More than two-hours into Paul McCartney's headlining set Friday night at Lollapalooza, he was joined by Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes for the Beatles classic "Get Back". In this moment at Grant Park in Chicago, the worlds of Lollapalooza collided. What started as an alternative music fest nearly a quarter century ago has turned into one of the premier music festivals in the United States. While the spirit of alternative is alive within the festival, it's expanded and has few musical boundaries. You could not have imagined someone like Paul McCartney playing Lollapalooza in the 1990s, let alone ten years ago, but now it makes sense and as Howard belted out "Get Back" perfectly complimenting McCartney and his powerhouse backing band, the past and present of music met. This wasn't just another gig or an awards show with an industry crowd, Lollapalooza is where the music lives and dies and on Friday, Paul McCartney may have been the oldest performer at Lollapalooza but he was also the best giving quite possibly one of the five best headliner performances the festival has ever seen.
Why Does Lollapalooza Stand Out?
What differentiates Lollapalooza from many other festivals is the buzz from the city during the festival. The city is bursting with the energy of a Super Bowl victory. From sunrise to sunset and into far beyond, the vibe is electric. Yes, it's a social scene with music fans taking selfies, drinking and losing themselves but it's also where I have seen more music come alive in the last four years that antiMusic has been covering the festival in-depth. One of the best exposures to new music I have every year is Lollapalooza. You see the act in the flesh, let them showcase their goods and quite often, they have the power to surprise.
A large part of what makes Lollapalooza such a destination festival is the city of Chicago, bustling with vibrancy, stunning architecture, numerous watering holes, museums galore and in the summer, there are few cities on the planet who has the infrastructure to match the festival. It also helps that Lollapalooza is right in the heart of downtown Chicago. The festival has a curfew every night of 10pm and it allows sufficient time to go out to bars, restaurants, one of the fifty-seven after shows or simply back to your hotel room. If you are near an exit and staying in downtown Chicago, you can be in your hotel room by 10:30 or 10:45 at the latest. You are not on an island or in the desert, but right in the heart of the city which makes it an experience like no other.
The Music of Lollapalooza
For many of the acts who take this stage, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Some may have long term careers in music and others may find limited success, but with any major festival, if they're worth their weight in Marshall amp's, they'll deliver one of the best sets of their career. In 2014, I set my own record by witnessing at least one song by sixty-nine different acts. I will not be able to reach that number this year due to my infinite affection for several of the headliners (Paul McCartney, Metallica and Florence + the Machine) but I started the first day of Lollapalooza 2015 running stage-to-stage with intensity before a five-piece band from Bristol captured my attention and forced me to stay for the entirety of their set.
Slaptop 12:00 (Perry's)
The big fluorescent techno beats are perfect for an after-hours club where the crowd is waiting for the sun to rise and until it does, they view the underworld as they own. I'll always love rock n' roll first and foremost in my heart, but I'll always nod my head to an act who at 12pm can reign in a few thousand fans and make them shake their hips.
Daye Jack 12:10
A small but attentive crowd watched this hip hop artist put himself out there where every word that escaped from his lips with fueled by force and a yearning to be heard. He punctuated his lyrics with a force that only someone who is playing at 12pm on a festival stage can. He came, he rapped and he was noticed. Hailing from Atlanta and born in Nigeria, Jack isn't legally able to drink, but his words were mighty and mature.
Mighty Oaks 12:20
Based out of Berlin, this trio hasn't played many shows in America but their sound is ready-made for it with a sound similar to The Lumineers or NEEDTOBREATHE. Lead singer Ian Hooper hails from Seattle and he infuses his Northwest upbringing into their lyrics. "Just One Day" and "The Great Northwest" showed the folk rock band taking hold of the crowd. This was a notable early day set that jump started the crowd. They channelled their emotions through their instruments and displayed more than strong musicianship, but showmanship as well.
