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Album Review: Phoenix – Bankrupt! [Glassnote]

The success of Phoenix is just a little bit perplexing. They’ve been plugging away and working hard as a band for close to 15 years now, but it wasn’t until their fourth album, 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, that they finally saw any sort of measurable success. It’s equally strange that the popularity of that record and their introduction to the mainstream populous really offered nothing different or more attractive than their previous efforts. Indeed, this band has been writing incredibly addictive and danceable songs since at least 2000, it’s just not a lot of people bothered to pay attention for all those years. So what changed? Tastes, most likely. Phoenix have been ready and waiting this whole time, the general public was still trying to work up to their sound. Either that, or they had a piss poor team promoting their music until their last record. No matter how you look at it though, the band paid their dues. To those of us that have been listening to them for several years already it wasn’t so much a matter of if they’d ever be successful but when. Spurred solely on the singles of “1901” and “Lisztomania,” they rocketed to stardom, to the point of major music festival headliner status, which when you think about it is about the most confounding thing of thos entire crazy tale. Are two really great, really catchy songs all one needs these days to earn a place along side the likes of Pearl Jam or Green Day or Coldplay? Apparently so. As they cash in and prepare to headline virtually every major music festival in 2013, Phoenix are finally unleashing their Wolfgang follow-up, which is ironically titled Bankrupt!.

The album sounds like they spent a whole lot of money on it to make it sound as shiny and grandiose as possible, which is what you might expect as they’re trying to metaphorically top themselves and extend their shelf life another few years. Yet Phoenix has always been a big, anthemic band with a super clean sound, so you’re not going to notice much of a difference except that they really try to maximize what they can do with that sound. First single and opening track “Entertainment” is a great example of that, aiming for a grand slam sort of synth pop song with a dash of Asian-sounding keyboards to lend the French band a little more international appeal. The song itself is about the band’s experience with fame and singer Thomas Mars’ largely passive feeling about being viewed as this big rock star. Despite it’s aims and very “1901”-like feel, something about the track feels just a little bit off. The fluctuation in tempo knocks it back on its heels a little, and there seems to be some slight hesitation in the band’s approach that prevents them from really, truly, genuinely going for broke (album title pun intended). It may be largely satisfying the masses thanks to the strong and forceful hand of promotion and radio airplay, but that awkward distance makes it feel like the least effective of their major singles so far.

In fact, Bankrupt! as a whole is has less going for it in the way of singles than just about any of Phoenix’s previous records. It’d be nice to think that they weren’t concerned about such things, and maybe they aren’t, but on songs like “Drakkar Noir” and “The Real Thing” there’s a certain forcefulness built into their structure and hooks that feels more coldly calculated than genuine and organic. Despite this small issue on a couple of tracks, less effective single material leads to some interesting and perhaps better developments in terms of overall album cohesion. Whereas Wolfgang could often feel like a record built around its singles with not much else to inspire in between, the new album brings a consistency and pattern that flows far better despite being less memorable. The same can be said for the lyrics, which have continued to grow ever more obscure and random with each new record from the band. Mars often sings in what feels like half sentences, starting one thought but then finishing it with another that comes across as completely out of context. If you’re looking to connect with these songs on a deeper level, perhaps it’s best if you fill in your own blanks and interpret the lyrics in whatever fashion best suits your own life rather than trying to penetrate the impenetrable.

The best moments on Bankrupt! come when Phoenix sound most relaxed and in their comfort zone. “SOS in Bel Air” is the brightest spot on the album, a jittery would-be single that’s well on par with some of the best things they’ve ever done. Sliding from that into the toe-tapping “Trying to Be Cool” makes for the strongest pairing of tracks as well, right before the colossal mistake that is the seven minute title track shows up to add dead weight in the middle of the record just as it started to hit its stride. Still, “Don’t” and the upbeat closer “Oblique City” are great second half highlights that serve to add balance to the album and keep the listener properly engaged. For the legions of new fans that discovered this band via their last album in 2009, there’s enough going on with Bankrupt! to keep you happy. Like Mumford & Sons, who are arguably the biggest thing in music today, the formula hasn’t really changed and they certainly don’t stumble much in the face of what might be seen as overwhelming pressure to maintain their status among that same upper echelon. What’s truly lacking on this record is a sense of drive and experimentation. Then again, Phoenix have never been the sort of band to rock the boat much with each new album. You’d hope that success would afford them greater freedom and more leeway in their sound, but perhaps where they’re truly bankrupt is in the new ideas department. Oh well, after 15 years of hard work and paying their dues, they’re more than entitled to a victory lap.

Buy Bankrupt! from Amazon

Lollapalooza 2012: The Photos

Now that all the written pieces are out of the way, I wanted to share with you the collection of photos that I took at this year’s Lollapalooza. Before we dive in, I want to make sure you’re aware of a couple things. First and foremost, I was not given a press photography pass for the festival. That means I didn’t have the opportunity to stand right next to the stages and zoom in to get photos of sweat dripping off the faces of every artist that was up there. When you see Jack White looking like an ant in one of these photos, that was taken from pretty far back. I like to think that most of these photos are still reasonably decent though, and I tried my best to only select the ones that worked. Secondly, what I’m posting below is only a small sample of the total photos I took over the duration of the weekend. If you want to see the all the photos, head over to Facebook for day-by-day sets. Also, if you’d like to gain a little perspective on what bands I saw and the good/bad of it all, simply click this link to see all of my coverage of Lollapalooza 2012. Thanks! Photos are after the jump.

