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Lollapalooza 08 Saturday: We Rage happily, if not safely

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It’s another glorious, sun-dappled morning in Grant Park, PopWatchers: Lake Michigan is the color of the Caribbean Sea, and I’m sitting at the BMI stage writing to you from a laptop in the grass. Ha Ha Tonka– a band about whom I get an unreasonable amount of press releases– has just wrapped up their set by playing a chipper song about an oscillating fan, then throwing in a celebratory improvisational version of Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” with lyrics rearranged to reflect their excitement at getting to see Radiohead and Rage Against the Machine for free. Up next is the alt-country of Wild Sweet Orange, whose We Have Cause To Be Uneasy came in the mail recently and keeps ending up in the CD player at work.

But that’s today, and we’re here to talk about yesterday… but first, I want to talk about Friday again. I’m enjoying the comments on my post about Radiohead, and taking to heart what commenter Rose Tyler said: That those of us who loved their first three albums just need to let it go. I guess those of you who said they answered The U2 Question the minute they put out Kid A are right– this is a band flourishing by doing exactly what they want to do, nothing else. So, like I said. Artistic integrity and all that crap. I applaud it, sleepily.I also applaud last night’s headliners, Rage Against the Machine, and not just because they rocked my face off. There’s an example of a band doing exactly what they’ve always done– playing the hits, and playing them loud, and expending enough energy in a single song to power Radiohead’s entire global-warming-conscious light show– but I think the most important thing they showed last night was maturity, i.e. the sense to know that the situation at the front of the stage was completely out of hand, and they needed to stop playing or people were going to die. The admittedly weak picture above is my shot from a staircase far from the stage where I took refuge after not making it into the photo pit; all it took was 30 seconds of “Testify” for me to realize the photo pit was not a place I wanted to be, and thank my lucky stars for the distance.

Boy, that’s an ominous way to head into the jump, isn’t it? Ah well. Follow me anyway, for Margot and the Nuclear So & Sos, Dr. Dog, Dierks Bentley, Perry Farrell’s DJ set, MGMT, Explosions in the Sky, Okkervil River, and Broken Social Scene…

addCredit(“Rage Against the Machine; Whitney Pastorek/EW.com”)

As previously seen on PopWatch, I started my day at Margot & the Nuclear So and Sos (where does that ampersand go again?), along with what appeared to be half of Indianapolis, turned out early to support their hometown heroes. I love this band, all the dreamy yearning of violin and keys and trombone and percussion; love that they played “Barfight Revolution” and the thematically-appropriate “On a Freezing Chicago Street.” More typing with the accompaniment of the Ting Tings and their clittery-clattery and utterly pernicious “That’s Not My Name”; then my ears switched over to Dr. Dog and their delicious harmonies. Dr. Dog comes highly recommended by Rogue Wave, which is really all the endorsement any of us should need.

Then it was off to the weekend’s biggest risk-taker, Dierks Bentley, who attempted to answer the question, “Can a mainstream country act find fans at a big rock festival?” The answer was, well, yeah, just not tons of them. Despite the evangelical efforts of everyone who walked around wearing “Who in the hell is Dierks Bentley?” shirts and pins– and Dierks himself, who headed into the crowd with a CMT camera crew to see if anyone knew who he was, inadvertently sparking a short-lived rumor that he was Gnarls Barkley– the crowd was thin for the big Bud Light stage area. But man, were they devout, from the guy in the front row waving a University of Tennessee flag and hollering, “THIS IS AWESOME!!!” to the screaming girls who sang along to every word of “Trying to Stop Your Leaving,” “Settle for a Slowdown,” and “Every Mile A Memory,” especially when they were handed the last chorus to belt out by themselves. There were shrieks when Dierks stripped down to a t-shirt, and guitarist Rod Janzen even busted out the double-necked axe for “Long Trip Alone.” Both those things seem very rock n’ roll to me, as does the idea of showing up where you probably don’t belong, and putting on a hell of a show just because you can.

