words by Elliot Cole
photos by Randy Cremean & Pooneh Ghana
Lollapalooza – Day 1
The Naked and Famous [Best Of]
The act that kicked off my Lollapalooza 2011 was also one of the sparkling, gleaming revelations from the mud-caked fest. Although, that’s not to say they were completely polished. The Kiwis rode a wave of synthy, bass-heaving shoegaze rock that ranged from infectiously precise to messy and raw. Thom Powers and Alisa Xayalith -tucked behind large black shades to hide from the scalding sun – played off each other as symbiotic frontman/woman. Although each is a capable vocalist individually, they work best as a pair, when their vocals intermesh into a deeper, robotically in tune harmony (think The xx, but without the fragility).
Some boorish and unoriginal fan chants didn’t deter the group (Get naked? Seriously? That’s the best we can do?), which held a perfect balance of indie precision and reckless rocking. The Naked and Famous sounds fairly low key on record, but live the group offers messy, screechy guitars, dropped instruments, and snapped microphone cords. By the time the band closed with the idyllically summer single “Young Blood”, they had already won over the crowd.
Foster the People
Foster the People, uh, fostered a large crowd of young bro types and dudes in backwards baseball caps for its early afternoon set. But the band itself runs with a different image: the group is prim and proper, the kind of guys that you take home to mom. With cropped haircuts and collared shirts, the band is unwaveringly safe, both in style and in substance. It’s that kind of security has made them somewhat divisive; most people I talked to either loved the band or didn’t get why anybody else would.
Still, these are all aesthetic concerns. At its heart, Foster the People is a fun, charming little keyboard pop group, and the group was unavoidably likable at Lollapalooza. “This is the most amount of people we’ve ever played for before,” announced modest frontman Mark Foster. Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) was amongst that crowd, taking the performance in from the side of the VIP area.
Foster generally seated himself behind keys, sweating through his pirate-like white shirt while playing through near perfect replicas of tracks off of the band’s debut, Torches. When Foster took the mic, he crooned and danced with the awkward mannerisms of a Keith Richards who never discovered drugs. Foster also took some time for a few “believe in yourself” between song mantras.
Cheesy or not, it all seemed genuine. The funny dance moves, the soapbox spiels, and the overly tidy image were so un-rock that you knew they were sincere, that this was who the band was, stage or not. And just when the more critical Lolla-goers may have written off Foster the People as a flash-in-the-pan pop group, Mark Foster pulls out his guitar and belts out an amazing cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”, an early contender for song of the festival.
Two Door Cinema Club
Look, Two Door Cinema Club isn’t rewriting the formula. The Irish group follows shamelessly in the post punk mold of other UK acts like Foals or Bloc Party, perhaps throwing in the pop/punk elements of Tokyo Police Club for good measure. That mold has been worn out more than a few times, but every now and then a band can breathe a little new life into it.
But the important part of this brand of sound is that, if done right, it plays well live, and Two Door Cinema Club were able to get the crowd hopping with a buoyant, high energy set. Pasty, waif-like frontman Sam Halliday refused to wilt under the heat, despite the impending sunburn. His hair swept on top of his sunglass, and somehow, inexplicably, he wore a jacket throughout the performance. “Irish people aren’t supposed to be out in this heat,” he quipped. “Neither are ginger people.” The self-deprecation was well received, as were the bands reverb-laden tracks and yelpy, spasmodic lyrics. Two Door Cinema club didn’t reinvent the wheel, but they kept the partying rolling, which is exactly what you want out of a midday Lolla band.
Congratulations, Skrillex, you’ve won the award for biggest sh*tshow of Lollapalooza 2011. If the ole chants, jam packed tent, and frustrated, elbowing masses weren’t enough of a warning, maybe I should have just read the bouncing sign at the center of the crowd that read: “Huge Party.” It was a huge party (and arguably the biggest “event” to be at of the first day), but it was also a mess with no room to move and thousands of people fighting for space in a tent with overmatched fans as the only cooling system.
Other publications reported that the photographers got kicked out almost immediately and that many fans were pulled out bloodied and beaten. Thankfully, I bolted after a couple of songs, and avoided all of that. While I regret missing what was undoubtedly the biggest party of Lollapalooza, the writing was on the wall, and I didn’t feel like getting blood on my best v-neck.
