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Lollapalooza 2017: Reflections

In my 13 years of attending Lollapalooza, I’ve had a number of people ask me why I go when “it’s so terrible.” While calling the festival “terrible” is absolutely a matter of opinion, it’s one that’s held by a wide range of people. To most, the idea of spending multiple days in the vast wasteland of Grant Park with 100,000 (per day) of your closest friends is nearly the equivalent of torture. It’s hot and sweaty with lines everywhere and access is tiered by how much money you’re willing to pay and nothing sounds great in the park and a whole host of other complaints. I’ve heard them all, and none of them have deterred me from continuing to go year after year. I understand too, and those grievances are not entirely unjustified. But in my view those issues are also a bit short-sighted.

Lollapalooza may be, as Jim DeRogatis puts it, the music equivalent of “Walmart on the lake,” but I’d argue that the damage it causes every summer is pretty much worth it if you’re going for the right reasons. Specifically I’m talking about the music. If you LOVE live music, Grant Park is not the ideal venue to see it in. Neither is a space where tens of thousands of people (many drunk or on drugs) are all crammed together trying to find the best sight lines. Some are even content to simply talk the entire time and ignore what’s taking place on stage. But where else are you going to have the chance to see 170+ artists over a four day period at a cost that falls somewhere around $350? Economically speaking, you won’t find a better deal than that. Were you to choose 10 artists each day that you’d be interested in seeing perform live and add up the costs of tickets to individual venue shows from each, the total price would be at least double. Hell, I spent nearly the cost of a full weekend Lolla ticket to see Paul McCartney this year, when his prior Chicago show was at Lollapalooza. Also, festivals can serve as a music discovery engine. You can easily wander from stage to stage and stop when you hear something good. I’ve found more than a few new artists at Lolla over the years by stumbling past during their sets.

My grand point is that if you’re there solely for the music, the atmosphere doesn’t matter nearly as much. Unfortunately, most Lolla attendees aren’t there for the music, or at least don’t make it a huge priority outside of a handful of bands they truly love. That’s part of the problem, and one the fest feeds into by creating plenty of distractions for those less musically inclined. Have some food! Wander into the merch store! Check out some tents devoted to various causes! Hang out in some hammocks or check out the wine bar! And new for 2017, strap on some roller skates or play an arcade game! Hey, if it keeps randos who don’t care about the music away from the stage, then more power to you. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself at Lolla if I wasn’t there to watch as many artists perform as possible.

Which finally brings me to Lollapalooza 2017, aka the year things got better but also worse. Let’s start with the good. They improved the restrooms considerably. Entire sections were devoted to urinals, while the traditional plastic port-o-potties were replaced with slightly nicer ones that actually had porcelain toilet bowls that flushed. For once, I didn’t dread using the restroom. At least not at first. Because we can’t have nice things, the very clean and very easily accessible restroom areas slowly descended into chaos as the weekend progressed, until finally on Sunday night I used a urinal that had “Fuck the Police” written in giant letters across it, while a large turd sat below – clearly the result of someone who didn’t have the time or foresight to wait in line to use an actual toilet. This is why we can’t have nice things. In a less disgusting change for the better, this year Lollapalooza also upgraded their video screens. These new gigantic HD displays surrounded the two biggest stages, and made viewing performances from a distance much, much easier. No complaints about those, and I hope they continue to invest in them for the future. Lastly, I’ll say nice things about the roller rink and arcade that were added this year, not because I skated or played any video games, but because I found them to be fun distractions that fit well with the overall aesthetic vibe of the festival.

On the negative side, I’ve only got one complaint, but it’s a major one. It seemed that this year Lollapalooza was struggling with lineup flop sweat. The festival celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2016 and because they had “50% more artists than usual” requesting to perform, the decision was made to expand from three days to four. When it was announced organizers said it was a “one time only” thing, but they also weren’t about to turn down that extra money, so the change became permanent. And in all honesty, last year’s lineup wound up being pretty great – enough to justify the extra day. Not so much for 2017. Maybe it was how they scheduled it, but there were multiple periods this year where music lovers were left with artist choices that went from bad to worse. Obviously there are fan bases for SUICIDEBOYS and The Drums, but neither are exactly critically acclaimed nor particularly dynamic live performers. Yet they were on two of the main stages at the same time on Thursday. The same can be said for Vance Joy and Royal Blood on Saturday. Not meaning to be too insulting, but there’s very little original or novel about either artist. Sunday forced the choice of Milky Chance vs. London Grammar on you, and it was a little tough to get excited about either.

