Friday August 2nd, 2013 - Grant Park, Chicago
For the ninth straight year, Lollapalooza has called Chicago home. Amidst the most beautiful skyline in the world and in a vast park with 80,000 of your closest friends, Lollapalooza has grown into more than weekend but possibly the defining music festival of the summer. It is not located in a field out in the middle of nowhere but in the heart of a vibrant city whose heart is big and whose history of music is immense. Being walking distance from your hotel, Buddy Guy's Legends, the Magnificent Mile and the Art Institute isn't something many festivals can claim which is why Lollapalooza redefined itself almost a decade back when they stopped being a travelling festival and became a destination one. I will be the first to admit, I have always had hesitations with attending festivals but I caught the bug last year. Much is made of the headliners and platinum acts that grace the Grant Park stages, but the side stages that truly are the heart of the festival. If you do not or patience to discover new music on your own, this is the best place in the world to fall in love with music all over again.
Despite weather forecasts that there would be thunderstorms during the first day of the festival, aside from a mid-afternoon drizzle, the rain rerouted itself away from the festival. That is not to say that an early morning shower on Friday did not leave a lasting affect. The south sides of the festival (notably the Lake Shore and Red Bull Sound Select stages) seem more prone to mud and as a result, those fields were challenging for most of the day. The first day featured some astonishing performances from veterans and headliners but the newcomers exceeded all expectations.
Opening the festival was a band that hails from New York City. The four-piece band effectively tore through a 30-minute set full of chiming guitar chords reminiscent of the Johnny Marr's guitar in the Smiths. Ironically, there is a song from the British rock band called "The Drowners" and I am not sure if it influenced the name of the band but it may have as their guitar, based rock is akin to many of the British bands I have mentioned. "Long Hair" from their debut EP went over well with its whiplash and swerving strumming that kicked off the three day festival in fine form. Their debut record is coming this fall.
DeLong could have been on Perry's stage (the EDM stage) but instead his one-man band approach is more than one would anticipate. Performing all of the instruments, which include guitars, keyboards, drum machine, a laptop and even game controllers, he creates a wall of sound that is distinctive and bracing. From a live perspective, he was one of the acts you simply could not take your eyes off. This is why I am considering seeing him upon his return to Chicago at Lincoln Hall on 9/9. The massive crowd swayed light sabers in the air during a drum solo that was anything but pretentious. He managed to walk the thin line between creating challenging music and not being off putting. Few one-man acts are truly worth your time of energy but DeLong is one of them.
Hailing from Scotland, Sande is a winner of a Brit award and even set a record for the longest Top-Ten run in the UK surpassing the Beatles Please, Please Me. So how did she manage on an early day slot at Lollapalooza? Brilliantly. Despite only one record to her name, Our Version of Events she took to the stage with the confidence of a veteran expressing a wide range of emotions during her all too brief set. "Heaven" and "Breaking the Law" flexed her soulful and sultry vocals. She has received comparisons to Adele, despite pulling soul from a different spot, but what you notice in concert is the way she pushes herself vocally. There was no holding back. Some people hit the stage and sing, Sande communicates something spiritual. Doing introductions for each song made you pay closer attention, drew you in and made you feel like she is a new friend. "My Kind of Love" stirred something in me about a tale of support when everything has turned to dust; this is not about simply hearing music but is about having something lie deep within you long after you have heard it.
Deap Vally hails from California and consists of two women, drummer Julie Edwards and vocalist/guitarist Lindsey Troy. Let's get two items out of the way- yes, there are inevitable comparisons to the White Stripes and Black Keys as Edwards and Troy embrace the same two-member blues template and yes, they exude sexuality the way only vintage Rolling Stones songs can conjure. That being said, while many pop starlets hide behind their sexuality because there isn't much depth to the music, Deap Vally defy the tag of garage rock as they take you on a distorted journey of rock n' roll that will bring you to your knees. If the Rolling Stones released "Bad for My Body", radio would have no choice but to play it hourly. Deap Vally are a band capable to owning every audience member from the first note to the last. "Gonna Make My Own Money", "Walk of Shame" and "Ain't Fair" sounded like distorted thunderbolts with magnetic grooves. What differentiates Deap Vally from other garage rockers is there's more to them than distortion. These are well-crafted songs and it's why they are getting notices from festivals across the world. If you could create a soundtrack of mountains cracking the Earth to its core, it would be Deap Vally, who proved to be the defining act at Lollapalooza. This is why this festival exists, to highlight underground talent like this. They don't just deserve to be performing here, but to one day be headliners. Deap Vally will lead men on and entrance them making them fall in love with them while reminding women of their female supremacy their inner and outer beauty of embracing who they are. Their performance is not an act but a mesmerizing look at the blues. They understand it, they feel it and they perform it like veterans. Beneath the veneer of their sensuality is assurance and grit. These are two girls to watch because whatever they have experience and endured throughout their short lives they brought with them on the concert stage.