Lollapalooza 2012: Final Thoughts

This was Lollapalooza’s eighth year in Chicago, and in turn my eighth year in a row attending it. I’ve seen it transform from a tiny little four stage festival on one half of Grant Park to a monstrous behemoth of a fest complete with eight stages and multiple blocks of park space. I’ve stood through oppressive heat, severe thunderstorms, a lack of water and restrooms, gate crashers, mud pits, clinically insane crowds/bands, and those tiny little rocks that always seem to get into your shoes. This year introduced a new slice of fun: the total festival evacuation. And here I thought I’d seen everything. In spite of all those things, I’ve managed to have a whole lot of fun and get inspired by music all over again. It’s become a very well run festival, which I suppose is thanks in no small part to a generous volunteer staff and the huge revenues they make from it every year. Are there things that could still be improved? Sure, but it’s more minor stuff that likely isn’t a pressing concern for anyone. I’ll outline some of that, along with the best and worst music of the weekend right now in my Lollapalooza 2012 Winners and Losers.

Lollapalooza 2012: Sunday Recap

Well, put another one in the books: Lollapalooza 2012 is over. I had a whole lot of fun (as I do every year) and saw a whole lot of great music (which also happens every year). I’ll have a whole lengthy writeup on the weekend’s big winners and losers coming up in the next couple days, along with photo sets of pretty much every artist I saw. So yeah, there’s a little more Lolla coverage coming your way. In the meantime though, let me get to this quick summary of what happened on Day 3. The weather actually cooperated nicely, with a balmy 82 degree high temperature and barely a cloud in the sky. After the oppressive heat of Friday and the severe weather evacuation of Saturday, having one perfect day was just what the doctor ordered. My mental doctor also ordered that I stay home and rest just a little longer than the previous two days so I could make it all the way through still able to walk. Starting the day at noon or 1 PM and then partying until 2 or 3 AM is not a recipe for good health, so I’ve learned from personal experience. Anyways, here’s what I saw and my very brief impressions.

White Rabbits
They did everything a good band needs to do on stage. They were filled with energy and upbeat sentiments, and physicalized those things into something a crowd could get behind. Their double drummer attack and big melodies were very helpful too. Their albums might be a little lacking in creativity on the whole, but the songs morph into something else entirely when they’re performing them live.

The Walkmen
I very much like The Walkmen, but also promised myself I’d never go see them perform again because nothing could ever top the previous time I saw them. The reason I ultimately watched their set was because there wasn’t anything else good on, and it was on my way before Sigur Ros. In other words, The Walkmen were a choice borne out of convenience. That’s pretty much how they treated their set, too. Frontman Hamilton Leithauser may wail up a storm on stage with his gravelly voice, but there’s not much substance beyond that. So no, they were unable to do better than the last time I saw them.

Sigur Ros
Not only was Sigur Ros’ set one of my predetermined highlights of Sunday, but for me it was a highlight of the entire festival. While I was (and continue to be) upset over their 4 PM time slot (they performed at 8:30 PM at the Osheaga Festival two days earlier), it didn’t seem to matter much to the band. They were the same as they always are, soft, beautiful and somber melodies with explosive crescendos made of pure brute force, the whole thing anchored by Jonsi’s angelic voice. New song “Varúð” was part of their shortened festival set, and it fit in perfectly. With the vast size of Grant Park as their canvas, the band accompanied by their orchestral friends in Amiina painted a picture so beautiful you couldn’t help but be inspired.

Toro Y Moi
I wish I could say a lot of nice things about this set. The last Toro Y Moi record was really good, and hopefully the one coming out later this year will be too. The new songs previewed sounded solid, but then again so did pretty much everything. It was a lovely dance party if you were only listening to it, but watching was a whole other matter. The band may have been bobbing their heads while performing, but frontman Chaz Bundick didn’t seem to know how to engage the crowd. In other words, it was good, but it could have been much better.

At the Drive-In
If you saw At the Drive-In perform when they were still together over a decade ago, you understand the power of their performances. They’re high energy and intensely fun, with Cedric Bixler-Zavala as key ringleader and mischief-maker. Watching them reunited at Lolla, they haven’t lost a single step. Jumping off the bass drum and throwing the microphone stand into the air are just a couple of the wild things that happened during their set. Even technical difficulties couldn’t stop them from entertaining the crowd, filling the time with awkward stage banter that encouraged people to throw their shoes on stage. What’s missing in the end is only a deeper connection to the crowd. ATDI are a band of the people, and having them perform atop a high stage was almost like the difference between animals in the zoo and animals in the wild. So long as it’s not life threatening, you want to be as close to the animals as possible.

After their set was cancelled thanks to the storm on Saturday, DJ Mel was bumped from Sunday evening’s lineup to make room for Chairlift instead. With a new album full of really catchy synth-pop songs to perform, they dove right in and never looked back. With Florence + the Machine having just finished their set at the neighboring stage and Jack White set to start on the opposite side of the park, odds were against Chairlift. The stage may have been larger than the one they were originally scheduled to perform on, but the crowd was arguably smaller thanks to those tough time slot choices. Their set left me pleased, especially when frontwoman Caroline Polachek spun around or clapped/snapped. Call it a harmless but rather enjoyable late Sunday night set.

Jack White
In case you didn’t know it already, Jack White is the MAN. He’s one of the best guitar players living today, and to hear him tear a song to shreds is invigorating and inspiring. Naturally then, his headlining set was exactly that, along with a fair amount of showmanship to elevate the whole thing. There was the blue and black color scheme, and the two different backing bands, one all male and the other all female. They switched them out in the middle of the set, and thanks to the quiet duet of “Love Interruption” it went seamlessly. There was material from his solo debut album, with a handful of tracks from his other projects including The White Stripes, The Dead Weather and The Raconteurs. There were even a couple covers thrown in for good measure. Of the three major stage headlining performances I saw this past weekend, this was easily my favorite.

Lollapalooza 2012: Saturday Recap

Day 2 of Lollapalooza 2012 was a short one. That is to say, a few hours were cut out due to inclement weather. By “inclement” I mean severe storms the likes of which Chicago hasn’t seen in a little while. They evacuated Grant Park for the first time in Lollapalooza history, undoubtedly scared at the prospect of a potential stage collapse that might kill some people. So from about 3-6 PM no bands performed and while some were rescheduled, others were cancelled entirely. One of the bands I was most looking forward to, Chairlift, was unable to perform as a result. But I did get to catch a few bands on Saturday, mostly after the storm. Here’s a quick summary of what I saw, which I will expand upon at a later date.

