hit Chicago. Yet in spite of this and the myriad of warnings from meteorologists to avoid travel if possible, the bands Pearl and the Beard and Wild Child still performed in front of a sold out crowd at Lincoln Hall that very evening. We Chicagoans are a tough and proud people, refusing to let winter keep us away from enjoying some live music. Thankfully bands like these are also willing to come around when we’re at our weather worst. So how did it all go, conditions outside notwithstanding? Let me give you the play by play.
Pearl and the Beard are a Brooklyn-based trio with a fascinating dynamic and sound. While Jocelyn Mackenzie handles drums, Jeremy Lloyd-Styles plays guitar and Emily Hope Price does the cello and keyboards, when it comes to vocals there is no technical frontman or frontwoman or lead singer. All three of them are equally talented at their individual instruments, yet can also belt out a song with ease. They may all take turns behind the microphone, but more often than not add a little extra grace and beauty to their songs with some highly impressive harmonies. The cello goes a long way to contribute some additional beauty as well, all of these things contributing to the band’s unique and difficult to describe sound. Their set at Lincoln Hall was the final stop on their tour with Wild Child, and though they confessed to being a little bit worn down and sick, as one might expect during a long winter touring cycle, it seemed to have little to no effect on their performance. Just about every note hit with the right inflection and energy, engaging the crowd and encouraging sing-alongs for those familiar with some of their singles. Not being terribly familiar with their records, this show was a bit of an introduction for me, and a pretty positive one at that. Their eclectic approach and style may make them hard to pin down, but quite easy to like. That they all seem to have a pretty great sense of humor helps too, providing a few laughs between songs keeps everybody in a jovial mood. If the handful of new songs they played from their forthcoming record Beast are any indication, 2015 might just be the year that Pearl and the Beard reach a whole new audience.
As far as headliners Wild Child go, let’s just say that they’ve already built a rabid fan base for themselves. I mean, they probably could have sold out Lincoln Hall without any openers if they had wanted to, and it stands to reason the next time they come through Chicago it’ll be at a significantly larger venue. What’s fascinating to me is that they’ve done all this with no radio support or mentions from a number of prominent music publications. Still, NPR has really championed them, and most of their singles have gotten a massive amount of streams on YouTube, Spotify and The Hype Machine, so clearly people are catching on anyways. In case you’re not familiar, here’s a quick play-by-play. The Austin seven piece have released two full lengths to date, 2011’s Pillow Talk and 2013’s The Runaround. Their sound is described by most as indie pop, though with so many members and instruments it’s more like a collection of styles and genres incorporated into traditional pop structures. I’d say that folk pop is sort of their base, as most of their songs fall somewhere on the spectrum between The Lumineers, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Of Monsters and Men, Vance Joy and The Head and the Heart. There’s that acoustic guitar base, the male and female traded off vocals/harmonies, touches of violin, cello and banjo, and choruses that everybody can collectively sing along to. In fact, such actions are strongly encouraged during their live show.
The crowd at Lincoln Hall was more than happy to oblige with the request, leaving the band equally grateful and blown away by the extreme enthusiasm. What else can I say about their set? It was lovely, it was fun, and it was full of should-be hits from across their catalog. The best moments offered up a range of emotions, like when they transitioned from a joyously high energy song that had everyone on stage singing and playing as hard as they could, then followed it up with a stirring ballad that featured only principal members Kelsey Wilson and Alexander Beggins while the rest took a short break. Through it all what shone through most was their passion, both for the material and for their fans. While I can’t quite call myself a fan due to a general ambivalence in regards to their music, at the very least they know how to put on a good show. That’s really all I was hoping for, and am thankful that Wild Child was able to deliver in that aspect.
The time between Christmas and New Year’s is always a dead zone. Very little gets scheduled or happens in the pop culture world during this period unless you’re talking about all the movies the studios release in a last ditch effort to qualify for awards season. The music industry is particularly quiet, with no album releases and no high profile shows. The big holiday bashes are over, and nobody wants to get right back to touring after taking a couple of days off for Christmas and such. Yet in this rather subdued week or so, there’s inevitably a fun little thing or two that pops up on the radar that seems to boast the attitude of, “Why not?” And so it was, on a chilly Saturday night in Chicago that the trio of local bands Wavepool, Minor Characters and Empires gathered together at Lincoln Hall for a show that helped wrap up a successful year for all three acts.
While I didn’t arrive in time for most of Wavepool’s set, I want to give them a quick mention as they were on the bill and deserve a little love and support. They’re a relatively new emo/punk band, but are starting to build a following thanks to some shows around town and a couple of songs released via Bandcamp. The couple of songs I managed to catch upon arriving at Lincoln Hall were quick, hard-hitting and fun. Here’s hoping that bigger and better things are in their future.
Speaking of bands with a bigger and better future, Minor Characters had a pretty solid 2014 overall. They began it with a Kickstarter campaign to help raise funds to get their debut LP Voir Dire mastered and released, which was quite successful. While I wasn’t able to review it this year, I’ll say this much: it’s a beautifully composed record that grows on you over time. My only real issue with the album is that it fails to fully capture the excitement and intensity with which the band performs these songs in a live setting. I actually saw Minor Characters back in October when they headlined a show at The Hideout for their album release party, and noticed the difference between the recorded and live versions immediately. Simply put, it feels like their music was composed for the stage, and that is where they excel and seem to be most at home. Perhaps that’s also because they’ve been playing most of these songs for years now, but only recently got around to recording them. Their set at Lincoln Hall on Saturday only furthered that assertion, as just about every song teemed with such forceful power and emotion that you couldn’t help but be drawn in. Their vocal harmonies were top notch too, in particular on a song like “Neighbors,” which elevates things to another level. To me, it also says something about a band if the other members sing along with the lead vocalist whether a microphone is in front of them or not. Just like when a die-hard fan does the same thing in the crowd, it shows that you’re passionate about the material. So yes, Minor Characters put on a great show. It’s just a shame they haven’t really been able to do much in the way of touring this year, so other states and venues might have the chance to see them at their best. Maybe that’ll happen in 2015 if we’re lucky.
