Put it in the books, yet another year of Lollapalooza is finished. If you were there, I hope you had as much fun as I did. I also hope you’re in better shape than I am, having barely slept all weekend and never stopping for more than a couple minutes each day to sit down and relax. Yeah it was painstaking, but also a very good time. As a wrap-up to this year’s coverage, I wanted to take a few moments and talk about the great and good, along with the bad and ugly, of the entire festival. Yes, music will be discussed at length, but in terms of amenities and food choices and other things unrelated to what was happening on stage, we’ll talk about that too. Oh, and I have close to 60 photos for you to stare at, chronicling the many musical performances you may have missed either because you skipped them or you skipped the entire experience. So without further adieu, let’s get started.
First and foremost, outside of the music, one of the most exciting things Lollapalooza had to offer this year was a bigger and better Chow Town, this year curated by master chef Graham Elliot. The guy knows his Chicago food, and his hand-picked selections of restaurants was top notch. Not only did you get familiar faces from the past such as Robinson’s Ribs and Lou Malnati’s Pizza, but there were also some higher-end options such as Sunda and Big Star along with some cult favorites like Kuma’s Corner and Smoke Daddy. I’m not exactly what you’d call “cultured” when it comes to what I eat (lobster corn dogs and pan-fried Asian cuisine aren’t so much my thing but burgers and pizza are), but there’s a definite appreciation anyone could have had for the variety and quality of food options. On Friday I was in a hurry and looking to save a quick buck, so I went with a classic deep dish from Lou Malnati’s (at a cheap $3 no less), but I was able to broaden out slightly on Saturday and Sunday. A great pulled pork sandwich can be tough to find, but Smoke Daddy had a portable wood smoker on hand to get the meat perfect, which it was. While I had heard all the talk of burgers at the mouthwatering Kuma’s Corner, when the restaurant was associated with phrases like “hour-long wait” and “no reservations” I decided to save my first trip for a really special occasion. With their booth at Lollapalooza boasting waits of 20 minutes or less, I felt like that special occasion had suddenly fallen right into my lap. Yes, their burgers are $10+, but they’re some of the biggest and best you’ll find in Chicago. So that’s a huge plus for food at Lollapalooza this year, and it was most definitely better than Taste of Chicago. Hopefully the great food choices continue for 2011.
THE LAYOUT AND AMENITIES
One of the other big things about Lollapalooza 2010 was exactly that: the increase in size. For the first time since 2006, Lollapalooza expanded its land in Grant Park to spill over onto the other side of Columbus Drive. They moved Perry’s, the DJ/electronica stage into a huge new space all its own, and found a lightly forested area next to the Art Institute to place one of the side stages. The movement into those areas significantly reduced the sound bleed between stages that has been happening since 2005. They also placed the Budweiser stage on an angle this year, which made it quieter when you were walking towards it from Buckingham Fountain. The Parkways Foundation stage on the other side still faced outward towards the fountain, and it was the loudest thing in the entire park partly as a result (it also had the most speakers and was the big headliner stage each night). Outside of the stage placement, there was more room for everyone, despite organizers increasing the number of people being let in each day. The Buckingham Fountain area used to be something of a bottleneck, forcing people to cram together on one side as the entrance gates to the festival were on the other. This year, everyone had the option of walking straight down the closed Columbus Drive, which was a breeze unless you were exiting the park with the crowd after a huge headliner like Green Day. There were also more beverage areas than ever before but not really more free water fountains. One of the challenges of Grant Park are its relative lack of water fountains, and while I’ve never had much trouble finding one, others apparently have. There’s no logical way to resolve the issue (water areas are indicated on the park map), mostly because installing water fountains in areas where there are none 361 days out of the year is pretty impossible unless they put them in permanently. One way they did improve the water areas this year though was to bring out these steel cabinets with faucets on them that pumped out the water a little quicker and cleaner. Depending on which one you went to, the lines could get just a tiny bit long, but compared to the last few years they were really short. Waiting only 5 minutes for a water fountain was definitely better than waiting 15. Oh, and the restrooms? The port-a-potties lining the two ends of Columbus Drive were plentiful and often without any lines provided you walk far enough down the row. Well done.
