There’s a thunderstorm dripping on downtown Chicago this Monday morning, PopWatchers… and just like that, Lollapalooza is over for another year. Hmm. I said that this scene was like old hat to me. It wasn’t. I haven’t been here before. And after one go at it, there’s no way I’ve got this festival anywhere near figured out, not in the same way the geography of Coachella is burned (literally) into my brain and the happy rhythms of Bonnaroo call to me from far away like the hills of Ireland. No, Lolla is a riddle, a big, hot concrete enigma wrapped in tall buildings that seems to stretch for miles, especially when you’re dashing between stages, and thus do the small essentials of life tend to pass you by. For example, it took me until 7pm Sunday night to figure out how, exactly, to procure food on the grounds. (The food stands are by no means located convenient to any stage at all, unlike the beer, which is located convenient to everything.)

But if I had to go away, at least I went away thrilled, courtesy of Trent Reznor and the big Nine Inch Nails sound and light extravaganza. (Come on. You didn’t honestly think I was going to Kanye, did you? Dude, fool me once, etc.) (Though to be fair I’ve been told he was quite good. Go look at Brooklyn Vegan’s pretty pictures.) NIN put on a polished, veteran, bang-for-your-buck headlining performance that kept me engaged all the way to the encore break, even though I haven’t bought a Reznor album since The Fragile; I’d have stayed longer, but there were photos to edit and a blog thingy here to write and I promised myself that “Head Like a Hole” was to be my exit music, no matter when it came. So after hollering “I’D RATHER DIE! THAN GIVE YOU CONTROL!” a couple dozen times — oh, the horrid things I’ve screamed this weekend, PopWatchers; don’t tell my mom — I hitched a pedicab ride back to the hotel with a nice driver named Tyler. It seems I missed “Hurt.” It was apparently awesome. I believe it.

Things I did not miss today included The National, Nicole Atkins, The Whigs, What Made Milwaukee Famous, Love and Rockets, Flogging Molly, and a very special Kidzapalooza performance from Perry Farrell and his BFF Slash. That’s right, PopWatchers: I have now witnessed Perry Farrell and Slash playing “Jane Says” in front of a pit full of very small children. You’ll want to read on after the jump.

addCredit(“Trent Reznor; Whitney Pastorek/”)

Much of Sunday went by in a blur. After rising early for Wild Sweet Orange, I ambled over to see Austin rockers What Made Milwaukee Famous in yet another early afternoon slot — they’re second only to Rogue Wave in shows played at a truly unreasonable hour this summer — and I found my way into “Blood, Sweat & Fears” while catching the sweet smile on the face of guitarist Jason Davis. Then I smiled my way over to the Athens crunch rock of The Whigs, where Parker Gispert thrashed about on “Nothing is Easy,” his bangs rivaling those of Okkervil River’s Will Scheff– so many boys! so many bangs!– and to visit Nicole Atkins and her killer voice work the sunshine (and a shiny blue minidress). Wish I could have stayed longer, but I gave the Jersey girl a full set at Bonnaroo this year, and besides, there was something phenomenal brewing down the way, and I wanted to arrive in plenty of time.

So, Lollapalooza has this thing called “Kidzapalooza,” an area of the grounds set aside for parents and children to do things like paint their hair pink or get fake tattoos or sit in their own tiny, barricaded mosh pit and listen to short sets from grownup bands that stop by. It’s an adorable, shady place to be: When I walked up, they were hosting double-dutch jump-rope lessons, a couple older girls from the Paul Green School of Rock All-Stars were holding down the stage with a heartfelt cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game,” and a local breakdancing crew called the Brickheads busted death-defying moves as the children who ringed the dance floor looked on, yawning. (Breakdancing: Kind of goes over the heads of toddlers.)

As Porno for Pyros guitarist Peter DiStefano and Perry Farrell producer/ersatz emcee Tor Hyams took the stage, you could feel the crowd begin to press in, and you could see that the majority of the newcomers were sans child. “This is about kids,” Hyams cautioned the masses, asking that we let parents and kids through to the front for what was going to happen next… but you try telling the aggressive midwestern woman who kept mooing “Perrrrrr-rrrryyyyyyyy!” next to me to step aside for some stupid toddler. People came to see one thing and one thing only, and thus were they largely disinterested when the Love and Rockets Bubblemen wandered out on stage for no reason at all, or when Paul Green and a couple of his older students joined DiStefano on Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” and a School of Rock alum named Sarah (who I’d put at about 18 years of age) ripped through guitar solos so good that DiStefano couldn’t help planting a kiss on her cheek as she shredded on.

“This is the most people we’ve ever had at Kidzapalooza,” said Hyams after the classic rock session ended, but all he could do was sigh one more warning to everyone to not crush the children and hand over the stage to the main attraction: Perry Farrell and the elusive Slash, who for the next four songs would function as the strangest wedding band/babysitters I’ve ever seen. Backed by School of Rock kids, they started off with Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” which Farrell introduced by telling the kids that maybe, just maybe, voodoo isn’t all that bad after all; frankly, the highlight here was listening to Perry attempting to talk to the kids using some sub-Elmo inflection and a very odd sense of what interests children and/or is appropriate. I’d give anything to have a transcript of how he got from “Superstition” into “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” but all I know is suddenly these kids got a hard lesson in mortality before the funny man with the crazy eyes started singing again. Slash lit up a smoke (despite the pink and purple “No Smoking” signs posted everywhere in Kidzapalooza) and stood almost completely still during his perfunctory performance as Slash, exclamation point! Farrell was his opposite, spidering all over the place, wiry arms outstretched, face spread into a rictus grin. Best intro? “This is a song about a girl named Jane, who grew up, and got real confused.” Pause. “You’ll probably learn about her later.” Pause for parental laughter. “Hopefully you won’t be so confused.” In the pit, a tiny blond girl with pink and orange streaks in her hair stood, unmoved, just staring at Farrell in that inscrutable way that only tiny children can stare, as the former Jane’s Addiction frontman clobbered his old band’s best song. Brilliant. Highly recommended.

