Let me start this Day 1 Lollapalooza recap by saying that I was (and in many respects still am) disappointed with this year’s lineup. There’s not many acts I am excited to see, but interestingly enough not only did I keep myself occupied today but also had a pretty great time. Chalk that up to one particular performance, which turned my day from potential disaster towards the light. Let’s get right to it, shall we?
Lollapalooza organizers had a program this year in which, for a small fee, you could have your 3-day wristband mailed to your house, rather than forcing you to pick it up upon your arrival at Grant Park. The thought was that such a process would significantly reduce the size of the line to get in and leave fewer exchanges from paper tickets to cloth wristbands needing to be taken care of. Myself, along with about half the people I saw, had wristbands on and at the ready upon approaching the front gates, yet the wait to get in was still upwards of 20 minutes shortly after the festivities had gotten underway. As a result, I missed my chance to see an opening set from Wye Oak. To be completely fair though, my train was also 20 minutes late getting into the city, so that added to my frustration. With a brief gap between missing Wye Oak and the start of Tennis, I headed straight to the beverage tent and procured myself an alcoholic beverage. The point was to dull the pain of the later than planned arrival, and help kick off the weekend on a positive note. Of note, this year, Lollapalooza has completely done away with plastic bottles. Every beverage offered comes in either a can or a biodegradable cardboard box. The days of consuming 20oz bottles of soda are over, friends. Good for organizers for being green about it, but bad on them for not giving us a better receptacle from which to refill with water fountain water. If worst comes to worst, you’re free to bring in your own factory sealed plastic bottles of water, or an empty Camelbak.
Back to the music, the first band I officially saw on the weekend was Tennis. Coming off their strong and breezy pop debut “Cape Dory”, they serenaded the crowd with tales of exploration up and down the East Coast of the U.S. The weather hadn’t gotten too steamy by that point, and performing at the far more shaded Google+ stage didn’t hurt either, so Tennis was a great early set to see. They played a couple new songs live as well, and those seem every bit as delightful as the last record was.
Next on my list would be Reptar, but I had a bit of a time gap waiting for them to set up on the same Google+ stage post-Tennis, so I cruised down Columbus and past the food tents for a moment. The line for the classically great Kuma’s Corner was under 5 minutes, and that in itself was a miracle. Go to Kuma’s at their physical building and you’ll likely be waiting up to 45 minutes to sit and eat one of their delicious burgers. They were at Lollapalooza last year too, where the average wait at their tent was closer to 15 minutes. In other words, I was hungry and wanted to get Kuma’s as quickly as possible. That important mission accomplished, I was near the Sony stage where The Naked and Famous were performing, so I went and checked that out. The crowd was MASSIVE for them, and it was still early on a Friday. After watching a rather bland few songs to end their set, I was more than ready to go see what Reptar was up to.
Turns out the guys in Reptar are a whole lot of fun. There’s five of them, two of which are drummers. One of the guys has a standard drum kit, the other has a snare and bongos and a couple other little things like cymbals. That second guy is also responsible for a few of the sound effects and samples the band uses in their live show. So everybody has a purpose, even the keyboardist who felt like wearing a full-sized spandex bodysuit during the set for no apparent reason. Their energy was high, and that’s meant in the double entendre sense. All the guys bounced around the stage and appeared to be having a blast, and naturally the crowd followed along with that. I had a great time too, but around mid-way through their set I began to feel ill. Perhaps it was the Kuma’s, or the beer, or the lack of sleep I’d gotten the night before, but I was nearly ready to collapse. After Reptar closed out in very exuberant fashion, I needed to find recovery or relief.
After a lot of water, I headed to the tree canopy center of the park where the BMI stage was and Kerli was performing. The shade, the light breeze and the water all made me feel better as I watched 15 or so minutes of Kerli’s performance. She’s a pop star through and through, in the same pattern and on the same track as a Lady Gaga. Just a mere few years ago Lady Gaga performed at a small side stage at Lollapalooza in front of a small crowd, and look where she is today. As I spent the day joking around on Twitter, Kerli was like a gift from the joke gods. I refused to crack any jokes at the time because they were too easy. Here though, let me throw a couple out at you. Kerli’s keyboard player wore a surgical mask the entire time. He was clearly hoping to avoid being infected with Kerli’s bad pop music. And hey, Kerli’s guitar player looks a lot like former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha. My how the mighty have fallen.
