With the skyline in the background, Lollapalooza once again brought three days of music to Chicago's Grant Park. Kings of Leon and Artic Monkeys rocked out, Skrillex and Calvin Harris kept the crowd dancing, Outkast and Nas rapped some of the greatest verses ever written, Iggy Azalea played her song of the summer and a few dedicated people dressed up as those inflatable tube-men that wave outside car dealerships. Here the best things we saw.
The ways in which Lorde continues to surprise us speaks volumes about what we traditionally believe to be true about teen performers (and teen girls in general). With nothing but a minimal-but-booming two piece backing band, Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O'Connor commanded the stage with ferocity and control that even some of the festival's legacy acts and headliners couldn't muster. The power of her performance was nothing short of transfixing. The live arrangements of her songs have largely been stripped of their sweetness and lux-choral backing tracks, reducing "Biting Down" and "Tennis Court" to their brute electro-pop marrow — leaving her to occupy the cold space between the stutter and boom of the beats. She danced like she was trying to fling her arms off her body, but just as with her voice, the sense that she was in absolute possession of her abilities never waned. She nailed every stomp and every note — but it was clearly fueled by passion, not perfection. Towards the end of the set, between songs, she paused to regard the crowd and you could see she was at a loss for words — as much in awe of us as we were her.
Outkast opened their Saturday night show with a deft move: If you want to stoke people's excitement, why not open with your fastest and most bombastic song? "B.O.B" it was, and yet, still, it was only up from there with the front end of the set favoring cuts off 1998's Aquemini ("Skew It On the BBQ," "Rosa Parks," "Da Art of Storytelling Pt. 1"), including the title track which speaks of how "heroes eventually die." Then out saunters longtime Dungeon Family affiliate Sleepy Brown, clad in black and purple satin jammies for "SpottieOttieDopaliscious," who sidled up to Big Boi for a performance that was nothing short of sublime. As Andre began to muse on "Ms. Jackson," as if on cue, the sky lit up with fireworks from an unaffiliated Southside celebration for the songs duration. From there they ping ponged between new-weird ("She Lives In My Lap") that re-arranged the map to one of the songs that put them on it ("Player's Ball") in the first place, and closing with a 1-2 hit of jubilation with "Int'l Players Anthem" (the full horn section making the Willie Hutch sample come to life) and "The Whole World." Heroes do eventually die — but sometimes, when we're very lucky, they come back to life just when you need them most.
Eminem capped Lollapalooza's uneven first day with more unevenness. Doling out a 30-song set that spanned hits and misses that began with some scene-setting verses ("Bad Guy," "3 a.m.," "Kill You"), Eminem floated through all of them with an unflagging manic energy, making his anxious stage charisma seem mannered rather than sustained. The obvious high points were the prime-era Dre-produced tracks, which were the only songs he truly seemed to inhabit. When Rihanna showed up for a Top 40 trifecta of "Monster," "Love The Way You Lie" and to fill the Dido spot on "Stan" she was a respite, but there was little palpable connection between them. Rihanna seemed like a phenomenally glamorous stranger who had happened to waltz up on stage — an object for Eminem to orbit around. (The brief appearance by perdurable sidekick Royce Da 5'9" for "Fast Lane" was a strange reminder of what it looks like when an audience connects with a performer's energy, not merely their songs.)
Two issues plagued the set, one being uneven sound (vocals were almost inaudible post-Rihanna); the other was the casual use of thundering and sudden gunshot samples used to end songs and mark changes throughout the set. It's a cheap trick to get the audience's adrenaline up and one that had fans both screaming and hitting the deck in well-founded fright. It's been suggested that this was a particularly callous idea in a city that in 2014 has logged 1,254 shooting victims (as of Lollapalooza weekend), but Eminem is two decades into a career built on caustic, myopic regard of his own problems — why would he suddenly care about ours?