Empires did embark on a national tour in 2014, and that was just one of several things that went right for them this year. They released an album called Orphan to solid critical acclaim. They were on Letterman and played Bonnaroo and the Austin City Limits Music Festival, among other places. Their singles “How Good Does It Feel” and “Please Don’t Tell My Lover” received national and international radio airplay. Those are just some highlights that tell you this is definitely a band that’s on their way up to the big leagues. So when you have a year like Empires did, a hometown show is a perfect way to celebrate those many accomplishments and wrap everything up in a nice little bow. The crowd at Lincoln Hall was primed for their performance, and the band was more than happy to deliver a high energy, catalog spanning set that perfectly showcased their strengths. It really was quite thrilling to watch, and a remarkable improvement on the show of theirs I saw back in the spring. An extensive amount of touring will do that to a band, as all the members learn how to best click with one another in service of a song, plus how to extract the most out of every performance. Empires are now a well oiled machine, and lead vocalist Sean Van Vleet is the wild-haired ringleader at the center of it all. He wasn’t just singing the songs, but throwing them out into the universe with the sort of gusto and celebratory nature often reserved for big name stadium bands. Empires may very well get there some day, and the effortless blend between pop and rock on Orphan is definitely a start in that direction. At various points during their set I recalled bands like The National, The Killers and U2, and not just because certain songs sounded similar. It was there in the style, the energy and even a bit in the vocals too. Throwing it all out there with such wild abandon can become a powerful elixir and really work the crowd into a frenzy. Given that they were playing in front of friends, well-wishers and others right here at home, of course things got a bit rowdy. What impressed me most was how many old songs that Empires included throughout the show, including a couple they hadn’t played in years, and how a majority of fans not only expressed excitement at this prospect, but sang along to every word as well. That’s the sort of devotion this band has sustained for several years now, and at this point it’s thrilling to think about how much farther they can go and how much more they can do once 2015 rolls around.
There are some things that, no matter how hard you try, you simply can’t un-see. Images are burned into your brain for all of eternity, in many cases haunting you and giving you nightmares. It’s the sort of stuff where you want to look away, but for whatever reason are unable to do so. I had one of these such experiences at Lincoln Hall this past Wednesday night with a triple bill show of Oscillator Bug, The Stargazer Lilies and TOBACCO. Let me tell you the story of how it destroyed me mentally.
Opening the night were Chicago’s own Oscillator Bug, who have been on this tour for a little over a week but are just now getting around to playing a hometown show in celebration of their debut album Bursts of the Million. While they’re technically a quartet when performing live, pretty much all of their fractured songs and compositions are built by frontman Zaid Maxwell, who started the project because he had these sounds and melodies in his head that wouldn’t go away and wouldn’t fit with any other band or project he was working on. The results are something truly unique, though most people describe Oscillator Bug’s sound as synth psych-pop. You’ve got to find some way to sum it up concisely. To my ears though, it’s more like a sonic assault. Songs overflow with more noise than often feels sensible, yet there’s still a clear melody and strong beats propelling everything forward. While there’s a central groove to most of their songs, sound effects and synths buzz around your head at all angles to the point where sometimes it can feel like there’s a little ADHD going on with too much to try and pay attention to. Of course it’s things like that which make the record worth repeat listens, mostly so you can pick up on everything that’s going on. Meanwhile in a live setting the assault extends beyond the mere auditory and into the visual, as lights surround the band on all sides and are consistently changing in time with the music. They’re not tremendously bright though, as ample attention is also given to the projection screen behind them, which shows a variety of psychedelic imagery. The band is a highly functioning machine while performing, and Maxwell plays ringleader throughout. I’d best describe his demeanor on stage as “staccato,” which is really to say he’s moving at a mile a minute, whether that’s in his halting vocal delivery or switching back and forth between a guitars, synths, pedals and other sound manipulators. He’s a one-man wrecking ball, and his three bandmates are right there at the core because there’s so much to do. Overall, Oscillator Bug’s 25 minute set was extremely high energy, fun and just a bit nuts to experience. More than a few people standing near me commented about how impressed they were after the band wrapped up, and in no way do I disagree with that sentiment.
Things got a little different with The Stargazer Lilies’ performance, but not in a weird or uncomfortable way. It was simply a sonic shift from the technicolor psych of Oscillator Bug into a world shrouded in muted tones and drones. The New York-based trio powered through a 40 minute set that was heavy on ambient and shoegaze melodies. It was glorious and beautiful and loud, which is really just as it should be. One of the main things I came to realize over the course of their set was that they have the word “stargazer” in their name partly because their music intends to be more uplifting than downtrodden (naturally, it’s also a type of flower). You may be inclined to gaze at the ground out of pure genre habit, but pay close enough attention to the way their songs are structured and do what you can to discern some lyrics, and suddenly there’s this positive harmony that shines through the cacophony. That’s a somewhat rare quality for a band like this to have, which is probably why they’ve been steadily on the rise over the course of the last year or so. There are two small areas in which their live show could use some improvement, and those are with the presentation and vocals. I understand that with most ambient drone-style performances the crowd is supposed to let their minds drift and internalize just about everything, but those not fully entranced may find the band’s deep lighting and projected images to be a bit boring. They’re not hyperactive like Oscillator Bug, nor are they danceable and showing crazy videos like TOBACCO (more on that in a minute). Then again, if you’re the filling in that band sandwich, there’s very little you could do that wouldn’t be perceived as boring. Aside from that, Kim Field does great work on the bass, and is equally talented behind the microphone – when you can hear her, of course. Guitars overpower everything in this style of music, but the vocals are there to function as their own gorgeous instrument and if they’re not properly mixed they’ll be completely drowned out. Field’s voice was barely audible during the songs, and the couple of times she attempted to engage in stage banter it was nearly impossible to hear and make out what she was saying. Outside of those couple of things, it was a highly enchanting set.
