Ten years. Ten Lollas in Grant Park. I had a cutting edge mobile phone in 2005 — the Motorola RAZR — but I didn’t know how to text properly. There were no iPhones, no Twitter, YouTube hadn’t officially launched yet, and Facebook was still exclusive to college students.
Lollapalooza 2005 seems quaint in retrospect. It was only two days long, there were less than 60 bands, the whole thing took place south of Buckingham Fountain, all four main stages were crammed onto Hutchinson Field… And yet this year’s event would hardly seem unrecognizable to a time traveler from 2005. It’s still, as I said back at the time, “an event as corporate and branded and manipulative as anything any marketing genius could ever devise.” And despite that, with the right attitude, it can still be a lot of fun.
Over the years I have seen so many memorable performances at Lollapalooza. Would most of these have been better suited to a dark club as opposed to a big, sweaty field in the middle of the day? Absolutely. But let’s be honest. I cram more bands into three days at Lolla than I go out and see for the rest of the year combined. Is that pathetic? Maybe so, but I’m busy. I’m a grown up. And a big festival provides me with the opportunity to stumble across something unexpectedly great that I never would have sought out on my own. So I return to Lolla every year in spite of the weak lineups that — looking back — I’ve publicly bitched about almost every year.
I don’t know why this happens but they always seem to schedule the group I’m most excited to see on early Friday afternoon. Last year it was Father John Misty, and this year it was Courtney Barnett. When I first heard “History Eraser” on satellite radio it sounded as if it had been recorded just for me. Its scuzzy slacker folk fuzz sums up just about everything I love about music. I dig her double EP, A Sea of Split Peas, and live, she did not disappoint. And she charmed the crowd with humble between-song banter and dazzled us with her noisy psychedelic lead guitar jams.
One lesson I need to remind myself every year is that if you’re enjoying something, you shouldn’t leave to check out something else. We cut out of Barnett’s set early to go stand in the sun and watch J. Roddy Walston and the Business. I had heard a couple of songs by them and thought they’d be fun to see live. Piano pounding southern rock boogie music. They look like a bunch of 70s dirtbags and they sound just like a bunch of 70s dirtbags. Walston broke a mic stand within the first five seconds of appearing on stage and proceeded to attempt to break his piano keys. It was pretty fun but I found myself wishing I’d have stayed until the end of Courtney Barnett’s set back at the shady Grove stage.
We walked across the park to meet friends and passed by Johnnyswim playing at the BMI stage. They sounded like early 90s college rock with boy-girl vocals, so we stuck around for a couple songs. Plus, it was drizzling a little and there are trees to stand under over there.
I’d heard positive things about Warpaint but from where we were sitting they sounded boring. Sometimes you need to work your way up close to the stage to appreciate a band. But sometimes it feels all right to relax and be a little bored.
Especially when you’re about to delve into the depths of Perry’s stage.
In 2005, Lollapalooza had the Planet stage, which featured Z-Trip, Mark Farina, and Derrick Carter, interspersed with fashion shows. The next year, that morphed into the Minefield stage, which featured “short films, comedy, gaming, and the DJ dance party each night.” It wasn’t until 2008 that Perry Farrell gave himself an eponymous stage dedicated entirely to dance music. It’s grown in size and relevance every year since then, and this year the DJs spilled out onto the “main” stages with Calvin Harris headlining Saturday night and Skrillex headlining Sunday.
It was still afternoon when we made our way into the chaos of Perry’s area to see Iggy Azalea do her thing. From where I was standing, her thing mostly consists of blowing out ear drums with deep bass and rapping in a funny voice. Oops, old man alert; sorry about that, kids. Azalea is fun and dancey and everybody seemed to love it. I still prefer the CSNY version of her song, but as I’ve already made clear: I am an old man.