Nothing for the rest of the afternoon approximated the spastic joy of Kidzapalooza, though Flogging Molly certainly tried. The West Coast version of the Dropkick Murphys (who are, I suppose, the East Coast version of Flogging Molly) brought their violin/banjo punk assault to the Playstation stage, and I gave the riled-up pit a wide berth while marveling at the way Dave King, now a middle-aged man sporting a beat-up acoustic guitar, is able to put a pack of shirtless teenage boys on spin cycle. “Good afternoon, you bastards,” he greeted them, and they raised their Flogging Molly flags in response — why do these Irish punk bands all have flags? why don’t all bands have flags? — before beating each other to a pulp for a full hour. Good times. More sedate but no less entertaining was Love and Rockets opening with “Ball of Confusion,” on which they almost, but not quite, put the nuns from Sister Act 2 out of my mind. Wish I could have stayed for more, but instead I had to speed-walk the mile to the media tent and pick up a NIN photo pit pass, listen to 30 seconds of Gnarls Barkley doing “Crazy,” grab that elusive cheeseburger, and make it back in time for…

The National! They never let me down. Rather than sit here and drool over Matt Berninger’s blue eyes and dour voice and deep sadness that I’d very much like to help him work through, if you know what I mean, I’ll go with this: The National have been, as my friend Chip put it, grinding it out on incrementally larger stages for what seems like hundreds of years, and it seems like they are finally, finally, finally getting their due. They’re also getting a lot better at cracking their show open for the festival crowd, which scored them several spontaneous bursts of applause for nothing at all. I didn’t cry like I expected, but “Slow Show” melted my heart again (how can you not fall in love with a line like “You know I dreamed about you/for 29 years before I saw you”?), “Squalor Victoria” was unexpectedly larynx-searing, and Bryan Devendorf’s militant drumming cut through the clamor of a crowd half-waiting for NIN to come on next door. When I had to walk away and stand in line with the rest of the photographers to get in the headlining pit, I could still hear the mournful horns of “Ada” from over the hill, and finally, most heartbreakingly, the closing two-fer of “Fake Empire” and “Mr. November.” There was my catharsis, happening a stage away, and I wasn’t there to have it. And oh, PopWatchers, you know how I need my end-of-festival catharsis.

I suppose I’ll settle for screaming “I WANNA F— YOU LIKE AN ANIMAL!” instead, courtesy of Nine Inch Nails. (Hey, that line shares a key word with the “Mr. November” chorus!) Actually, NIN was plenty cathartic, even if it was just the joy of watching a spectacular stage show and hearing vaguely familiar songs played perfectly. Since I can’t give you much in the way of track listing — I could identify “Closer,” “Terrible Lie,” “March of the Pigs,” and, shockingly, I knew every word to “The Hand that Feeds” thanks to an unruly iTunes shuffle that has apparently osmosed it into my brain– let’s talk atmosphere instead, because my gosh, what a gorgeously innovative mise en scéne Trent’s put together. Framed (and sometimes covered) by a series of LED scrims and flanked by strobes, the stage began as a nuclear winter battleground, flowed through a deep red period, then warped into an enormous digital etch-a-sketch that rendered a waterfall, a fogged-up mirror, television static. The latter was the coolest thing I’ve seen in a while, as Reznor stood behind it, cutting the pixels clear with a sweep of his hand as he moved back and forth. Bonus points to NIN for connecting with the crowd even from behind a million-dollar screen, holding their momentum through an instrumental xylophone break, and just when the kids around me were getting restless (“Come on! Bring it!” one guy behind me yelled), bursting through with the hard-driving “Wish.” (“F— yeah!” the guy behind me yelled.) By the time we reached the aforementioned “Head Like a Hole,” the field had been transformed into Chicago’s largest karaoke bar, and all I could hear was that beloved industrial track backing thousands of people telling whoever they were telling to bow down and get what they deserve.

So if we were to look at the big picture here — which I’m so all about after baking in the sun for three days — I’d say Nine Inch Nails gets the prize for bridging the artistic integrity/crowd pleasing gap. Consistent with his generally nihilistic bent, Reznor did nothing that smelled of sucking up, and barely spoke; rather, he just knows how to work a mic, design a kick ass light show, and craft a set list that goes to extremes but never fails to swing back through the middle and pick you up if you’ve let go. Quality stuff, PopWatchers — wouldn’t you agree? Anyone out there wanna give the Kanye report, since I’m boycotting him at the moment? Here’s your last chance to tell the world about your Lolla experience. I want stories! And, as usual, thanks for riding in my pocket all weekend for this, my last official music festival of 2008. If I use my vacation time to go to Austin City Limits, someone should really shoot me.