By Mark Guarino

Lollapalooza is now a mainstay of Chicago summers. Starting today and running through Sunday, the music festival will present a variety of music and kids activities on the city’s elegant front lawn. Just recently it announced the festival is guaranteed to take place for the next five years as a $5 million contract was signed with the Chicago Park District.

But is Lollapalooza already showing signs of strain? In terms of major headliners, this line-up of this third year pales in comparison to the first two years as well as other destination festivals this summer, such as Coachella and Bonnaroo Those festivals boasted having Rage Against the Machine, Tool, The White Stripes, The Police, Bjork and reunion sets by the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Happy Mondays and Crowded House top their bill. In comparable popularity, Lollapalooza just offers a Sunday night set by Pearl Jam. Even hometown heroes Wilco and the Smashing Pumpkins (both with new albums to promote) aren’t showing up.

Plus, there is the ongoing controversy of its ticket prices. Although concert organizers defend the steep prices ($80 for a single day, $195 for a three-day pass) by saying that it comes out to be about $1 a band, they neglect to mention that, due to overlap, the average concertgoer will only have a chance to see a handful of bands each day.

There is also the issue of environment. The majority of bands booked at Lollapalooza typically play small clubs or theaters, not the far-flung outdoor stages built to play to 60,000 people. Is it fair to say that the nuances of bands like TV on the Radio or Sparklehorse will be considerably lost under the wide summer sky this weekend and that fans would be wise to just wait until they play indoors this fall? The answer is yes. However, adding these bands to Lollapalooza’s bill gives the festival considerable prestige and allows them to ratchet up how much they charge at the gate.

Much of the money generated by Lollapalooza does not stay in Chicago but goes back to Austin, Tex., home of C3 Presents, the festival’s producer, best known for staging the Austin City Limits Music Festival each September. The Chicago Park District reports that it receives a portion of the gross revenues and invests that money into the Parkways Foundation, a private foundation that fixes up city parks and maintains outreach programs. But that money is more or less a press-friendly addendum that pays off the city for use of its foremost park while giving the festival a green friendly vibe at the same time. The reality of Lollapalooza is, although it is marketed as a product of the Chicago cultural landscape, it is primarily an out-of-state enterprise with little involvement from the city’s music community.

If you don’t mind paying $195 for bands that typically play Schubas or the Riviera for $12-$35, then Lollapalooza is more likely an event to hang out in the sun, sample different food and bask in the city’s impressive skyline. While waiting for Pearl Jam to arrive, here are some picks of festival sets a bit more under the radar.

M.I.A., 4:30 p.m. today

She is Maya Rulpragasam, a London-born rapper who mixes Jamaican dancehall, Bollywood exotica, electronics and clanging beats for a singular style of hip-hop. A new album is due this fall.

Charlie Musselwhite, 2:15 p.m. today

One of the festival’s few blues artists, Charlie Musselwhite is a veteran harp player who learned the blues from South Side icons of the early 1960’s and has since played with everyone from John Lee Hooker to Tom Waits to INXS.

The Black Keys, 6:30 p.m. today

This Akron, Ohio guitar-drum duo plays a mixture of guttural blues and garage rock that burns heavy and hard live.

Rhymefest, 3:30 p.m. Saturday

His debut album last year met with poor sales, but Chicago native Rhymefest is one of hip-hop’s most intelligent and dazzling MCs working today.

Regina Spektor, 5:30 p.m. Saturday

A Russian-born New Yorker, Regina Spektor writes and performs idiosyncratic pop music tailored for fans of Rufus Wainwright and Fiona Apple.

Spoon, 7:30 p.m. Saturday

One of the best bands working today, Austin-based Spoon just released “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga” (Matador), one of their most accessible albums yet, featuring fragmented but glorious pop songs.

Kinky, 11:30 a.m. Sunday

Care to sample some prime Mexican rock? Look no further than this band that incorporates hard rock, techno, hints of ranchero music and irreverent wit.

Smoosh, 1:45 p.m. Sunday

One of the stranger sets of the festival, Smoosh is a teenage sister duo from Seattle that play indie pop and have won fans in influential places, opening tours for Sleater-Kinney, Pearl Jam, Death Cab For Cutie and others.

The Black Angels, 2:15 Sunday

This five-member Austin band is set to spook on their debut album, a dark and droning slab of prime psychedelic rock. A touch of reverb makes singer Alex Maas an ominous (and a bit whiny) incarnation of Jim Morrison.

The Wailers, 5 p.m. Sunday

This is a rare appearance by the band that performed with Bob Marley up to his death including bandleader and influential bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett. A set of rock steady and reggae by a set of true originals.

Café Tacuba, 7:15 p.m. Sunday

A highly-theatrical Mexican band that plays electro-rock with traces of folk and hip-hop.

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