Cloudless skies, hot sun and an intermittent cooling Lake Michigan breeze greeted fans Friday at Lollapalooza, held for the third straight year in Chicago's beautiful albeit sprawling Grant Park.
The Fratellis proved that even Scottish hipsters can rise early, yet singer-guitarist John Lawler apologized for his tiredness. A relatively early 11:45 AM start time may have helped explain his sluggishness, and the group's mumbled, indecipherable banter. Nonetheless, the trio shook hips with jagged power-pop and strolling Britpop. Sure, the rise-and-retreat shiftiness often recalled the White Stripes, yet the melodic catchiness of bouncy songs such as "Chelsea Dagger" went down smoothly -- the perfect morning tonic for a long day ahead.
Ted Leo could care less about such restraint. The mod punk had politics on the brain and conservative values in his sights during his early afternoon set. After a sloppy beginning that witnessed him slip and fall, Leo led his Pharmacists quartet through an urgent set marred only by a handful of ill-advised reggae flirtations. While well-intentioned, the agit frontman isn't as effective when playing at half-speed. Fortunately, open-mouth screams and calls to action dominated. "Do you believe in something beautiful?" Leo asked the audience, and the crowd answered in the affirmative by clapping along enthusiastically. "A Bottle of Buckie" found Leo in a reflective mood, "Bomb Repeat Bomb" bristled, and "C.I.A." brought the forty-five-minute performance to a close, Leo busy hammering the bottom of his guitar against the stage floor.
Transitioning from the excitable to the fruity, the Polyphonic Spree came across like the Partridge Family on steroids. Tim DeLaughter's massive crew has traded in their white ropes for all-black outfits, but the music was anything but gloomy. Harpsichords, woodwinds, horns and a six-piece choir made for quite the spectacle, even on the large Lollapalooza stage. DeLaughter jumped about and even left the stage to slap hands with fans, looking increasingly like a congregation leader. By now the group's shtick is well known, however, and they came off pre-packaged, more image than substance. It didn't help that DeLaughter sang out of tune.
Meanwhile, Florida's Against Me!, a finger in the eyes of pretentiousness and tastemaking, inspired a wave of shaking fists as they bashed and crashed with vigor and purpose. "Problems" reverberated via drunken-sailor choruses. "White People for Peace" lassoed aggression in the name of protest. "Americans Abroad" coughed phlegm and wheezed distortion. Humor and irony abounded and punchy hooks ruled, particularly on "From Her Lips to God's Ears," hands-down the best anti-Bush anthem of the day.
M.I.A. brought a booming system, vinyl-scratching DJ, rumbling bass and African samples but little else to the stage for her late afternoon set. "I lost my voice in Los Angeles," the London-based MC confessed. "If I have to get drunk to get it on, that's cool." But her doubled-up hollering and insertion of the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?" into the mix fell on mostly deaf ears. And her decision to use video footage of the Jungle King and other assorted clips meant that all but those close to the stage watched tiny figures dance underneath the lights. M.I.A. has the studio down to a science; she needs to improve her live presence.
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