The evening’s headliner was TOBACCO, but it might make more sense to call the guy “wacky tobacky” based on how much strange and offbeat humor played into his live set. Thoroughly aware that having a crowd watching a guy behind a table of buttons, knobs and laptops while lights flash can be pretty boring, one of the main elements in TOBACCO’s live show are videos projected on a screen behind him. He started his set by showing a clip of “The Jerry Springer Show,” which included a hilarious story that a guest told about finding his fiancee cheating with his best friend. From there, it was all about the weird, wild, perverse and strange, set to pounding beats and highly manipulated vocals. If you’ve heard of TOBACCO and maybe even heard his music, then that only tells one small part of this guy’s aesthetic. Music videos for songs like “Streaker” and “Super Gum” (both very NSFW) give you a much better idea of the visual and auditory madness that’s rules his set. I mean, that second video features re-edited video from an actual porno from the 80s wherein people have sex with a strange, female version of E.T.! Any newer videos that were shown during the performance, including “Streaker,” may have been shot within the last few years but had just the right tint and grain to make it look like a product of the 70s or 80s to keep with a running aesthetic and motif in the world of TOBACCO. So what you do during the set is watch the (mostly) psychologically damaging videos while dancing your ass off. Part of me wants to detail all of the figurative war crimes that my eyes bore witness to, but it’s probably better if you don’t know, just in case you want to discover and explore this box of horrors yourself. So is the TOBACCO live show worth your while? I’d liken the experience to a car crash – it may look nasty, and there’s certainly the possibility that people were hurt, but through whatever morbid Curiosity you can’t help but want to look. The man reaches into the dark recesses of your human inclination and plays around in the blood and pus. You’ll walk away feeling violated and maybe even a little offended, but some part of you also loved it and craves more. It’s incredible how close our sensations of pain and pleasure are to one another.
Here’s where the weekend finally caught up with me. After exiting Grant Park on Saturday night riding high thanks to an excellent set from Cut Copy, I jetted off to a Glen Hansard aftershow that would eventually become my downfall. See, the headlining set for most aftershows lasts 90 minutes or less, so attendees get out at a (somewhat) reasonable hour for another day of festival-going. Well, Hansard seemed to feel like he wanted to give the crowd a proper SHOW, and decided to play for a little more than 2.5 hours. That’s following an opening band, too. It was incredible but also took a more serious toll on my body than expected. Add in an early morning brunch that was previously scheduled, and suddenly I needed a nap just to ensure I’d make it through Sunday at Lolla. So I arrived on the grounds a couple of hours later than I had the previous two days, and missed a couple of artists it might have been nice to have seen. Alas, this is one of the problems with getting older – you can’t always do as much as you might like. Here’s a closer look at the music I saw on Sunday:
After a healthy 30 minute wait to get through bag check (which was a bit longer than Saturday but about equal to Friday), I made it through the gates to find that thanks to plenty of rain earlier in the day, Grant Park had once again become Mud City. Getting dirty wasn’t so much a choice as it was an occupational hazard, particularly if you wanted to get anywhere close to the stage to watch your favorite band perform. I had arrived in time to see the final 15 minutes of London Grammar‘s set, but noticed significant gaps in the crowd where the mud was just so thick nobody wanted to stand in it. That’s not something I wanted to embrace at the start of my day either, so I hung back a bit and enjoyed them from a distance. To my delight, the band was actually pretty fantastic. I think that singer Hannah Reid said at one point that the overcast skies and light drizzle felt just like home, as they are from the UK. And indeed, London Grammar seemed quite comfortable in their performance. My only gripe was that they ended a bit early, with about 20 minutes left to go in their time slot. Of course they’re a relatively new band and only have an album and EP under their belts, so it’s entirely possible they just ran out of material.
Speaking of artists running out of material, the hip hop pairing of El-P and Killer Mike, aka Run the Jewels, also wound up in that same situation. Of course because they’ve had lengthy solo careers they also know a thing or two about stretching for time. When they ended their set with about 15 minutes still left, they came back out and asked the crowd if they wanted to hear some new, unpremiered material from the forthcoming Run the Jewels 2 record. It was something they had “just recorded like five days ago,” and though they claim they probably wouldn’t remember the lyrics, seemed to get by just fine. Following that, they left the stage again, only to return due to chants of “one more song.” They were technically out of material, but did one of Killer Mike’s tracks on which El-P guested before Run the Jewels ever came into existence. As for the rest of their set, it was nothing short of stellar. They plowed through the only Run the Jewels record in masterful fashion, and though the crowd was a bit thin, just about everyone had a blast. Well, except for one person, who got into it with security. El-P stopped in the middle of a track to yell at security for roughing up a girl, only to be told a moment later that it was a guy. Whoops. A brief guest appearance from Z-Trip helped to make up for it, elevating the set to an even higher level than it was already at. As a whole it wound up being one of Sunday’s best, and it’s just a shame so many people missed it in favor of Cage the Elephant or other options.
The 1975 are another band from the UK, and they too pointed out that the rainy, overcast weather reminded them of home. Unfortunately, they didn’t sound very at home during the first half of their set. At first I thought they were dragging a bit out of sheer apathy, like they didn’t want to be there and decided to give a half-assed performance. Watching more carefully though, I spotted a couple of band members drinking wine straight from the bottle in between songs. Singer Matt Healy was also talking pretty slowly and slurring his words, which gave me the impression at least he was drunk. Whatever state the band was in wasn’t increasing their likability, though I’m not entirely sure how many people really cared. They were just there to hear The 1975’s two hit singles “Chocolate” and “Sex,” which they naturally saved for very last. For whatever reason, they perked up for those two, and made me wish the entire set was at that level. I think their record is okay, and from what I’ve been told by friends who know or have met them they’re very nice guys, but their Lolla performance didn’t do much for me.
As the rain began to increase just a bit, I sought shelter in the trees near the BMI stage, where Betty Who happened to be performing. More accurately, I wanted to be there, as I’ve heard good things about the up-and-coming pop singer-songwriter. She’s got two EPs to her name, a full length album out later this fall, and will be opening for Katy Perry on the Australian leg of her world tour this November. In other words, she’s about to blow up. The moderately large sized crowd for her set at Lolla could certainly be an early indicator of future success. They were there to sing and dance, and Betty Who wasn’t about to let them down. While the first half of her set was very upbeat and fun in a similar vein as Swedish pop star Robyn, the last few songs were where things really started to get interesting. She performed one song for what was likely to be the last time in a very long time (for whatever reason), slipped into a seriously crowd pleasing cover of the Destiny’s Child hit “Say My Name,” and then wrapped everything up in a nice little bow with her rising hit single “Somebody Loves You.” Her band played it cool, and was reliable through every twist and turn. She may be on the small BMI stage for right now, but rest assured next time will be a much different story.
