"The thing about rain," said Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fallon midway through his band's Friday afternoon Lollapalooza set, "It kinda tells you what a city's made of."
If Fallon's theory is correct, the people of Chicago — and everywhere else the crowd came from — are made of pretty stern stuff. But crap weather couldn't hamper a festival that came off as both perfectly planned and expertly managed. Now in its ninth year (with a few gaps along the way), Lollapalooza feels less a music festival and more like a small village. It has a nightclub, an organic market, a day care and a video arcade. And because it's held in Chicago's sprawling, 319-acre Grant Park, no one stage ever felt overrun or uncomfortably cramped.
It all allowed proper focus to be placed on the music, the bulk of which was both inspired and inspiring. Gaslight Anthem's early afternoon set was particularly rousing. Opening with a white-hot run through "High Lonesome," the group maintained a down-to-business approach, rarely pausing for banter or tune-ups. Drummer Benny Horowitz had a silkscreen of Richard Roundtree and Charles Bronson on his bass drum, and those twin images convey the group's essential ethos: a collected cool that conceals a fighting spirit.
"People ask me all the time what records I listened to growing up," Fallon said. "They always think it's old blues records. The truth is, my first concert was Depeche Mode." He was alluding to one of the day's headliners, but in truth the statement could have summed up the spirit of the afternoon. Most of Friday's bands had an eye on the past while, true to the festival's spirit, were keen to subvert it.
Brooklyn's April Smith, who was allotted the thankless 11:15 a.m. slot, played the kind of ragtime songs Fiona Apple might have written if she were alive in the 1930s. She has a sweet demeanor and playful stage presence, but her songs are deceptively acrid. When she launched into the bitter kiss-off "Drop Dead Gorgeous," the implied comma between the second and third words was practically audible.
New Orleans hip-hop duo the Knux also owed a clear debt to their forefathers. Their brash, boom-bap hip-hop derived equally from Arabian Prince and early Beastie Boys. Highlight "Bang! Bang!" was long on bounce and swagger, MCs Krispy Kream and Rah Almillio bounding gleefully up the center.
Oklahoma's Other Lives also took cues from history. They augmented traditional country songs with piano and low moaning cello until they became big and brooding and stormy. Their cover of Leonard Cohen's "The Partisan" traded the original's bare longing for a churning, full-bodied ache.
That wasn't the afternoon's best cover — that distinction belongs to Of Montreal, who were joined by new wave R&B singer Janelle Monae for a searing run through David Bowie's "Moonage Daydream" (check out video of the band backstage and onstage, below). Of Montreal's set was a masterpiece of color and sound. The group has been plying this particular version of glam-disco for the last five years, but each time through it gets a bit stronger and a bit more convincing. Kevin Barnes, looking like a Martian overlord in his silver cape, face paint and thigh-high boots, danced suggestively with an entourage in pig and wolf masks. It felt like a nightclub on some alien planet inhabited by bi-curious animals.
It was the afternoon's quieter acts that struggled the most. Bon Iver was almost entirely drowned out, his tender, aching falsetto lost in the rumble of crowd noise. Fleet Foxes nearly suffered the same fate, but managed to find their feet mid-set. Their harmonies were pristine and effortless, and on songs like "English House" they sounded like chapel bells, clanging high and clear.
Eric Church also owes a debt to country, but he cross-wires it with hard rock, writing blue collar songs that bleed emotion. Church was the afternoon's odd fit — his "How 'Bout You" even asserts that he "don't need rings in [his] nose to be cool" — but the sheer muscle of his songs and the conviction with which he delivers them was enough to silence skeptics.
The Decemberists have gotten muscular lately, too. The onetime bookish Smiths acolytes have lately discovered the wonders of prog. On Friday they performed their concept record The Hazards of Love in order, frontman Colin Meloy decked out in a suit and suspenders and co-vocalist Becky Stark — playing the role of Margaret — donning a wedding dress. Their set felt more like a theater piece than a concert, each number composed of varying movements. Their compositions bore traces of familiar folk tropes, but time and time again the group upended them. And isn't that the spirit of Lollapalooza? It's like pop music, only different.
Fuse is airing the Best of Lollapalooza 2009 with exclusive performances by Kings of Leon, The Killers, Janeâ€™s Addiction, Silversun Pickups, Snoop Dogg and more. This Saturday, August 15th at 9pm/8c. Check your local TV listings!