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Lollapalooza 2009: Sunday

August 21, 2009

On August 9th, I attended yet another music festival, but only for a single day. I didn’t have the cash to attend all three days of Lollapalooza 2009, not to mention the lineup didn’t really excite me this year, but I’d say I got my money’s worth on the one day I did attend. I had so much fun last year that I couldn’t pass up at least one day this time, and although the day was money well spent, it was more of an interesting exploration, as opposed to last years unaddulterated fun.

We started the day in the beautiful/burning hot Grant Park off with Bat for Lashes on the Vitaminwater stage. The singer songwriter Natasha Khan drew a big crowd, and when she got on stage and started playing, her music oddly enough fit the mood of the day. Her style of fairy-tale rock seems out of place in what is usually considered an “alternative rock festival,” but is that really what Lollapalooza is anymore? The dramatic hooks, diverse instrumentation and arcane lyrics had life breathed into them from the hugeness of the stage and the wind that blew over the band and the giant curtains. Also particularly strong was the percussion, which often times took on a sun-baked electronic flair. Khan herself is as attractive of a personality as she is a person. She apologized for the heat and seemed to be only visually suffering from it as much as we were. She stated her worry that dry-mouth might hinder her vocal performance but throughout the show, her vocals were sweeping and impressive.

So why was I bored with the show? My immediate thought on this is probably the most meaningful; the songs sounded exactly like the album versions. Which in some ways is fine, because Khan’s albums are pretty damn good. But I’m reminded of many other festival experiences I have had this year, especially the Pitchfork Music Festival, that had me thinking about what I want in a show. I want my live music to be something that truly benefits me seeing the artist live over just sitting at home listening to an album, and that does not include a pretty face. Khan and her band did bring the goods more than once, enough to make the show worth it. “You might want to dance along to this one,” said Khan before firing into an uptempo rendition of “Sleep Alone” from her latest album Two Suns. Bat for Lashes really benefits when the band try to get their audience dancing. Even on the more hushed numbers, the big beats do their work. But clearly not enough for me, admittedly a head-nodder and an easily bored show-hopper. I’m glad I saw Bat for Lashes, but I didn’t need to see them for more than a half hour.

So we got the Citi Bank stage early enough to see most of Cage the Elephant‘s set, who were just awful. Frontman Matt Shultz was stoned beyond the level that a frontman should be, and I can’t tell if it hindered his performance or if his vocals really are that bad without any help. The band’s southern rock songwriting and delivery is almost comically bland and standard, but the audience, now mostly consisting of bros, just ate it up. It is now that I recognize that the crowd of Lollapalooza has drastically changed. Of course, shirtless jocks were just as big a part of Rage Against the Machine last year, but here they seem to have more attitude and majority.

But they all cleared out after that show, leaving a scant few to wait for the eclectic electronic/noise/world music band Gang Gang Dance to start. Most of these people were probably actually waiting for Passion Pit or Deerhunter instead, and I think I was the only one in the early audience to wave my hand when someone else asked “Does anyone else here actually listen to Gang Gang Dance?” This might as well have been the show I was most excited for on this day, mostly because I love this band and am always jumping at opportunities to see world music influenced shows these days (I am the one who has seen Yeasayer three times in the past year).

So I loved this set despite it’s shortcomings, and there were a few. The sound levels seemed a bit off, and Liz Bougatsos’ wonderful vocals weren’t given enough volume. I can’t tell if this was actually because something was wrong, or because we were in the second row, or because it was just one of the loudest shows I’ve ever heard. The only other show I can think of being worthy of comparison would be Animal Collective’s set at the Pitchfork Festival last year. At that show, the sound of the band was sometimes so convoluted and loud that I often couldn’t hear what I was hearing. This simultaneously frustrating and awesome occurrence happened here at Gang Gang Dance a few times, but even though this was clearly the louder and more experimental show, I found that the sound generally had more clarity and punch to it than Animal Collective did, even though the bands might have uncannily similar descriptions in the Lollapalooza handbook.

