Summer in Chicago means many things; heat and humidity, Taste of Chicago food fest, Sox and Cubs baseball, political scandals and of course, Lollapalooza. Now in its fifth year exclusively in the Windy City after its 1990’s stint as the groundbreaking traveling alternative musical festival, Lolla is held yearly on “Chicago’s front lawn,” the majestic Grant Park, anchored by famous Buckingham Fountain and brushing up against the shores of sparkling Lake Michigan. Lolla is founder Perry Farrell’s musical gift to the Midwest and beyond, as people ventured from all over the country – and globe – to take in the sights and sounds of over 120 bands and DJ’s on eight different stages for the extended weekend.
First day Friday saw rainy skies and muddy grounds evoking a ‘Woodstock vibe’ almost 40 years to the day of the rock festival that started it all. Yet unlike the folk and psychedelic trappings of Woodstock, Lolla ‘09 was clearly a ‘slave to the rhythm,’ as techno, disco and trance incorporations dominated.
Sound Tribe Sector 9 showed off their post-Disco Biscuits chops with their electronica meets jamband melding, with a bass solo by David ‘Murph’ Murphy among the highlights. Even though the aforementioned Biscuits have only achieved mid-level success, their influence of fusing techno with rock over a decade ago seemed pervasive throughout Lolla ‘09.
Crystal Castles intrigued with their goth-disco underlay to singer Alice Glass’ black hair, blacker pencil skirt and blackest mood. Her crowd surfing antics were a precursor to the interactive gyrations many singers/musicians would indulge in throughout the weekend.
Much ballyhooed Thievery Corporation maintained the dance grooves with their politically correct uber-world-beat that unfurled a seemingly endless parade of lead singers both male and female, though the band was at their best when guitarist/sitarist Rob Myers manufactured springy Hindu-prog.
The band to see first night was of Montreal from Athens, GA. While some of their material settles for trendy dance tempos, they brandish plenty of challenging psych suggesting Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd. David Bowie is another influence, as evidenced by their sharp cover of “Moonage Daydream” from the classic Ziggy Stardust album. of Montreal’s stage show is a spectacle unto itself, with costumed characters, pagan rituals, crowd surfing in a raft and wrestling lingerie models; that’s one after-party we’d like to attend.
At this point, even with the drizzly weather, it was apparent the sound system and gigantic HD video screens were of the highest quality, the best we’ve seen at a large-scale music festival.
The two dueling headliners of the evening, Depeche Mode and Kings of Leon, took a backseat to most of their predecessors. While Depeche Mode’s opening number had ambient potential, by the second tune they had resorted to the synth-pop they helped establish all those years ago.
Give Kings of Leon credit for an abrupt shot of good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll after the techno overkill. However, they proved to be a tad too ‘straight-ahead’ in what likely makes for a better drinking than herbalizing soundtrack. Even lead singer Caleb Followill said he planned on getting drunk because Chicago is one of his favorite cities.
Day Two of Lolla replaced the cool rain with strength sapping humidity. Prior to his headlining gig with Jane’s Addiction the following night, Perry Farrell, joined by his wife, the vivacious Etty Lou Farrell, played his yearly set at his very own stage, aptly dubbed “Perry’s.” Unlike Jane’s mind-bending psych, this was a dance-friendly Farrell; included in the setlist was “Tahitian Moon” from Farrell’s 1990’s band Porno for Pyros.
The metal-prog of Coheed & Cambria was a welcome respite, and while some of the Mars Volta comparisons are valid, they were hardly that inventive. The two-piece No Age was flatter and poppier than anticipated. More satisfying was Scotland’s Glasvegas, with their atmospheric Elvis Costello-meets-U2 styling.
Hometown heroes Rise Against were better than expected with a raw energy that avoided excruciating punk pop territory. Given they are a Chicago band, singer Tim McIlrath appropriately noted Grant Park’s history; from hippies beaten by cops at the Democratic Convention in 1968 to Barack Obama’s speech the night he was elected President in 2008. In fact, one of the VIP entrances at Lolla was named for Obama; we didn’t spot any named for bludgeoned hippies, however.