Navigating the waters between the heavy music and heartfelt lyrics, the four piece played a big outdoor stage like a small club sharing confessionals painted with roaring guitars.
This five-piece band hailing from Bristol, England was on one of the biggest stages of the festival in an early day slot. For forty-five minutes they transfixed their audience with their new wave alternative sounds that hearken back to Duran Duran but laced with a more dreamy conviction. Vocalist Chris Caines moved around the stage with ease and engaged the crowd early on. Despite only have an EP released at the moment (a full album will come out on Capitol Records later in 2015), those in attendance knew the music. This was my siren call of the festival where I watched a band surprise and enlighten me. Bassist James Gamage and drummer Ben Street were locked-in and heavy handed elevating each and every song out of the root of its pop elements giving them a bit more edge. With a sturdy foundation guitarist Liam Willford was able to flourish and flaunt his goods. "Modern Love" had an hip-shaking groove tipping the hat to bands like New Order, Simple MInds and even Keane. There is a skip and jump to the innocent guitar chords that shimmers underneath the perfect Chicago summer sky while the soaring drum loop tickled the understated melodic mood of the song. This is a rare set by an upcoming band that ended as strong as it started."Wash Away", "Rush of Blood" and the audience favorite "Oceans" which was sublime. I had planned on watching a few songs but was so taken I decided to stay for their entire set. Coasts are a band who evokes the feeling of being young with their exuberant music and perfectly balanced performance. I heard more than music out of these speakers but crashing waves, long night drives and a summer breeze at the back of my neck.
James Bay 1:30pm
The big fat guitar chords served notice to those leaving Coasts set to stay behind and see this singer-songwriter from Brighton, England who hit the stage with a pocketful of influences ranging from the Rolling Stones to Eric Clapton (who inspired him at 11 to pick up the guitar) to Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson, A mere 24-years old, he captures the imagination with the hefty arrangements of his songs led by the electric guitar. In a day and age where there are dozens of people singing with guitars, Bay shoots for the stars and if his Lollapalooza performance is any indication he may hit a few of them. In support of his second album, Chaos and the Calm he's a performer who oozes potential. Nobody ever sets out to make a bad album or give a bad performance, but circumstances often get in the way which leads to some falling down, but what was most striking about Bay's set was the go-for-the-throat fight he had in him, he sung his heart out played his guitar hard until every single person watching him under an intense summer afternoon sun knew they had no choice but to stay and watch his entire set. Something inside of him burns and he knows no other way than to let it go throughout his music. Some artists have great songs but fall short on the concert stage and others are blistering on the stage behind songs that don't match their onstage intensity. James Bay has both and run to see him in a small club while you still can. Fusing the blues, classic rock and a bit of folk, his guitars swoop like Stevie Ray Vaughn but he delivers his lyrics with the conviction of Bruce Springsteen. The gentle hymn "Hold Back The River" nearly brought the whole festival to a stop which slowly ascended musically before taking hold of the crowd who responded with vocal force that was pretty darn close to being a spiritual awakening.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones 2:30
A seven-piece soul band from Birmingham, Alabama demanded attention with an exuberant and soulful set, performed on the same stage as Charles Bradley had a few years back, they didn't leave much to chance as they had convulsions on the stage, shook their bodies and even performed on their backs. One of the things about soul music I've come to learn is that it can't be faked. Sometimes it is as simple as understanding what has come before and how you can make your own interpretation. It requires a deep love and education of music, but these guys have it. The music of St. Paul and the Broken Bones makes you rise to your feet, raise your arms and scream away the pain of life.
Tove Lo 3:00
The biggest crowd of the day (so far) occurred on the far side of Grant Park as pop sensation Tove Lo took to the stage in a midday set that it appears half of the festival decided to turn up to see. Her opening was strong and to her credit, it only took her fifteen-minutes to bring out "Talking Body" which was rapturous and had the south side of the park moving like few other songs would all weekend. "My Gun" showed she has more in her arsenal than one hit and as a live performer, she was able to stand out which isn't always easy for a pop performer with an enormous hit. Will she make a return appearance or fade? We will have to wait and see. She returns to Chicago at the Vic Theatre in October.