Bright Eyes [Best Of]
The ever-evolving Conor Oberst won me over in his last trip to Austin City Limits, where he performed with a poise that brushed aside his teenage image of the delicate, emotionally crippled coffee shop performer. That Oberst wasn’t shaky or small, he was in charge and boisterous, both confident and raw. This time, however, he was simply pissed, and he managed to churn out one of the better sets of Lollapalooza.
Oberst’s vocals are dryer now, and more assertive. His shaky falsettos give way to the occasionally gravel-throated shrieks. It’s as if he’s shed all his meagerness, especially when he sings “Someone will get hurt/but it won’t be me” on “Take it Easy”. The dark-toned “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” was industrial, heavy, and ominous, not to mention an ensnaring performance with Oberst sneering out every word with a threatening candor.
Oberst shed his sunglasses mid set, revealing an intense stare. He dedicated songs to “all the phonies in the audience tonight” and ran through songs at a quickened pace with the rest of Bright Eyes. On “Landlocked Blues” the group stripped away any innocent sweetness of the song, instead offering a twangy, more aggressive take. Bright Eyes offered wails of patriotic trumpets, occasional flamenco touches, and, oddly, a surprisingly upbeat finale: Oberst ran through the crowd, crooning about love and embracing fans and security personnel. It was as if all the anger and fury on the stage fizzled out into some greater spirit of community. Whether it was love or fire, Oberst delivered.
Some part of me sneered at the thought of turning down longtime favorites like Girl Talk or Ratatat to see Coldplay, whom I have always smugly regarded as sorority dorm fodder. Honestly, though, it’s all posturing: Coldplay has put together a magnificent career of carefully crafted songs that are sweepingly powerful as well as delicately poignant. And, yes, often magnificently good.
So, it is without reservation that I can say Coldplay brought it at Lollapallooza 2011. They are veterans of the big stage, and one of the few acts in the world that can play Lollapalooza without any fear of being swallowed by the size of the festival. Fireworks introduced the band, which hosted an expensive light show of its own. “Hurts Like Heaven” made an early appearance, both animated and lively. Yellow balloons and lights bathed the crowd early on as Chris Martin and company indulged the crowd with “Yellow”. By the big sing-alongs of “In My Place” the group had already run through a gamut of albums and zeitgeists, establishing a practical “best of” set list that would continue into the night. For this writer, however, day one of Lollapalooza 2011 had come to an end, without a shred of regret for taking in the gravitas of Coldplay over the sweat-filled mosh pits of other stages.
Lollapalooza – Day 2
A last-second addition to my personal schedule, L.A.-based Grouplove was one of the pleasant surprises of Lolla, though I’m still not sure I have them figured out. More importantly, I don’t know if they do. The group’s eclecticism bridges classic rock and effervescent summer pop, with tinges of Americana imagery, Clash-inspired punk, and sweet, wispy harmonies. If this sounds like a broad range, well, it is, but Grouplove performed well in all of its chameleoned skins, be it indie pop or tousled rock.
Grouplove lives up to its moniker: it is very much a collective, with multi-layered vocal arrangements sneaking out of big smiles (or, in the case of vocalist Hannah Hooper, a mask). It’s difficult to consolidate Grouplove into one category. But, judging by the quintet’s magical journey through various genres, it’s fairly evident that the band can succeed in whatever singular style it ultimately chooses. That is, if the band should ever feel the need to.
Death From Above 1979
A large banner blanketed the back of the Bud Light stage. It pictured a gravestone, etched with the band’s name and “2001-2006.” Rising from the ashes behind the grave were two ominous figures: longhaired, zombified elephant-people serving as a dramatic reminder that, yes, Death From Above is back.
“DFA” chants rang out 20 minutes before the set even started, and the energy of the crowd foreshadowed the eventual mosh pits that were permeate the entire set. Sebastien Grainger and Jesse Keeler took stage in contrasting black and white, Grainger in all white and Keeler in all black. It was strangely poetic, these contrasting colors: it was reminiscent of yin and yang, two opposite forces that are nonetheless interdependent. Grainger and Keeler have had well-documented squabbles leading to the group’s breakup, but, like yin and yang, they need each other, they are nowhere near as strong apart as they are together.
Of course, this is Death From Above. Such poeticism was probably lost somewhere between the muddy mosh pit in front of the stage or the guy in the “Titties and Beer” shirt.