Somewhere about three or four songs into The Airborne Toxic Event‘s set, it started to pour. Like soaked to the bone sort of pour. I had my poncho on and was huddled up underneath a large tree but was still getting pretty wet, just to give you an idea of how heavy it really was. It actually almost put a stop to the band’s set too, as they quickly went into their biggest hit “Sometime Around Midnight” and implied that the plug was likely going to get pulled at any second. Yet it didn’t, and they were able to play for their full time in spite of everything. As for the crowd, well, those already stuck in the middle of things just embraced it, while small groups on the outer edges made a break for drier ground. Mostly though, everyone stuck it out with the band, who was extremely appreciative. They kept the energy high, spaced out their singles pretty evenly, and even managed to fit in a new song from their next record. Overall I was pretty impressed, quite possibly because I went in with low expectations in the first place. As soon as the band’s time was up and they left the stage, the rain stopped. Funny how that happens sometimes.
Following that extremely heavy downpour, the wet and muddy conditions became extremely sloppy. It was messy any time you stepped off the pavement, and what used to be puddles had quickly become small lakes. If you knew the right spots to go however, you could stay relatively clean amidst the mud people. With that logic in mind, I ventured over to see how Childish Gambino was doing. If the gigantic crowd was any indication, he was doing quite well. Decked out in an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt and swim trunks, Donald Glover looked like he was on vacation and ready for a day at the beach. He got a day in the mud instead. That didn’t seem to have any effect on him though, as he strutted back and forth across the stage to work the crowd and kept throwing up his hands in an effort to control them like a puppet master. He earns serious points for stage presence and charisma. Towards the end he even tossed some serious pyrotechnics into the mix as well, with gigantic flame cannons shooting up from the front of the stage. With all that flash, was there any substance? I’d argue not really, but judging by how much the crowd seemed to love every second, clearly I was in the minority.
Having stayed for the duration of Childish Gambino’s set, I missed about half of Flume‘s over at the nearby Grove stage. There was a pretty huge crowd already there when I arrived, and it only got bigger as more people filtered over like me from other stages. Given that Flume is essentially an electronica act and that he effortlessly blends his own original compositions with remixes of tracks by popular artists, he probably would have been more at home on the Perry’s stage. Not that stage placement really matters in the end, anyways. People showed up to his set to dance, and he delivered the music that allowed them to do so. Armed with his super cool looking Infinity Prism and busting out remixes of tracks from Lorde and Disclosure (among others), the sounds and crowd enthusiasm reminded me a whole lot of Girl Talk when I saw him perform at Lolla a few years back. Will Flume soon become an equally respected household name in the world of dance music and remixes? That seems like a reasonable assumption.
Exactly 366 days after his Lollapalooza debut on the tiny BMI stage, Chance the Rapper was now primed and ready to headline Perry’s stage. Last year, he attracted such a huge crowd on the side stage that people bled out into the major walkways and caused a huge traffic jam on that end of the park. This year, he managed to fill the huge field set aside for Perry’s and then some. To say he’s become huge would be an understatement, and it’s even more incredible that he hasn’t really released any new material in that time either. Compared to the no frills approach he had last time, suddenly he had all the frills, including gigantic smoke machines, dynamic, multi-colored lighting, and screens for huge graphics. I jammed myself in on the sidewalk as close to the stage as I could get without venturing out into the huge mud pit, and still felt like I was watching from a pretty extreme distance. That was about as good as it was going to get, and I wasn’t planning on staying the whole time anyways. The 25 or so minutes of the set that I saw were pretty fantastic. It’s clear that Chance is not only ready for but fully embracing his sharply rising star in the hip hop world. He dedicated the performance to his home, the City of Chicago, and in turn the city embraced him. He and his full band were still going strong when I stepped away to go and see what else the night had to offer. Afterwards, I heard he brought out R. Kelly for a couple of songs, and even tried to teach the crowd a new dance. Sounds like it was a blast.
My final stop of the entire festival would be a return to The Grove stage, where DARKSIDE were closing out the weekend. By comparison to the other stages, they had a rather paltry few hundred people in the crowd, but anybody that skipped them missed out on one of the truly unique and brilliant performances of all three days. DARKSIDE’s debut album Psychic was one of 2013’s finest, and the duo’s set was just about at that same level. Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington aren’t ones for stage banter, choosing instead to let the music and atmosphere do their talking for them. They sounded fantastic, their experimental electronica consistently shifting between cool dance floor beats and slower, more subtle flavors. The show played up the visual as much as it did the audio, and through careful use of lighting and fog the duo appeared in shadow almost the entire time. The small crowd that was there seemed to love it. Most were dancing, some were whipping around glow sticks on strings, while a couple other guys decided it would be a good time to roll around in the mud while moving to the music. Overall it put a nice little bow on this year’s Lollapalooza, once again providing enough incentive that I want to do it all again next year.
After the first day of Lollapalooza, I was in pretty rough shape. Not following my own advice, I didn’t sit down for about 12 hours straight, and that’s definitely not a pleasant experience for the human body. So I made it a point on Saturday to be smarter and look out for my own well being a little bit more. After all, I needed to power through the full three days. And so the chronicle continues, with a recap of all the music that I saw on Saturday:
Following Friday’s lengthy fiasco that took about 45 minutes to get into the gates due to heavy security, Saturday was light by comparison. This time it only took 15 minutes, either because I went to a different gate or because security wasn’t being as thorough. Either way, it was a benefit, and one that allowed me to see the final 10 minutes of Benjamin Booker‘s set. And oh what a final 10 minutes they were. Having never seen Booker before and only being familiar with a couple of his songs (his debut album comes out in about two weeks), I was immediately struck by his passion. He positively attacked the final three songs of his set, singing his heart out with that sandpaper voice of his, and playing guitar riffs like his life depended on it. Rarely do I witness a live show where I repeat the word “Wow” over and over again just completely impressed by everything happening on stage, but this was one of those times. At the very end of his set, Booker removed his guitar and proceeded to smash it on stage, Pete Townshend style. I’m a total sucker for moves like that, which in turn immediately made me want to declare the set one of the festival’s very best. For all I know the first 20 minutes of his set could have been a total trainwreck, but somehow I sincerely doubt they were. At the very least, Booker has quickly become someone to watch very closely.
