Rock of (all) ages: Lollapalooza begins new chapter in Chicago

By Mark Guarino

For Lollapalooza, standing still was a matter of simple survival. For its fans, standing for two days in temperatures that hovered above and just below 100 degrees, the goal was to simply survive.

The festival became reincarnated this past weekend in Grant Park, from an annual touring rock festival to a stand-alone weekend blowout. The event, which attracted 33,000 people each day, was a first for both festival organizers and the Chicago Park District, which was previously hesitant about hosting music events downtown that don’t involve orchestras or blues bands. Up to this point, the only large-scale rock show to ever take place in the park’s Hutchinson Field was Radiohead in 2001.

Yet things sailed as smoothly as the nearby sailboats bobbing atop the Lake Michigan waves. The partnership between the city and Lollapalooza officials involved an assurance of a tamer festival than the kind Lollapalooza established in the early ‘90s. There was also the guarantee that a portion of the proceeds be directed into the park district’s non-profit foundation that helps restore ailing parks.

From the beginning, the marriage made unlikely bedfellows. Backstage, organizer and debonair party host Perry Farrell rattled off reasons why Chicago is “the missing link.” “The architecture, it’s not too crowded so it’s comfortable, you walk along the water, it’s clean, it’s a beautiful city,” he said. “And I feel like there was a hole right there in space and time. And Lollapalooza came. And now I think it’s perfect.”

On Saturday, Farrell appeared onstage with park district superintendent Tim Mitchell. The rock star and the bureaucrat introduced Weezer together, with Mitchell shouting to the crowd: “does Chicago rock or what?”

Lollapalooza started in 1991 and was deemed a fresh alternative for its annual lineups that forced punk, hip-hop and hard rock to share its stage and play nice together. By 1997, the festival ran out of steam and went on hiatus, not coincidentally at the same moment in time when the concept of “alternative” rang hollow, having infiltrated mall culture one nose ring at a time. After cobbling together a comeback in 2003, it was canceled the next year.

Variety is what became lost in its transition as a destination festival. Among the 50-plus bands, performers and DJs that played its six stages last weekend, only one, Digable Planets, could be considered hip-hop. Plus, with the exceptions of Liz Phair and Tegan and Sara, there were no female-fronted acts on the bill.

But the most significant dividing line between this year’s Lollapalooza and its original self, is the shaving down or complete removal of its roughest edge. The mosh pit days of Nine Inch Nails, Ice-T and Ministry were gone in favor of mostly New Wave fashionistas, garage rockers in suits and jam bands. Not many bands stepped out of the boundaries of their music and there was the sense that the festival was designed to be free of controversy. The absence of harsh commentary seemed especially puzzling, considering the continuing volatility of today’s headlines.

“Now there’s all these things to be really mad about and everybody’s just happy,” Patterson Hood, frontman for Drive-By-Truckers, said backstage Sunday.

Lou Barlow of Dinosaur Jr. played Lollapalooza in 1993 and said backstage Sunday he felt a distinct difference between now and then. “When you shift to darker music you’re going to get more people to the shows,” he said. “Lollapalooza, their mistake is always erring on the side of sensitivity. That’s always what brings them down.”

Kids had a place at the revamped Lollapalooza. It was not uncommon to see parents camped out with their children on a blanket near a stage or carting them in a stroller from stage to stage. The park directly south of Hutchinson Field served as a cooling down area. It included a children’s stage of rotating musical acts including the Candy Band, four mothers from Detroit who played punk rock versions of nursery rhymes, and Farrell who joined Peter Distefano, his former bandmate in Porno For Pyros. Performing together, they revealed that a few of their former songs (“100 Ways,” “Pets”) were, in fact, perfect kiddie fare.

The biggest draw of the festival was a band that broke up a year after Lollapalooza’s original debut. The Pixies are now almost a full year into their reunion tour, playing to audiences far bigger than those they played to in the old days. Aside from powerful word of mouth that bubbled in their 12-year absence, the renewed interest in the Pixies is due to their peculiar songs, which, on Saturday, felt big enough for their new environment. With the chunky basslines from Kim Deal, psychedelic guitar swirls from Joey Santiago and frightful howl from Frank Black, the band remains a complete original, even as veterans.

