Despite being their 20th anniversary, I was wholly unthrilled to be attending Lollapalooza this year. My excitement level leading up to the start of the festival was at a near zero level, despite having my weekend pass all set to go. So many of the bands playing were ones I had seen before, and the ones I hadn’t seen I wasn’t all that excited to see anyways. You may be wondering why I even bothered buying a ticket then. The reason was twofold: I’ve gone every year since the festival landed in Chicago back in 2005, and a 20th anniversary is a special thing. Besides that, there were some decent bands playing on the undercard and I kept my fingers crossed for a landmark musical discovery. I’ll get to how that went in a minute, but just before the weekend began, in my mind it was going to be my final Lollapalooza. With increasingly disappointing lineups, higher prices, crowds getting ever larger and the physical toll my body is submitted to over 3 days, as Danny Glover puts it, “I’m getting too old for this shit”. Most of my friends have dropped out in the last couple years citing those same issues, and the fun factor has largely disappeared too. So with a heavy sigh and a negative attitude, I stood in a moderately large line on Friday to get into Grant Park and start my weekend.
Part of me wanted to get drunk and just spend the entire weekend in an alcohol-fueled haze. After a beer and a burger at the start of my Friday though, I started to feel ill. There was a moment though near the middle of the day Friday where a sea change occurred. Not only did I feel better health-wise, but my attitude pulled a 180 as well. I’ll get into exactly what caused it shortly, but needless to say I suddenly remembered exactly why I love the festival and why I wasn’t going to turn the entire weekend into a big pity party. The magic returned, and I never looked back. Music aside though, Lollapalooza still has a few problems that are in need of fixing. Most of the issues stemmed directly from overcrowding, something that naturally comes along with a sell out. With the expanded grounds, something that started last year, much of the body congestion of the past has subsided, save for the areas directly around the stages. When it comes to food vendors and restrooms though, the later it gets the worse it gets. On Friday night I stood in line for 20+ minutes just to get a simple slice of pizza. Saturday and Sunday evenings weren’t quite so bad, but still too long for comfort. Perry’s too, in spite of being expanded to the size of a football field, was ultimately too constrained by the extra large tent that was constructed. After Friday organizers removed some of the panels from that tent just to give people more space. Perhaps they should have just nixed the whole tent idea altogether to allow it the proper room to breathe. Then again, it’s a bit tough to put on a crazy light show or break out your glow sticks in the middle of the afternoon sans tent. The concern at this point is that next year organizers might feel like Perry’s needs even more room to expand and could hypothetically take over one of the areas currently occupied by a larger band stage. That of course remains to be seen, but don’t be surprised if that happens. Ok, let’s talk about the music.
Le Butcherettes, Le Butcherettes, Le Butcherettes! I cannot emphasize enough just how incredible their set was. If you want to know what turned my entire weekend around, Le Butcherettes’ mid-Friday afternoon set did it. I showed up to watch just a song or two because I like their record and quickly found myself so drawn in that leaving became impossible. Teri Gender Bender plays and sings with such intensity that you can’t take your eyes off of her. She runs around the stage, does somersaults, throws her shoes into the crowd and crowd surfs like it’s going out of style. Drummer Gabe Serbian is also a huge asset, playing with such force that he worked himself to a level of exhaustion that culminated in projectile vomiting. It was an epic, infinitely memorable set, and it’s an extremely rare occasion when a band completely wows me on a lark. The purpose it served was to remind me that Lollapalooza and so many other music festivals are largely about discovery – catching that one unexpected set and having an artist win you over by sheer force. Even before Le Butcherettes finished their set, I knew nothing would top it for the rest of the weekend, and nothing did. Still, there were a few other musical highlights worth noting. On Friday I also loved sets by The Mountain Goats and Bright Eyes, but they’re also bands with a lot of years under their belts, making them old pros when it comes to playing live. Saturday’s early afternoon dance party with Friendly Fires was probably the best of the three times I’ve now seen them, and frontman Ed Macfarlane’s trip from the super high stage down into the crowd was a big help in making a gigantic festival a little more personable. Also worth mentioning were strong sets from Phantogram, Death From Above 1979, Lykke Li and Black Lips, which ironically also featured a fair amount of puking. Sunday was bookended with two great live shows, starting with The Joy Formidable’s loud, instrument destroying fun. Then as the rain pounded down harder than it had all weekend, Foo Fighters pushed harder and to much more of an extreme than most other acts. It was as if they were screaming at the clouds, telling them to BRING IT. The crowd, too, stayed for every second and refused to surrender to the elements. That in itself was an unforgettable experience. Arctic Monkeys were also notably great in a shortened set post-rainstorm earlier in the day. I’ve always felt they were a mediocre live act, but there was a spark this time around that just felt so much more right than before.