DFA unleashed spastic frenzies of dirty, sexual music that ripped ears off. Keeler took puffs off a cigarette between songs, and Grainger added witty banter between songs. The songs were surprisingly polished, but still revealed every bit of messy punk rock furor that you could hope for. While the festival setting doesn’t serve the duo as well as a sweaty bar, they were able to shine anyways.
Ever the eccentric, Cee-Lo tromped on stage in a pair of Oakland Raiders-esque shoulderpads with spikes projecting out of them. His backing band – consisting of all women – looked like some type of dominatrix crew, which would be sexy if it wasn’t slightly intimidating. Through growling, static-laden vocals Cee-Lo rolled through a set of sampled hits, covers, and original party starters. He sampled the distinct drum and bass of “Seven Nation Army” and the idiosyncratic crunch of AC/DC, amongst others. But the smattering of samples and DJ work swallowed up Cee-Lo’s set. The actual tracks seemed buried under all the fluff, leaving an impatient and confused crowd mostly biding its time until “Fuck You”. With Lykke Li’s set looming, Cee-Lo didn’t win me over enough to wait it out.
Lykke Li [Best Of]
Clad in an amorphic, black trash-bag looking outfit that would make her a good villain for the next Batman movie, Lykke Li made the Google + stage seem woefully unfit for her huge crowd. Photographers were turned away and fans peeked through tree branches to see the petite performer.
Lykke Li isn’t a typical pop star (if you even want to lump her into that category). She doesn’t dominate the stage, nor rile up the crowd with exaggerated motions and frenetic shouting. Yet she has a dramatic presence, animated yet intimate. Lykke Li isn’t controlling, but politely inviting. She invites the audience in rather than clutching the audience and dragging it into her realm. When she announces the next song, she requests that people “please stay” for it, a maneuver Lady Gaga surely didn’t pull at last year’s Lollapalooza.
Nonetheless, Lykke Li’s presence is addicting. Her voice carries like honey, both sweet and thick, and her sexual sashay is more teasing than showy. She is animated and likable, drumming on anything around, from drums to amps, and lending herself to a percussive onslaught that bled into, ahem, a kazoo. Although she may never bark at a crowd to clap like this or dance like that, she doesn’t need to. She’s in her own little world, and her gracious invitation for us to join is all we need to enjoy it.
My Morning Jacket
The Soundcheck favorite was an easy call over Eminem, but that didn’t reflect the rest of the Lolla crowd. MMJ’s crowd was surprisingly thin, and it took no effort to walk to the center of the crowd once the set began. I would scold people for choosing Eminem over such a prolific performer as MMJ, but I understand the need to see the “buzz” performer every year (it was what drew me to Lady Gaga over a reunited Strokes last year).
By this point, MMJ is a known commodity at the festival level. They’re diverse history and sprawling songs work well in this format, and a strong contingent of diehards lapped it up. Many fans, however, got a little lost in the string of new material the band played early on. That was cured by “Off the Record”, which was played with a fervor and liveliness that encompasses why they merit the main stage. Jim James – his hair long and tangled – lost himself in the music (sorry, Em) and hit every reverb-soaked note. He donned a cloak and darted from instrument to instrument. Cuts off of Circuital had an austere groove in the live setting, and the set leaned towards tracks from that and Evil Urges. During “I’m Amazed”, five video screens scrolled through pictures of the sky and oceans, appropriate images, if not a little corny.
Toilet paper rolls flew through the air and a dancing Mega Man sign was plunked with many of the dispersed glowsticks. James told the crowd that one of his first ever concerts was Lollapalooza in Cincinnati in 1994 as a high schooler, emphasizing that “it’s kust so fucked up to be here with you tonight.” If he was overwhelmed by the moment, it never showed. MMJ did what it did best. It was a little chill at times, and I was secretly hoping for a few surprises or guests, but the band held its own on the main stage of Lollapalooza.
Lollapalooza – Day 3
Titus Andronicus [Best Of]
It’s always interesting to see what efforts bands make to rise to the occasion of a major festival, nevermind the main stage of Lollapalooza. In the case of Titus Andronicus, it was the opposite: the band’s snarling presence undermined the gravity of the stage, transforming it into a small punk club in New Jersey.
The wry band slugged through a blistering set. Patrick Stickles sported a menacing scowl and a thick beard, looking like a guy that was going to chop lumber and eat deer jerky as soon as the set concluded (after meeting him in the media area, I can verify he did both these things.) A large group of diehard fans crowded the front of the stage, many chanting “U.S.A.” in response to an American flag and an awesome eagle hand puppet that rose above the heads of the audience.