On the flipside of the garage rock sounds of Deap Vally was the Swedish metal of Ghost B.C. (also known as Ghost everywhere outside of the US). Possibly the heaviest band to grace Lollapalooza, Ghost is the type of act who owe a tip of the hat to King Diamond, but appear to be capturing an even larger audience. Draped in black hoods and masks, they could be the house band for the Stanley Kubrick directed Eyes Wide Shut starring Tom Cruise. From the dry ice opening (with theme music from Eyes Wide Shut ironically) to the members taking the stage one-by-one, you could see this was not a band to miss. What no one could have anticipated is while the costumes draw people in, it is their melodic thrusts that keep you engaged. The guitars are substantial and monstrous to the extent that even if you don't know their music, they slowly draw you in. While they're not the first band to play metal music in costumes, they've filtered it to their strengths. They capture your imagination with heightened sense of drama, but the music is poised and powerful with an image that winds up wrapping itself around your ears. Focusing heavily on material from their latest record Infestissumam the music was crushing, haunted and hallowed, notably on "Secular Haze", "Year Zero" and "Ritual". Vocalist Papa Emeritus II was dressed like the Grim Reaper but yet he elicited incredible crowd interaction conducting them like a symphony. Ghost was unlike any other band at Lollapalooza taking the crowd through a maze of mystery during their one hour set that for those who saw it, will not only remember it, but will desperately want to experience it again.
Her debut album Devotion was an import best seller before its release earlier this year. Hailing from Britain, Ware has drawn comparisons to Sade and her soulful vocals are impressive but yet hard to engage in a live setting. Playing amongst a vast crowd, she was no slouch working the stage while never letting her vocals slide. The mid-tempo music provided a refuge for those looking for calmer waters. During the final song, "Running", Ware hopped off the stage and mingled with the fans in a solid set, but one that may have flourished more within a club or theater.
Atlas Genius and Houndmouth
Atlas Genius hailing from Australia flourished on the concert stage. This is a band that spent three years writing, recording and rehearsing before they released their debut album and it showed. Their fast and succinct set matched the power of the studio counterparts and left quite an impression on the crowd.
Houndmouth evokes the sound of the Band with a lineage to My Morning Jacket and Dawes as well. One key element that makes Houndmouth more than your average band is Katie Toupin who brings a delicate touch to the harmony vocals that differentiates this folk-rock band from others. When she sings, it's almost enough to open the skies and she even took over drums for one song.
Band of Horses
Hitting the stage with a hard and fast pace, Band of Horses flexed their strength notably on the song "Is There A Ghost", which found the band congealing and melting as one in their drive to deliver their band of rock n' roll. The Horses at their best are strident musically, as the guitars sing and the drums and bass propel the band forward making you feel your life track is on path and in the right direction. While their studio output is quite good, there was en energy that emanated from the crowd that made this set extra special.
Imagine Dragons may have had one of the biggest sets of the day with a crowd so oversized that it almost took up the entire field. The autograph line for the band earlier in the day was the longest I saw all weekend as well, proving this Las Vegas band has made their mark on several. They had the unfortunate luck of losing power on their second song "Amsterdam". While in a spirited mood the band took a while before they were able to reverberate their power throughout the crowd (partially because of a sound system that was a tad underwhelming). By the time Dan Reynolds sang the first part of "It's Time" acapella, the crowd was right there with them as they powered through "It's Time", "Demons" and "Radioactive" in quick succession.