So now relatively recovered and in better spirits having been so amused with a brief dose of Kerli, the game plan was to watch a couple songs from Le Butcherettes and then spend the rest of the time at the stage next door for The Smith Westerns. This plan did not happen. After watching just two songs from Le Butcherettes, I knew that I could not leave. If I had left, I would have missed the best thing I saw all day, and will likely see all festival. The band is primarily a project for Teri Gender Bender (aka Theresa Suarez), and she’s got a bassist and drummer to fill out the three piece. Each one of them brought something special to the show, though only Teri proved to be the true master of the live show. The songs are energetic and a mixture of punk rock and alt-rock, while the lyrics can go from English to Spanish in a heartbeat. While the songs sound great on their new record “Sin Sin Sin”, seeing them brought to life is a whole other story. The sheer lengths that Teri goes to, from smashing her head into the microphone (on purpose) to throwing her high heels out into the crowd to writhing around on the ground and doing somersaults to screaming at the crowd from the edge of the stage away from the microphone to climbing over the barricade for some crowd surfing (1 of 2 attempts succeeded), all of it brings with it an intense focus. She was a true menace, a force to be reckoned with on stage, only to be topped for a few moments where the drummer abandoned his post so he could walk to the edge of the stage and projectile vomit. The explanation was that he’d had too much alcohol, and the way he kept puking up clear-ish liquid all but confirmed that. Throw in some wildly fun moves on bass guitar, and Le Butcherettes slaughtered all the other bands performing on Friday. And to think they were added as a last minute replacement for Sleigh Bells.
Cults was next on my list of bands to see, and yet another one at the Google+ stage where Le Butcherettes had just given a best-of-fest-baiting performance. There’s not a whole lot that can be said about Cults’ live set, save to say it was delightful and pulled from their debut record. Madeline Follin was a lovely presence on stage, and the entire band just seemed to be humble and thankful so many people showed up to see them. Hopefully they stay that way for a long time to come.
The screech of death metal blasted from the speakers at the Playstation stage when The Mountain Goats took the stage was like a wake-up call for everyone that had gotten into a late afternoon stupor. As much as John Darnielle is in love with heavy metal, his band’s songs are anything but that. They play sensibly for the most part and in the case of this festival, the mood and tempo were kept light. Darnielle introduced many of the songs, less by telling the full story and more by giving a small bit of background as to what he’s going to be talking about. Most of the material from the set was off their new album “All Eternals Deck”, but plenty of older, more classic tracks worked their way in as well. It’s just a shame the crowd wasn’t bigger, even as Darnielle said he was overwhelmed because the first time he played Chicago it was for a group of about 30.
Conor Oberst has been touring under the moniker of Bright Eyes since they first started up in the late 90s. The people working behind him, playing all those extra instruments, they have changed over the years. This current set of guys and girls did some interesting work in fleshing out the arrangements for songs that were built for quiet spaces and acoustic guitars. Cuts like “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” and “Easy/Lucky/Free” had an extra spring in their step as a result. Oberst himself was in fine form as well, which is a great way to describe their overall set: fine. In so many ways it felt like a greatest hits set, which as a moderate Bright Eyes fan I was good with, even if this really was the last time the band will ever perform in Chicago. I wish I could give Bright Eyes more credit in this situation, but in the end the set lacked a true sense of originality.
When choosing between the recorded music of Coldplay and Muse, I pretty much choose Muse each and every time. When it comes down to which band to see live, that’s a harder call. Muse’s show of excess and a Queen sense of exploration makes it a bit over-the-top. Given that I’ve heard every Coldplay album and would agree with claims that their first two records weren’t utter crap, I’ve also never seen then live. So I chose Coldplay, just to find out what I was missing or not missing. They ran through hit after hit in 90 minutes, smartly sticking close to their earlier material. The crowds naturally sang along, and in fact the band very much encouraged it, leaving out vocals just so the crowd could fill them in. As for all the video screens, the lasers, the lighting rigs and fireworks, it was impressive just how it all looked paired up with the music. A lot of that stuff goes merely to distract you from the real truth: some of this music isn’t very good. But Coldplay clearly have their plan and it works too. I walked away from Day 1 of Lollapalooza 2011 and essentially have a smile on my face, despite being extremely tired. Bed for now. Day 2 recap tomorrow.