TV on the Radio is an intriguing multi-racial sophisticated band that paved the way for Ben Harper and Relentless7; Harper serving up his usual blues-rock stew with less of his folk tendencies in the recipe.
Then it was time for the most ear-opening performance of the weekend – from Animal Collective, who bestowed a mesmerizing set of non-linear yet continuously colorful music with a capital M. Establishing themselves as one of the most original – and best – live acts in rock today, at times the Collective conjured memories of Smile-era Beach Boys or Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, propelled by drummer Panda Bear’s hypnotic percussive attack.
Day Three brought more humidity and blazing sun, as Lolla showed class by passing out free bottles of ice cold water, a charitable alternative to the long lines of parched fans that snaked around drinking fountains.
One of the early acts Sunday was Portland’s Portugal. The Man (and one woman, originally from Alaska), an up-and-coming art rock band, though it seemed they aimed more to be critically praised than creating music that surpasses, which they definitely hinted at. Kentucky’s Cage the Elephant were mostly solid with their Nirvana meets ‘70’s hard rock gestalt. Straight outta Copenhagen, The Raveonettes feature fetching lead guitarist/singer Sharin Foo, though they opt for a laidback approach that fails at verve at first listen.
More conducive to the festival setting was Dan Deacon’s set. The often one-man band was anything but as he dropped beats while conducting a multi-piece outfit that eventually featured a full brass marching band. Deacon was also a master of audience participation, getting them to form an endless ‘human tunnel’ of outstretched connecting arms under which hundreds of other fans dashed; this guy should work crowd control at a riot.
Vampire Weekend offered little else than their lackluster emo that somehow kindled the biggest squeals of Lolla. Salvation was found in Boston’s Passion Pit, launching an endless array of ‘70’s synth bombs. Cold War Kids also flashed potential with their country punk fringed by both trippy and sinister elements.
Sunday 6:30 p.m. brought the biggest challenge; Snoop Dogg, Deerhunter and Lou Reed all playing at the same time, separated by the wide expanse of Grant Park. Snoop Dogg drew the largest crowd by far and when he asked who had the weed, he was answered with thousands of bowls and joints sparking simultaneously. Snoop brought his usual Cali party scene to the stage flanked by eardrum bursting bass. In our brief peek at Deerhunter’s set, the band lived up to the hype with a powerful psych groove and haunting vocals from Bradford Cox.
Jane’s Addiction closed the show; the first time Perry had performed on a Lolla main stage since settling in Chicago. With aims of topping the riotous Rage Against the Machine show closer from Lolla ‘08, a helicopter with a bright menacing beam hovered over the stage and the teeming crowd as returning bassist and original member Eric Avery blasted out the rumbling sonic waves of “Up the Beach.”
Vocalist Perry Farrell noted that Lolla lasts for “3 Days” as Jane’s launched into the ten minute opus, a showcase for multidimensional guitarist Dave Navarro, a reminder he’s so much more than a reality show celebrity. As for host Farrell, he was on fire, guzzling wine, making sexual innuendos at anyone who’d listen and even got serious and acknowledged his longstanding feud with Avery. “There’s nothing between us but music now,” Farrell declared.
One of the biggest surprises of Lolla came at the very end, when Joe Perry, lead guitarist of Aerosmith appeared for the acoustic encore of “Jane Says.” Perry’s appearance was made possible by Steven Tyler’s recent nasty spill off a stage that iced Aerosmith’s summer tour, though it would’ve been more fun to see Joe jam on his Les Paul with Navarro.
“We did it!” the man-child Farrell exclaimed at the end of the Jane’s Addiction set – and Lollapalooza 2009. He thanked Chicago for being his “part-time home” and wished her luck in her soon-to-be-announced bid for the 2016 Olympics, which would wipe out Lolla for that year. But don’t worry; Lolla is already confirmed to remain exclusively in Chicago through 2018, so there will be plenty of annual opportunities to see dozens of intriguing bands – and sweat a whole bunch.