Weezer followed the Pixies late Saturday. Their songs received dry commentary by frontman Rivers Cuomo, as if he was narrating an educational filmstrip. “That was from our second album which didn’t do so well when it came out,” he said after playing a song from their lost classic “Pinkerton.” “Turns out a lot of people ended up liking it.”

His songs were perfect anthems for large crowds, filled with juicy parts to clap and sing along to, as he instructed the crowd to do all night. For his part, Rivers sang them woefully, the big churning guitar moments carrying his voice far, putting his statements of awkwardness and self-loathing on a grand scale.

The other veteran band that is in the midst of a reunion is Dinosaur Jr., the college rock band from the ‘80s and early ‘90s that became a significant influence on the grunge era. The last time Dinosaur Jr. played Lollapalooza was in 1993. Upon their return, bassist Lou Barlow, guitarist J Mascis and drummer Murph did not skip a beat. They are best seen as the link between Neil Young’s Crazy Horse and Nirvana for brutal breakouts, volume and attention to melody. Their cover of the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” took the song to a louder, faster and messier place it had never been to before, compounded with Mascis’ continually shifting guitarwork and Barlow’s guttural scream.

Every variety show needs a soap opera, so expectations were high with back-to-back appearances by the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols. The chokehold-level rivalry between both bands was profiled in the film documentary “Dig!,” which no doubt helped raise the curiosity factor for both sets. On Saturday, the Brian Jonestown Massacre played long, psychedelic songs that bled with distortion for up to ten minutes. Their reworking of the Cryan’ Shames hit “The Sailing Ship” (retitled “Sailor”) became a tribal drone. Aided by former guitarist Matt Hollywood, now assigned to tambourine, frontman Anton Newcombe fiddled with gadgets and pedals obsessively so that no amount of noise would rest until he summoned it to squeal.

Newcombe showed up during the Dandy Warhols set Sunday, singing lead vocals and sharing a microphone with frontman Courtney Taylor. Together they suggested the dark times chronicled by the film were behind them. Or maybe it was all an act after all.

Perry Farrell used the festival to debut Satellite Party, a new band that, for now, seems only to exist temporarily. As might be expected, Farrell knew how to sell a song. A trio of burlesque dancers flailed behind him and he occasionally sang while raising a goblet of wine. No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal and former Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt provided the dance party strut. The new songs didn’t travel far — one was simply a repeat of the word “awesome” while two songs were built around the name of the band. But as the festival host he seemed to ask for a free pass. Which was good, because the need was there.

On Saturday, former Chicagoan Liz Phair debuted new songs from a forthcoming album. Playing with the same band of boyish L.A. professionals that supported her on controversial mainstream pop album two years back, it was obvious that risk-taking was not a priority. The new song “Some Kind of Miracle” followed in the same bland direction as her recent past, sounding out of place next to grittier fare like “Supernova” and “(Expletive) and Run.”

Some of the best moments of Lollapalooza came with new bands that rose to prominence just in the past year. The Kaiser Chiefs, from Leeds, England, had endless energy, channeled by pogo-jumping lead singer Ricky Wilson. He helped rouse the crowd into a serious frenzy, even with a voice that went so hoarse, two fans had to come up on stage to sing his parts.

The Arcade Fire, the Montreal band that has yet to catch up with the accolades it keeps receiving this year, was the band all the other bands showed up to watch. Now with nine members playing instruments including fiddles, a French horn, and a motorcycle helmet, the band performed as if leading a religious revival. Their folky, yet grandly opaque music was both epic and original — a rarity this past weekend for bands that were mainly wired to the past.

The Killers, from Las Vegas, wrapped their music with synthesizers and attitude late Sunday. Although it’s easy to dismiss them as a one-hit band that just happened to sell two million albums, the bulk of their set included songs that fit nicely inside the bowls of a large city park. Singer Brandon Flowers proved he was a frontman who commands attention. Plus, their decadent poise helps when getting thousands of people to sing lines like “I got soul/but I’m not a soldier.”

The biggest star of the weekend turned out to be the city’s skyline itself. Most performers made a point of pointing it out while onstage. As the sun faded behind the city’s skyscrapers on the festival’s last day, there was the hope that it would rise again next summer to a similar rock feast.

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