From one guitar virtuoso to three, following up Benjamin Booker’s set I walked to the nearby Palladia Stage for the start of Parquet Courts‘ set. I saw them live for the first time last summer, and went in with such low expectations that I wound up being completely shocked by their wild attack dog style of performing. They’re pretty unassuming guys who you might think are slackers with sloppy playing styles, but the delightful surprise is that they’re none of those things. When they get going on high energy numbers like “Borrowed Time,” not only are they pushing forward like there’s something to prove, but know all the right ways to add frills like excessive distortion to push things beyond what you might hear on record. The set list was ordered a bit like a rollercoaster or a wave, building in speed and vigor until a peak is reached, then plateauing out for some slower cuts before racing towards the finish again on the downslope. The band does it all very well, though the quicker numbers that turn the crowd into a frenzied mosh pit can feel particularly special.
Kate Nash has become an increasingly reliable live act over the last few years, thanks in no small part to her embrace of louder and more visceral rock sounds. Nobody is going to confuse her with a hardcore punk or heavier alt-rock artist, though she does seem to be taking notes from the riot grrrl movement and innovative bands like Bikini Kill or The Runaways. She may have had multi-colored balloons all over the stage and she and her band may have worn dresses, but they made it very clear that rock and roll was priority number one. Along the way, Nash screamed, wailed, shredded and ran around the edges of the stage barricades giving the fans a more up-close and personal thrill. She brought a bunch more fans up on stage to dance and have fun for a few songs as well. And towards the end, she encouraged all the females in the audience to pick an instrument and start playing, because the music industry needs more women. If those women turn out anything like Nash, I completely agree.
I wasn’t particularly psyched about seeing the John Butler Trio perform, but I do enjoy a handful of their songs and decided it might be enjoyable if I were to sit down somewhere and relax while listening to their set. That turned out to be a wise decision, as my legs needed rest and my body needed shade. While I did stand and watch a couple of songs, the band wasn’t really doing much on stage so sitting down and listening didn’t change much. Ultimately what I heard and partly saw was a halfway decent, if unremarkable set. They performed the songs almost exactly as they were on record, and sounded pretty good doing so. I only wound up sticking around for about half of their set, as I was soon being beckoned by friends to join them on the other side of the park.
On the other side of the park, Fitz & the Tantrums were performing on the big stage. They’ve become a much bigger, more popular band over the last couple of years thanks to their most recent record, which has spawned at least two hit singles so far. The band treated their set like a gigantic party, keeping the energy very high and encouraging the crowd to participate by clapping or singing along to various parts. It seemed like a show I’d seen before, done by better bands who didn’t seem like they were trying as hard. Shortly after their set, I tweeted that Fitz & the Tantrums are the Dave Matthews Band of funk and soul these days. It’s a statement I stand by, as they had a huge crowd of devoted fans, but very little of the band’s performance could be described as much more than hollow platitudes. A friend of mine would tell me later that day it was her favorite set, and I totally understand why some people might feel that way. In many respects they’ve had the proverbial wool pulled over their eyes (and ears).
Manchester Orchestra is a band that I was passionate about for a hot minute around seven years ago, and haven’t thought about much since. They’ve continued releasing a steady stream of music, and have even performed at Lollapalooza a few times, though I’ve only seen them live once before at a non-festival show back in 2007. As I recall, they put on a pretty decent show back then. The Manchester Orchestra of 2014 still puts on a pretty good, possibly even great show. In a world where the genre of alternative rock has shifted in meaning a bit, they remain one of the true holdouts by still unleashing pummeling guitar work and vocals that require a good scream every now and then. Sure, there are other bands doing the same thing, but very few of them get late afternoon slots at a massive music festival like this one. I suppose what helps separate this band from the pack is their passion and precision. They appear to love what they do, and it shows. Their crowd wasn’t very large – probably one of the smaller ones of the day – but those that stuck around hopefully walked away with a greater appreciation for Manchester Orchestra than they had going in. I know that I did.
Unlike Fitz & the Tantrums’ set from an hour earlier, Foster the People appear to know the secret formula to an exciting live show. What is that secret exactly? I’m not entirely sure – earnestness, maybe? Whatever it was, it worked. The reason I’m comparing Fitz & Foster is partly because they were on the same stage, but also partly because I like both bands almost equally and view them as more hit single oriented than brilliant full album oriented. Whereas Fitz & the Tantrums may have been trying a little too hard to engage with the crowd during their Lolla set, Foster the People found the right vibe, played it cool and stuck with it. Singles were spread generously through the half of the set that I saw, and Mark Foster danced around the stage like he was just there to have a good time and play music for some fans who just happened to number in the thousands. Though I was having a good time, about 30 minutes in I decided it was time to venture back to the other side of the park.
Having seen Spoon headline an aftershow on Friday night, I wasn’t too concerned about seeing their full festival set on Saturday. They’re such a great live band though I wanted to see at least a little bit of it. To my partial surprise and actual excitement, the portion of Spoon’s set that I did wind up seeing was largely different than what I’d seen the night before. Songs like “Jonathon Fisk” and “My Mathematical Mind” are favorites I was hoping to hear, and suddenly my wish was granted. Beyond that, it was a pretty strong show overall. Maybe not quite as amazing as their full set in a smaller venue, but still great. My singular gripe with Spoon at the moment concerns their hit single “The Underdog,” which they’re obliged to play at every show from here throughout eternity. They’ve done away with any actual horns (which is an essential part of the track) and replaced them with artificial keyboard horns. It makes the track sound dinky compared to the muscular recorded version. If they could get just one band member to play trumpet for that song it’d make a world of difference. While I loved Spoon’s set, it’s worth noting a friend told me he was disappointed, claiming they “sound much rawer on record.”
If there was one set on Saturday I was most excited for, Jenny Lewis‘ would probably be it. I’ve been a fan of hers for many years, but had never seen her perform solo until now. It was a long time coming, and ultimately a delight. She didn’t attract a huge crowd thanks to her time slot facing off against The Head and The Heart along with the beginning of Outkast, but it made those of us who were there feel that we were witnessing something a little more special and intimate. About half of her set focused on the new album The Voyager, and the rest pulled from her previous two solo efforts along with a couple of tracks from the Rilo Kiley catalog. Dressed in a lovely and colorful airbrushed suit and with her now signature airbrushed acoustic guitar, people danced and sang along for the full 45 minute duration. What more could you ask for?