Passing Perry's stage on Saturday the strains of Lil Jon's "Get Low" were heard not once, not twice, but thrice during different sets. While the crunk era is certainly enjoying a resurgence these days, it's a pointed reminder that when it comes down to it, a lot of DJ acts are a few bass drops are shy of your average wedding DJ — hell-bent on crowd pleasing with the most familiar comforts. Skrillex, as evidenced by his Sunday headline set, uses his audiences trust to nudge them beyond all that is familiar in his set (namely his own music, his remixes of others') towards lesser knowns acts he is bringing up on his own label (David Heartbreak, a recent Trollphace remix) and atomizing dancehall, pushing it all further away from genre convention.
The Followill men have a winding history with Lollapalooza; they hit the road in its 2003 tour, during which they happily sabotaged a rival act, and headlined the festival in 2009. Perhaps that familiarity is what prompted the methodical Southern rockers to go off the rails —relatively speaking, at least — in the encore of their Sunday headlining set. They began by ushering out a classical string ensemble for a dramatic take on "Crawl" (from their 2008 breakthrough album Only By the Night), violins scraping against their beefed-up psychedelic guitars and singer Caleb Followill's guttural screams. Then, amid autumnal violet lights, they launched into a cover of Robyn's "Dancing on My Own," Followill sighing along with melancholic torpor over the guitar-thick power balladry. The experimentalism suited them.
Perry's, the stage where big names in EDM are usually hosted throughout Lolla weekend, has gained a reputation for making "turn down for what?" a lifestyle and not a choice. The side stage on the park's south side is usually filled with neon tank wearing bros and underbutt for days beneath the strobe lights, smoke machines, and bass drops. The stage and its space are also relatively small and mostly made for very sweaty and packed dancing (where you are likely to come into accidental contact with one too many of the sweat-drenched and aforementioned neon tanks and underbutts). The placing of Iggy Azalea's set at Perry's was a little poorly planned, especially given that — whether you love her or hate her — she is responsible for two contenders for Song of the Summer. By the time she came around on Friday afternoon, Perry's was twice as packed as usual with an especially young audience that seemed fairly unprepared for the type of squish that would happen if they dared to even get to the halfway mark of the audience space. Only a half hour into her set there large numbers of stumbling fans being carried off by friends and the sight of multiple people puking in whatever open corners of the space they could find.
Azalea herself did not have the benefit of a Jumbotron for the majority of the audience to see her with and was swallowed by the stage. Even with all the controversy, she's not the most compelling performer and sort of tossed out her songs for the audience to consume without much exuberance about it. At the end, she gave the crowd what they wanted and, after the most showmanship of her set with the miming of a scene from Clueless, Azalea revved up "Fancy" for a sing-along that continued as the masses tried to flee the area to get to their next set.
Though Rihanna failed to show up for Calvin Harris' headlining set, as she did for Eminem's the night before, Harris seemed to do just fine doling out hit after hit that he often had a hand in producing. Promptly at 8:45 p.m., the Scottish DJ kicked his set off with his Alesso collaboration, "Under Control," and popped off the fireworks pretty early. Naturally, the type of cliché lyrics overlaying his electro house beats and dance pop make for the perfect soundtrack to countless underage couples professing their love to one another and making out throughout the audience on Grant Park's north side (especially since all the older folks were at Outkast). Harris threw out a collection of the hits from his 2012 album, 18 Months, over the course of his set, including "Sweet Nothing," "Feel So Close," "I Need Your Love" and "We Found Love," as well as remixes of some other crowd-pleasers like Capital Cities' "Safe and Sound," Florence + The Machine's "You've Got the Love" and Icona Pop's "I Love It."
Nas has seemingly never not been with us, yet his Saturday set at Lollapalooza felt like a comeback, like a ferocious reminder of what the man has done for us — what a menacing revelation Illmatic still is. Nas paced the set so there was hardly a breath between songs (save for some banter recognizing and mourning for Chicago's ebbless gun violence), with the energy you expected from him 20 years ago.
After they presumably escaped from a car dealership, these turnt-up inflatable buddies headed straight to the Kongos' set on Sunday, where they swayed and hugged all passerby in benevolent silence.