Q Brothers 3:30
The Kidzapalooza stage is for more than kids. It's a refuge in the trees from the heat with plenty of activities musical and non-musical to keep them busy for hours. The Q Brothers may have the distinction of being one of only a few acts (if not the only one) who has played Lollapalooza every year since it found a home in Chicago in 2005. Both, GQ and JQ, hail from Chicago and are creative forces to be reckoned with. Their family friendly hip-hop event deserves more credit than it gets. Slicing and dicing intrinsic rhymes, the brothers collaborate with friends and kids who have visited their hip-hop workshop. The collaborative nature of the performance makes it an unforgettable experience where the Q Brothers stand toe-to-toe with the majority of hip-hop performers at Lollapalooza. The free-style section of the performance allows them to stretch their legs. Watching the Q Brothers washes away your cynicism because it's a top-to-bottom experience that will not just invigorate you but leave a lasting smile on your family's face. The Q Brothers have a free family hip-hop album suitable for children on their website (http://qbrothersofficial.com/).The highlight of the set was "Soccer and Spaghetti" which featured a former member of Prono for Pyros. If you don't smile during the course of their set, then it could be argued you have no soul.
The three-piece dreamy alternative band was right at home under the trees of the BMI stage where fans came to discover and also lose themselves a little in the soft landscapes of the music. Hailing from Nashville they did not shy away from embracing inner melodies. Labeling them is an injustice since they have their own unique sound that is tough to place in one genre.
Father John Misty 3:50
Better known as J. Tillman, Father John Misty took to the Lollapalooza stage with one of the most hyped sets of the festival. Is it possible to have a well-performed set that leaves you cold? "When You're Smiling and Astride Me" sounded perfect and yet, Tillman did not appear to want to be there. His performance to the crowd was one of discontentment and the audience in return tuned out. Misty was background music for their conversations. Tipping his hat to Brian Wilson Misty's set was full of much to like but aside from the backing band it felt like everyone wanted to be somewhere else.
The Folk synthpop duo hails from New Zealand and to watch them deliver serene and sweet music originally conceived half a world away is sublime. Georgia Nott stood behind her keyboard and took her audience on a almost muted journey with a slow ascension before blasting off on "Bedroom Door" and "Bridges".
Cold War Kids 4:25
Lead singer Nathan Willett knows how to command a crowd and he's had plenty of practice since this was the band's fifth time playing Lollapalooza. The galloping drums and angelic guitar chords rang out in what is most likely the largest crowd they've performed to yet at Lollapalooza. A passionate performance of "First" (heard and chosen by director Cameron Crowe for his Aloha trailer) and a John Lennon cover of "Well Well Well" highlighted the set.
Hot Chip 4:45
What can you say about Sarah Jones other than she completely stole the show at day one of Lollapalooza. Jones is the fiery drummer for the band Hot Chip and it was her unrelenting, uncompromising and detailed motions that took the Hot Chip set into another stratosphere. The performance was so mesmerizing, I will try and attend every local show again. Defined as an electronic band from London, their hour long set didn't feel long enough. The spacey atmospherics were matched with a piledriver vision of Alexis Taylor. "Need You Now", "Ready for the Floor" and "I Feel Better" howled throughout the crowd and if this wasn't enough, the band reigned it in for a almost poetically peaceful rendition of Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" before Jones once again layered it with a whizzing whirlwind of rhythm possibly making it a contender as the definitive version (and this is coming from someone who has seen Springsteen more than fifty times). Hot Chip was a clear highlight with Sarah Jones giving the most impressive singular performance of the festival.