Part of me had serious gripes about going to see Outkast. I love most of their records, but this whole reunion thing is essentially a huge cash-in, and they perform the exact same set list at every single show. The sheer lack of spontaneity and the clear dislike that Andre 3000 and Big Boi share towards one another have left me apathetic about Outkast. Yet with a 30 minute window between the end of Jenny Lewis’ set and the start of Cut Copy’s, I decided it might be nice to see the hip hop duo do at least a couple of songs. That side of the park had an absolutely massive crowd that was probably the biggest all weekend. People were shouting and rapping/singing along with their favorite tracks the whole time, which I’m sure was great for them but served as a distraction. In the 20 minutes I spent watching the set from very far away, I got to hear “Ms. Jackson” set to Soldier Field fireworks, plus “The Way You Move,” among other things. It was okay, and then I left.
Officially closing out my night would be Cut Copy, who were performing on the small Grove stage sandwiched in between Calvin Harris and Outkast. There was so much noise coming from those two big stages, you couldn’t really hear Cut Copy until you got pretty close by. But wow, what a great set. Over the course of an hour, they plowed through almost all the highlights in their catalog, including old favorites like “Hearts on Fire,” and new favorites like “We Are Explorers.” A decent sized crowd danced like crazy for the duration, and the band peppered their performance with some really eye popping visuals that only enhanced the overall experience. They closed things out with “Lights and Music,” and everyone went absolutely nuts. My body may have been extremely tired from spending all day on my feet at a music festival, but suddenly I forgot about all of it and just wanted to move my body. When it was all over, the crowd chanted for one more song, and for a brief minute it seemed like the band might come back out and oblige. Sadly, it was 10 p.m. and the noise curfew was officially in effect so nothing happened. I exited Grant Park on a serious high, and primed to do it all again on Sunday.
Considering the way things went, you could say that the first day of Lollapalooza 2014 was dominated by the ladies. On the whole, it was a lot of fun. The weather was pretty good, outside of the 30 or so minutes it rained, and the crowds weren’t even that thick until late in the day. Here’s a rundown of all the music that I saw on Friday:
Following a lengthy wait to get into Grant Park due to new stricter bag checking procedures, I made it through the gates in time to see most of Temples’ early afternoon set. The Australian psych-pop band’s debut album Sun Structures sounds like a slightly weaker, less convincing imitation of Tame Impala. They come across that way on stage too, playing their songs verbatim and without any exceptional charm or extra energy. That’s not to say their performance was bad, it was just a little lackluster when the crowd needed something better. I’m sure the people laying down on the grass nearby were probably enjoying it.
Wildewoman, the debut album from Lucius, has a handful of great and fun songs on it, which I was excited to hear during their set at Lollapalooza. Unfortunately the other half isn’t so great and you can’t get one without the other when you’ve got an hour-long time slot to fill. The two main vocalists in Lucius do their best to look and sing exactly the same as one another, and the three guys playing instruments do the same. Altogether they’re a well oiled machine able to crank out exact copies of their songs as they appear on record. But sometimes you want more than just a gimmick. Lucius showed flashes of spontaneity and experimentation during their set, particularly in the way they used percussion, but it didn’t do a whole lot to lift the level of presentation beyond mediocrity.
After a seeing a fair portion of Lucius’ set, I felt that walking the short distance to The Grove Stage to see how Courtney Barnett was doing would be in my best interest. Two days earlier, I saw Barnett deliver an incredible set to a sold out crowd at Schubas, and had high hopes she could keep that streak going. I was only able to see the final 20 minutes, but oh my what a final 20 minutes it was. Barnett plays her shows with a bass player and drummer, and while they’re both excellent she manages to outshine them thanks to a supremely relaxed vocal style not to mention what appears to be sloppy guitar playing. I say appears because its clear she very much does know what she’s doing and not a single note was off. It’s just her particular and unique style, which is clearly something other artists should pay attention to.
As Barnett was finishing up her set, it began to drizzle a little bit. That drizzle would turn into something heavier leading right into Warpaint‘s set. It’s almost like the band requested the change in weather since their music is built on the ideas of darkness and gorgeous atmospherics. They did what they could to use that to their advantage, crafting a slow burning and often beautiful show that sounded great. The interplay between band members is probably what struck me most, like each one had the ability to fill in any sonic gaps as needed. Sure, it may not have been the most high energy set of the day, but the rain and overcast skies for 25 minutes basically suggested that everyone take it easy anyways.
While the rain had stopped about an hour earlier, the skies were still pretty grey, which also helped out Interpol a bit. Not that they particularly needed that assistance. Over the course of a dozen songs, they proven to be as reliable and engaging as ever. Perhaps that had something to do with the set list, which pulled entirely from the Turn on the Bright Lights and Antics records (their two best) plus included two new songs. The band knows what their finest moments are, and did their best to give the fans those highlights. It was really nice, actually, and to hear the new songs fit in so well with the old ones gives great hope for the upcoming El Pintor album.
In my Lolla Preview Guide, I mentioned that the last time I saw CHVRCHES they were pretty good, but still needed to work on their stage presence to deliver something worthy of the larger crowds they were attracting. At Lolla on Friday, they pulled in one of the bigger crowds I encountered, and this time did an admirable job handling the responsibilities that go along with that. Singer Lauren Mayberry was charming in her stage banter, and passionate in her vocals. There was plenty of dancing and sing-alongs in the crowd, and even though it was sunny out, there was something pretty cool about their light show. Of course a cool light show doesn’t replace stage presence, and while that’s still technically a work in progress, they’re absolutely getting better at it.
Probably the biggest crowd I encountered over the entire day was for Lorde, and that was go be expected given the number of awards she’s earned and chart-topping hits she’s had in the last several months. The teen sensation is living up toe the hype surrounding her, and that includes a dynamic and energetic live show. Clips I saw from her shows just a few months ago looked a touch awkward, largely with strange movements and aesthetic choices, but thankfully all of that is gone. Perhaps it was a confidence thing, or somebody has given her coaching, but she took everything in stride, danced around, was humble with the crowd, and sounded absolutely great. It was pretty amazing to see, and made for one of Friday’s best sets.
After Lorde it was dinner time, so I grabbed some food and wandered over to The Grove Stage to see how The Kooks were doing. Turns out, quite well actually. They’ve now got a few records under their belts, and are true showmen in their sets. Basically, they’re all energy, moving and jumping around all over the stage and trying to encourage crowd participation. Even though I only saw a handful of songs and had a sandwich in my hand, it was clear that everyone was having a great time. The music can get a little bland from time to time, but so long as you focus on giving the crowd something they can dance or sing to, that’s all you really need to keep everyone satisfied.