THE GREAT MUSIC
As with most music festivals that feature 100+ artists, you can’t dig through all that insanity without hearing at least something amazing over the weekend. If you’re committed enough, you’ll find plenty to love, as I did. Friday seemed to belong to the veterans. Mavis Staples does not make the kind of music I like, and there are very few reasons why I would ever go and see her perform live. Putting her in a time slot facing off against Raphael Saadiq and not much else gave me all the reason I needed to catch her set. She may be getting a little up there in years, and every couple songs she’d have to walk off the stage and sit down to cool off, but boy was she a commanding presence. Between her voice and the pure emotion she puts into her songs, it was one of those special festival moments not nearly enough people witnessed. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy produced her upcoming album, and he also popped up to play a couple songs with her, which was really nice. There was also a cover of The Band’s “The Weight” that was pretty damn mindblowing. Later on in the early evening hours, people were rushing off to see Lady Gaga and missed one of the most exciting acts of the entire weekend in Jimmy Cliff. Like Mavis Staples, he’s also getting up there in years, but while the reggae star has been around for a long, long time, he was as spry as ever on stage. Dancing around, jumping into the splits, and just generally preaching the ideas of peace and love was just plain awesome. That guy knows how to put on a show. I also had the pleasure of seeing half of Devo’s set, which was pretty action packed and mixed with greatest hits. After “Whip It” I made the decision to leave for The New Pornographers, and according to some of my friends, Devo’s set took a nosedive into the abstract and sad shortly after I left. So hey, all’s well that ends well.
Of the younger bunch on Friday, Wavves was at least twice if not three times as exciting compared to the last time I saw him. Nathan Williams has really come into his own and developed a stage presence with a band that can match his youthful exuberance and wit. Plus, the new songs are really fun, and it led to plenty of moshing, crowd surfing, and a good time was had by all. And we can’t forget about the Night 1 headliners The Strokes, who in their long absence from the music scene have somehow gotten better. Well, it helped that the majority of material they played was from their excellent first two albums. Julian Casablancas didn’t move around much, but he was funny in how generally aloof and uncaring he was. Wearing sunglasses at night and being otherwise unaware of what song was coming next, he exuded a slacker cool that kept things loose and away from the eerie tension on stage between the uncommunicative band members. Also, Albert Hammond Jr. deserves special praise for this always-great guitar work.
Saturday started off with a surprise in The Morning Benders. Those guys were so affable and laid back that their set felt like a cool summer’s breeze. It brought a smile to many a face, and the way Christopher Chu built the harmonies for “Excuses” via a looping pedal was a singular moment of greatness during their already wonderful set. At the end of their set they promised to pop over to the side stage area for casual conversation, merch sales and autographs. They were true to their word and nice guys all around. Harlem was also able to cut through much of the early afternoon stupor with their energetic and loose set. A broken guitar string didn’t slow them down in the least, and when the guitarist and drummer switched places mid-set it was like a whole new band that was still equally as good. But if you were looking for sheer thrills and an overabundance of fun, look no further than Metric. They’re much more popular now that they’ve had a solid radio hit or two, but their latest album “Fantasies” is built largely on stadium-sized anthems. They put that to full effect, blasting out choruses that got people singing along and tapping their toes. Fulfilling her role as frontwoman, Emily Haines jumped, shimmied and shaked her way through the set and generally seemed like she was having as much fun as the crowd. The sooner this band gets big enough to play stadiums, the better.
Sunday had some issues outside of the headliners in that many of the acts performing during the day ranged from solid to slightly less than solid. Not a whole lot stood out as being particularly amazing or poor. Whether or not X Japan qualifies as a great live act is up for debate, and that stems largely from their massive camp value. They’re like a cross between Metallica, Kiss and Queen, with songs that are loud, brash, catchy but performed with a high degree of showmanship. Lollapalooza was their first-ever U.S. show though they’ve been around for a couple decades now, and they seemed eager to win over the crowd. There were some definite hardcore fans at the very front of the somewhat uncrowded stage, and by the end it almost seemed everyone was converted and throwing their arms in the air to make an “X”. I wish them the best of luck in the future, even though they’ll probably last about as long as the 80s kitsch band The Darkness in terms of fleeting popularity.
Headlining Sunday was Soundgarden, and they looked like they had just arrived straight out of 1992. Chris Cornell with his long, curly hair back in commission, and the rest of the guys not missing a single step in that time they’ve been broken up. Now it should be noted that the guys in the band didn’t look too friendly to one another, so the rumor mill of exactly how long this nostalgia trip is going to last will be a “wait and see” process. But the guitars were crunchy, Cornell’s voice was as good as its ever been, and it was pretty nice to headbang to a bunch of classic songs for 2 hours. It wasn’t the best set of the weekend, but it was much better than satisfactory, that’s for sure.