The War On Drugs 5:30
The 2014 album Lost In A Dream is one of the most magical and musical records to emerge this decade and not just in the indie pop world. The soundscapes and meticulous vision by bandleader Adam Granduciel helped him create a sonic masterwork along the lines of The Wall, OK Computer, Low and even Born To Run. Written after a bad spell coming down from a year long tour, he channeled this confusion, anger and distress into a modern masterpiece. On stage they sound eerily similar to the record, which is either a blessing or a curse. I'll go with blessing.
Alabama Shakes 5:55
In 2012, Alabama Shakes was prepping for their midday set when the festival was evacuated. It's still a testament to how well organized and planned Lollapalooza is because they evacuated more than 100,000 people in thirty-nine minutes. This time around, they had a mindset sound issue that blew out the speakers for a few minutes and yet, for the hour they were onstage they made up for the cancelled 2012 performance and then some. What can I say about Brittany
Howard other than she purges every obstacle she's ever encountered on the stage. Certain blues-rock songs may appear to embrace the basic template with perfectly structured foundation, but a song like "Always Alright" (from the movie Silver Linings Playbook) swerves and enters into a scorching soul church. The set was heavy on Sound & Color songs but the band helped push these songs into open ended jams. The rhythm section of Zac Cockrell and Steve Johnson are steady but liberating as well allowing Howard to not just belt out songs but to move the stage with supreme confidence. She sings with the wisdom of someone much older than her, whether she is channelling the greats before her or is pulling back to her own heartache, I am not sure but it's a sight to see.
Gary Clarke Jr. 6:45
First performing in 2012, Clarke made a name for himself and several dubbed him as the savior of the blues. Watching the live performance it is hard to argue. He's unequivocally a guitar God.
Big blazing blues guitars, a backing band who most likely sold their souls to the devil and a simmering sun made for a grand return. Blak and Blu was a solid debut record and his follow-up is due to be released in September 11th, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim. As good as his records are, the live show is where he comes alive with fireworks. "Ain't Messin' Round" and "When My Train Comes In" are bold enough to make first time fans drop their mouths to the ground. He played to what was arguably one of the largest crowds of his career here, due to his live prowess and also because Paul McCartney was set to perform directly across the field. Those who came for McCartney had an added surprise in being able to witness Clarke and his blues mastery.
Paul McCartney 7:45
Paul McCartney took to the Lollapalooza stage having played Milwaukee and Chicago four times in the last several years (Wrigley Field twice in 2011, MIller Park in Milwaukee in 2013 and Chicago's United Center arena last July) so while there was not much in the way of surprise from the setlist but the feeling, the communal crowd and the reach of these songs was something no one could have anticipated. He's a Beatle forever and these songs are embedded in the DNA of anyone who ever picked up an instrument. I am quick to point out artists with whom Lollapalooza would not exist like New Order, David Bowie, Joy Division, The Cure, Iggy Pop and dozens others, but none of this would exist without the Beatles.
The advantage of seeing Paul McCartney at a festival like Lollapalooza is that the songs are so well known, that the colossal crowd grabs hold of them and takes flight. After a picture show to cue the crowd, McCartney and his incredible four-piece backing band, who have been with him since 2002, channeled the spirit of the past and delivered symphonic six-string notalgia. Opening with "Magical Mystery Tour" McCartney captured the audience's imagination with some of the most majestic songs ever committed to tape in the rock songbook. "Got To Get You Into My Life", "Paperback Writer", "I've Just Seen A Face" and "And I Love Her" were conveyed with a fighting fist that no one, not even the booming sounds of Kaskade on the neighboring EDM stage was going to challenge. The backing band does more than provide note-for-note replications but breathes life into these vibrant and bright renditions complimenting them in every way imaginable.
