My friend and fellow music writer Derek Wright had an interesting observation about Lollapalooza. He believes no one actually has a good time there.
It’s hard to argue with him. The things I enjoyed about my first Lollapalooza experience – the chance to see so many bands play so many different types of music, and the opportunity to discover new acts every day – would have been much better without some of the more difficult aspects of this (or any, really) massive festival. In the end, while I loved seeing this much live music over so short a span, I don’t think I will do Lollapalooza again.
But that’s it for the bitching, because I really did enjoy my time there, all in all. I am still sunburned, and somewhat woozy, and my feet have not completely recovered. I spent roughly 30 hours in Grant Park last weekend, and after a while, it started to feel like my life had always been this. I get up, I shower and change, and I go stand outside and listen to bands play. It was equally amazing and mind-numbing.
I had planned to see 21 shows over the weekend, but I quickly found that my initial schedule was impossible. I wasn’t quite prepared for the length of Grant Park, or just how crowded it would be, which made traversing back and forth a lengthy and patience-testing experience. I ended up just picking spots and staying there, which led to some interesting shows I hadn’t planned on seeing. It also meant I missed a few acts I wanted to see. I hear TV on the Radio’s set was transformative, for instance, and might have given me that long-sought way in to enjoying them.
What follows is an expanded and smoothed-out version of my daily diary entries at tm3am.blogspot.com over the weekend. Hopefully you’ll forgive me for posting the same material twice in different forms, but this was the most important musical event of my week (or month), and I feel it deserves its own permanent column entry. If you disagree, I’m sorry, but I’ll be back to reviewing new music in seven days.
Special thanks to Jody Bane, who made my weekend possible by securing a hotel room a few blocks from the park. I wouldn’t have been able to afford it otherwise, so I truly appreciate that. And thanks to all the people who hung out with me at Lolla: Jeni LoDolce, Tony Martin, Derek Wright, Amy Simpson, Lis Martin, Alex Kilpatrick, and Lacy Weathersbee. I feel like we all went to boot camp together. Thanks for everything.
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Day One: Friday, August 7
Day One was cold, wet, rainy and miserable. It was also fantastic.
I started it off by nearly missing my train. I’d decided that I would travel light – I had a hotel room for the first two nights, thanks to my friend Jody, but whatever I needed for the weekend I would have to carry with me on Sunday. Clothes, toiletries, sunscreen, and that was it. And I decided to walk everywhere, which led to me severely underestimating the amount of time it would take to get from one place to another. Like, for instance, my house and the train station.
Luckily, I made it, just as the raindrops started falling. Of all the contingencies I’d considered for my Lollapalooza weekend, “What if it rains?” just wasn’t one of them. I was in jeans and a t-shirt, my standard summer uniform. (A side note: I discovered when packing for Lolla that I don’t have any summer clothes that make me look like a grown-up. It’s all t-shirts with band logos on them. I look 17, or worse, homeless.)
I spent Day One with my friends Jeni and Tony, and we stuck to my previously posted schedule, pretty much. My first observation about Lollapalooza? There are a lot of people there. I mean, a lot. The three of us got separated in the rush of the crowd more than once, and by the end of the day, I gave up fighting to get nearer to the stage. Also, the kid at the gate attached my “do not remove upon pain of death” Official Bracelet very loosely to my arm, and it was almost torn off by flailing limbs next to me several times.
Here’s another one: there just isn’t enough time to see every band I want to see. My Friday schedule was packed solid, no breaks, from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. The thing is, I had to leave some concerts early to get to the next show on my list, or risk being stuck at the back of the crowd. While I didn’t skip anybody (except Andrew Bird), I did miss the last 15 minutes or so of nearly every set I attended.
We started with New Jersey’s Gaslight Anthem, who sparked through a strong set of their Springsteen-meets-Social-Distortion pop-punk. Their new album, The ’59 Sound, is very good. It’s also just about 30 minutes long, which, as it turns out, is the perfect length – the band played for about 50 minutes on stage, which was 20 minutes too long for me. Their songs do tend to sound the same after a while.
But I was more interested in figuring out just how my rainy Friday would go, and whether I’d catch pneumonia just standing out there. After the show, I bought a hat, to keep the raindrops off my glasses. I was soaked through by 2:30, and shivering the rest of the day. But after a while, I didn’t even notice.
We spent the rest of the day, with one exception, at the north end of the park, so I quickly got an opportunity to make The Walk. Grant Park doesn’t seem that large when you’re looking at it on a map, but with the sheer number of people crammed into its gates last weekend, traversing from one end to the other turned out to be a 20-minute affair. In my head, I was already restructuring my Saturday schedule, which would have found me making The Walk five times. No way.
