Concert Review: Lollapalooza Day 1

For being a person who hates a) large crowds, b) large drunk crowds, c) heat, d) the outdoors, and e) being outdoors in the oppressive summer heat with large crowds of drunk people, a big festival like Lollapalooza has all of the makings of a nightmare. Which is why, for the first three summers I lived here (2006-2008), I resolutely ignored the festival despite some killer lineups. I changed my tune after going on one day last year and actually enjoying myself. So, despite my better judgment, I went in for a three day pass this year.  And, while I admit that I had my moments of being a diva, I’m pretty sure that I’ll do it all over again next year.

B.o.BAfter some waiting-in-line induced grumpiness (FYI, having your wristband scanners go down at precisely the time doors open is not a good way to start off a festival), we headed over to the Adidas MEGA stage to what was left of B.o.B‘s set.  It was clear from the second you could get a glimpse of the field that no one had anticipated “Airplanes” becoming one of the summer’s biggest hits.  The crowd was massive, and this was practically at the crack of dawn in Lollapalooza time.  While B.o.B is definitely a rap/r&b artist, based on this performance, he’s could easily be placed in the category of rock star, based on the time he spent behind a guitar, singing.  The crowd went wild for “Airplanes”, and then, just to throw a surprise in there, he closed his set with what he called one of his favorite songs: MGMT’s “Kids”.  (And I’ll say now that I enjoyed his performance loads more than MGMT’s on Sunday.)

The next act we caught was across the park at the Playstation stage: Los Amigos Invisibles, a Venezuelan band whose style has been called “space-funk acid-jazz”. I don’t know what that means, exactly, but coming into the set with no expectations, I was surprised at how entertained I was.  The music is simple and the beats often stay the same, but they kept the attention of a noontime crowd who appeared to be largely unfamiliar with their music.  (Except for the people up front waving a Venezuelan flag.  I see what you did there.)  When their set was nearly finished, we ambled northwards to the Budweiser stage for Chicago native Mavis Staples’ set.

Mavis Staples

The 71-year old gospel legend seems a strange choice for a rock festival, particularly sandwiched between the funk of Los Amigos Invisibles and the southern rock of Drive-By Truckers. But Staples delivered an hour of powerful music in one of my favorite sets of of the festival.  Her music is passionate and soulful, something readily apparent even if you aren’t into the religious message of the lyrics.  Staples’ very presence is powerful, one that speaks of decades of fighting for equality and sharing her message and faith.  Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco fame) produced Staples’ upcoming album (You Are Not Alone) and came out to join her on guitar for a few songs.  Despite fans going crazy for Tweedy, the show wasn’t about him in the least, and he was perfectly content to stand in the background and play for her.

Next, it was back across the field for Drive-By Truckers’ set.  Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy their set as much as I’d anticipated.  The performance was great, technically speaking.  No botched notes or other cock-ups which take me out of the performance.  I just found it to be a little dull.  Maybe it was the oppressive heat or my impending sunburn or the fact that I was starting to get hungry again, but I just wasn’t sold.

I left near the end of their set to go snag a spot in the grass at the Budweiser stage for The New Pornographers, instead.  I saw them last time they were in Chicago, but sans Neko Case (broken foot) and Dan Bejar (being Dan Bejar, I guess), and while the performance was good, it was a little dull without the oddball humor of Case (or the oddball antics of Bejar).  (Although, that show did make me into an Okkervil River fan; go search on Youtube to see Will Sheff step in for the absent Bejar on “Myriad Harbour”, it’s a real winner.)  With the full crew at Lollapalooza, however, the band ran through a whole list of favorites, both old and new, starting out with “Sing Me Spanish Techno” and including some of the more memorable tracks off of their latest album, Together.  Their set wasn’t about being flashy or pulling out surprises; it was about great music from a tight band, and they absolutely delivered in their own humble way.

The rest of the afternoon was a time for rest and food and more rest.  We wandered off to eat and wound up watching Matt & Kim’s performance on one of the jumbo screens set up in the food area.  While I’m not very familiar with their music (lo-fi dance punk is not really on my musical radar), their performance absolutely won me over.   The music is simple, but Matt Johnson and Kim Schifino have an infectious energy and playful chemistry which makes them a joy to watch.  Kim looks like she’s having the time of her life up on stage, while simultaneously looking like she could definitely kick your ass if she had to.

Eventually, the time came to work our way into the crowd over at the Parkways stage.  There wasn’t much else I was interested in seeing before Lady Gaga’s show, anyway.   We caught the end of Hot Chip‘s set, which was actually really good live, although  I’ve been pretty indifferent to their music in the past.

And then, of course, Lady Gaga.  Love her or hate her, you have to admit that she makes people talk.  In a time where so much mainstream pop music is forgettable (and when even Gaga’s music isn’t terribly innovative), she knows how to draw attention to herself and keep herself in the spotlight.   Whether or not that’s a good thing or a bad thing is your call. The woman is definitely talented, in my opinion; it’s just that a lot of that gets lost in the spectacle that is Gaga.

Lady Gaga

I wasn’t as in love with her show as I’d hoped to be, however. It was a 60- or 90-minute set drawn out to fill two hours (the running time of her two albums combined is 90 minutes).  I don’t know if there have been other Lollapalooza headliners in the past who have so slim a body of work.  Everything was over the top, from the costumes to the theatrics to the scripted interludes, sometimes distractingly so.   There was plenty of filler, whether due to costume changes, set changes, or long pauses by Gaga to remind everyone watching that they should be free to be themselves, and that three years ago, she was playing to a disinterested crowd on the BMI stage, and now, she had 80,000 people watching her headline Lollapalooza. (Side note: to the young man behind me who yelled out “Over 9,000!”, I salute you.)  Her talent shone through during piano-driven ballads “Speechless” and new song “You and I”, and for just a few minutes when she brought Lady Starlight out on stage, friend and onetime collaborator, you caught a glimpse of something human underneath the carefully constructed persona the New York twentysomething has adopted.

Check out my photos from Friday on Flickr, and stay tuned for reviews of Saturday and Sunday.

B.o.B: Official Website | MySpace | Facebook | Twitter | Shop
Los Amigos Invisibles: Official Website | MySpace | Facebook | Shop
Mavis Staples: Official Website | MySpace | Facebook | Shop
Drive-By Truckers: Official Website | MySpace | Facebook | Twitter | Shop
The New Pornographers: Official Website | MySpace | Facebook | Twitter | Shop
Matt & Kim: Official Website | MySpace | Facebook | Twitter | Shop
Hot Chip: Official Website | MySpace | Facebook | Twitter | Shop
Lady Gaga: Official Website | MySpace | Facebook | Twitter | Shop