Call me a snob if you must, but just because an artist has some radio hits doesn’t automatically make them good or worth your time. To a degree, they make music for casual fans – those that don’t listen to much music in the first place, who automatically accept and embrace whatever band is pumping out of nearby speakers under the assumption that it must be good. If you can live your life that way, taking what’s being given to you without questioning, exploring and coming to your own decisions on what’s good, I feel a little sorry for you. There’s joy to be found in the fringes, but if a festival like Lollapalooza doesn’t give you those fringes then you can wind up trapped in a sea of mediocrity. Hence my criticism of their booking/scheduling for 2017. There were still plenty of great moments (that I’ll highlight in a minute), but fewer than usual with more duds and dead spots that almost make one want to take some time away from the stages and explore some of those aforementioned other options and activities happening in Grant Park. My advice, which organizers absolutely will not take, is to revert back to the three day format. With one less day for bookers to worry about, the quality vs. quantity will be more even-handed and they can ensure that music fans of all types can be satisfied better. It worked quite well for a decade before they added that fourth day, and I see no reason why it wouldn’t work in their favor again.

Lastly, I want to take note of some fantastic performances from Lollapalooza 2017. While I’m a little disappointed I didn’t stumble upon some incredible new artist this year as I often have in the past, there were still a few surprises that caught me off guard in a very good way.

White Reaper put on a better than good performance on Thursday, which was a wonderful way to kick off the festival.

But it was Cage the Elephant’s day, and arguably entire weekend, as their wildly unhinged set was so fun that it was just about all anybody could talk about. I still can’t stop thinking about it, and am under the firm belief they’ll be headlining Lollapalooza sooner rather than later.

As for headliners, while we only got 3 songs from Muse, they managed to make the most of it as everyone went completely nuts in the pouring rain to massive jams like “Psycho” and “Hysteria”. Had they been able to continue their performance in the rain, it likely would have gone down as one of the greatest in Lolla history.

I remain firm in my conviction that The Lemon Twigs are a band to watch, and they delivered yet again on Friday with another stunning set that hopefully won them many new fans.

Then there’s the always reliable Run the Jewels, who continue to assert their dominance with every performance. While they didn’t bring any special guests with them, they did pull some random guy up from the crowd with a sign asking if he could rap “Legend Has It”. The whole thing was a blast, really.

Saturday saw a very accomplished set from Highly Suspect, a band that on record might seem like your typical alt-rock fare these days but who are secretly hiding guitar skills so impressive that even some of the greats would probably approve.

And I have to compliment Mac DeMarco for a typically bizarre and hilarious set that ended with a couple of covers for which he didn’t know the lyrics (Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” and The Champs’ “Tequila”), and the obtuse noise pollution that is “Chamber of Reflection”.

Overall though, it felt like Lollapalooza saved the best for last, since Sunday was packed with remarkable performances. Lo Moon managed to impress and give me chills with their ambitious and ambient epics.

Joseph seemed to be having a blast as their incredible vocal harmonies sounded even better in person and gave life to tired bodies.

Car Seat Headrest continues to evolve as a live band, often switching things up on the recorded versions of tracks to take them down interesting detours.

The Shins have also grown significantly since I last saw them a few years back, seeming more at home in their own skins, having fun and running through a set list that includes almost all of their best songs.

Finally, Arcade Fire put a nice little bow on the entire four days with a strong performance and set list that pulled from across their entire catalog. Let’s just say they were wise to minimize the number of songs played from their unfocused new album Everything Now.

So that about wraps up my thoughts on Lollapalooza 2017. It was a pretty good time this year, as it is just about every year, even when the music wasn’t quite up to par. Let’s hope they literally get their acts together and do a better job with booking for 2018, tough as that has to be in the current 4-day structure. At least everything else ran smoothly and resulted in few to no inconveniences for those who knew what they were doing. Will I be back again next year? Probably, out of tradition mostly, but it’s my sincere hope that maybe one of these days they’ll finally manage to assemble one of the greatest festivals of all time.