So, to the north end. Bon Iver’s set was hushed, as you might expect – his For Emma, Forever Ago is a one-man show, mostly acoustic, and though leader Justin Vernon had some help on stage, the sound was essentially minimal. And it didn’t really work as outdoor festival music, although the rain added to the atmosphere. I enjoyed seeing Vernon, but I’d like to see him again, in a smaller room.
Ben Folds… well. Despite having seen Folds about six times already, I was excited to catch his early afternoon set. But it was the worst, most awkward show I’ve ever seen from him. He focused on material from last year’s lame Way to Normal, mixing in his cover of “Bitches Ain’t Shit” for bad measure, and the set had no pace and no heart. Folds and his band looked bored, even while pulling off the complex runs in “Dr. Yang.” He did give us “Army,” and that’s all right, but my heart sank at the dreary, forced “fun” of the rest of the selections.
Fleet Foxes were excellent, of course. They come off as a ramshackle bunch of laid-back hippies just goofing around, but when they launch into those spectral harmonies, it’s just magical. They’re another band I would like to see in a smaller room, since their quieter moments got lost in the crowd noise. Of course, I left early to get a spot for the Decemberists show, and missed my favorite Fleet Foxes song, “Mykonos.” Typical.
But that’s okay, because the Decemberists delivered my favorite show of the day. They pulled off a complete reading of my favorite album of 2009 so far, The Hazards of Love. It’s essentially an hour-long song, and they played it as such, with all segues intact. The most surreal moment came when the entire crowd, thousands of people, sang along to “The Rake’s Song,” a tune about a guy who kills off his children one by one. As the guy next to me said, “It’s the darkest song I’ve ever heard, but I’ll dance to it.”
By this time, as Galactus might say, the hunger was upon us, so we skipped Andrew Bird and ate some five-dollar burgers. (That’s a good burger. I don’t know if it’s worth five dollars, but it’s pretty fucking good.) Then came decision time. Lollapalooza makes you choose between headliners each night, and since they’re separated by The Walk, there’s no way to catch both. (At least, not if you want to get close enough to see anything.)
Friday night’s headliners were Kings of Leon and Depeche Mode. Two bands I’m not in love with. I decided to go wherever my concert companions wanted to, and Jeni was out-of-her-mind excited about seeing Depeche Mode. So we did, and I braced myself for a long set of boredom.
But you know what? The Mode was awesome. They played a lot of new stuff from Sounds of the Universe at the beginning, but soon they were crashing through old classics, and I forgot just how much I like some of these songs. “I Feel You” was amazing, “Policy of Truth” knocked me out, and “Enjoy the Silence” was the highlight of the set. The final encore was “Personal Jesus,” of course, and the crowd ate it up. Fantastic show, slotting right behind the Decemberists for best of the day. I am still surprised at how damn much I enjoyed it.
It wasn’t until the last strains of Martin Gore’s guitar had faded that I realized just how wet and exhausted I was. And we still had to walk a mile to get to the hotel. But it was worth it. In some ways, Friday was the best day, since the cooler air helped my stamina. I certainly was not prepared for the sweltering beatdown the sun would deliver over the next two days.
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Day Two: Saturday, August 8
In the immortal words of Danny Glover, I am getting too old for this shit.
Day Two was hot. Very, very, unbelievably hot. That alone would have made for a long slog of an afternoon, but it was also crowded. I am sure you have some idea in your mind what I mean when I say the word “crowded.” Take that, whatever it is, and multiply by 10. There were a few terrifying moments today when I could not move in any direction. I was suffocated by people.
Also, Saturday was the day I truly discovered that my schedule was impossible. I was hoping to walk back and forth, from one end of Grant Park to the other, a couple of times. But each attempt at that on Saturday took about half an hour, just moving with the slow tide of people. In the end, I chucked the schedule and only caught a few shows. But they were (mostly) superb. I started the day alone, but eventually found friends, and met new ones. Of course, they all abandoned me at the end of the day, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
I started Saturday with Thenewno2, the electro-rock outfit fronted by George Harrison’s son, Dhani. The young Harrison looks exactly like his dad during the Hard Day’s Night era, and he took the stage in a pirate hat. They played two long, droning electronic tunes, and then the sequencing computer broke. This was the best possible thing that could have happened. The keyboardist donned a guitar, and the band rocked for the rest of their set. And I mean rocked. Nothing on the album (You Are Here) moves with as much force as the last half of their show did.
Then, on Tony’s recommendation, I saw the Constantines, and they were excellent. Sludgy post-punk with some complex instrumental passages, and enough energy to get me pumped for the rest of the day. They were probably my favorite show, until the headliner. I found that for all three days, the sets at the beginning and those at the end stick out for me. The ones in the middle flew by without sticking, except for Vampire Weekend. But as you’ll see, there were other reasons for that.