I was excited to see Lorde. Her album has been in my family’s car for months. It might seem ludicrous for a 17 year old to be singing, “It drives you crazy, getting old” (from “Ribs”), but I can clearly remember feeling that way when I was a teenager. John Cougar told me to hold on to 16 as long as I can, and I tried to heed his advice. It’s a tough time for anybody, and grown ups who dismiss that fact have short memories. So Lorde can be forgiven for some of her theatrics and goofiness. She’s young, and she’s got a unique voice and writes interesting songs with cool arrangements. Plus, she acted sincerely appreciative that we had all come out to see her.
You’d think that with as popular as Lorde is, she would be a headliner. But nope, that honor belonged to Eminem and Arctic Monkeys. This was the third time I’ve seen the Arctic Monkeys play Lollapalooza (2009, 2011) and while I don’t think they have the stature in the United States to headline a big festival like this, they did put on a good show. Alex Turner has gone from being a snotty kid to an elegant crooner.
Eminem has gone from being a snotty kid to a screamy recluse. But he’s still something to behold and I was happy I made it across the park to see him do “Berzerk.”
On Saturday we made it in time to see Phosphorescent, who I had seen last year at Pitchfork but couldn’t wait to see again. I love Matthew Houck’s fragile voice and some of his songs almost kill me with their combination of despair and hopefulness.
I’ve seen Spoon play Lolla in 2005, 2007, and 2010. They are my case study example of a band that does better in a dark club than in broad daylight. But this year they pulled it off. It might be because I was way up front, or maybe I just know their material better now, but they were really good. They had a 15 minute longer set than Lorde who played the same slot on Friday (75 minutes vs. 60), but we left early to walk across the park to catch some of the Head and the Heart. Plus, it was getting hot and we needed to move around.
Outkast opened with “Bombs Over Baghdad,” a favorite of mine since being blown away by seeing them play it on the Chris Rock Show. It was also fun to throw our hands in the ay-er to “ATLiens.” I still like fish and grits and all that pimp shit, so even if this is mostly a nostalgia tour for them it’s a pleasure to get the chance to bask in their stank one more time.
On the way out we hung out for a bunch of the Calvin Harris set. It’s wild to see a DJ on a main stage at night. Lots of lasers, lots of fire, lots of smoke, some fireworks, and a little man up in a fancy light-up DJ booth. The fact that every song sounded the same to me and followed such an obvious formula says more about me than it does about Harris. This is not my music, not my generation, not my scene, and that’s the way it should be. I am happy to stand off to the side and enjoy the light show and the dancing. It’s cool to see so many dudes shaking their asses. The crowds for guitar bands and even hip hop shows are full of guys mostly standing there nodding their heads with their arms crossed. But at these EDM stages, everybody’s getting down and jumping around and going nuts, waving glow sticks, heads exploding when the bass finally drops. It’s unbelievable.
I complain about the lineup every year but Sunday was the first time in the ten Chicago Lollas that I didn’t have even a single “must see” show to make. While I was eating a falafel on Saturday a lady from New Orleans recommended Trombone Shorty. She also recommended the pad thai chicken taco which turned out to be awesome, so it was obvious I should listen to her. Plus she was neighbors with Brad Pitt (“easy going”) and Angelina Jolie (“out of it”) so that sealed the deal. Trombone Shorty is an impressive entertainer. He and his Orleans Avenue band have that distinct N’awlins gumbo of funk, jazz, rock, soul, and cheese. It’s great to hear horns and Shorty can certainly blow. His guitar player on the other hand was too loud and not soulful enough to justify the long solos.
It had been drizzling on and off all day and I was already getting sick of putting on and taking off my poncho. At least there are plenty of trees on the north side of the park. We walked around popping in on bands I’d never heard of at small stages, hoping to discover something new and good. I was still hoping for that moment of unexpected excitement…
And it finally came courtesy of Run the Jewels. I hadn’t heard of them, but they are Killer Mike and El-P, and they are awesome. Charming, hilarious, and skilled on the mic, these guys were the highlight of the day if not the whole weekend. The best was when they stopped mid-song to yell at security who was roughing up a girl. But it turned out the girl was just a long haired hippy boy, and when they figured that out they apologized to security and continued to make fun of the kid as he ran away and tripped over himself.
