Chicago’s crown jewel returned for three days of fun, in an ever expanding setting in and around Grant Park. Since there is more territory to cover, I enlisted the help of fellow music enthusiast and Pop ‘stache contributor Anna Holmquist to get the most complete coverage possible. Luckily, we have different tastes and favorites, so we were able to cover a wide range this year. Stay with us over the next three days as we try to do justice to one of the world’s most renowned and impressive festivals, held in our own backyard.
Taylor Brennan: Day one of Lollapalooza was a busy one. The real headliner of the day was not Black Sabbath, nor The Black Keys. Instead it was the sun, at center stage in the sky for the entire day. Uninhibited by clouds, the sun beat down on the Lolla crowd from before noon until about 7 p.m., when a collective sigh of relief soared from the field louder than James Mercer’s tenor. Despite the heat, there was some shade to be had. Since Lolla comes but once a year, fans of this year’s eclectic line-up, and the line-up itself, would not be stopped.
Anna Homquist: This year was my first time attending Lollapalooza. Friday was hot and sunny and I dripped with sweat even before I reached the festival grounds, but I didn’t really care. LOLLAPALOOZA!
First Aid Kit – Playstation Stage – Noon
TB: Chicago needed redemption in the eyes of First Aid Kit, after our abysmal showing for them at Metro on Wednesday night. Despite the band’s gorgeous performance, the crowd was talkative and unresponsive. Those in attendance at Metro deserved little response from the Sorderberg sisters (and got it), but the Lollapalooza crowd was a different story. People packed in from the front of the stage all the way back to the field, a very impressive crowd even if this wasn’t one of the first shows of the festival. And like Chicago, First Aid Kit showed renewed signs of life. Both Johanna and Klara Sorderberg had full expressions and a great stage presence, whipping their hair wildly and letting their voices get carried away from their normal beautiful tones. Crowd favorites “Emmylou” and set closer “The Lion’s Roar” showed the band at its best, and Chicago, finally, responded accordingly. This was not the crowd they needed, it was the crowd they deserved.
The Growlers – Red Bull Soundstage – 12:45
TB: The Growlers enjoyed a bit of shade under the massive canopy of the Red Bull Mainstage, situated on the South side of Grant Park. This kept the band’s spirits up, as they joked with the crowd and had fun during the 45 minute set.
“We didn’t plan this set right … we finished our set, but have more time. Here’s one more,” singer Brooks Nielsen said to a sizeable dance party.
He called for one more two more times after, clearly not exaggerating about not having timed the performance right. The Growlers songs have influences of world-music and surf music tones; a perfect blend for this 95+ degree weather. Nielsen has a Dylan-esque voice, nasally and unintelligible, but it works. The singer didn’t have a bit of pretense, treating this band milestone as if it were a basement gig. Just before the band’s second-to-last-last song, Nielsen yelled to two friends in the crowd, then exclaimed “I hate you,” and something much worse, but in an endearing way. The Growlers still took the show seriously, and the performance was spot on.
“Hey, we’re stoked as stoke to be here. This is our last song … for real.”
Yellow Ostrich – Sony Stage – 1:30
AH: Yellow Ostrich are first time Lollapaloozers, but this isn’t the band’s first time in Chicago. Yellow Ostrich’s show earlier this year at the Empty Bottle soared with energy, and the band’s latest album, Strange Land, has been a favorite ever since. Unfortunately, the set on Friday didn’t meet expectations. Frontman Alex Shaaf seemed hesitant, even flubbing the lyrics to “Marathon Runner.” Perhaps he was nervous, or perhaps a mid-day set in the harsh sun ruined his vibe. Whatever the case, he never quite dove into the music. Despite that, the crowd was enthusiastic, with many people singing along and dancing.
TB: Yellow Ostrich is a cool band, and the crowd needed something cool. Opening with the song “Whale,” singer Alex Shaaf made use of his looping pedals, part of Yellow Ostrich’s signature sound. Another signature of the band is Shaaf’s heavy use of metaphors, making songs extra memorable. Throughout the set, he claimed to be many things; “I am the elephant king … I am a marathon runner … I am a hot air balloon.”
While these songs all elicited great response from fans, the set highlight, at least for one couple, was when Shaaf stopped the set after “Sadie” to introduce a guy who brought his girlfriend out. He dropped to one knee, and asked her to marry him. Shaaf commented as they exited the stage, “Thank God she said yes, that would’ve been a real downer.” Then he paused and said “But it probably would’ve gone viral and that would’ve been good for us. Oh well.” Yellow Ostrich are actually a perfect soundtrack for young love, and the band’s music would be right at home oin indie rom-com types like “500 Days of Summer” or “Garden State.”
The Black Angels – Bud Light Stage – 2:15
TB: One of the best surprises of the day came from The Black Angels, a rock band from Austin, TX. Without knowing a thing about the band, I was blown away by the psychedelic sounds booming from the speakers of the North Main Stage. In a line-up of bands that could easily be confused for their contemporaries, The Black Angels stood alone. Singer Christian Bland has a Michael Stipe like voice, barely above the driving drone coming from Rishi Dhir’s instruments. Given the unique, heavy sound, The Black Angels really should have been direct support for Black Sabbath, as the band’s was more similar to Black Sabbath than the other bands on the stage that day (certainly more than the disco-pop infused sounds of Passion Pit).
So far, this was the best find of Lolla 2012.
Dry The River – BMI Stage – 3:20
TB: By now, I’m pretty sure parts of Grant Park had just burst into flames, so it was an extra nice treat to enjoy a set of spectacular music in the only completely shaded area of the park, in front of the BMI Stage. Dry The River is no stranger to Pop ‘stache reviews, and the band’s sets are very consistent. The Lollapalooza set was as good as they get, perhaps with a little extra punch because of what playing Lolla means to an up-and-coming-band.
Singer Peter Liddle was in top form, as were harmonizing vocalists Scott Miller (bass) and Matthew Taylor (guitar). Taylor’s guitar playing was particularly clear with only trees to bounce the sound from instead of dark, club walls. The band has a way of making each member of the audience feel like the only one in the crowd; that you’re at a private event where Liddle is singing right to you. That’s part of the charm of this band. No matter how much success the guys see or how big their audience gets; they bring the same modesty and sincerity to every performance. The fans realize this, which is why, show to show, the crowds continue to grow.
Metric – Bud Light Stage – 4:00
TB: Thanks to Metric’s fantastic new album, Synthetica, this was one of the bands I was most excited to see. I caught this set when they played the Playstation stage back in 2010, and was unimpressed with singer Emily Haines. At the time, she couldn’t deliver the same energy or even hit the same notes that the last album, Fantasies, delivered.
Metric mega-fans sandwiched up against the bars in the front row loved every minute, singing along to every song in the set, even the new ones. While the songs were good and Haine’s stage presence was energized, something about the performance still felt flat. Metric has a tough time bringing its albums, heavy in production and backing tracks, to life in a sprawling outdoor setting. The layers of vocals and effects on Synthetica don’t translate well at festivals. The massive crowd responded very well to new songs “Youth Without Youth” and the title track “Synthetica,” which both feature great sing-along choruses. Metric performed in front of a crowd usually reserved for a headliner, which they may call themselves within a few years’ time. Even with the fans helping Haines with vocal duties, the show didn’t pack the necessary alt-rock punch.
The Head & The Heart – Sony Stage – 5:15
AH: The Head & The Heart are not exactly a get-up-and-dance band, but they played an enjoyable set that had heads bobbing. Luckily, I was able to find some shade near the Sony Stage, which was a perfect pairing to the band’s music. The indie-folk-poppers sent harmony-laden tunes floating over the sizeable South side of the Grant Park fields.
thenewno2 – BMI Stage – 5:40
TB: Dhani Harrison’s band, thenewno2, is full of surprises. Those making their way to the shady BMI stage just to see the likeness between Dhani and his dad may have been disappointed by the sounds to come, as it seems the crowd came and went. For those of us who stuck it out, we were presented with some of the most unique sounds and songs Lollapalooza had to offer. thenewno2 makes one thing clear; this is not your father’s Harrison.
Standing too close to the stage was a mistake, one most of the audience made. At times, there were 7 musicians in the band playing complicated parts that barely fit together to form the whole song. Standing back a ways was the only way to take in the grand scope and appreciate all of the madness. When it came together right, thenewno2 had an interesting sound, blending elements of electronic music with brit-pop and hard rock. The set suffered a few sonic issues in terms of vocal levels and the overall mix. With so much happening on stage, it was difficult to discern which feedback was intentional and which was a soundman’s error. All in all though, it worked.
“Lollapalooza is our favorite show. We love being here. Nice one!” Dhani said, greeting the crowd. The crowd diminished as the set went on, as people hoping for a Beatles sound were disappointed by a sound more in line with a band like Puscifer. Those who knew what they were in for couldn’t have been happier, donning odd white masks provided by the band and loving every minute.