The only band I saw before the evacuation, and they were the perfect start to my day. Their upbeat energy was contagious, and the crowd was totally into it. They stuck with the great stuff on their debut album In Light, and made it even more exciting and catchy than ever. GIVERS are definitely going places.

After the evacuation and rain delay and the release of a revised schedule, I was with some people that desperately wanted to see FUN. I went along for that ride, even as two of my favorites The Tallest Man on Earth and tUnE-yArDs were also playing at the same time. One thing I learned is that people love FUN. They love FUN. in the same way people love Neon Trees and the like. I am not a fan, but stood there trying to understand the appeal. What I took away from their set was that they’re high energy and really appreciate their fans. They’re also a little better than what their hit single might suggest. So there’s that.

The Weeknd
After a food and restroom break that took far longer than anticipated, I stumbled through the mud to see half of The Weeknd’s set. Turns out Abel Tesfaye (the man behind the project) is a pretty strong live performer. As a full band, they haven’t put on too many live performances, but you wouldn’t know that from watching them. Tesfaye’s vocals are the heart of it, and while he’s not quite Frank Ocean, he’s of comparable quality, which is meant as a compliment.

Bloc Party
The last time I saw Bloc Party was the last time they played Lollapalooza a few years ago. I wasn’t too impressed then, and apparently neither was frontman Kele Okereke. He said that he didn’t enjoy his last Lolla experience, but was having a much better time this time. It sure sounded like it too, as their set was better and more memorable than before. They kept the tempos strong and the hits coming. The couple new songs they played felt a little shaky, but maybe that’s how they all start before you’ve heard them a hundred times.

Red Hot Chili Peppers
What can I say about this performance. I’ve seen RHCP a couple times now, and they tend to be okay live. The live versions of their songs often have a little extra kick to them thanks to a funky bass solo from Flea or extended outros and such. Flea remains the band’s stronghold and focal point, the only real treasure now that John Frusciante is not with them anymore. Anthony Kiedis does all sorts of posturing on stage, but the real tragedy was that he seemed to forget a few lyrics. It made things interesting, to be sure. That, and the off-key renditions of RHCP hits done by every single person standing around me made for a pretty shrug-worthy performance.

Frank Ocean
Due to the modified rain delay schedule I didn’t see, I had no idea when Frank Ocean was performing. Somewhere around 10 PM I wandered over to his stage, and he’d been on for at least a 20 minutes or so. Because I also had an aftershow to go to and sets were pushing well past the curfew time, I couldn’t stay and watch the rest of Ocean’s set. I caught 3 songs, and they were all spectacular. His album Channel Orange is one of 2012’s best, and as a live performer he makes every single kind word said about it justified. The man is now a bonified superstar in both the studio and on stage. It was probably the most impressive thing I saw all day, even if it was only 15 minutes worth.

Lollapalooza 2012: Friday Recap

With Day 1 of Lollapalooza 2012 in the books, let me give a very brief rundown of all the bands I saw today, and my on-the-spot reactions to their sets. I’ll have photo sets for you and some longer collected thoughts once the weekend officially wraps up. Until then, my Twitter account is the best way to keep up with all the happenings in Grant Park, though my reception has been spotty at best. I may have social media blackouts for a few hours as a result. I’ll do my best to keep you all updated as possible though.

Yellow Ostrich
I only saw the last half of their set. They were dealing with sound issues and to me came off as lackluster and not the best way to start my day.

The War on Drugs
This is where I should have started my day. The band also had some sound issues, but got them cleared up quickly and put on a very rousing set anyways. Better than I anticipated it to be, too.

Sharon Van Etten
I’ve seen Sharon Van Etten twice before, and this third time was probably my favorite. Her band seemed tighter than ever, and her vocals were seeped in emotion. She didn’t even need to use words. Her tone said it all.

Tame Impala
Big crowd for these guys, who I really like on record. Turns out they’re just pretty good live. Maybe it’s more that their psychedelic songs aren’t as friendly when you’re outside in 90 degree heat.

The Afghan Whigs
Dressed in all black, the band hit every necessary note in their amazing catalogue. They played like they hadn’t lost a beat, and Greg Dulli wailed like a man possessed. Tragic that so many went to see Metric instead of this classic band. Oh, and lest I forget, their cover of Frank Ocean’s “Lovecrimes” is one of my early weekend highlights.

Die Antwoord
Here’s my other weekend highlight. I wouldn’t consider myself a Die Antwoord fan, and I don’t really listen to their records often, but they surprised me in a big way with their live show. They’re super energetic and weird (in a good way). They worked hard enough to make their set very memorable, and for that I give them full credit.

Passion Pit
With the reported mental health issues frontman Michael Angelakos is going through, I was concerned how it might affect the band’s live show. Turns out, not at all. They’ve gotten even better since the last time I saw them a few years ago, and the absolutely massive crowd was eating up every last note.

The Shins
I had to jump away from Passion Pit to see The Shins because I really like both of their latest records. I only wound up hearing a couple of new tunes, supported mainly by classic standbys off the Chutes Too Narrow album. Honestly, that was perfect for me. It lacked the outward fun party energy of Passion Pit, but offset that with great attention to detail.

I think this was the biggest crowd I was in all day. I could only stay for 20 minutes before having to run across the park for Black Sabbath, and what I was able to hear was excellent but not nearly loud enough. The crowd seemed to only care about the hits on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, because classics like “Teen Angst” and “Colours” were met with shrugs. Too bad.