Sadly, the rumors that Barack Obama would show up at Perry Farrell’s DJ set proved to be untrue (he also didn’t materialize to introduce Wilco, which was the weekend’s other big fake gossip tip), but apparently Samantha Ronson and Slash were there. Not that I saw them: I got to the mobbed tent and jockeyed for a view, but could see no top hat. Slash was apparently wearing a trucker cap instead, but I only just now found that out; I left once Perry started spinning Daft Punk’s “One More Time.” I can’t deal with that stuff in the daytime, and anyway, I wanted to go see the pandemonium at the MGMT show. Oh my, was there ever the hoopla! I walked up right at the top of “Time to Pretend,” and gobs of bodies were buckling and waving in front of the stage as men on golf carts drove slowly through the masses, tossing out handfuls of ice. Congrats, MGMT: you and your psychedelic kittens have officially conquered the hipster children’s hearts.

That glimpse into the heart of Cobrasnake darkness was about all I saw of Lollapalooza’s southern end yesterday, as the lineup was brilliantly devised for grownups to stay north while the Battles/Lupe Fiasco/Spank Rock/Toadies crowd got their fix at the other end. For old folks like me, it was quite the dream come true: I spent my afternoon floating on a cloud from Explosions in the Sky to Okkervil River to Broken Social Scene, the former doing their glorious instrumental soundscape thing with a Texas flag draped over an amp, and the two latters making with the clapping and the dancing. Okkervil opened with “The President’s Dead,” and threw in a great version of “John Allyn Smith Sails.” Will Sheff was on fire, losing his glasses by the middle of the first song, bangs flapping across his moony face as he worked requests for the sound guy into the melodies and implored the crowd to clap along. “I wanna see your f—ing hands! Everyone’s clapping!” he sang in “Unless It’s Kicks,” and everyone merrily complied before turning 180 degrees to watch Broken Social Scene. Though the Toronto (thanks, Ryan!) all-stars did not recapture their Bonnaroo magic, they brought along just about the same crew– Kevin Drew, Brendan Canning, Andy Whiteman, Amy Millan– and plenty of horns and fedoras for a “before-dinner disco” that included some of Canning’s recent “solo” material, “7/4 (shoreline),” and that kick-ass sped-up version of “Major Label Debut.” Drew also did the thing where everyone screams for their lives, and threw in a little, but less, of his “please, please vote for Obama; do it for the Canadians” chatter, probably because he figures the senator’s home state is in the bag already.

At this point, I’d like to apologize to Sharon Jones, whose set I desperately wanted to catch but was scheduled right before Rage Against the Machine: I’d been told I needed to get to the photo pit 40 minutes early if I wanted a spot, and Ms. Jones lets the Dap Kings warm up for 10 minutes or so before she takes the stage. I spent a couple fleeting, nervous instants enjoying Binky Griptite and crew before bolting for the other end of the field, a speedwalking extravaganza during which I was forced to forge rivulets of what looked like water cascading across the sidewalks of Columbus Drive. Thank god a girl coming the other way warned me, or I never would have known it was urine, gallons and gallons of urine coming from the people peeing against the fence inside the venue. I looked to my left to see silhouettes against the mesh, splatters of biologically-propelled liquid outlined like diamonds in the sunset, and thanked my lucky stars for that anonymous girl as I picked my flip-flopped way through the disgusting muck. I already got peed on once this summer, and once is enough.

Not that my hustle mattered in the end, as I wasn’t one of the first 25 photographers to the pit, and was therefore shut out. Taking one look around at the kids bailing from the front of the crowd– sweaty, red, some already vomiting a full 30 minutes before showtime– I opted for self-preservation over capturing that perfect Kodak moment, and I’m so glad I did. The gods of Good Festival Viewing Spots were with me again as I climbed up the stone stairs at the stage left edge of the field and found an unobstructed view next to a friendly cop, and when Zack de la Rocha and Tom Morello turned on the siren and let it fly, I got the full spectacle of 50,000 people (give or take) jumping up and down at once, just like in those old Rage videos from European festivals in the ‘90s. Perhaps you’ll recall my transcendent experience at Coachella 07, seeing this band for the first time in person; last night’s set list was almost identical, plus I personally kept things a little more contained… but I think I was the only one, and thus did this show blow that Coachella performance away.