There was very little to criticize on Friday, and that’s a testament to how strong the bands playing were. For the early afternoon hours, The Walkmen’s slower and unaggressive set wasn’t exactly playing well with the overheated crowds. At a Lollapalooza aftershow, the band completely ripped those issues to shreds and put on a rousing/inspiring set that I’ll discuss more in length via a separate post. The Big Pink also wavered a little bit in the hot sun, their big songs reduced to more minimalist pieces for much of the time, boring the crowd by simply not getting very loud or fast despite having the ability to do both. Of course they are still young guys with only one album to deal with, so maybe that’s why they were stuck in artistic rather than stadium mode.
Listless is the best way to describe The Soft Pack’s set on early Saturday afternoon. Not that time of day really matters to them. They were pretty so-so when I saw them months earlier in a small club. There’s just something about them, a mixture of decent songs and a workmanlike stage presence that doesn’t exactly click into place when it needs to. Perhaps if they moved around more and put some emotion behind the vocals then they’d have more success. And then there was Green Day. It’s tough to quantify exactly how good or bad their 2.5 hour performance exactly was, mostly because of the strong mixture of the really positive and really negative elements. For one thing, you’ve got to admire the band’s energy and personality. They’re not lacking in either department, and that in turn keeps the crowd going. Playing the songs everyone knows by heart also keeps the crowd going, and there was plenty of that as well (after the obligatory servicing to their latest album “21st Century Breakdown”). Where Green Day really started to veer off course was with their constant need to make the crowd “part of the show”. In the imaginary handbook for performing artists, you’ll find a playbook with about 15 surefire moves to win over a crowd. You mention the city you’re in. You ask the crowd to “repeat after me”. You ask the crowd to put their hands in the air, scream, or go crazy. You shoot off fireworks and other pyrotechnics. You bring random fans on stage to do stuff. You play a cover (or part of a cover) of a legendary song. These are all things Green Day did, and they’re cheap ways to manufacture enthusiasm. The thing is, enthusiasm for their set didn’t need to be manufactured. They’re three punk rockers with a seemingly endless stream of hits that if performed with gusto and just a little bit of screwball fun, go a hell of a lot further than turning “Holiday” into a 10 minute song with four minutes of actual music. While I’m upset with Green Day for resorting to every single “trick in the book”, their set was also endlessly entertaining. 2.5 hours is a long time for a single show, and none of it really failed (no matter how close it actually came). So it’s on that note I say Green Day had one of the best and worst shows all weekend, rolled into one massive behemoth of entertainment. Good for them, but even better if they tone down the antics.
There were a lot of pretty average but neither great nor poor sets on Sunday. Outside of some light ribbing in X Japan’s direction for their over-the-top set, the only real disappointment on the final day might have been Frightened Rabbit. This was my third time seeing them, and maybe they just struggle at festival shows. The first Frightened Rabbit show sold me on their songs and it was in a small club shortly after the release of their “Midnight Organ Fight” album, which has since become one of my biggest favorites in recent memory. The second time the band played Pitchfork Music Festival and singer Scott Hutchinson had partied a little too hard the night before, leaving him hoarse. Now at Lollapalooza, Hutchinson’s voice was fine, and the band wisely played more from “Midnight Organ Fight” than their latest album “The Winter of Mixed Drinks”. What they were shaky on this time was overall energy. On record, many of the songs are at a faster tempo than how they played them live this time, which in turn created a sluggish late afternoon set. It may have been enjoyable for some, but in my experience I know they can do much better than they did at Lollapalooza this year.
So that’s it, my final thoughts on Lollapalooza 2010. You’ve hopefully noticed some of the photos scattered between the paragraphs already, and if you keep scrolling there’s a whole lot more below this. I took a lot of photos and this is sort of the best of the best. I hope you like looking at them as much as I enjoyed taking them. If you were there, I hope they bring back some fond memories too. The one thing I noticed about Lollapalooza this year, and it stemmed primarily from the really exceptional sets I mentioned above, were the smiles on people’s faces. It’s not always about the clapping, because it’s easy to put your hands together and show some appreciation for a band even if you don’t really like them. Faking a smile is far harder to pull off, and I saw a lot of legitimate ones this year. Once again things ran like clockwork and the improvements made ultimately worked to everyone’s advantage. Despite it being a monstrosity of a music festival, I really do enjoy having Lollapalooza to look forward to every summer in Grant Park. It’s a fun, communal and educational experience everyone should have at least once in their lives. If you failed to make it this year, I hope you’ll try for next year. Maybe we’ll get lucky and it will be the best lineup to date.
What were your thoughts on Lollapalooza 2010? Tell me about your experience in the comments section below. I’m interested to hear what you have to say!