Snapshot Review: Muse – The 2nd Law [Warner Bros.]

To all the Muse fans concerned that the band was set to take their sound in a new, dubstep-inspired direction: feel free to breathe a sigh of relief because that’s not happening. Well, at least not yet. Yes, the first track to leak from Muse’s new one The 2nd Law was the track “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable,” and it absolutely falls under the dubstep genre. Interviews with band members about the change in sound yielded quotes about how inspired they were to see dubstep artists sending crowds into a frenzy with wires, drum pads and turntables. It turns out you can rock a crowd without the need for a guitar or drums or piano. If they truly took that message to heart though, they’d have made an entire album’s worth of crazy drops and frenzied dial-up internet noises. Instead, it’s just the one song. For most of The 2nd Law, it’s business as usual for Muse. Here is a band that has become more and more bombastic and arena-forged with each new release, apparently seeking to claim the crown that Queen left behind with fist-pumping anthems and tracks with titles like “Exogenesis: Symphony, Parts 1-3.” On the new record, songs like “Survival” and the opening number “Supremacy” are layered with huge orchestral swells that create a grandeur and excess the likes of which deserve to be the soundtrack to some big summer blockbuster popcorn flick. In fact, “Survival” was the official theme of the 2012 Summer Olympics, and it sounds every bit like it belongs as such. This is the Muse we met on the last album, 2009’s The Resistance. On the band’s 2006 record Black Holes and Revelations, they dabbled in synths and electronic textures more than they ever had before, and those sounds once again make themselves evident on this new full length thanks to the pulsations of first single “Madness” and “Follow Me,” the latter of which truly feels like a slowed down, less guitar-heavy remix of “Map of the Problematique” with nods towards U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Whether or not that’s a good thing is your decision, but it’s somewhat nice to hear a few stylistic nods back to their earlier material. It’s a real shame then that The 2nd Law suffers from such a saggy midsection. “Animals,” “Explorers” and “Big Freeze” all strip away the excess to remind you that this is still a relatively simple rock band that made great records like Showbiz and Origin of Symmetry not too long ago. The problem is that they fail to capitalize on the opportunity to do something interesting with these songs. They don’t need to go big to be great, they just need to remember that the smaller moments are of equal importance to everything else. Things do take a decidedly random turn towards the end of the record, when bassist Chris Wostenholme takes over lead vocals for the first time on “Save Me” and “Liquid State.” The former track comes across as a little jarring at first for two reasons: the switch in vocals and the very measured and delicate instrumental work. It’s the only song on the entire album that would function well as an Explosions in the Sky-esque post-rock adventure, if only those pesky vocals didn’t get in the way. Wostenholme doesn’t have a bad voice, it’s just for that particular track his singing hurts more than helps. Bellamy’s falsetto would have done a bit better with it, but really what that song needs is room to breathe. The crunchy metal-lite feel of “Liquid State” suits Wostenholme a lot more, though with the “Hysteria” or “Plug In Baby”-like aggression almost deserves an equally visceral vocal that’s not fully landing in this case. You could say he’s off to a decent start, but could use a bit more practice to equal the many fine other things Muse has done over the last decade. The 2nd Law closes with “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable” and “The 2nd Law: Isolated System,” the first of which is the aforementioned dubstep attack, which really comes out of the blue when you consider everything that’s happened leading up to it. The other track is a calmer and lightly pulsating piano and strings instrumental mixed with more sound clips of announcers and news reporters all talking over one another about problems around the world. Working in tandem with “Unsustainable,” the two peas in a pod make a great statement about what this entire record could have sounded like. It’s progressive and interesting and completely unlike anything Muse have ever done before. For a band that likes to continually push the envelope and keep their fans guessing, this record is strikingly safe and overly sincere. The Resistance at least sounded like a band having fun by going completely over-the-top with excess. Interesting as it might be at times, The 2nd Law sounds like it was made by a band trying to find focus while going more and more blind each day. There are moments of clarity amidst their fumbling, but mostly you just hope they get some glasses and keep making engaging music for years to come.

Buy The 2nd Law from Amazon

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