Black Sabbath
I never paid that much attention to Tony Iommi before, but after their set I was convinced he’s one of the 10 best guitarists still living today. The man hit every note with precision, and that’s with questionable health too. Ozzy was Ozzy, playing ringleader and encouraging the crowd to cheer louder or throw their hands up or whatever. He was mostly on target vocally, but slipped now and then, something all too easily forgiven considering his age and history. Bill Ward is certainly missed, however fill-in drummer Tommy Clufetos did an admirable job, especially on some big solos. The band hit all the important marks, including “Iron Man,” “War Pigs” and “Paranoid.” I wish them all the best and don’t regret missing The Black Keys for a second.

Lollapalooza 2012: Preview Guide

Hey friends! I’m happy to present you with Faronheit’s Guide to Lollapalooza 2012. Whether you’re headed to the festival this year or would just like to learn a little more about the artists performing on this year’s lineup, hopefully this guide will point you in the direction of the acts you won’t want to miss. Before we get started, I should go over a few details to help you interpret this properly. The purpose of this guide is not to analyze every act on the lineup and weigh who you should go see at what particular time. Simply put, I picked 10 acts from each day, irregardless of what time they are playing, and attempted to explain why they’re worth seeing. It’s a very good lineup this year, so choosing only 10 from individual days was tough, but I like to think this is distilled down to help you have the best possible Lollapalooza experience. I should note that some of the small side stages and Perry’s go largely ignored in this guide, because I think if you want to know where to go for dance parties or American Idol runner-ups, you can find them yourselves. Speaking of finding things, make sure you look at the festival map before going to Grant Park, if you’ve never been before. Knowing where the stages are located and that it’s a 15 minute walk from one side of the park to the other is very, very important. In the guide below, I’ve indicated when and where the acts I’m recommending are performing, and they’re ordered by time slot to help plan out your day. Additionally, if you’d like to hear music from the artists I’ve mentioned below, along with a bunch of other acts, there are links to individual day Spotify playlists for your enjoyment. I’ve structured those playlists thematically rather than by time slot to provide you with the best possible listening experience. All that said, I hope you’re ready to have a lot of fun this weekend. Drink plenty of water, dip yourself in sunscreen, and try to rest whenever possible. Those are my tips for surviving the weekend. Without further ado, click past the jump to view my Guide to Lollapalooza 2012!

Lollapalooza 2012: The Lineup

It’s that time of year, friends: Lollapalooza lineup time. Spring is in the air, but soon enough summer will be here and so will Chicago’s great music festivals. Unless you bought tickets well in advance, I’m sure this year’s Lollapalooza lineup will be the deciding factor as to whether or not you make your way to Grant Park this August 3-5. Ticket prices have risen this year, no doubt in part because the supreme tax deal the festival was getting from the City of Chicago has all but gone away. Early bird tickets have all sold out, and general 3-day passes are currently on sale for $230 (service fees included). Is it worth the cost? Well, that’s for you to decide. The full lineup is listed below, and is headlined by Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Black Keys, Black Sabbath, Jack White, Florence + the Machine, and At the Drive-In. Okay, so those last 2 headliners don’t really seem like they deserve the official “headlining” slot. I’d argue that The Shins and Sigur Ros are more deserving of headlining than Florence + the Machine and At the Drive-In are. That said, I’m still excited that reunion acts Black Sabbath, At the Drive-In and The Afghan Whigs will be there. Other noteworthy acts include Passion Pit, M83, The Weeknd, Bloc Party, Metric, Childish Gambino, tUnE-yArDs, The Tallest Man on Earth, Of Monsters and Men, Alabama Shakes, Tame Impala, The Walkmen, Neon Indian, Dum Dum Girls, Washed Out, Givers, Chairlift, Sharon Van Etten, Polica, First Aid Kit, FIDLAR, Bombay Bicycle Club, Bowerbirds, JEFF the Brotherhood, and Chicago’s own JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound. If you’re a fan of Perry’s electronica stage, Avicii, Justice and Bassnectar will all be headliners, with others sets from Kaskade, Calvin Harris, Santigold, and Little Dragon, among others. Again, have a look at the full lineup after the jump. If you ask me, this is pretty damn good. Worth the price of admission? I’d say so. Buy tickets here.

Lollapalooza 2011: The Photos

Yes, it’s been nearly a week and a half since Lollapalooza ended. I’ve written piece after piece on it. I’ve said all I’m going to say about it for 2011. All I’ve got left is to SHOW you some of the things that went down. So this is a collection of edited photos that I snapped over the course of the 3 day weekend. As it gets later in the day and the crowds built up, my photos got further and further away. Which explains why the headliners look like little dots in the background. What can I say – I did what I could. I hope you enjoy these (mostly good) photos. Perhaps we’ll do it all again next year. Click past the jump to see the assortment, in the order I saw each band in.

Lollapalooza 2011: Final Thoughts

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.

The Highlights

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.

The Lowlights

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.

In Conclusion

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.

Lollapalooza 2011: Day 3 Brief Recap

Well THAT was an interesting way to end a weekend. Sunday at Lollapalooza was thrown into an interesting gear thanks to a couple rounds of severe weather that turned Grant Park into something that more closely resembles a lake than a field. The music continued with only minor delays, and when everything was said and done nobody walked away from the weekend without at least a smattering of mud on them. It was a wild time, and had its moments of triumph in spite of the harsh conditions. Allow me to briefly recap the 3rd and final day of Lollapalooza 2011.

My day started off a slight bit later than the first two days, thanks to Sunday brunch and general fatigue. Everyone was looking a little worse for the wear on Day 3, but that’s perfectly normal for a festival of this sort. A couple hours before the gates opened, a heavy downpour came through and created a number of large puddles around the park, and grounds crews did their best to throw some quick dry down to help harden up the ground. Still, things were a bit sketchy during Gold Motel‘s set. The good news was their set was at the Playstation stage (aka the Petrillo bandshell), which is the only paved/permanent stage in the entire park. I arrived just in time to catch their last few songs, all of which were pretty good. I’ve seen Gold Motel once before and they impressed me – this time was basically an extension of that. I’ve got no complaints, except to say maybe the crowd was too small. 12:30pm on a Sunday isn’t exactly a big crowd kind of time though, if you know what I mean.