It’s always tough to say bad things about a band, which is probably why this section will be markedly smaller than the previous one. For Friday, I’ll say the most uninspired live set I saw came from pop star Kerli. Pop star is probably not the right word to use, particularly considering she was playing the tiny BMI stage. Then again, I’m pretty sure Lady Gaga played the BMI stage a few years back. Still, Kerli has a long way to go in both her performance style and songwriting if she’s hoping to reach the next step in her career. In the early parts of Saturday, An Horse’s set really did nothing for me. I think their latest record is simply alright, but as a duo left to their own devices on stage things verged on boring. Straight renditions of your songs while you don’t do much in the way of moving around does not qualify as a good or even okay live show, unless the material is exceptionally strong. There’s a part of me that also wants to mention The Pretty Reckless for their unintentionally hilarious set. I can’t call it bad or even one of the worst things I saw all weekend as it was far too entertaining for that. Put this one into the “so bad it’s good” category. When it comes to Sunday, the most disappointing thing for me was the rain. But since we’re talking music, I’ll also make mention of Rival Schools. Whether it was the scorching sun or poor song selection, something about the band’s set did not sit right with me. The guys were doing a fair amount of jumping around on stage, and that alone is usually enough to help enhance a performance, but not this time. I was left unmoved despite their movement. I realize they have a solid fan base, so perhaps chalk this disappointment up to my own taste – or distaste – for their music.
So what does all of this add up to? In short, despite my initial apprehension and general disappointment with attending Lollapalooza this year, I’m glad I went. The experience reminded me why I like this festival in the first place and why I’ve invested so much time and money going every year. Despite the great time I had over the 3 days, it’s still going to be tough for me to forget the issues I had with it before the weekend started. Attendance may be stronger than ever, but when you book such high profile acts like Coldplay and Eminem, there are massive fan bases for those artists that will gladly pay top dollar to see their favorites. That seems to be what Lollapalooza has become – a massive money making machine aimed at turning a profit first and bringing in quality artists putting on quality shows second. In spite of a weaker undercard this year, organizers continue to luck out with a few key bookings that are just enough to keep some of us on the hook. Death From Above 1979 was a pretty big “get” this year, and the last-minute addition of Le Butcherettes as a Sleigh Bells replacement was the most inspired move of all. The Pitchfork Music Festival can’t book all the hotly hyped acts, which is why Tennis and Cults made it onto the Lollapalooza roster this year, which was additionally nice. But for every one of those fresh bands, there’s a Flogging Molly, a Cage the Elephant or a Cold War Kids, all of whom have performed at the festival at least twice in the past few years. We’re lucky they didn’t book The Black Keys for what would have been the upteenth time in a row. Sure, you’ve got to book 130 acts every year and there are bound to be repeats, but creativity and diversity remain king. Book more hip hop acts. Maybe explore a little more country or blues. Hell, book Taylor Swift as a headliner since it’s headed that way anyways. Or go deeper into the independent and local music scenes. There are plenty of ways to keep the 3 days every year consistently thrilling, and for long-time attendees, it’s just not there as much anymore. There used to be a wholly rebellious and underground spirit running through Lollapalooza. It was there in the first incarnations, and it was even still there in the first couple years it made a home in Grant Park. Dollars and cents, nickels and dimes seem to be the only “spirit” guiding organizers these days, and the festival is quickly becoming the very thing it used to loathe. Selling out is easy. Keeping your dignity while doing it – that’s hard. So I light a candle in the hopes that in their 21st year, a more mature, forward-thinking Lollapalooza will emerge, one that’s seeking a return to its roots rather than staying the course it’s currently on. Allow me to end on a rhyme. 20 years have gone and passed, I hope my attendance at Lollapalooza is going to last.