The last time I saw Arctic Monkeys in 2011, they had vastly improved their live show and appeared to be flirting with the notion of headlining a U.S. festival like Lollapalooza. The crowd for their set then was absolutely massive, and on all counts the band delivered. Now that they’ve reached the mountaintop, how was the view? In short, not quite as great. First, the crowd numbers were down a bit, thanks in no small part to Eminem on the other side of the park. Secondly, their show has become extremely polished. For most artists, being polished live performers is a good thing. In Arctic Monkeys’ case, a little bit of sloppiness is almost required. Many of their songs have this grimy, down in the gutter type vibe, and to remove that element from your show takes something away. So yes, we got everything from “Brianstorm” to “Dancing Shoes” to “Crying Lightning” and “Do I Wanna Know?,” and for the most part it sounded great and came off as effortless and charming. This is clearly a band that has fully accepted their massive popularity, it would just be nice if they could find a little better way to stay true to their roots.
As much as I enjoyed Arctic Monkeys (don’t let my above reaction fool you), part of me also wanted to see how Phantogram was doing as the headliner on the nearby small Grove stage. I stopped over there for about 40 minutes (bookended by Arctic Monkeys), and wound up having a pretty great time. Phantogram’s new album Voices is a big step forward for them, and they’ve really become an act ready for the ensuing wave of popularity that comes along with it. Their crowd wasn’t gigantic, seeing as most were at one of the two main stage headliners, but the people who were there might best be described as passionate. There was so much dancing and jumping around it was equal parts impressive and fun. Sarah Barthel has really grown as a performer since the last time I saw the band, and she was all over the stage getting people riled up whenever she wasn’t stuck behind an instrument. The lighting and visuals were spectacular as well, and honestly the whole thing felt like what might happen if Sleigh Bells were a synth pop band. That’s meant as a compliment. So
So that about wraps up all of the music I saw on Friday of Lollapalooza 2014. We’ve got two more days to go, and I’m pretty excited to see how they’re going to go. I’ll have full recaps from Saturday and Sunday coming up soon, but in the meantime you can get (largely) real time updates and reactions from the festival grounds via Twitter.
After a relatively calm and relaxing start to the weekend on Friday courtesy of artists like Sharon Van Etten and Sun Kil Moon, Saturday at the Pitchfork Music Festival found quite a bit more rhythm and energy and was all the better for it. Not only that, but with plenty of hip hop, R&B, electronica and loud rock bands to go around, it was also the most widely diverse day of the weekend. As with Friday, I attempted to scatter myself around Union Park as much as possible to get a little sample of just about everything. On the whole,the day was rather delightful. Here’s my recap of how it all went down.
I skipped out on the first couple of bands on Saturday so I could finish some writing and post my recap from Friday. That may not have been the best idea as it turns out, because I got word from a few different people that sets from Twin Peaks, Ka and Circulatory System were all incredible and some of the day’s highlights. Of course there were plenty of highlights later in the day too if you knew where to look for them. I arrived on the premises in time to catch most of Wild Beasts‘ performance, which made for a lovely start to Saturday. Their dark and at times intense melodies thankfully translated well to the sunny outdoor festival setting, and much of the crowd danced along accordingly. Singer Hayden Thorpe looked a little toasty wearing a denim suit, and given the highly sexual nature of many of the band’s songs, if he didn’t mind the warmth perhaps leather would have been more appropriate. While a majority of the set list focused on their most recent album Present Tense, they did incorporate a fair amount of older material as well, including a glorious version of “Bed of Nails.”
The last time Cloud Nothings performed at the Pitchfork Music Festival, their set got rained out about halfway through. They were in the final couple of minutes of an extended jam session when the power was cut to avoid a serious safety hazard. The band finished the song anyways, even though you could barely hear them. It was an incredible and memorable moment, one of the best in the history of the festival. Now two years later, the band still seems angry they weren’t allowed to finish their set back then. They come out like a blitzkrieg attack and throw everything they have into a rage-filled performance that doesn’t let up for more than 45 minutes. It drives the crowd into such a frenzy that security is forced to kick all of the press photographers out of the pit within two minutes due to an excess of crowd surfing and moshing. I didn’t visibly see anybody get injured during that set, but wouldn’t be surprised in the least if it happened. Still, it was an incredible display of aggression and release, which I think everyone desperately needed. Mark them down as one of Saturday’s best, no question about it.
Because he’s a member of my Class of 2014, and because his debut EP Worth is….worth your time, I stopped by the Blue Stage for a bit to see how Mas Ysa (Thomas Arsenault) was doing. For the most part, his set was going relatively smoothly. His setup was basically an army of varying different electronic machines on a table, and he spent the majority of time pushing buttons and twisting knobs to get the particular beats and sounds desired. Not the most exciting thing to watch, though Arsenault made things significantly more interesting simply by his behavior and facial expressions. When he’d be playing around with various sounds, more often than not this expression of extreme pain came across his face. Of course he wasn’t in any actual pain, it was just how the music was affecting him on an emotional level. You could hear it in his vocals too, which were also modulated with who knows what sorts of effects that emphasized his upper register while giving off the impression he was singing underwater. Those vocal moments were also when he broke away from his table of electronics to bring a greater physicality to the performance and the points he was trying to get across. My only real issue was that it didn’t always sound like Arsenault was singing on-key the whole time. Maybe it was the modulation effects or maybe it’s his own unique yelping style, but there were moments when I genuinely said to myself, “That doesn’t sound quite right.” All the instrumental stuff was fine and great, it was just the vocals every now and then that threw me off.