While part of me had the itch to go see Titus Andronicus in their early afternoon set, I wanted to broaden my horizons a little more and see a band I had never seen live before. The Joy Formidable filled that gap in nicely, and was most convenient for me stage-wise as well. The band’s debut full length “The Big Roar” is filled with excitable and boisterous tracks that often have squalls of white noise in them. That also makes for a pretty good description of their live show, good energy with a heavy dose of loud. While most of the set was solid if not slightly above average, they moved into an amazing category courtesy of their latest single “Whirring” that wrapped it all up. They took an extended outro to the song and destroyed much of the stage using their guitars, which included beating both a gong and a bass drum into submission. If you’ve never seen a person smash a guitar into a gong before, I’d advise you to find a way to catch it – it’s very thrilling.

Rival Schools came on right after The Joy Formidable, and the post-punk/alt rock guys brought a legacy with them. They played with energy and attempted to be engaging with the relatively meager crowd, but ultimately it seemed to be a futile effort. Their stage presence and technical prowess weren’t lacking, but I think their main fault was with their actual songs. For being around for so long, there’s a reason why they aren’t bigger. There’s clearly some who relate to and enjoy their music, but I think I can say that I’m not one of them. Sometimes an overpowering live show can make bad music bearable, but unfortunately I don’t think that was the case here.

With about 10 minutes to go before their set started, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart were carefully soundchecking. And soundchecking. And soundchecking. When it came time for their set to officially start, they left the stage for a minute and then came back…and soundchecked again. It took a few more minutes, but eventually they got to a point where everything sounded the way it was supposed to. Or at least sounded manageable to them. To me the first half of their set came across as weak – not that the material or the stage presence was bad, but rather like we were listening to a set being broadcast in mono instead of stereo. It lacked a certain strength. When they got around to “Come Saturday” though, the guitars suddenly sounded beefed up and powerful, remaining so for the rest of the set. Call it a worthy recovery that hopefully won the band a lot of new fans.

If you’ve ever heard a single song from Flogging Molly before, then you likely know what you’re getting into going to see them live. It is always a party, filled with energy and a certain rowdiness. Grab a pint of Guinness, slam it down, and then bounce around with some strangers. The crowd was big, and so were the mosh pits, and if you were in the vicinity you easily could have wound up covered in beer. That’s just the reality of the Flogging Molly live show. I’ve never had a bad time seeing them live, and hopefully you haven’t either.

At the end of Flogging Molly’s last song, somebody pointed out to me that there were some very dark and threatening storm clouds moving over the park. The sun suddenly vanished and things started to look dangerous. Cage the Elephant took the stage and began to plow through their set with remarkable energy that also included frontman Matthew Shultz jumping into the crowd almost immediately. They ran through a number of their radio hits before the sky finally opened up and a massive torrential downpour struck hard. Most were unprepared for such a storm, having only the clothes on their backs and nothing in the way of ponchos or umbrellas. The trees and a scattering of tents became the only form of shelter for 90,000 people, and it was NOT a good situation. I brought an umbrella but still couldn’t bear to continue standing out in the open as the bottom half of my body was getting soaked because the rain was so heavy and a light wind was pushing it more sideways. So I wound up spending a good 30-45 minutes under tree cover, and in the very far distance I could hear bits of Best Coast performing. I wish I would have made it over to have seen their performance. That was the plan before the weather hit.

As the storms eventually subsided, I made my way across the park to catch what was left of the set by Arctic Monkeys. Turns out, they hadn’t even started, the organizers putting up a “Weather Delay” sign on the video screen while we waited for the rain to fully stop. A few minutes later it did, and the band came out to thunderous applause. Their set was shortened by about 15 minutes, but they made the absolute most out of the time they were given. Having seen Arctic Monkeys a couple times before, I’ve always been rather unimpressed with their live show. It was an energy issue mostly, with problems also stemming from appearing to play every song exactly how it sounds on record. This time there was a vibrancy I’d never seen before, and the songs cracked like bolts of lightning in the post-rainstorm environment. Perhaps it was simply the joy of the rain having stopped that brought everyone’s spirits up, or maybe that was just me. Or maybe Arctic Monkeys have gotten markedly better live since I last saw them 2 years back.

My intention was to see most of the pre-Foo Fighters set from Explosions in the Sky, but thanks to the explosions of rain from the sky a short while earlier, much of the park was underwater. As a result, moving around became exceedingly difficult, as did navigating the area directly surrounding the stages. The goal was to either give up and just allow yourself to get covered in mud, or choose your steps carefully and try to stay as dry as possible. I went with the latter, which meant skipping EITS to seek the drier land of pavement known as Columbus Ave. for some dinner. Sorry boys, what I heard of your set from across the field was a delight.

Last but certainly not least, Foo Fighters had a 2 hour musical extravaganza to close out the festival. They started, quite naturally, with “Bridges Burning”, the first track off their new (and great) record “Wasting Light”. It was around that time I noticed those super threatening storm clouds had shown up again, looking more menacing than ever. A good gauge to determine how bad a weather system will be is to stare at the Willis Tower and see if the top of it is visible. Not only was the top half of the Willis invisible, but a whole bunch of other buildings close to it were completely gone. Low hanging clouds mean rain, and boy did it rain. In spite of the extreme downpour, nobody blinked. The crowd didn’t move. They danced in the rain. The Foo Fighters rocked harder than ever. The entire band was covered in water from head to toe, completely slaying “My Hero” while everyone sang at the top of their lungs. Mud was everywhere. Puddles and flooding was everywhere. Nobody cared anymore. It was nature throwing all it had at us, and we held our heads up high and threw it right back. 20 minutes later, the clouds had moved past and the skies had cleared once again, but there was still a rock show going on. It went on for another 90 minutes, in which Foo Fighters played hit after hit after hit and the crowd just ate it all up. It was, in a word, awesome. In the case of man vs. nature, man won. I can think of no better way to close out the 3-day weekend.