“Testify,” “Bulls on Parade” (“They rally ’round the festivals…”), and then half of “People of the Sun,” because suddenly things came to full stop, and an eerie silence settled over the crowd. Through my long-ish lens I could see flashlights at the front of the stage, security guards gesturing, bodies being hauled out even as more came surfing over the top. “Hold it, what’s up?” said Zach, and then he launched into a long, pleading monologue. “Listen up, please. Chill out and take care of each other. Take 5 or 10 steps back, brothers and sisters, 5 or 10 steps back. Please. We got enough with this f—ing war. Save that s— for the streets. Help the sisters out right here. Help these sisters come over the top…” In this instant, the friendly cop next to me bolted along with the other five or so holding down our staircase– presumably to take care of the riot out in the streets, where hundreds of non-ticket-holders had rushed a barricade and busted into the show– and I got the sickest feeling in my stomach. “F—,” I typed into my BlackBerry.

The show went on: “Bombtrack,” “Know Your Enemy,” which lifted hands that throbbed in the lights. But after the last “ALL OF WHICH. ARE AMERICAN DREAMS,” Zach was pleading on the mic again, and it looked like security had pulled somebody up on stage, like someone was passed out on the stage with the band kneeling over them, but I don’t know, because the jumbotron cameras kept uselessly cutting to shots of the skyline, and I couldn’t see or do anything except stand and pray, which I did. “We’ve already had a few people hurt,” said Zach (praying more here). “This is serious. We wanna play everything, but unless we get together and work this out, we’re gonna have to cut this short. Please. Everybody. 5 to 10 steps back.” And holy moments of holy, everybody did. From my vantage point atop the stairs, I watched all gazillion people in the crowd slowly but surely shift backwards about five feet. It was phenomenal, it was like the parting of the Red Sea if the Red Sea had all gone five feet backwards. But around me, boys were snickering, making jokes, bitching about the show being stopped again. I can understand the frustration– we were safe on the stairs, the people who got in the pit knew what to expect, play on. But I’m a Pearl Jam fan, and I know what can happen at these festivals, and it scares the poop out of me. So once again, thank you, Rage Against the Machine, for taking the time to ensure the safety of your fans. Your show was brilliantly energetic and inspiring, and frankly, I think you’re damn near heroic.

Anyway. We pressed on. “Guerilla Radio.” “Ashes in the Fall.” I began to be aware of the absurdity of watching an RatM show on the opposite side of the fence from white men who had paid thousands of dollars to spend their weekend in VIP cabanas with free booze, high on the hill, untouchable by the sweaty fools spinning in tiny circles of death beneath their balconies. “Wake Up” brought the trademark de la Rocha rant– someone transcribed it here, but it was mostly about rising up against power and what not, or, if you will, raging against the machine– and I took a minute to scream “He turned the power to the have-nots/and then came the shot” at the cabana boys, when the time came. Encore break, something that sounded like a Russian worker’s song, “Freedom,” and the big finish, “Killing in the Name.” (“Some of those that burn crosses/are the same that hold office.”) You have not lived until you’ve heard a city park full of people scream “MOTHERF—ERRRR” so loud it drowns out the band on stage, put their every fist in the air to punctuate the final chords, and then keep that energy going as they course out into the streets, hollering, cheering, waves of sound sweeping everyone on their journey home. Fireworks started going off at the Navy Pier, and it felt somewhere between Judgement Day and the return of a conquering army. Kids, no matter how much you like Radiohead, there’s no way they’ll ever send that many people home that energized, not in such a democratic “we are all alive because we are here feeling the burn in our calves and the pressure in our chests together, and we did not die in that scrum” sort of way.

I got to a restaurant around 11pm for dinner, and heard a guy at the bar explain Rage to a buddy as, “It’s like Kid Rock, before Kid Rock.” I just sighed, and ate another piece of bread. But what about you, PopWatchers? Were you there? What was your experience? Did you make it out alive? Any contusions? Was it worth it? Anyone care to weigh in on if and why they are a better live band than Radiohead? I’m off to take in a little Flogging Molly now. Not sure why. They fascinate me, though.