Please tell me that isn't Cat Power murdering "Fortunate Son."
This was the first thought that entered my mind when I initially heard distinct sounds coming from Grant Park Friday. Thanks to getting stuck working downtown most of the day, I missed a big chunk of Friday bands, as I feared I would, and I entered hearing Cat Power ramble her way through a depressingly plodding cover of Creedence. Upon realizing that it was 5:30pm, I had no time to mess around. I entered the giant beast that is Grant Park (which had SOLD OUT somewhere between 75,000 and 80,000 tickets for night 1) and made my way to the south end, stopping to listen to Grizzly Bear on one of the smaller stages. Much like Fleet Foxes delivered at Pitchfork, Grizzly Bear had the layered harmonies pitch-perfect. They're a band whose tunes are clearly more suited to an intimate setting, but they delivered here, and the sound quality was remarkably clear for a festival setup, which gave me high hopes about the rest of the weekend.
From there, I moved down to the main south stage and met up with friends to watch Bloc Party. I LOVED the first Bloc Party album, and thought the second album was good as well, but the live show does nothing to enhance their music. It's rarely a good sign for a band when the drummer has the most stage presence, as was the case here. The bassist and guitarist barely moved, and for a band who has so much energy on their albums, you just didn't see it in the performance. It made me wish I had gone to see the Raconteurs instead, but on the plus side, I was already in place for Radiohead here on the same stage.
I had once heard that festivals are a great place to see bands you like, but an awful place to see bands you love. I can somewhat see the reasoning behind this logic after seeing Radiohead. The band sounded as good as they've ever been - every song of In Rainbows was played, with a decent mix of older stuff (including "The Bends" which made my jaw drop.) But I'm not really sure that Radiohead are a "festival" band. They've shown before that they could easily take the U2 (and now Coldplay) route and crank out mindless stadium-ready rock anthems one after another, but obviously they want to do something else and continually explore new directions. This aspect is one of the things that makes them my favorite band; it's also what makes them maddening to a large number of people, and I totally understand why that is. When 80,000 people are in attendance though, most fall in between these two demos. They're there to hear "Karma Police", and when instead they get an outstanding reworking of "The Gloaming" (maybe my least favorite track on Hail to the Thief, but a true highlight of the show) they tune out. The following pattern happened several times:
- Radiohead play one of their more nuanced songs
- Casual Lolla-goers who don't know the song start chatting amongst themselves
- Radiohead fans start yelling "Shh!" at the casual fans (It's never a rock festival if you're not Shh-ing someone!)
- Casual fans seem shocked that someone is telling them to be quiet
- Everyone seems pissed
This chick climbed up a speaker tower 30 feet high during the 3rd song of the set and rocked out for most of the show. Every once in a while a security guard would venture halfway up the tower and then decide they weren't risking their ass to get this loon down. Seriously, it took them until the encore to get her off! She was fun. While I was shooting unreasonably snotty glares at people around me who dared to chat during "All I Need," there were several highlights. Fireworks started going off during an epic run through "Fake Plastic Trees," the crescendo of which had chills running through me. "Everything in It's Right Place" is quickly becoming a staple of their live show. It's drastically re-worked from the version recorded for Kid A and is turned into a flat out dance-rock song. As the final encore ended with a blistering rendition of "Idioteque," I left day 1 thinking that Radiohead were as excellent as I had hoped, but wishing that the rumored secret show at the Chicago Theatre hadn't been called off the night before.
By Friday, day 2 of Lolla had sold out as well. I can't remember ANY day of Lollapalooza selling out before, but the weather was not as hot as forecasted, which made the crowd more bearable. I arrived bright and early Saturday, strolling in the gate around Noon to see Margot and the Nuclear So and So's. Indy represent! I can't fully articulate how bizarre it was to see them play on this massive stage, but they sounded great, especially on "Skeleton Key." I'm on the fence about the newer material I've heard, but one can never be on the fence about the joy from watching Casey Tennis' percussion dances.