Lollapalooza 2011: Day 2 Brief Recap

Yesterday I claimed I was writing a “brief” recap and it turned into a multi-hour write fest that concluded with me falling asleep on my keyboard more times than I can count. Today, I’m telling the truth. This will be quick and hopefully cleaner than yesterday’s recap. Lots of interesting artists I happened to catch. I bounced around on Day 2 much more than on Day 1, and probably more than I will for Day 3. Still, it was a whole lot of fun. There wasn’t a singular standout moment for me, but there were plenty of pretty good ones. Allow me to run the whole thing down for you, again, in brief form.

My day started over at Grouplove, a band I’ll confess to knowing not a ton about. I have enjoyed the music I’ve heard from them, and seeing them live it was no different. They were a whole lot of fun and a delightful way to start Saturday.

An Horse was next, a decision I made in the hopes that they’d pull out a fantastic set. I have a moderate respect for their latest album “Walls”, but not to the point where I’d ever actively seek out their live show unless my other options were less desirable. Now that I have seen the Australian duo live, I can tell you – they’re nothing worth writing home about. They were just okay in their set, not great, and not terrible.

In terms of duos, Phantogram turned out to be much better. Of course they performed as a trio with a drummer on hand, but I don’t know if that made a difference. It rained for the first half of the band’s set, and in many ways Phantogram is better when it rains. The music, at least, lends itself to a darker and more depressing day. Yet they were positively vibrant on stage and the songs from their last album “Eyelid Movies” and an upcoming EP were well translated outside of the studio.

Bouncing over to the other side of the park, the sun had re-emerged just in time for Friendly Fires. What followed was a massive dance party, as should be expected. These guys were great the two times I saw them in small clubs, but with a huge stage and an energized crowd to work with, they made the most of it. The songs only got bigger and frontman Ed Macfarlane only got more daring in his on stage bravado. Climbing over the barricades and dancing in the middle of a crowd for “On Board” while not missing a single word was impressive and super fun. Also super fun: the massive dance circles I encountered. It wound up making for one of, if not the best set of Saturday.

Black Lips were up next, and as soon as they emerged on stage Evil Jared spit into the crowd and another guy shotgunned a beer. From the looks of it, they were setting up for one of their more active and insane shows. Cooler heads prevailed in the end, at least on stage, and the band gave an excitable but not necessarily out of control performance. The crowd primarily loved it though, judging purely by the high number of crowd surfers.

I wanted to make sure that I didn’t miss all of Dom‘s performance, so I skipped out on Black Lips a touch early to go see that. If you’re familiar with the music of Dom then you know it’s a lot of sun-soaked, catchy throwback pop. Seeing it done live, there was not much difference between the recorded versions, though a cover of The Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry” was a nice added touch. With such strong material, you’d hope for an even better show. Given how young this band is though, maybe that will come with time.

One of the most highly anticipated sets of Saturday, and arguably the entire festival, was Death From Above 1979. Crowds swelled and there was the fear that if a large enough group of people were to get violent, there could be serious injuries. Thankfully logic and heat did a nice job of keeping everyone in check. The band sounded fantastic, but like many duos performing this weekend, they lacked a certain engaging visual component. Watching drums get pounded and guitars/keyboards get played is one thing, but bouncing all over the stage and showing a little life is even better.

After a majority of Death From Above 1979’s set, I pulled the full trek and went over to see how Big Audio Dynamite were doing. They’re the “legacy” act of the day, the band that you knew from the 80s, now reunited with the original lineup. It should come as no surprise that these veterans knew what they were doing, both in their old studio material and today. They wound up playing a bunch of new songs from a new album, which ironically sounded like a lot of their old songs. The great news is they were ahead of their time back in the day, and music is just now catching up. Still, tracks like “E=MC2” and “Rush” made for a more than solid set.

In what world are Local Natives considered more popular than Big Audio Dynamite? The Lollapalooza world, apparently. Having only one album to work with, Local Natives put on a decent set where the vocal harmonies were the stars. After awhile things slowed down and the crowd became restless, but an exceptional rendition of “Sun Hands” turned it all right once again.

At this point, I saw The Pretty Reckless were playing at a small stage, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see Taylor Momsen in action. If you don’t know who that is, let me give you a super fast primer. The teenager used to be one of the stars of “Gossip Girl”, that is until her band got some legs underneath it. She’s also courted controversy by chain smoking and wearing tight and revealing leather outfits – all before turning 18. The music itself is of mediocre quality, and the main reason I went to see their set was to heckle the band. The whole thing was hilarious, though I will say that Momsen is a talent to watch. If she gets smarter, hires a new band and completely changes her sound, there’s real potential in her future.

I’ve been raving about Lykke Li ever since I first listened to her record, and her live show back in the day only made me fall harder. Well, it seems like the secret’s out, because not only was her set at Lollapalooza one of Saturday’s most attended, but she’s even upped her own game just a little bit. The new songs were great live, and her dancing is second to none. Expect her to go even bigger and better in the next couple years.

Last but by no means least was headliner Eminem. I chose to see him over My Morning Jacket and Beirut because I had seen both those bands before. Eminem was something new, and I wish I’d seen him back in his heyday closer to 2001. He hasn’t been back to Chicago in ages either, and who knows when he’s coming back. His set was primarily a mixture of all his hits, but what’s moderately odd was how he never actually performed anything from start to finish. Instead it was almost always a 1-verse thing, buttressed by those memorable choruses. I suppose all the shortened songs were to ensure that as many were gotten to as possible within the 90 minute time frame. Either way, Eminem’s set was also bolstered by guest spots from Bruno Mars and Skylar Grey, both of which did a great job. It was a fine way to cap off the night, though I’m thinking My Morning Jacket was probably better. Next time.

Lollapalooza 2011: Day 1 Brief Recap

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.