Speaking of throwing people off, Pusha T wasn’t exactly doing himself any favors by starting his set 35 minutes late. Apparently his DJ failed to show up on time, and that was the cause of the delay. As a result, he did his best to make the most of the 25 minutes left for his time slot. He raced through track after track, often cutting each one off after a verse or two, just to ensure he touched on the maximum amount of his catalogue. In spite of everything, it was a pretty decent set, almost as if Pusha was working extra hard to knock it out of the park to make up for the earlier issues. It makes me wonder though how much better it might have been had he used those first 35 minutes and actually performed full tracks instead of only giving us a little taste of each. Maybe next time.
tUnE-yArDs remains a formidable live act, as Merrill Garbus and her band continue to grow with each new record. When she performed at Pitchfork a couple of years ago, she was trapped on the smaller Blue Stage in the early afternoon, yet still managed to deliver one of the weekend’s finest and most remarkable performances. Now graduated to a big stage with a late afternoon slot and a gigantic crowd, she sought to make the most of it. Honestly, while I loved just about every second of the show, it also disappointed me a little. She’s touring in support of the new album Nikki Nack, and devoted much of the set list to songs from that record, which quite frankly isn’t her best. It’s not a bad record by any stretch, nor was her performance, but I feel almost like her ferocity has somewhat diminished. Like, before she was an underdog, but now she’s the alpha and is taking a victory lap. As little as a year or two ago, she would build almost every single song using loops, would go beyond what’s on record to have fun in extended jam sessions, and would invigorate the crowd by yelling things like, “Do you wanna live?” There wasn’t much of any of those things this time around, and now I kind of miss them. Her voice is as powerful as ever though, and the songs are still amazing, not to mention there’s all sorts of polyrhythms and crazy percussion. The point is, there’s still tons to love about tUnE-yArDs, just maybe not quite as much as there was before.
Saturday was a big day for my Class of 2014, and I was particularly excited to see how Kelela would fare in a festival environment. She makes some fascinating experimental R&B, which is nice because it breaks away from some of the more standard stuff that gets the bulk of the attention these days. Backed by only a DJ, she worked the stage with total confidence and control, sticking largely to tracks from her Cut 4 Me mixtape. That brought a different sort of energy to her set – one that was equal parts upbeat, sensual and intimate. The ability to conjure something like that up on a sunny, late afternoon outdoor stage is a rare quality, and it attracted more people over time like moths to a flame. That, and her smooth, syrupy vocals just made you feel good all over. I was quite impressed, mostly that she truly lived up to the hype that goes along with being a promising young artist. Whatever she does next, it should be pretty great.
There’s not a whole lot that I want to say about Danny Brown‘s set, mostly because I wasn’t paying close attention throughout most of it. When I did, all evidence suggested that the crowd was having a great time. When I say great, I mean GREAT. Like hands waving, jumping around, smiling and laughing sort of great. Perhaps that’s because Brown was powering through all of his most excessive and salacious material, while completely ignoring the more introspective and sincere tracks in his catalogue. That’s understandable given the summer festival setting, but also a bit shallow on the whole. You can celebrate with “Smokin’ and Drinkin'” and get into a “Kush Coma,” but those are the favorite topics of almost every other rapper out there. Brown could have separated himself from that world for at least part of the set, and it would have made a great difference. Instead, he told the crowd he wanted to hang out and party. Not much wrong with that. Not much right either.
What can be said about St. Vincent‘s performance at Pitchfork? Nothing really. Over the course of the last several years, Annie Clark has become a powerhouse of rock and roll. Put a guitar in her hands and watch her conquer even the most apathetic of music lovers. Following her highly choreographed live show and tour with David Byrne in 2012 and 2013, the 2014 version of St. Vincent has incorporated many of those same ideas into her sets. There are certain routines for most songs, followed very precisely by Clark and her bandmates. It lacks a certain spontaneity, but looks pretty cool. Besides there’s still plenty of room for freestyling, particularly on the guitar solos, which she absolutely ripped through on tracks like “Rattlesnake” and “Marrow.” Then there’s the slow descent into madness that is the show-stopping finale of “Your Lips Are Red,” leaving her thrashing around in the crowd and on the ground, making all sorts of sonic hell with her guitar. Not only is it thrilling to watch, but also thrilling to listen to. I’ve never ever seen a bad St. Vincent show, and sincerely hope that I never will.
My final stop by the Blue Stage on Saturday was to catch part of the set from the third Class of 2014 artist performing that day, FKA twigs. The R&B artist has been strongly building up hype over the last couple of months with the announcement of her debut album due out in mid-August, and preceded the white hot new single “Two Weeks.” Her set presented a great way to preview the new material as well as get further absorbed into the unique world that she has carved out for herself. The end results were decidedly mixed. She was supported on stage by a total of three percussionists with electric drum pads, which were used for both rhythmic purposes as well as to trigger samples and beats. In some ways her songs were even thinner and more skeletal than Kelela’s earlier in the day, which would be fine if you couldn’t hear the sounds of St. Vincent’s roaring guitar out in the distance. twigs, aka Tahliah Barnett, didn’t do a whole lot to help herself early on either, particularly as the vocals for her first song were more whispered than they were sung. Of course there was steady improvement after that, and it seemed like she found her footing as she moved around the stage dancing to the beats and softly cooing as required. Try though she might, Barnett was unable to reach the same level of intimacy nor display the same level of confidence and poise that Kelela had already shown was possible. The two artists aren’t the same and certainly have their own unique styles, just at the moment its clear one is more practiced and better at performing for a large outdoor crowd than the other. twigs managed to pull in a pretty sizable crowd who were rabid fans eager to hear material from EP1, EP2 and the forthcoming LP1, and most I’m sure felt like they got exactly what they wanted. Personally, I’m intrigued to see if a dark, indoor venue would make for a better live delivery system of her gorgeously fragile songs.
Having seen Jeff Mangum perform solo back in 2012, I was pretty sure what to expect when it came to Neutral Milk Hotel‘s headlining set on Saturday night at Pitchfork. Sure, the songs and setlist were just about the same, but it turned out to be a far different beast than anticipated. First all of the songs sounded mightier and more energized with the full band behind them. In particular, “Holland, 1945” and “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2-3” hit with such a great impact that it drove the crowd into a frenzy that included a strong push forward to get closer to the stage, followed by some actual moshing, which is not really something you’d ever expect from a Neutral Milk Hotel show. There were sing-alongs galore, especially for anything on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and the middle part of the set that was decidedly short on that material allowed the earlier insanity to mellow out a bit. The night wrapped up with Mangum taking a largely solo turn on the epic “Oh Comely,” which is exactly as it should be. With a strict no photos/filming policy (even the video screens were shut off), there was a certain comfort in knowing that the crowd wouldn’t be preoccupied with capturing the show on their phones and instead just living in that moment for once, acknowledging others around you and realizing we’re all in this together. That was probably the band’s intention, and I exited Union Park that evening feeling tired but also more connected.