While the band specializes in reckless self-awareness and sardonic wit, it also showed off its maturation: a few sweeping songs led to a rousing finale, featuring violin work by Amy Klein. For about an hour, Chicago felt like a bar in New Jersey.
The Cool Kids
The Cool Kids’ have received a somewhat lukewarm response on its latest album, When Fish Ride Bicycles, but a hometown Lolla set at the always-rowdy Perry’s stage (a.k.a. the “rave tent”) made for a good antidote. The tent was an ongoing party throughout the weekend, with ample Red Bull being passed around to, um, out-of-sorts concert patrons, some of which I spotted taking unidentifiable blue pills. We’ll just say it was Advil. Blue Advil. Right.
Mikey Rocks wore loud tropical shorts that echoed the bands ethos of being “not gangsta at all”, climbing the framework surrounding the stage and rolling through Cool Kids staples with Chuck Inglish. “88” and “Black Mag” both won the crowd over, as a bright screen behind the band brandished its name. A thick bass filled the tent, and Inglish and Rocks played as their own hype men, keeping the crowd’s energy high between songs and consistently engaging the crowd. Shirtless guy and blondes in short shorts clung on to the sides of the tent, giving it a Spring Break 2003 type of feel until security intervened. As the duo asked “Where’s the party?” in the midst of the track “Bassment Party”, the question was obviously unncessarily: it was right in front of them.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
I darted from Cool Kids to catch the larger, more shoegaze-drive sound of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. And while I got to hear a few tracks, Pains ended it’s set shortly after I arrived. What I did see is a band that has a sound more geared towards larger stages, but with a low-key persona that is still more politely engaging than rock star dramatic. The bobbing heads in the crowd showed that the newer material is well suited for a venue like this, but the ever-likable band didn’t capture as much attention as it probably deserved.
Portugal. The Man [Best Of]
I’ll sheepishly admit that, prior to this piece, I knew little of Portland-based quartet. Psychedlia generally isn’t my thing. But Portugal. The Man stole me for its Lolla set, both through an energetic set and the band’s defiance to the weather. Their set was most notable for the looming whether: the heavy winds built quickly, leading the Lollapalooza staff to take down the large video screen accompanying the stage.
Portugal was artistically solid, with occasional freak-out moments and some compelling string work. The highlight of the set, however, came with the group’s set-closing rendition of “People Say”, a song that the band has been told sounds like Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back in Anger”. The group transitioned the song seamlessly into “Don’t Look Back In Anger” right as the rain started falling, allowing for an unforgettable moment that was both beautiful and original.
Unfortunately, for the group, its fantastic Lollapalooza performance was tapered by the fact that the band members’ gear was stolen hours after their performance. Check the band’s Facebook page to see how to help. At least the last time the instruments were put to use was monumental.
Explosions in the Sky
Austin’s representatives at Lolla had to push back their set because of the rain, but managed to craft a set that didn’t feel rushed at all. The delay pedal-laden songs sprawled with the same drifting intensity, and crowds stood in piles of mud to get caught in the trance. Some fans – perhaps those waiting on the intensity of the Foo Fighters – couldn’t keep their attention on Explosions for the full set, instead meandering and chatting in the audience. Overall, however, the band was sharp, and managed the last-second changes to its set well.
Before Explosions in the Sky had even finished, the first chords of Foo Fighters’ set had rung out. Initially, I thought this was an effort to immediately announce the presence of the band, to make sure the crowd knew they were about to be stormed by Dave Grohl and company. However, there was an ulterior motive: the band wanted to start, and start fast, because a hurricane was about to spank Chicago.
For a few gloriously clear-skied tracks, the Foo Fighters performed an unforgiving, loud, and bright set of Foo standards. Grohl struggled to hit the high notes, instead offering wailing shrieks, but more than made up for it with testosterone and energy. But the skies quickly turned dark, and before you knew it a torrential downpour hit Grant Park. The audio temporarily cut out as patrons sprinted to find cover beneath anything: trees, canopies, or beer stands. The wind threw out my earplugs, and I still have a bag of personal items and a pair of shoes still lost somewhere in the Grant Park mud. In an effort to salvage my camera and whatever else I had on me, I had to bail on Foo Fighters. Once the weather calmed, you could hear that the Foo powered through, but it wasn’t so easy for the uncovered crowd. Applause to Grohl, but mother nature wasn’t on his side.