I met up with Derek and his girlfriend Amy, and we wandered over to the north end to see Los Campesinos. I ended up feeling bad for the band, because they knocked themselves out to entertain us – Los Campesinos sound like the Arcade Fire scoring a John Hughes movie, all huge orchestration and manic beats, and lead singer Gareth Campesinos (uh huh) was like a madman, yelling and jumping and flailing about. But I was bored. I don’t know why. The songs didn’t grab me, and the set, though energetic, just fell flat for me.
In contrast, Texas songwriter Robert Earl Keen was perhaps the biggest surprise of the day. His low-key country-folk was exactly the tonic I needed, all acoustic guitars and pedal steels with sweet melodies. I was standing in front of three shirtless college kids, obviously drunk, and they started yelling out Keen’s name. “Robert! Roooobeeert!” I felt certain they were making fun of the 53-year-old singer, until they began singing along with his songs. They were fans. I was stunned, and the wide grin didn’t leave my face for half an hour.
I left that show early to get a spot for Arctic Monkeys, who sleepwalked through a set of old and new songs. The third Monkeys album, Humbug, hits at the end of the month, and the songs they played from it were slower and more stoner-rock than the hyperactive British craziness of their first two albums. But that’s okay, I was barely paying attention by that point.
I skipped TV on the Radio to get to the south side for Animal Collective. I wish I hadn’t. Animal Collective was bad. I’m not sure why I even thought that show would be good. I love the new album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, but have hated everything else the band has done. This was an hour of drum loops and formless noise, with moaning on top of it. I tried to like it, I really did. But there’s only so much amorphous repetition I can take, and the moments of melody were few and far between. Had I been on some form of controlled substance, I might have liked this better.
For me, the biggest dilemma of the day was the headliner. Did I want to see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, or Tool? They could not be more different, and yet, they each feed a unique part of my musical personality. In the end, unlike every other person there I knew, I picked Tool, for a number of reasons. First, I was already on the south end of the park, and didn’t want to make The Walk again. Second, the Yeahs were the replacement band for the Beastie Boys, and are, I suspect, not quite ready for the big stage. (Post-show reports bore that out.)
But most importantly, I fucking love Tool. And they did not disappoint. They were amazing. Tool uses the classic minimalist lineup (guitar, bass, drums, vocals), but they compose these astonishing mini-symphonies, full of shifting time signatures and difficult, yet pummeling, instrumental work. I don’t know how they kept them all straight live, but they did, and they were astoundingly good. They closed with “Vicarious,” from the latest album, 10,000 Days, and the energy of that performance kept me wired on the long walk back to my hotel.
Once again, the fading strains of the headliner gave way to the realization of just how tired I was. My ankles were screaming at me, my clothes were soaked through with sweat, and I honestly considered bailing out on Sunday, since the weather forecasters were predicting hundred-degree heat. I collapsed into bed, exhausted but happy.
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Day Three: Sunday, August 9
Day Three was just plain weird.
First of all, while there were a lot of people at Lollapalooza on Saturday, there were just too damn many people there on Sunday. Perhaps that’s my impression, colored by exhaustion, but I felt suffocated all day. I remember arriving at noon, and looking through the gate at the earliest show of the day, and seeing hundreds upon hundreds of people already there.
Sunday also vaulted past 100 degrees, which didn’t help. I spent something like $15 on water, in one day, and I brought in a one-liter bottle to boot. I used super-SPF sunscreen, and the back of my neck is still sunburned. The performers were commenting on the heat all day as well. I could try to tell you how hot it was, but I don’t think I’d be able to adequately convey it. It was bloody hot.
Despite all that, the day started out rather well. Ra Ra Riot kicked things off with a driving set of indie pop fueled by violin and cello. I like their sound so much, I just wish they would write some compelling songs to go with it. But live, it worked just fine. Plus, on the way over to that show, I caught a few songs from Los Angeles band Carney, and they were swell – fine, fun pop. I’ll be buying their album.
Bat for Lashes was magnificent. Part Siouxie, part Bjork, all Kate Bush, Natasha Khan danced through a set full of magical songs. She played piano and autoharp, and was backed by a three-piece band that brought the songs on Two Suns, her extraordinary new album, to life. She closed with “Daniel,” and I’ve heard six versions of this song now, none of them the same. Great, great show, despite the eight-foot-tall basketball player who decided to stand in front of me.
I was going to avoid the Airborne Toxic Event, so unimpressed was I with the songs I’ve heard. I’m so glad I showed up for their set, though, because they rocked. They closed with a 10-minute version of “Innocence” that was simply superb. Like Bruce Springsteen (and the Gaslight Anthem), TATE plays simple, inspiring rock music that works much better on the stage. Still, I’ll probably be buying this album now too.