The Shins – Red Bull Soundstage – 6:15
TB: The Shins are the perfect festival band, and this time slot couldn’t have been better. A superb mix of dance-inspiring rock songs and sleepy, artistic pop songs; The Shins set provided the perfect soundtrack to the highly anticipated ducking of the sun behind the city skyline. Singer James Mercer was perfect in his delivery. His smooth voice shows no sign of aging, as the 41-year old effortlessly stands out among all other rock singers performing this weekend. The band played a range of its material for the thousands of fans excited about the recent reunion. For major fans of The Shins, the whole set was the highlight. For a casual fan, newer songs from the band’s recent album Port Of Morrow, were particularly impressive, especially the title track.
M83 – Sony Stage – 7:30
AH: After hearing a few of The Shins’ songs, I decided to get up close for M83 at the Sony stage, so I strolled over and waited for a full hour with the other die-hard fans. By the time 7:30 p.m. rolled around, a sea of excited people stretched in every direction. The band members came onstage in a cloud of fog and lights, and had the crowd cheering and dancing almost immediately. This band knows how to put on a show. M83 danced all over the stage and encouraged the audience to dance and sing along, too. The tremendous energy coursed over the stage and through the whole audience. The band commanded presence unlike any I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t just one member, either; each of them was a pillar of musical power. Crowd-surfers abounded, and by the time the group played the hit “Midnight City,” it seemed that the whole crowd was dancing. The hour-long set was too short; many a grumble of “That’s it?” was heard as the crowd dispersed.
Black Sabbath – Bud Light Stage – 8:05
TB: Here’s the question I struggled with as I watched the lead-in video of Black Sabbath in its heyday: Is my time better spent with a nostalgia act or a band at its prime?
There are pros and cons to either, but once funneled through my own credentials, I decided that The Black Keys will be around a while, and Ozzy could collapse on stage tonight, so I should stick with Sabbath.
These were my intentions, and I got pretty excited for the show as Ozzy croaked forcibly devilish laughter into his microphone before the curtain dropped. Black Sabbath had an impressive showing, even without the full original line-up promised when Perry Farrell first announced the Lolla headliners (drummer Bill Ward opted out a few weeks into the arrangement). The curtain dropped, the show started, and it wasn’t bad. It was actually kind of fun, but it never got passed that point of “kind of.” After the dark, slow groove of “Behind the Wall of Sleep”, I found myself with headliner envy. The Black Keys would be starting at 8:30 p.m., and it’s at least a 20 minute hike considering foot traffic. Every time I started to leave, the spirit of rock history pulled me back, and I found myself very impressed with the newer drummer Tommy Clufetos, adding life to a band who’s median age is 55 and a half, even with the 32-year-old on stage.
Ozzy moved around a bit, spreading his arms wide, in that way people from the olden days were probably scared of (before he was a reality TV star). I’ll give guitarist Tommy Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler credit where credit’s due; they played the songs and walked around the stage, and sounded huge. Four songs in, Black Sabbath played one of its bigger radio songs, “N.I.B” and it just fell flat. With Ozzy singing a few notes lower, the attack of the song was lost. I made up my mind to make the walk to the South side stage and give The Black Keys a chance to wow me. Again, credit to Black Sabbath; talking with fans the next day, they were thoroughly happy with every aspect of the show, but as I left, I no longer worried about what I’d be missing.
Black Keys – Red Bull Sound Stage – 8:30
TB: Where Black Sabbath opted for theatrics (the devilish laughter, the curtain drop, the video), singer Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys just walked on stage, teased the fog machine guy for a bit of overkill, and said “Alright, let’s get into it” before launching into hit “Howling for You.” For the next 90 minutes, there were little theatrics, just solid bluesy rock songs and the bare minimum acceptable light show for a Lollapalooza headliner. The Black Keys played it safe, but new and old fans got all they came for. Drummer Patrick Carney played well, working up a sweat and punching up the rhythm with hard hitting accents. Auerbach sang fine, played great, and had a perfectly acceptable stage presence. He didn’t banter much, other than introducing his band mate and saying different variations of “Here’s another” and “Let’s do this one,” but The Black Keys are a meat and potatoes type band, which actually makes them refreshing amid acts like M83 and Justice.
With this in mind, the thousands of rock fans at the South side of Grant Park came hungry and got their fill. The band entertained newer fans of the radio hits, and the lifers who’ve followed the duo closely in their slow and steady 10-year rise, with a range material from their albums. “Here’s an oldie but a goodie,” Auberach said before playing “I’ll Be Your Man” from 2002’s The Big Come Up. Saving the 1-2 punch of recent hits like “Tighten Up” and “Lonely Boy” for the end of the show. The Black Keys ensured that start to finish this one was for the fans who’ve stuck with them from the small clubs to the biggest stage in Chicago.