Good morning, PopWatchers, and greetings from Grant Park in beautiful, sunny, mothereffing HOT Chicago, where Perry Farrell’s Lollapalooza is now in its fourth year as a stationary object. As those of you who follow this blog are well aware, I’ve visited the majority of America’s large rock n’ roll festivals this summer — Lolla makes 6, to be precise — and I can honestly say I’ve never lost as much water weight as I did yesterday. How a festival held in the middle of a major urban center directly adjacent to a breezy lake with sailboats floating upon it manages to be hotter than the deserts of Coachella is a scientific mystery we’ll ponder later, but for now I’d like to just thank the nice people of the MySpace corporation for giving me a tent and a couch and a place to write up all of Friday’s musical wonderment while listening to the best band you’ve never heard of, Margot and the Nuclear So & Sos, play my favorite song, “Skeleton Key.” Life, she is good.
The big headliner for your first day of Paloozaing was Radiohead (led by Thom Yorke, pictured), and your Aunt Whittlz was thrilled. I’d never seen them live before, not in all my many years, and I’d get to start the show in the photo pit, all up and snuggly with the boys from Oxfordshire. They opened strong with “15 Step” and “Airbag,” and I was totally digging it, if you’ll excuse the lameness of that expression. But once I got spat out into the field, things turned a bit dodgy. After a long day of schvitzing in the humid Illinois air, the endless quiet arpeggios of their Kid A/Amnesiac/Hail to the Thief/In Rainbows period lulled me into a state of half-consciousness, interrupted only by the yakking of drunks wearing free MySpace bandanas. There’s nothing wrong with half-consciousness, per se… but after the jump, we’ll talk a bit about this band’s future, i.e. The U2 Question, and dissect the set a little more closely.
Also in this post’s great beyond: Rogue Wave, Black Keys, Duffy (no, for real), Go! Team, and the band I’ve seen more times this year than one would think possible, Jack White and his Raconteurs. Come along, won’t you?
addCredit(“Thom Yorke; Whitney Pastorek/EW.com”)
Grant Park is surrounded by skyscrapers and backs right up to Lake Michigan, which is why it was ever so fitting that my buddies Rogue Wave were called upon, yet again, to open this thing up: Hey, whaddaya know, “Lake Michigan” is the name of their big breakthrough Microsoft-selling single! I’ve now seen these guys play in the 1-2 p.m. slot at four separate fests this year alone, which I think is just cruel (to them and their fans), but they’ve learned to bear up under the sun and heat well. Songs like “Love’s Lost Guarantee” — now moved to the start of the set — and “California” play well in the glare, and Zach, as usual, was more than willing to lend a dry perspective in all the humidity. “Thanks for selling out the day today,” he told the sizeable crowd. (One benefit to playing early: Everyone in the field is unlikely to have anything better to do, so they shuffle over to your stage.) “I know it’s because of us, I can feel it.” Pause. “And Radiohead.” Then they swung into their other geographically-appropriate song, “Chicago x 12.” Rogue Wave wins the Friday gold star for later going on to play the Kidzapalooza stage AND a midnight show at a club in Wrigleyville called Schubas. Catch ’em on tour with Jack Johnson if you can — they deserve an audience in the nighttime.
Next, it was time to hoof it to the other end of the park, and PopWatchers, believe me when I say that Lollapalooza is no place you want to be with a foot or leg injury. That shizz be far. It’s at least a 15 minute walk from one mainstage to the other, and the best strategy is really to pick one end of the park and stay in it, just shuttling between adjacent stages all day, never crossing the center with that fountain from Married With Children. But I don’t have that privilege, so walkapalooza I went, past paintings from students at the Art Institute and Wayne Coyne’s Christmas on Mars tent (remember, kids, the brown popcorn is made of acid!), past the fountain, past small children with pink hair, past packs of girls wearing those irritatingly non-functional halo headbands someone’s decided are stylish. I like Lollapalooza. Everyone seems happy, and since they go home to hotels at night, they smell nice. There’s none of that feeling of us-against-the-world post-apocalyptic survival remoteness you get at Bonnaroo, and none of the L.A. rock poser scene you get in the VIP area at Coachella. The VIP area behind Lolla’s Bud Light stage — where I’d finally arrived for the Go! Team — has shady trees, and couches, and giant plasma screens set up so you can watch the feed from the stage. This, friends, is my idea of bliss: Beer, couches, shade, concerts on the big screen. Not that I sat back there to watch anything. That, friendly friends, would have been wrong. (Seriously. I’m not being sarcastic for a change.)
It’s a testament to the energy levels of the Go! Team’s Ninja (née Nkechi Ka Egenamba) that even in the day’s hottest hour, she was able to pogo around the stage in rainbow knee-highs for a straight hour and get a large portion of the shirtless crowd to join her. This is a great live band– two drummers, a rotating cast of vocalists, the occasional toy megaphone — and Ninja’s really its fiery center, alternating personalities between sassy 60’s girl group and Zach de la Rocha in heart-shaped sunglasses. After demanding we all dance during “Ladyflash” and getting everyone to holler the obligatory “Do it! Do it! All right!” chorus I learned at Coachella two years ago, she sprinted off stage and collapsed on a platform, long arms splayed over her head. Meanwhile, across the way, her polar opposite was emerging to a chorus of 15 year old girls chanting her name: It’s Duffy, everyone, that nouveau-Winehouse soul singer from Wales! Standing rather poised and still in a red, white, and blue romper, after an hour of Ninja, she looked more televangelist’s wife than rising star, and I’ll be quite honest and say that her Dusty Springfield-on-helium caterwauling is rather not my bag. She covered “Cry To Me,” which would have been cool if I hadn’t seen Solomon Burke do it a month ago at Bonnaroo, and there was mild pandemonium once someone pushed play on the thunking backing track to current radio smash “Mercy.” That is a very good song, I will admit, and from what I heard, nothing in the rest of her canon even approaches it. “She needs to play that for 10 minutes,” said a girl I passed on my way back to Bud Light land, and I heartily agreed.