After Margot's quick set, I met some friends to watch The Ting Tings. Aside from finding couple songs charmingly disposable, I can't get into this duo, but they had a HUGE crowd there even playing so early, so maybe it's just me. One band I can get into, however, is Dr. Dog, who played as the Ting Tings wrapped. I'd only heard a couple of their songs before, but they had some heavy buzz, and they were fantastic. There's a heavy dose of The Band along with Beach Boys harmonies, and it all worked. Everything worked as well for The Gutter Twins. I can get behind pretty much everything Greg Dulli has done, but I never got into The Afghan Whigs until they broke up, and I was late jumping on board The Twilight Singers as well. Dulli and Mark Lanegan showcase a brooding disturbing swagger meant to be heard late at night in a smoke-filled room, but they sounded just as great at 3pm. I spent the walk over to the North stage debating the name of the alt-hit that Mark Lanegan had in the mid-90's when he was with Screaming Trees. The answer: "Nearly Lost You," which I mistakenly had pegged a Jesus Jones song. Upon being proven wrong by a feisty friend of a friend, I walked in shame toward the other side of the park.
We strolled through the merchandising aisle, which contained your standard festival fair along with this booth:
Wow - it's almost like he's a rock star or something! By the time the festival had ended on Sunday, I never quite found where the Official McCain store was on the premises.
While I was still coming to grips with my failures in Seattle grunge music trivia, the band providing the uplifting score was Explosions In The Sky. Like many people, I first heard EITS on the score for Friday Night Lights. The lack of a singer, alongside the layered arrangements make it sound like they're cranking out rock-based symphonic movements rather than standard songs. They were the best band of the day thus far - it's hard to crank out emotion without lyrics, but these guys left everything on the stage and it was exciting to watch. Under normal circumstances, they would have been difficult to follow, but Broken Social Scene was up to the challenge. I wrote in my preview that something about them hasn't translated for me on their albums, but it all clicked on the live show. While Feist was not in attendance, the other members held everything down. BSS ripped through an inspired set that made for the quickest hour of the day. And at one point five different people were playing guitars, which has to count for something, no? Good things were happening on this stage, and although everyone else I knew at Lolla (and probably 2/3 of the entire audience) was going to see Rage Against the Machine, I stayed to wait for Wilco. I was in a prime location 20 yards from the stage, and knew Wilco could be counted on for a solid night. I realized my expectations needed to be re-evaluated before a single note was played.
Look at those suits! Every member of the band had a different colored nudie suit. I am telling everyone who reads this blog - these suits are better than anything you will ever see on Project Runway. EVER. No Contest. Jeff Tweedy claimed that the band had spent the last month sewing their suits, and while I'm skeptical, no one could argue when Tweedy remarked, "Radiohead were awesome last night, but they haven't been doing any sewing. They're all about the 21st century and beyond."
As for the music, I realized that Wilco is a band I largely take for granted, probably because they seem to tour all the time. I initially wasn't that excited to see them since I'd seen them before, but they quickly reminded me why they're the best band in America. Everything they do is great. When I last saw them at Rock For Riley, Glenn Kotche's insane drumming stood out, but guitarist Nels Cline was the star tonight. His 2 1/2-minute solo during "Impossible Germany" pretty much had me losing my shit:
Bonus points to Wilco as well for playing literally up to 10pm, and not wasting time with a stupid encore break when the clock was ticking. (Radiohead did 2 encores Friday night, and while I understand the process behind it, they could have used the time spent leaving and returning twice to play another song. We're up against the clock here guys!)
One other note on Wilco - apparently this is some sort of regular occurrence at Lolla, but I never noticed until the Wilco set that there was a dancing woman just in front of the stage performing the lyrics via sign language. This baffled me - are there deaf people coming to Lollapalooza? Or deaf people viewing online? Who knows, but my favorite part of the sign language lady's repertoire was that when the band was jamming out, and there were no lyrics that needed to be signed, she would often play the air bass, which is perhaps the most underutilized of all air instruments.
I was skeptical that Sunday could live up to Saturday's highlights, and early on, that seemed to be the case. I arhrived around 1pm, met a friend, and headed down to catch The Whigs. On our way there, we stopped and checked out about 20 minutes of What Made Milwaukee Famous. Both bands were good, not great. The Whigs grew on me more as their set went on, but I had a feeling that perhaps I had a musical hangover from the night before, as neither band quite seemed to be doing it for me.
I did want to check out the stars of Paul Green's School of Rock who were playing at the Kidzapalooza stage. If anything could rip through my cynicism, it had to be kids covering classic rock anthems, right? Approaching the stage, I heard the kids tearing throw a faithful version of Steve Wonder's "Superstition," with the lead singer sounding remarkably familiar and grown up. Once I got close enough to see, I realized that not only was Perry Farrell singing with the School of Rock, but playing guitar with them was Slash! The drummer and bass player (each of whom were probably 12 years old) kept their cool remarkably well as the foursome ripped through "Knockin on Heaven's Door," "Mountain Song," and "Jane Says." ("This is a song about a girl who was very nice, but then got confused one day," Farrell explained to the kids.) It was an awesome scene. The kids were pumped, and Slash is better than Dave Navarro even during Jane's Addiction songs!
With renewed vigor, I made my way to see Iron and Wine and over the next 20 minutes, nearly passed out. I really like Iron and Wine's albums, but the set wasn't clicking for me today. The sun was in full force, and the mood just wasn't there for them in this particular setting. It really just made me sleepy and in need of a swift kick in the ass.
Right on cue, enter Flogging Molly.
Best band of the day in my opinion. Mix The Clash with The Pogues and add more booze, and this is what you get. Brilliant performance from these guys, and they provided the funniest stage banter of the day with the following exchange:
Singer Dave King: "This next song is about Oliver Cromwell."Yeah, suck on that Cromwell!
Re-energized after Molly's set, I hauled ass down to the other end of the park. (It should be mentioned that the two main stages are about a mile away from each other, which takes it's toll on tubby bastards like myself.) I made it down to catch most of Gnarls Barkley's set. The band was good, although a bit lacking in energy. Also, you could tell the pitfalls of being an assembled band who doesn't tour much as a group. Gaps between songs were frequent and overall the set just wasn't that tight. On the plus side though, Cee-Lo's voice is stunning in a live environment - the guy has better pipes than 90% of the singers at Lollapalooza. And Gnarls also did an outstanding cover of Radiohead's "Reckoner." I left there to see some of Girl Talk on one of the smaller stages, with an obscene crowd overflowing. Girl Talk is a weird live act. On one hand, I love the pop/hip-hop hybrids that the guy mashes up on his albums (The Elton John/Notorious BIG mash being the best). But it's not all that compelling to just see a guy hop around and play with a laptop. That said, the crowd was going nuts and the stage was FULL of people dancing their asses off, so even if the performance itself wasn't as good as the albums, the atmosphere didn't suffer. And there were some sweet Journey mashes, which always pleases me.
Things were winding down so I decided to again head to the north end and meet a friend. We picked a spot right inbetween the 2 main stages on the north end to watch The National first and then just turn around for Nine Inch Nails. The National have really grown on me. They opened for R.E.M. a couple months ago and were rock solid here once again. But I was all about Nine Inch Nails. I've been really excited to see them since they were announced, and I'm not exactly sure why, as I was never hugely . I really wished I could have seen Kanye West as well, but the moment that Trent Reznor literally sprinted on stage and launched into "1,000,000," I was validated in making the right call. I was surprised when "Closer" was unleashed just 30 minutes into the set. (A guy next to me had brought his son, who couldn't have been older than 6 years old. With the son sitting on his dad's shoulders, the dad offered a half-hearted "Cover your ears" to the kid before the chorus, but I doubt the effectiveness of his command.) About halfway through the set, Reznor spent about 20 minutes or so on tracks from the instrumental "Ghosts" set. This didn't go over all that well with most people around me. It spurred a reaction similar to that of Radiohead in similar circumstances on Friday, but I actually liked it. I think most people were expecting the pure nostalgia act they had seen with Rage the night before. The other benefit was that it gave people a chance to catch their breath, and eliminated the possibility of people getting crushed as they had the night before. The mellow mood didn't last, and the intensity ratcheted up with highlights of "Only," "The Hand That Feeds," "Head Like a Hole," and a haunting encore of "Hurt" that served as a perfect ending for a full weekend.
Top 5 Lolla '08 performances:
3. Flogging Molly
4. Broken Social Scene
5. Nine Inch Nails