The Wings and solo material stands shoulder-to-shoulder in these sets with the Beatles legacy and seamlessly worked their way into the thirty-three song set. "Let Me Roll It" was rousing with Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" making an appearance at the end, "Maybe I'm Amazed" with a clarion vocal delivery was nothing short of elegiac as it was dedicated to Linda McCartney. The set even featured several songs from his 2013 album New highlighted by "Save Us". Perhaps the biggest surprise was his performance of "FourFiveSeconds" which was a launch pad for "We Can Work It Out". McCartney spent a good portion in-between songs telling stories to the crowd that served as more than a history lesson, but as a way to endear himself to the crowd. He informed the crowd as to why they switch guitars on every single song with a simple "because we've got them and were showing them off". In the thirty years after the Beatles, McCartney only did three proper tours of America and since 2002, he's been a concert staple with mini tours and special performances. This has been one of the greatest musical joys of my life to see a man share his gift and his songs with the world. He may be 72 years old, but he's in incredible physical and musical shape.
Other highlights included an elevating stage where he sang a tribute to John Lennon in the form of "Here Today". A separate tribute of "Something" was done for George Harrison. His band's arrangement of the classic was nothing short of sublime. His current band takes us down alternative but familiar paths. After a pensive performance of "Blackbird", you could hear Kaskade's set bleed into his stage and he commented "I planned this as a mash up...this song and whatever sh*t they're playing" which the audience erupted with laughter.
While no one could have imagined that McCartney would one day play Lollapalooza when the festival started in 1991, every single artist who has ever performed on a stage under the banner of Lollapalooza owes McCartney something because he changed the world. There's no other way of saying this. With every passing year his post Beatles career grows in legacy. It's no longer viewed as what could have been and this song is a testament to his talents. As the video screen hovered over the entire crowd, you could not see where the crowd ended and I am guessing his set may have been the most attended in the history of the festival. What makes a performance at Lollapalooza different from seeing an artist on their own is the vibe, the city skyline, summer in your skip and a communal gathering of music that can't be put into words. It is a lot of people but the crowd brings out the best on the artists who perform and they make for lasting memories. Hearing songs like "Band on the Run", "Back in the USSR", "Helter Skelter" and "Can't Buy Me Love" in the context of this festival elevates them. Every single one of these voices heard these songs for the first time, had them comfort them, it lifted their dreams, it tapped into a memory and it all resounded with the crowd in an experience I will never fully be able to put into words. Musically, the Wrigley Field, Miller Park and United Center shows were better, longer and more focused, but none could tap into the energy at Grant Park. I may have seen better shows, but I've never felt a better one than McCartney at Lollapalooza. "Live and Let Die" with it's Fourth-of-July fireworks extravaganza is a highlight of a McCartney solo show, but at Lollapalooza, it charged the crowd to life. The sing-along of "Hey Jude" was deafening. I've seen McCartney in arenas, stadiums and even a show at Amoeba records once and never has the song a long felt so potent and powerful. It was a once in a lifetime experience, young old and middle age in harmony.
The encore featured Brittany Howard on "Get Back" and she channelled the spirit of 1969 in her vocal delivery and the interplay between her and McCartney was a sight to see and again, something that only could have happened at a festival. Her vocal turns reminded me or the power of the song and what a force the Beatles catalog is still in our lives. Bringing the evening to a close was the Abbey Road medley of "Golden Slumbers / Carry the Weight / The End". The band foisted a heavy dosage of guitars to close out before McCartney had one last thing to share, "and in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make". As he took a bow and fireworks lit up the sky above us, it was a moment of not just celebration but reflection. Music should always be something more than a soundtrack to conversations but a life driving force that guides us and comfort us. There's much to discern from art and watching Paul McCartney, we are reminded to be kind, to be generous and to take a moment to pause and reflect on the wonders of the world. As day one of Lollapalooza came to a close, everyone stood in awe of what they had seen and heard, but also left armed with a plan to hopefully bring a little more joy into the world. I've never seen a headline set at Lollapalooza like McCartney's and it's probable that the likes of it will never be seen again, it is without question, one of the greatest performances in the history of the festival.
More in-depth Lollapalooza coverage will be published later this week
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
Lollapalooza 2015: Day One - Paul McCartney- Gary Clarke Jr.- More
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