When New Order played the Aragon Ballroom last October, the band proved they were still a force to reckon with despite original member Peter Hook not being a part of the band anymore. In many ways, a festival like Lollapalooza wouldn't exist without the likes of Joy Division and New Order. The way they continually evolved and embraced elements of rock, ne wave and dance gave them great appeal and their legacy has only matured with time. Not having Hook is a profound disappointment but his replacement Tom Chapman was more than up to the task as he glided through his songs with textured eloquence punctuating each song with the necessary grooves and melodies that are New Order's trademark. Throughout the band's 75-minute set, they reached a level of transcendence numerous times notably on "True Faith", "Ceremony" (originally written as a Joy Division song) and "Blue Monday". With Chapman's bass as the road map, New Order gelled as Bernard Sumner's guitar, the drums of Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert's delicate synths radiated throughout. Most surprising to me was the diversity of the crowd. While I had expected the band to have an older crowd on hand, many younger fans made their way to the far end of Grant Park to see one of the bands responsible for the music Lollapalooza celebrates. Gilbert's synths flourished on "Your Silent Face", a breezy and melancholy song that induces feelings of never ending serenity. The song was recently used giftedly in the British film of Bronson with Tom Hardy in the lead role. It was also during this performance where I thought about Peter Hook and how he imagined the bass guitar as more than a mere anchor for music, but an integral part of the sound and mission of the band. How many bands have tried to emulate and surpass the sound of Joy Division and New Order?
"Temptation" kicked the already frenzied crowd into overdrive with it's hyperactive but ingenious dance grooves (courtesy of the great Stephen Morris who was wearing a David Bowie t-shirt featuring The Next Day album cover). The song as of late has had a bit of a renewal with it being featured prominently during the feature film The Perks of Being a Wallflower and as a cover during the CW show The Carrie Diaries. Just when the crowd thought it might be over, the band performed a three song Joy Division set that while drenched in lingering memories. The moody "Atmosphere" unwrapped itself before "Transmission" rippled throughout the crowd. For a finale, the soul-despairing bass riff of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" rocketed throughout Grant Park, as the crowd, regardless of age, flew fists, jumped and danced their sorrows away. Despite being written at Ian Curtis' breaking point, the song is a celebration of what once was and for many in the audience, it served as a message that no matter how severe the ache, we are not unaccompanied in this journey and that even during the worse of times, we will have music to guide us home.
Frightened Rabbit front man Scott Hutchinson probably learned a lesson or two from the likes of New Order and Joy Division. Doused in melancholy and a driving insistence to wrap itself around the rhythm of your heart, Hutchinson pleads incessantly in his well-tuned lyrics at times revealing personal confessionals and the rest of the time attempting to be a guide for the lost and disenfranchised. When I saw the band nearly three years ago at the House of Blues, "I Feel Better" found Billy Kennedy's bass socked you like a sped up heartbeat while drummer Grant Hutchinson mimicked the pain on his weeping drum fills. Above all, picturesque lyrics delivered with awe-inspiring compassion by Scott Hutchinson. The band delivered the song like a group excising all previous bad relationships. A way to purge pain became an ode to win a girl back, yet it is a pure pop epiphany. Finding inspiration from anguish and ambiguity, Frightened Rabbit taps into lives most commons themes of love and loss. Frightened Rabbit is a great band who was unfortunate to have a slot right before the Killer and Nine Inch Nails took the stage. Their set was overlooked in favor of getting to one of the headline stages. Their own stage was besieged by Lana Del Ray fans patiently awaiting her late evening set. All of this should have affected the performance, but Hutchinson and the rest of his Scottish band mates made the best of it swinging for the fences at every turn. They play each song with importance as if it'll be the last time they ever play it. The highlight of their set was the fantastic "Swim Until You Can't See Land" demonstrating why their best songs are compassionate lending an ear that is never judgmental and always supportive. The song is used to excellent use in the underrated Jodie Foster directed film The Beaver starring Mel Gibson and Jennifer Lawrence. The song flourishes under the guide of Foster in a pivotal sequence and once seen the song will live with you forever.