But fuck all the descriptions and preconceived notions; you can’t really prepare yourself for a Gang Gang Dance show. It’s just something different than most anything you’ve seen before. The band’s songwriting only adheres to the notion that songs should include guitars and drums, but for a lot of the show, three out of four band members were hitting away at drums and samplers and the guitar was used more as a slow burning electronic instrument, making this a very percussively strong show. Some of the band’s more accessible songs came from last year’s excellent Saint Dymphna, such as the high as the sun “Vacuum” and the down-the-rabbit-hole dance burner “House Jam.” The electronic production from Brian DeGraw simply rocked in a way that I haven’t seen an electronic artist do so before, and his noise passages were really fun and fascinating to listen to. In fact, when I compare them again to fellow psychedelic band Animal Collective (who by all accounts played a very mediocre set on Saturday), Gang Gang Dance seemed to be more complex and experimental and yet still so much more immediate and likable. Also, they might have had the most entertaining set of roadies I have seen in a while; Can someone get me an “OH SHIT, GANG GANG” shirt, please?

I didn’t know exactly what to expect for Passion Pit because I didn’t know their music. By the time they started, I was reminded of what kind of shows I don’t like. The crowd was, for the first hundred feet or so, a gigantic, sweaty, pulsing mosh pit. I decided pretty early that I was sick of having man titties rubbed up against me and barely being able to stand, so I worked my way back in the crowd, got some refreshments, and watched from far away. Which I was just fine with, because I don’t know or care enough about Passion Pit’s music enough to endure the newly awakened Bro-a-Palooza. However, this band amassed an incredibly large crowd. Even from hundreds of feet away, the area was still packed, and the crowd was going fucking nuts. And these guys do have a certain minor gravity. Even I found myself tapping my foot from far away.

Easy, unprofessional bro music? Yes indeed, but when I found myself wrapped up in my elitist thoughts – this is just stupid party music – I had to stop and remind myself that these guys drew a massive, enthusiastic crowd. People love this band, and their music is, to these fans, unstoppable. Towards the latter half of the show, a balding man named Josh greeted me and asked me if that was a girl singing on stage. I said that amazingly it was a guy, and he seemed stunned. He kept asking me, “that’s really a guy?” He said he couldn’t get to the festival any earlier than just recently, if I recall correctly because he couldn’t get off of work, and that he was thinking of seeing Vampire Weekend and The Killers. He proclaimed that he really liked what he was hearing at this stage and proceed to walk his way into the inner crowd. I was left just as bewildered as he was seconds ago. Who’s the teenager here?

When Deerhunter hit the stage next, Bradford Cox seemed frustrated and unhappy. It might be enough that his band had to go up against festival juggernauts Lou Reed and Snoop Dogg, and it looked like he was having pedal issues, but he seemed too distressed too early for things like that. During sound check he seemed quite grumpy and kept to himself, though when he did give the audience his attention he charmingly smiled, waved, and greeted. What we found later during the show was that, according to Cox, he has the H1N1 virus and recently got a shot of B-12. Regardless of whether it was the virus or the meds, he was clearly tripping for the vast majority of the show, and after the show got off the ground, Cox’s anxiety turned to ecstasy. He noted that to him the audience looked like a massive ocean of faceless flesh, recounted a hilarious story of his hallucinations that morning in a Holiday Inn that featured a Mayan themed water park, and threatened to play Snoop Dogg and Velvet Underground songs. And they would have fucking done it too; they had three fourths of the band playing “What Goes On” before Cox asked where his drummer was, to which Moses Archuleta bitched that he didn’t know the drum part (and apparently just couldn’t improvise something. Come on man, Velvet Underground percussion is simple shit, and it’s not like Deerhunter’s is that much more complex.) But through all of this, Cox looked not only slightly terrified but also completely giddy. By the end of the show, he looked ready to pass out but was all smiles.

With that said, all of the banter was just as epic as the music, which went on shockingly unhindered by Bradford Cox’s state of mind. Cox is an electrifying stage presence, and he never fails to bring a smile to the audience, even when he is rambling at what may at first seem like a little too long. But Deerhunter’s set was long and strong enough to live up to the almost legendary hype that has surrounded the band since they hit it big with Cryptograms in 2007 and has accompanied them up through their current tour with Dan Deacon and No Age. The band’s pieces are usually long and reverb-laden, and even their earlier, tougher material sounds lush with Cox and second guitarist Lockett Pundt’s work, which ranges from beautiful atmospherics to tough riffing. The drums and bass are often the driving power behind the songs, as simple as their parts can be. Pieces can range almost to ten minutes of squealing feedback and vocals repeated like mantra, and the rhythm section is slow and brooding. All of those elements sound like they should build up to some terrifying GY!BE type shit, but Deerhunter are actually a really beautiful sounding band, and the songs from the albums sound even more uplifting and brilliant live as on record. Although Cox may have playfully played the band down, it’s not hard to see Deerhunter pulling in as big of a crowd as his competition on Saturday within a couple more years.

To me, it was a no brainer choosing between Deerhunter, Snoop Dogg and Lou Reed. I knew in my head that, considering my lack of familiarity with Lou Reed’s solo work and my love for Deerhunter, there would be no reason for me to see Reed other than to be able to say I saw him. But there was still a tinge of disappointment in my heart knowing I’d miss a punk rock ‘n roll legend that might not be around that much longer, despite my expectations that his show might be a little slow. So I was delighted to find that by the time Deerhunter ended and I was walking over to the Budweiser stage to wait for Jane’s Addiction. Granted, I only ended up hearing one song from Lou Reed and his band, but if you’re only going to see Lou Reed perform one song, “Walk on the Wild Side” is pretty ideal. And Reed sounded a lot like I thought he would. Kinda old, kinda slow, kinda fried, kinda awesome. I’m glad I went for the superlative set and didn’t settle for a “kinda” show, but I’m happy that I got to see him play one good song. It’ll be one to tell the grandkids.

But that story will probably be a side note to my accounts of Jane’s Addiction. Granted, seeing Jane’s Addiction headline Lollapalooza seems legendary right off the bat, and I had to give credit to Perry Farrell, a man who has poured his life into fourteen years of Lollapalooza over the past two decades, as well as the rest of Jane’s Addiction, who headlined the first Lollapalooza in 1991. This was Jane’s Addiction’s moment to shine, with their original lineup on the main stage of one of the most renowned music festivals in the world, which they themselves founded.

But I’ll be damned if they didn’t earn it right there and then. Jane’s Addiction really rocked that stage. This show is just about the greatest major stadium show I’ve ever seen, even standing strong against headliners last year like Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine and Nine Inch Nails. Jane’s Addiction delivered the balls out hard rock goods that was exactly what this year needed with it’s otherwise mostly tame lineup. Perry Farrell is still a magnetic frontman who can hype up an audience like no other, Dave Navarro is an incredible and fun guitarist, Eric Avery rumbles the ground with his basslines and Steve Perkin’s is a behemoth on drums (despite the fact that his elbow was fucked up and two specialists said that he shouldn’t play the show). Everything about the delivery here was spot on. What shocked me the most was that the guys don’t seem like they are half as old as they actually are. No one in the band looks or acts older than thirty five. Perry Farrell, originally dressed in sequins pants and vest, still looks like he did twenty years ago, chizzled with nary a wrinkle at a ripe fifty years old. Dave Navarro is even more cut and still seems to not own a shirt, and he’s probably better off. These guys look and sound probably even better than they did at Lollapalooza ’91, judging from the footage of that performance.

Musically they were spot on, tearing through a set that included classics from the band’s original incarnation in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Songs like “Mountain Song,” “Oceanside,” “Whores” and “Three Days” were given great live treatment that only compounds the energy of the originals threefold, and crowd favorites “Been Caught Stealin'” and “Stop!” got a big crowd response. There was a sort of spectacle to the delivery, yes. Giant paper waves came out of the pit for “Oceanside,” streamers flew over the audience at the conclusion of “Stop,” voluptuous women danced on elevated platforms, and Farrell invited Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry to join the band for the final performance of “Jane Says.” The general complaint seems to be that these tricks are hammy and overblown, but to me they seem relatively tame. Maybe it’s just because I’ve seen the Flaming Lips twice this year, or maybe it’s because I’m comparing this festival show to the band’s recent club shows that featured fire-breathing strippers. In my opinion, Jane’s Addiction like their audience to have fun just as much as they do, and there is nothing wrong with that. It seems like one of alternative rock’s greatest bands is still under-appreciated.

Which isn’t to say that the band didn’t attract a big crowd; the entire weekend was a complete sellout, like last year, and tens of thousands watched Jane’s Addiction tear it up. But the crowd, mostly consisting of middle aged rockers and young classicists, was awkwardly quiet at encore time and wasn’t giving the band nearly the feedback I would have expected. An especially unnerving moment came early on in the set, when Farrell triumphantly yelled “What the fuck is this!? 80,000 punk rockers?? What the FUCK is this!?” I must have been beaming in affection at Farrell’s words, but then it occurred to me that his calculation couldn’t have been correct.

Lollapalooza was founded in 1991 as being a showcase for what was called then “alternative rock.” Lineup selection has usually reflected this, and when it hasn’t, the choices have still ended up being pretty awesome (Kanye West and Daft Punk come to mind). However, I’m still one of those fans of the music which Lollapalooza was born on, although I’m still not sure that I even know what “alternative rock” means. Looking back at previous years’ lineups, I pretty much salivate over the bands that played from 1991 to 1995, when I was a toddler and couldn’t have possibly attended the festival. I saw a guy in the crowd for, interestingly enough, Passion Pit, who had a Lollapalooza 1993 shirt on. Among the bands that played in ’93 were Alice in Chains, Primus, Dinosaur Jr., Tool, Rage Against the Machine, Sebadoh and Mercury Rev. It occurred to me that I would have killed to have been ten years older in ’93. I complimented the guy, and he said that he brings out the shirt about once every five years.

I’ll level; I feel old. I’m nineteen years old and I feel like I’m one of the few people I know that would consider themselves a fan of hard rock. Some of the same bands that were on the guys shirt have even played Lollapalooza since it’s 2005 revival. Hell, Jane’s Addiction, the original spirit of the festival, headlined this year and I loved every overblown, commercialized minute of it. And it was commercialized, because there is still a market for Jane’s Addiction. If there wasn’t, they wouldn’t have played. Lollapalooza, and the entire festival circuit, is now part of the music business. Even though I scoffed at the fact that The Killers were chosen to headline this year, I had no right to scoff at their crowd, which I’m sure was 50,000 strong. Hell, the festival completely sold out again this year, so someone is doing their job right.

In a nutshell, at Jane’s Addiction I felt like an old spirit in a new environment. Just as I’m sure that rock music will never completely leave festivals like Lollapalooza, I’m not completely a classicist; I had just as much fun at Deerhunter and Gang Gang Dance as I did at Jane’s Addiction, and the word “alternative” doesn’t mean anything more to me than the word “indie” does. But it’s obvious and sensible that the nature of this festival is changing, and I find myself watching this happen, a little uncomfortable. But I doubt you’ll see me steering away. I’ll probably have just as much confused fun next year.

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One comment

  1. […] are coming to the Rock n Roll Hotel in DC on March 30th and hopefully I’ll be seeing them. Last time they rocked and I have high hopes for this time too. For those of you who haven’t been […]



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