Bookending the always-frisky and loveable Mates of State — who’ve brought violin and cello in to make songs like “Like U Crazy” gloriously rich — are your next set of dichotomies: Black Keys vs. Raconteurs. The former, I’ve not seen enough, and a too-brief stop at the Akron duo’s set just confirmed that fact. Though I still love the oldies best — “10 AM Automatic,” “Set You Free” — when they slowed their ongoing, circular jam down after some crashing breaks and emerged into “Strange Times” (off their newest, Attack and Release), my little heart soared. So, too, did that of Perry Farrell. I was wondering when I’d have my first sighting, and there he was, sidestage for the Keys, bobbing along. Meanwhile, we learned a fun fact: Dan Auerbach’s never been in a mosh pit. Jeez, just jump off the stage some night, dude. It’s fun.
Aaaand, the latter. I gotta take some time off from the Raconteurs, I’ve decided. The set was excellent, of course, it always is, but you know you’ve seen a band too many times when you start noticing the way they’ve constructed their first three songs– “Consoler of the Loney,” “Level,” and “You Don’t Understand Me”– to confound photographers: Song one, Jack White’s got his back to the crowd half the time, song three he’s at the piano; see ya later. Grr. They’ve also moved “Steady As She Goes” into the middle of the set. Why is this interesting? Because I have problems. So let’s talk instead about how Mark Ronson was sidestage mouthing every word, or the stretched-out beauty of “Rich Kid Blues” and its terrific tempo transition into “Hold Up.” Let’s laud the way Brendan Benson stands on monitors like a gorgeous stork, and the balls they’ve got to take an encore break, even though they’re not headliners. And then let’s take one final second to celebrate the great Patrick Keeler and his good-natured drumming, and the spectacular hair of young bassist Jack Lawrence, flat as a board even in the humidity. Hey, when’s that new Greenhornes album coming out, anyway?
Couldn’t stay for the end of the Rac set — had to run off for Radiohead photo pit assembly — but as I speed-walked down Columbus Drive, I grinned at the people gathered outside the fence to catch drips and drabs of “Many Shades of Black.” Another unsung benefit of hosting this festival smack in the middle of town: drop by after work and stand on a street corner to listen, ticket-free! Wait. Is that like stealing music? Nevermind. Forget I brought it up…
Okay. So, Radiohead. I really wish my colleague Simon Vozick-Levinson was here to assess this show, cause he’s our resident ‘Head expert, and he might know better what to make of what I saw last night. But to this casual observer — who, for the record, grew up on the mother’s milk of Pablo Honey and The Bends and thus has not much cared for the band’s latter-day output — the set was somnambulant, and not just because I was physically wiped. Albums like Kid A were designed to be listened to as a piece, not as singles, and thus do all the songs sort of bleed into one long, quiet meditation. As I picked my way through the pot smoke and dusty blankets in the crowd, I heard two separate people yell, “Play the hits!” Of course, I’m not one to advocate for pandering, but 75,000 people need to be entertained, not wonder whether they’re listening to “The Gloaming” or “Dollars and Cents.” The In Rainbows stuff was newer and fresher — “Bodysnatchers,” especially, and “Weird Fishes” — and at precisely 9 o’clock I gave up on professionalism and went to get a beer. Suddenly, the show came alive. “The Bends,” first, and “Everything In Its Right Place.” Then, a terrific build to “Fake Plastic Trees” as fireworks set off behind the stage, and “Bodysnatchers” to close out the opening set. I felt exhilarated, and not just because of the alcohol rushing through my underfed blood.
But just as soon as it came, the rush was over, and the two encores — despite containing “Paranoid Android” — sort of petered off into the nothing ending of “Idioteque.” I let my dream of closing the night out with a triumphant version of “Stop Whispering” drift into the night on the ominous cloud that was racing across the sky, and I trekked home with The U2 Question on my mind. That is to say: What kind of band do Radiohead want to be? They’ve got the chance to blow it up huge for the masses, or stick right where they are — worshipped by a goodly number of folks, but confounding just as many. It’s gonna be their live show that ultimately makes the difference, and last night’s performance — complete with artsy, grainy big-screen footage that rendered it near impossible for anyone out in the field to see the faces of the band members — told me they’re aiming squarely for artistic integrity and all that crap. Which is, I suppose, their choice. I don’t know that I’ll be on board. But the girl that climbed a speaker tower and merrily waved her arms in the air throughout the show clearly is of a different opinion, and yay for her. Also, yay that she didn’t appear to get arrested for doing that. Kids, don’t climb speaker towers, okay?
And that’s it for Friday. This post has carried me through to the end of Dierks Bentley’s crossover set — oh, the little white tank top girls are squeeing their heads off out there! — and now I’m off to see Perry Farrell DJ, because I’ve been told to expect a special guest whose name may or may not rhyme with “Democratic Presidential Nominee Shmarack Momama.” Were you out in Grant Park yesterday, PopWatchers? Weigh in with your favorites, or just use the space to yell at me for not appreciating Radiohead’s genius sufficiently. It’s okay. I can take it.