Nine Inch Nails and the Killers
The biggest headline conflict came during the first night with two bands I greatly admire going head-to-head in competing time slots. I have never seen Nine Inch Nails so this seemed like an easy choice, but last December at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago, the Killers put on an epic show full of strength and endurance validating their greatness. When I saw them in 2006, they were hesitant and still finding their way. This tour has found the Killers on another plane where they embrace their past in muscular and defiant renditions of their biggest hits alongside material from Battle Born of which every song grew in concert. I made the decision to start with Nine Inch Nails and if time allows, trek to the other side of the park to catch the Killers.
As Lance Herbstrong completed his set on an adjacent stage, Trent Reznor walked out on a bare stage alone. Reznor was in a sleeveless shirt showing his immense biceps, several light years away from the waif physicality of the inaugural Lollapalooza fest in 1991. Through thick and thin Reznor has managed to keep Nine Inch Nails afloat despite numerous line-up changes. On Friday night, he began the show walking up to a single machine as a dance beat began to repeat itself of the song "Copy of A" from the forthcoming Hesitation Marks One by one, other band members took to the stage and instruments appeared as needed. Revolving screens at the back of the stage were manipulated and moved after each song providing a stark minimalism to the show. This was done previously by the Talking Heads on their Speaking in Tongues tour thirty years ago and by all accounts, Reznor did it just as well. Or did he? While the show had all the makings of a top tier art project, it did alienate some in the crowd. While those closest to the stage, including a swarm of women who physically let their deepest and darkest desires as they danced in the glow of the moon, those further back on the field felt lost. The reason for this was Reznor's decision to not utilize either of the large screens on either side of the stage, an integral part of any immense festival show. So while the stark color contrast of screens on the stage shifted, many in the crowd, shifted out of Grant Park. After seeing an impressive musical display of "Sanctified", "Come Back Haunted", "1,000,000", "March of the Pigs" and "Piggy", I decide to sprint over to the Killer's headline set at the other side of the field.
The Killers ascended to stardom with their debut record Hot Fuss but they've defined themselves as a great live band in the last few years. Before "Bling (Confession of a King), the band did a piano laden into of their hit "Human". Their Joy Division cover "Shadowplay" (written for the film Control about Ian Curtis, the frontman for Joy Division) followed this. The special treat they gave the crowd was having Bernard Sumner from New Order and Joy Division performed it with them. "Miss Atomic Bomb" is a song you may have missed originally on Battle Born but live it came to life making you want to revisit the record. During a full band "Human", "Somebody Told Me" and "I Think We're Alone Now" the crowd went into another stratosphere as they became more animated with every song. "I Think We're Alone Now" was introduced as "A Tommy James and the Shondels song that Tiffany covered, we're stealing it back" providing not just a breathtaking sight at the entire field sung along, but also shows that singer Brandon Flowers is well versed with U2's Rattle and Hum. A particular note needs to credit bassist Mark Stoermer who anchors the Killers at every turn providing not just a solid rhythm but accentuates their overall sound in concert.
As I headed back to Nine Inch Nails, I was surprised by how many had left, as the back end of the field was now open. I am sure Reznor had reasons for not using these screens, but in a festival setting, the first and only goal is the keep the audience engaged. While he successfully managed this with those up close, those further back gave up. It's a shame to, because his set was peaking upon my return with "Only" and "The Hand That Feeds" gripping the core fan base, who were witnessing the first Nine Inch Nails shows in four years. Those who have tickets to the fall tour of arenas will witness a show few others can match, as this setup should thrive under a roof. The final two songs, "Head Like A Hole" and "Hurt" saw the audience closest to the stage in full on rage as the band tore through the songs wringing every last blood drop from them. Reznor's vocal on "Hurt" was gripping and as I came closer to the stage, he stood there with two hands gripped around his microphone and watching him was a remarkable sight. It pains me more were not able to see this as somehow, somewhere he went to that dark and unfathomable place he embodied where there was no tomorrow. As a final distorted burst vibrated throughout the park, Reznor and the remaining band members left the stage. Few could top a chilling and almost impossible finale on this weekend. Despite some of the crowd's lethargy since the lack of screens, the openness of Reznor and carefully executed set made it something you cannot shake off even as you head out of the park. An important note: I was able to catch the second half of Nine Inch Nails webcast when I arrived home. This played marvelously on the computer screen. It was most likely the most gripping webcast of the weekend.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter