As the sun set on the first night of Lollapalooza, 90,000 concertgoers were forced to make a tough decision: whether to watch Lady Gaga's bombastic, elaborately produced performance at the south end of Chicago's Grant Park or nab a spot by the stage a mile away, where the Strokes would be playing their first U.S. show in more than four years. "It's sort of like the Beatles versus the Rolling Stones," said Metric singer Emily Haines, as she pushed through a throng of VIPs (Grizzly Bear's Ed Droste, Dirty Projectors' David Longstreth and Ke$ha among them) clamoring for a side-stage view during the Strokes' set. "We decided, as a band, this is where we need to be."
For Gaga, Lollapalooza was just another stop on her extravagant Monster Ball Tour – same set list, same pyrotechnics, same fountain that spews blood. It was the kind of thing you just had to see. But after a few songs, a large portion of the crowd started migrating north for a performance that had a true sense of rock & roll danger. "I've never been to Lollapalooza before, but it's my new favorite festival," said Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas, addressing the attendant mass. "Land of dreams, where Nirvana and Pearl Jam did all their shit."
The Strokes' set was bold and simple, with minimal stage adornment. Blasting off with fan favorite "New York City Cops," the band powered through a tight 16-song set, ranging from a beautiful, scaled-back rendition of "Under Control" to an electrifying "Heart in a Cage," during which Gaga's fireworks – visible over the trees from across the field – seemed like they belonged to the Strokes.
The sixth annual Lollapalooza felt like the tale of two festivals, as each night's headliners divided the park between the more mainstream Parkways Stage (Gaga, Green Day, Soundgarden) and the edgier Budweiser Stage (the Strokes, Phoenix, Arcade Fire). If that contrast was part of a deliberate strategy by promoter C3 Presents, it worked. This year's event drew Lollapalooza's biggest audience ever, with more than 240,000 tickets sold over the course of three days. "I've never been so fucking nervous," said Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, drenched in sweat, moments after playing to the massive crowd.
"What I dig about Lollapalooza is just the variety of bands that are playing, and the quality of bands," said B-Real of Cypress Hill, who played on the closing night. This year's 152 acts on eight stages ranged from superstar DJs (Kaskade, 2ManyDJs) and buzz bands (Wavves, Mumford and Sons) to contemporary R&B (Raphael Saadiq, Erykah Badu) and classic acts (Devo, Jimmy Cliff). Early on Day One, 71-year-old Mavis Staples lit a fire under the sleepy crowd by bringing out her fellow Chicago native Jeff Tweedy, who accompanied her on his beat-up acoustic for "You Are Not Alone" – a song he penned for the upcoming Staples LP he produced. "I've been singin' a long time," said Staples, drinking iced tea backstage. "The way these young people responded makes you feel really good. I'll be grinning tonight in my sleep, if I get to sleep. I'm wired up now!"
Lollapalooza-goers settled into a mellower groove on Saturday, particularly at the Sony Bloggie Stage, set in a shaded nook on the edge of the park. Los Angeles four-girl band Warpaint's swirling, woozy tunes and roots-rock group Deer Tick got folks off their blankets and onto their feet. "My ultimate goal is to go to the hotel pool at the Hilton and then see Green Day, hell yeah," Deer Tick singer John McCauley said, as the band closed its set with an eight-minute version of "Mange."
But the afternoon belonged to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, who rallied a huge crowd with an emotional hour of music that had fans climbing the trees for a better view. During a set-closing performance of "Brother," frontman Alex Ebert walked into the middle of the crowd and sat down. Within moments, the audience had quietly followed his lead – sitting down one by one until the whole field was cross-legged on the ground.
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