Later, I hooked back up with Lis Martin and her sister Alex, and we fake-fought about Nirvana’s place in the music world. All was well. And then, during Vampire Weekend’s set, I had a panic attack.
I was looking forward to this band’s show all (ahem) weekend. Their self-titled debut was one of my favorite records of last year, and their unique blend of Afro-pop and college rock works on many levels. Unfortunately, one of those levels is “drunken party music.” My friends wanted to be closer to the action, and despite my hatred of crowds, I went along. Before I knew it, we were enclosed, and couldn’t leave if we wanted to.
And then a group of drunken college kids pushed their way through to stand in front of us, and as the band launched into “A-Punk,” they began shoving each other into the people around them. Including us. That, coupled with the heat and the crowd, proved too much, and I fled, taking refuge near the exit while my heart raced and I hyperventilated. It was not my finest moment.
The guard by the gate was something else. I was told that the gate, through which I had exited both of the last two nights, was not an approved way out during the day. So I collapsed by the gate, breathing quickly, trying to slow my heart, and the guard yelled at me to get out of the festival, and to not come back. I argued, explaining what had happened and my reaction to it, and he calmed down. But he was seemingly unable to communicate very well – instead of explaining calmly that the gate was intended as a media entrance only, he barked at people. “Not an exit! Please go away!” I watched him physically maul one woman who tried to get out through the gate. It was crazy.
Still, I enjoyed Vampire Weekend. They played a bunch of new songs, and while they sound superficially similar to the old stuff, I could tell they’re stretching out, becoming more ambitious. I did listen to the last half of their set from the steps by the exit, my head in my hands, though, so you may not want to listen to me.
I recovered in time for the three sets at the end of the night, on the north stage. It took me forever to find my friends again, but as they were determined to see the Killers at the end of the night, we parted company once again. I trundled down to the north side, listening to the strains of “Sweet Jane” as Lou Reed kicked off his set, 20 minutes late.
Now, I don’t like Lou Reed. I can’t believe it took sitting through half his ass-aching set Sunday night to remember that, but it’s true. I know why the man’s a legend, and I understand his importance, but he’s an awful musician, and just a complete douchebag. Despite the late start, he played his whole hour set anyway, which would have been forgivable if he’d been playing songs, but his band spent most of their last 20 minutes spewing forth squalling feedback over a keyboard loop. And then they launched into “Walk on the Wild Side.” As I remarked to the man next to me, Reed is on Heroin Standard Time, so the show could have gone on indefinitely.
Meanwhile, Band of Horses stood by the side of the stage, waiting for Reed to finish torturing our ears. The crowd grew restless, and started chanting “Fuck Lou Reed,” but he pressed on. So Band of Horses started 20 minutes late as well. I quite enjoyed their set, though, especially the grand “No One’s Gonna Love You,” an ethereally beautiful piece. Hearing it live was wonderful.
Then something strange happened. Band of Horses, quite rightly, decided to play their entire set as well, planning to conclude 20 minutes late. Unfortunately, noise ordinances keep Lollapalooza from continuing past 10 p.m. So the reunited Jane’s Addiction decided to take the headlining stage on time, launching into “Up the Beach”… while Band of Horses continued to play on the stage directly facing them.
That’s right, for 20 minutes, we got two bands playing at full volume atop one another, like two stereos blaring simultaneously. It was, to say the least, odd. Most people were just bewildered, but neither band backed down, so all we could do was wait for Band of Horses to finish their set. Now, here’s the thing with me and Jane’s Addiction – I’ve been waiting to see them live for 20 years. It’s been 18 since all four original members shared the stage. I’ve been breathlessly awaiting this show for months.
And the first few songs were just ruined.
Now, my very favorite Jane’s song is the mammoth “Three Days.” I knew I’d have to leave early to catch my train, but I’ve been saying to myself, “As long as I see “Three Days” live, I’ll be okay.” Well, they launched into it as their third song, while Band of Horses was still playing. And I shook my head in dismay. But “Three Days” is 10 minutes long, and it simply outlasted its competition. I got to hear all the good parts, and then another hour of Jane’s besides, including my other favorite, “Then She Did.” Jane’s was extraordinary, playing like they hadn’t been away for even a day. It was a terrific capper.
Yes, I did have to leave early, during “Summertime Rolls.” I missed Joe Perry’s cameo on “Jane Says,” and I didn’t get to hear “Stop.” But I didn’t care that much. “Summertime Rolls” was a great song to go out on, long and languid and nostalgic, and as I exited the park for the final time, I thought back over the weekend. While a lot of it felt like watching live music in a pressure cooker, I did actually enjoy myself. It was a tremendous commitment, and an exhausting ordeal, but it was also a fine, fun time.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.