There were no special effects during Soundgarden's performance on the last night of Lollapalooza — no lasers, no costume changes, no props or hydraulics. Even the video screens switched over to black and white. But the band didn't need any added visuals: Soundgarden delivered an explosive set of classic '90s songs in front of their biggest audience since their breakup 13 years ago. Chris Cornell underplayed the band's return, suggesting their decade-plus break was more like a few years. "It's good to be back!" said Cornell, who's grown his hair back out to its late-'80s length. "We just took a little break, but now we're back."
Opening with a slow, churning "Searching With My Good Eye Closed," Soundgarden's set started off big and the band's set tempered late-period hits like "Blow Up the Outside World" with ample offerings from their early years. Over and over during their set, Kim Thayil proved he's one of rock's greatest guitarists, taking traditional hard rock riffing to its extreme on songs like the grim, tarry "Gun." That song gained a kind of panicked momentum until it finally exploded in its final moments. "Let Me Drown" was equally epic, as Thayil turned out a series of apocalyptic progressions over Matt Cameron's thundering percussion.
With his high, pained voice, Cornell often felt like the counterbalance to Thayil's sub-sonic playing. He's the consummate rock frontman and his leonine wail is the perfect vehicle for the songs' tortured pathos. In the volcanic "Rusty Cage," he seethed, "You wired me awake, and hit me with a hand of broken nails." He abandoned the stage entirely during "Outshined," wandering out deep into the crowd as the band thrashed and kicked behind him.
If Soundgarden's songs are all desperation with no resolution, Arcade Fire, who played the North end of the park, tried to strike a balance between the two. Of all the young bands suddenly volleyed up to marquee status, Arcade Fire are one of the only ones — both in sonics and in stature — who appear up to the challenge. Their songs expanded to fill the length of Grant Park — the pipe organ that opened "Intervention" seemed to tower hundreds of feet high, and "Crown of Love," which Win Butler dedicated to "our friends in the National," escalated steadily to a spectacular finale, sweeping strings undercutting Butler's hoarse howl. With seven people on stage, the band runs the risk of becoming too overpowering, but on Sunday they displayed an impressive degree of restraint. "The Suburbs" rolled along gently on the back of a clanging piano line; "Sprawl II," a lithe electropop number from the just-released The Suburbs surged forward slowly, Régine Chassagne twirling like a music box ballerina after blithely declaring, "There's no end in sight."
There was an end, of course, and it was spectacular and raucous, the band stacking their big numbers back to back to create the kind of final-moment crescendo lesser bands wait decades to achieve. For all the wisely-controlled dynamics of their recent effort, Arcade Fire are still at their best when they're the most worked up: "Power Out" crackled like a cut cord, the lights going blood red and Butler frantically yelping the lyrics from the lip of the stage. "Rebellion (Lies)" felt even more desperate and furious. And however enormous "Wake Up" has sounded in the past, the sound of 30-plus-thousand people wailing out its wordless chorus was awe-inspiring. "I can’t tell you how fucking intimidating it is to get in front of so many people and sing all these new songs," Butler said as the set wound down, "but you've been fucking amazing." From the sound of the cheers that greeted that declaration, it was safe to say the feeling was mutual.
Not all of Sunday's great moments were writ large. Erykah Badu played a sterling early-afternoon show that put a premium on slow, winding R&B and the power of her smoky voice. Taking the stage in a green dress and sporting a razor-sharp gold mohawk, Badu felt more like a priestess than a vocalist. She commanded her lithe band with just a handful of slight vocal inflections — stopping short on the notes during a hazy reading of "The Healer" to slow their pace, winding up the center of a fat bass groove on "On and On." There were no breaks between songs, no filler and no gimmicks, just a long, liquid groove that allowed one song to morph, astonishingly, into another, Badu controlling each transformation. They proved just as adroit in funkier territory: the unreleased "Annie (Don't Wear No Panties)" had all the snap and spark of vintage Prince, Badu playfully purring, "Annie don't wear no panties/ saw her in the bathroom stall, I was there when she took them off" over the band's slow, seductive grind.
MGMT also favored the experimental during their late afternoon set at the North end of the park. The group has lately been testing the limits of their audience's allegiance, following up a beloved debut with a confounding — but thoroughly fascinating — record that shucks the dance-pop formula of the group's biggest hits in favor of hazy psychedelia. If their aim was to reduce their audience, they failed. They drew one of the afternoon's biggest crowds, and those in attendance didn't seem to have any difficulty with the bright, stammering "It's Working" or the monster movie freakout "Song for Dan Treacy." They even fist-pumped to "Flash Delirium." Their enthusiasm did not go unnoticed: Andre VanWyngarden was beaming and appreciative, and rewarded the patience of the faithful with a bona fide hit, the triumphant "Time to Pretend." It's a bright, slow-builder, and it had the inadvertent upside of summing up the band's entire set in a single lyric: "We've got the vision — now let’s have some fun."