Killer Mike: “Jesus has left the building.”
El-P: “I just completely added insult to injury by calling him a girl. I really thought he was girl.”
“Killer Mike: “No, girls actually wash their hair. That guy did not wash his hair in two thousand and fourteen years.”
I was cracking up. I left their set so happy that even Chromeo didn’t annoy me this year. This is the third time Chromeo has played Lollapalooza (2008, 2010), and they’ve either gotten less horrible or I’ve gotten more open to bands that sound like Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me.”
A lot of people I respect like the 1975, but they’ve always sounded like wimpy 80s pop to me. Sometimes the live setting adds more muscle to a band who sounds lightweight on recordings. This was not the case with the 1975.
A lot of people I respect dislike the Avett Brothers, but I dig that I And Love And You album. I was hoping they’d be good live. They were rambunctious and I’d never seen anybody rock the cello like that, but they had a little too much of a Mumford vibe for me to really get into them. Plus, by that time the entire south side of the park was becoming a mud pit. The only dry spots were a few scattered islands of grass.
Kids with mud caked up to their thighs were stomping all around us. And the rain was picking up. As we walked up Columbus Drive past Perry’s the road was covered in mud. In past years when it has rained the pavement has stayed relatively clean. I didn’t want to venture any closer to Perry’s area to try to figure out why there was more mud than ever this year. But there was. And it was nasty.
By 6:15 it was pouring hard and our shoes were soaked. We still wanted to see Childish Gambino, Chance the Rapper, and Skrillex, but how bad did we want to see them? My man AMP reminded us that he had the livestream on Apple TV back at the crib. That sealed the deal. Time to bolt.
We were showered and warm in our jammies by the time Childish Gambino’s slightly delayed “live” stream started. On AMP’s 60-inch plasma screen we could see and hear way better than if we had stayed at the fest. The only thing missing was the mud and the half-naked kids bumping into us. This was the kind of realization that could change everything. What’s the point of putting up with all the bullshit and expense and hassle of a big music fest if you can watch it all from the comfort of your home? I doubt I would’ve been able to get into Childish Gambino’s set even close to as much as I did had I been there in person. I would have been standing over on the side and I wouldn’t have been able to see what a charismatic performer he really is. It was a great set, one of my favorites of the weekend, and I wasn’t even there for it.
Our dinner had been delivered by the time Skrillex started, so we ate on the couch as we watched the nerdy little man in his skull shaped spaceship play beats for the kids. There were lasers, smoke, fire, and flashing lights. The livestream had a camera in the back of the DJ booth so they could cut to shots of Skrillex from behind, jumping around and pushing buttons, occasionally shouting encouragement to his people. All of the crowd shots looked like everybody was having fun, but I did not miss being there. I was comfy and dry and drinking good beer out of a glass. I could talk to my crew without shouting. I had a reliable internet connection. All this, with an excellent view and superior sound quality. What more could I ask for?
Well, that remains to be seen I guess. I’m one of those goofs who actually enjoys the festival experience. I get as grossed out by portapotties as the next guy, yet I keep coming back. It builds character, right? Even the miserable aspects of a big festival are a shared experience with your friends…and with 100,000 strangers. It’s a drag when it rains. Especially when there’s no one on the lineup you’re willing to stand in the rain to see. I understand that Lollapalooza has given up on my demographic and it makes sense. There was no token “old guy band” this year like they’ve always done before (New Order, the Cure, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, et al.). Riot Fest seems to be making a strong pitch for my summer festival attention… We’ll have to wait and see what the lineups look like next year!
Photos by Jolie Brown. We got a ton of good ones this year, so we’ll be posting some galleries over the next several days.