Lollapalooza 2011: A Weekend Preview Guide

Here we are everybody: the 20th Anniversary of Lollapalooza. Today begins my coverage of the 3-day festival, set to take place in Grant Park this upcoming weekend August 5-7. Most assuredly, a fun time will be had by virtually all in attendance, and this year the whole thing is SOLD OUT. If you haven’t gotten tickets, well, find a scalper or simply don’t go. This year boasts headliners that are bigger than ever before, even if that doesn’t exactly mean better. I’ll argue this isn’t Lollapalooza’s best lineup by a long shot, but who am I to judge when tickets fly off the shelves like they did this year. There’s plenty to do and see all weekend long, so I’ve written up a small little guide to help you make some more interesting music choices this weekend. If you’re not fully educated on these artists I strongly encourage you to either look into them or just take a chance by going to see their live show without ever having heard a note before. Lollapalooza is a solid way to discover new music, and with so much to choose from, good luck trying to avoid hearing something fresh. I’ll be providing you with day-by-day recaps and an overall wrap up as things progress this weekend. Until then though, please enjoy this preview, and I hope it helps when making the tough decisions the schedule sometimes throws your way.


Wye Oak (12:00-12:45)
The Baltimore duo of Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack put out their latest record “Civilian” earlier this year to strong reviews for their folk-tinged rock. The record may be great, but even greater is seeing them perform live. Wye Oak is one of the best-kept secrets in indie rock these days, but don’t expect them to remain that way.

Tennis (1:00-1:45)
Yet another male-female duo, Tennis hit the hype cycle nicely earlier this year with their debut album “Cape Dory”, a chronicle of a 7 month trip they took down the East Coast in a boat. The songs on that record are breezy and effortlessly catchy, thereby making them perfect for a summer day in the park.

Reptar (2:15-3:00)
Imagine Animal Collective reborn as a synth pop band (or crossed with MGMT), and you’ll gain some idea of what Reptar sounds like. They’ve only been around for a little over a year, and in that time have picked up a reputation for wildly fun live shows that are a mixture of upbeat pop songs and over-the-top jam sessions.

Smith Westerns (3:30-4:30)
Chicago’s own, The Smith Westerns moved from buzz band to legitimate phenomenon earlier this year with the release of their sophmore album “Dye It Blonde”. Scuzzy and catchy lo-fi melodies blended with youthful energy makes for one dangerously great combination, and it’s something these boys have in spades.

Cults (4:45-5:30)
There are few bands on the entire Lollapalooza bill that have earned more hype than Cults have in the last year or so. To think that all that internet chatter was generated purely based on one single (“Go Outside”), and that they hadn’t put out a full length until a couple months ago. Good thing their debut record delivered on that initial promise. They’re set for big things.

The Mountain Goats (5:30-6:30)
John Darnielle is a world-class storyteller. His folk songs are rich in details and emotionally strident. One might suspect that they work better in a smaller club venue than an outdoor festival environment, but thanks to a couple of strong bandmates the whole thing should get hit with an extra dose of energy and exceptionalism.

Bright Eyes (6:30-7:30)
Bright Eyes is a great band on something of a bad streak. The early records were great, when it was just Conor Oberst and his guitar, but the more full band efforts have felt much more plain and uninspired. Still, they never fail to put on an engaging live show, and they do as much justice to their classics as they do the newer stuff. Their latest album, possibly their last, seems to suggest they just might be on the right path again.

Crystal Castles (7:15-8:15)
Anyone that’s ever seen Crystal Castles live before knows that the experience is always unique. Given their time slot, it’ll be interesting to see how they cope with anything less than total darkness. Prepare for strobe lights galore, Alice Glass going beyond nuts and potentially punching somebody out. The spectacle alone would be worth going to see, but the music is really damn good too.

Muse (8:15-10:00)
If you want to know what musical excess looks like, watch Muse’s live set. They’ve gotten bigger and bigger around the world, and their pure stadium glory has followed directly in lockstep with that. I doubt Grant Park can contain the insanity they’d like to do. Also, this follows in an “anything but Coldplay” mentality. Muse is the better band anyways, despite their overblown spectacle of a show.


Grouplove (12:00-12:45)
Here’s another secret band you’ll be rewarded with by showing up early on a Saturday. Grouplove is a band united by being world travelers, most of the members having met during a trip to Crete. But in essence they are American and make remarkably strong and pretty catchy indie rock. Their EP released last year was a great start, and their forthcoming full length hopefully holds that same strength.

An Horse (1:00-1:45)
Hopefully you like male-female duos, because here’s another solid one. An Horse are from Australia and are made up of Kate Cooper and Damon Cox. They’re sort of like a Matt & Kim but a little less smiley. They make bright, upbeat and energetic songs that can sometimes come off as formulaic but are still altogether a delight. And hey, Tegan & Sara recommend them too.

Phantogram (1:30-2:30)
While you’re on that male-female duo kick, keep up the streak with Phantogram. Their music is much darker and more haunting compared to all their similar counterparts, but that darkness comes with a sheen of cool. It’s not exactly the best soundtrack for the middle of the afternoon, but the songs are no less engaging and will stick with you.

Friendly Fires (2:15-3:00)
This is exactly what a Saturday afternoon needs. Friendly Fires are on a streak of two great dance rock records in a row, both packed to the gills with super addictive songs that you can’t help but bust a move to. Seriously, if you go see these guys and don’t dance, there’s something wrong with you. Just bring plenty of water to help avoid overheating.

Black Lips (3:00-4:00)
Black Lips have played Lollapalooza before, and while they had earned a reputation for their crazy live sets prior to then, they were on relatively good behavior the last time they hit Grant Park. Still, expect lo-fi energy and plenty of spitting, potentially some inter-band guy-on-guy making out action, and a lot of songs off their excellent new record “Arabia Mountain”.

