By Mark Guarino
Lollapalooza, the touring festival that defined the alternative rock era of the early ‘90s, is transformed once again this weekend when it becomes a standing two-day blowout in Grant Park.
The road to this weekend was long and not without bumps. When it debuted in 1991, Lollapalooza was at the nexus of a tide turning fast. Bands influenced by the underground rock movement a decade before were suddenly presented with opportunities to take it to the mainstream by record labels interested in capitalizing on a new thing. The watershed moment was Nirvana’s “Nevermind” (DGC), released the same year. Although Nirvana never played Lollapalooza, most of its peers did: Pearl Jam, the Smashing Pumpkins, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Sonic Youth. The festival became a synonymous with music that was different but breathed with more integrity and darker themes. “The most recognized music brand in the business,” said Charles Attal, who booked this year’s festival.
But as the ‘90s wore on and hip-hop rose to commercial popularity, Lollapalooza struggled. Even after booking mainstream bands like Metallica and finding a place for rappers like Snoop Dogg on its bill, the festival started losing steam. New festivals like H.O.R.D.E. and Ozzfest stiffened the competition. But the real reason for the festival’s decline was the shifting climate in the music industry. Labels were bought and sold in quick succession until dozens of independent companies ended up in the control of just a handful of parent conglomerates. That increased the importance of the profit margin. The result: rap metal and bubblegum pop, two genres created and marketed on a global scale never before seen. The variety on display Lollapalooza became a thing of the past. Old bands saw their sales slip, others broke up. In 1998, the festival went on a five-year hiatus. Although a revamped tour was up and running in 2003, it was canceled the following year due to poor ticket sales.
So what do you do with a brand name that’s recognized by the public, but not enough to support three months of touring? Lollapalooza’s rebirth as a destination festival follows a recent trend. As the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Coachella, the Austin City Limits Music Festival and Bonnaroo proved, there is a new market for weekend extravaganzas, where wandering music fans can pick and choose what bands they want to see, make new discoveries, feel like they’re on vacation and not dig too deep into their pocketbook.
The two parties responsible for transforming Lollapalooza are Charles Attal Presents and Capital Sports & Entertainment, which together produce and book the Austin City Limits Music Festival, the three-day event in September which grew from a capacity of 40,000 in attendance its first year in 2002 to 75,000 last year.
Attal said the model for ACL was to concentrate on bands that normally play clubs, not arena headliners. The headliner for the first ACL was Wilco. This year, Coldplay and Oasis top the bill. “We don’t try to go find that big monster-named band,” he said. “They’re going to eventually come to us. They’re going to actually want to play and they won’t have to charge us the exorbitant rate where we have to raise our ticket prices. It’s all about the ticket price. It’s all about the guts of the lineup and the experience of the festival, not about the headliner.”
For Lollapalooza, Attal said ticket sales reflect that there will be between 40,000 and 50,000 people in Grant Park each day.
The producers also offered a partnership to former Jane’s Addiction frontman and original Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell. In the early summer Farrell said his role was a public one, to lend credibility to former fans. With the recent demise of Jane’s, he said don’t expect him to perform. Last month he announced plans to debut his new band Satellite Party at the festival.
This year’s lineup reflects the festival’s past and how it’s coping with the present. Spread across six stages, there are a few star headliners (Weezer, Pixies, Primus), old school veterans (Billy Idol) plus a wide variety of garage rockers (Dead 60’s, the Black Keys), New Wave revivalists (Kaiser Chiefs, Louis XIV), jam bands (Widespread Panic), emo stars (Death Cab for Cutie, Dashboard Confessional) and many indie rock favorites (The Arcade Fire, Spoon).
Here are just a few curiosities to check out when attending this weekend.
• Satellite Party, 3:30 p.m. Sunday
Perry Farrell sheds a new skin with this new band, making their stage debut this weekend. Featuring bassist Tony Kanal of No Doubt, guitarist Nuno Bettencourt of Extreme and drummer Gabriele Corcos, the new band is described as rock set to dance beats (see interview this section) by Farrell. A bonus: he promises their set will include eye candy called the “Lolla Girls.”
• The Pixies, 7:30 p.m. Saturday; Dinosaur Jr., 2:30 p.m. Sunday
What’s a festival without a reunion? This weekend there are two. The Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. are both post-punk bands of the ‘80s that directly influenced Nirvana and other grunge-era bands. When they broke up, their legacy loomed large, setting the stage for a comeback to kids who weren’t even born during their heyday. The Pixies ongoing world tour has been one of the most successful road shows over the past year, with sell-shows every night — five in a row last November at the Aragon. Aside from a warm-up show tonight in Milwaukee, this is the debut reunion of Dinosaur Jr. Here’s a chance to see why the ‘80s was one of the most creative times in rock history if you looked past MTV and hairspray.
• Brian Jonestown Massacre, 3:30 p.m. Saturday; The Dandy Warhols, 7:30 p.m. Sunday
The recent film “Dig!” is, hands down, the best rock documentary I’ve seen since Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Look Back.” If you’ve seen it too, you’re well aware of the screwy rivalry between these two bands, a race to the top (or bottom, depending on your perspective) that resulted in bad drug trips, fights, stalking charges and band meltdowns. The music — psychedelic pop —of both stands on its own outside the drama, but here’s a chance to see two bands willing to shed blood to make music and are still standing.
• Chicago represents
Show up early and you’ll see familiar local faces like The Redwalls (11:45 a.m. Saturday), The Changes (11:45 a.m. Sunday), OK Go (11:45 a.m. Sunday), and The Ponys (12:30 p.m. Sunday).
All you thirtysomethings that moshed to Soundgarden in the early ‘90s can transfer the experience (sort of) to your kids. Children 10 and under get in free to the festival. A special kids stage, running 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., will feature longtime favorite Ella Jenkins as well as other kids-oriented bands, musicians, puppet shows, DJs, an “instrument petting zoo” and guest cameos from some mainstage headliners.