Death From Above 1979 (4:00-5:00)
With this comes the toughest match-up of the entire festival. Death From Above 1979, reuniting for who knows how long, playing songs from their one and only album. But it was a really damn good album and exceptionally fun to dance and/or mosh to. There have been near riots at some of their shows already this year, with people getting too wild in a confined space. Expect a more organized chaos in Grant Park, but anticipate having a gloriously great time as well.

Big Audio Dynamite (4:30-5:30)
Facing off against DFA1979 is Big Audio Dynamite, and they’re freshly reunited as well but after a long and storied career. This is Mick Jones’ band created after The Clash, and despite multiple lineup changes through the years, it remains one of the more vital bands to come out of the 80s. They were ahead of their time in a lot of ways, and though they’re essentially senior citizens, they still know how to rock harder and better than the majority of bands on the festival bill.

Local Natives (5:30-6:30)
Local Natives are just a whole lot of fun. Their debut record “Gorilla Manor” earned tons of praise and wound up on so many “best of” lists last year. They’ve been touring like crazy, and if you’ve not seen them yet, the vocal harmonies alone are enough to sway you into it. That they’re also super catchy, that’s a bonus.

Lykke Li (7:15-8:15)
Oh my how this Swedish songstress has grown. Lykke Li played Lollapalooza two years ago and had a mid-afternoon slot along with an aftershow at the relatively small Bottom Lounge. Now here she is on her second album and in a pre-headliner spot along with an aftershow at the much larger House of Blues. Her songs are great, she dances on stage and it’s a blast to watch. If only she’d cheer up a bit.

Eminem (8:30-10:00)
It’s one of hip hop’s best vs. the jam band circus in the most fascinating headliner showdown of the weekend. My Morning Jacket is great, and they deliver one of the better live shows around, but they’ve headlined Lollapalooza multiple times the last few years, were just in Chicago this past June, and will likely be back again within 5 months. Eminem is on the comeback trail. His “Recovery” album has made him a vital voice in hip hop once more after dealing with some bad addiction problems. He doesn’t tour often either, so this is a somewhat rare treat. Don’t miss it if you can stand the guy.


Gold Motel (12:15-1:00)
Chicago’s own, making us proud each and every day. They make fun and catchy indie pop songs, and they’re aided by the fact that none of the other acts (save for Lord Huron) playing in their time slot are very good. Gold Motel just have that “it” factor where you know they’re going to be big, hopefully sooner rather than later.

The Joy Formidable (1:00-1:45)
All love to Titus Andronicus, who are also playing pretty much in this same time slot, but The Joy Formidable win this match-up by a hair. Besides having a very compelling frontwoman in Ritzy Bryan, the band’s debut record “The Big Roar” is very much as the title describes. This trio is quickly building buzz and a fan base as well, so hop on their fast-moving train while you still can.

Rival Schools (1:45-2:30)
It’s fair to call Rival Schools a post-punk or maybe even an alternative rock band. They originally formed more than 10 years ago as a supergroup of sorts, featuring members of bands like Gorilla Biscuits and Youth of Today. They broke up awhile back, but got back together a couple years ago. They just put out their first album of new material in about 8 years, and they haven’t lost a thing.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (3:00-4:00)
It was easy to call The Pains of Being Pure at Heart a “flash in the pan” band that was more likely to get swallowed up in its own hype before establishing a solid career on it. But then came “Belong”, their second album earlier this year, and it’s no slump. Their sugary sweet lo-fi pop melodies are here to stay, and these kids are a joy to watch bring them to life on stage.

Lissie (4:30-5:15)
Of all the choices to be making here, going to see Lissie is probably the least popular one. She’s up against the dynamic and exceptionally fun Flogging Molly on one side, and a reunited-and-almost-as-good-as-they-once-were version of The Cars. Lissie is the least known and least compelling of those three. So why does she get this nod? If you know the other two bands, you already know what you’re getting into. If you’re looking for an alternative and want to see and up-and-coming female singer-songwriter with plenty of moxie, Lissie’s your girl.

Portugal. The Man (5:00-6:00)
Really it comes down to recommending these guys or Cage the Elephant, who are playing Lollapalooza for what I believe is the 3rd year in a row. I touted 3 years ago how Cage the Elephant was going to be the “next big thing”, and now that they are, it’s somebody else’s turn. Portugal. The Man are a great band and their live show is effortlessly solid. Avoid the overcrowding at the Cage the Elephant stage.

Best Coast (5:45-6:30)
Yay for Bethany Cosentino. She’s nothing short of a delight, and her sunny melodies on her “Crazy For You” debut album are well worth your time. Not only is the music great, but she’s got some killer stage banter as well. If you happen to have a joint on you, she’ll gladly take if off your hands as well (not to condone the use of…illicit substances).

Explosions in the Sky (7:00-8:00)
These Texas boys have played Lollapalooza before, and do exceptionally well with their instrumental post-rock as the sun begins to set. It’s sort of the perfect way to prepare for the rock and roll onslaught that is to come with a Foo Fighters finale. Wouldn’t you know it, the two stages are right by one another.

Foo Fighters (8:00-10:00)
If electronica’s your thing, Deadmau5 has a whole other side of the park to himself. For the rock fans though, Foo Fighters are a great way to close out a great weekend. Dave Grohl is one of the most enigmatic frontmen around, and the band is coming off of what’s likely their best album in over 10 years. If you’re ever going to see them, now’s the time.

Lollapalooza 2011: The Lineup

It’s that time of year again, when all the little girls and boys eagerly anticipate exactly what’s going to emerge from Lollapalooza’s secret headquarters in regards to a festival lineup. If you can’t tell from the logo above, Lollapalooza is celebrating its 20th Anniversary this year. Congratulations to Perry Farrell and the whole team behind the festival for making it happen every year in Chicago’s own Grant Park. It has helped craft Lollapalooza into one of the top-tier U.S. music festivals. Okay, so let’s get right to it. I’m not going to offer up any comments in regards to this year’s lineup, but if you’ve got something to say about it yourself, by all means let loose in the comments section. Without further ado, here’s the official lineup for Lollapalooza 2011!

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