The Interpol of a decade ago seems to have informed the sound of their return: big, sustained chords perfect for wooing those in the upper-deck cheap seats of the arena. No sudden changes, just walls of call-and-response guitar, Paul Banks' baritone bleating and a merciless backbeat. Though it seemed as if much of the attendant audience were merely camped out early for Lorde spots, folks perked up for the chestnuts ("C'mere," "Slow Hands"), there was a clap-along and enthusiasm for new song "Anywhere" — a good sign that perhaps the band can reclaim the marketshare that was lost in their lengthy hiatus.
The primary takeaway from Rich Homie Quan's set was a new familiarity with his DJ/hype-man, DJ Fresh. We spent the first approximately 20 minutes of Quan's set being entertained by Fresh, who played some Beyoncé, shouted out everyone who was there with their girlfriend, did the moonwalk and otherwise did his exuberant best to distract us from the fact that Quan had yet to take the stage. The Atlanta MC did finally take the stage, citing an intractable phone call with his "baby mama," but it was with such little fanfare that the crowd did not immediately notice. While Quan's capable of drawing a huge audience — you'd think that 51 million views on YouTube would merit main stage rather than the shady glen adjacent the farmers' market — dude ain't ready for prime time. The MC delivered "Blah Blah Blah," "Get The Fuck Out My Face" and "Type of Way" in snippets, as well as portions of the YG and Yo Gotti tracks he appears on — before ending his set seven minutes early —delivering maybe 15 minutes of music for the 17 that he graced us with.
The young, New Orleans based singer and guitar slinger has found a curiously cool cross between indie rock distortion, grunge mumble and classic blues-rock that is best experienced live and turned up to 11. Though Lollapalooza is always filled with countless rock acts, Booker may have been the strongest and most refreshing with his early afternoon set on Saturday. Highlights included a shredding version of the punky "Violent Shiver" as well as number of tunes that have yet to even be released, but all was set aflame by the ceremonious smashing of his guitar at the end of his set. As soon as he played his last note, Booker took his instrument and furiously whacked it against the stage a few times before tossing the neck into the audience, pushing his mic stand down, and walking off stage as the crowd cheered as if they were filling a stadium just for him.
After Benjamin Booker tossed the neck of his guitar into the crowd and walked nonchalantly off stage, fans lingered in the audience to hopefully take home a string or take pictures with the lucky many who had caught one of the larger available chunks. As one older man excitedly noted about how good he felt about making the call to catch Booker on Saturday: "I knew this kid would be the one! I knew he would tear it up!"
The South African folk-rockers have a viral hit under their belt — their single "Come With Me Now" has reached 9.7 million views on YouTube — and their confidence is palpable. In the four brothers' Sunday-opening set at the Palladia stage (which netted almost as many viewers as Nas' gig the night before), the band dropped a bit of "Nuthin But a 'G' Thang" by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, then mixed it live with a drawling vocal take on the Beatles' "Come Together." The band's accordionist chimed in from the background, bouncing irrepressibly as the crowd cheered on his every wheeze, adding to the odd yet affable chemistry.
Surprising: Chicago MC Vic Mensa performs a faithful cover of the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" in the middle of his set. Not surprising: His audience, filled with kids holding up 'Vic Fucking Mensa' signs and rapping along to every word of his songs, loved it. Like Chance on Sunday, Mensa made his hometown proud and gave a speech on how "alive" the city still is in spite of "that Chiraq shit." He also introduced his fans to a fun new jam about threesomes, "Major Payne," and performed with a blow-up doll on stage. Between a guest appearance from Chance on "Tweakin" and a reunion of his defunct band Kids These Days, Mensa offered some heartwarming reflections on being a southside success story. "I'm y'all three years in the future," he said after talking about how was just another kid like them who had gone through Chicago Public Schools. To prove it, he kept the stage packed with his friends and crew, which made his set feel more like a party than a concert.
The British electro-funk collective Jungle takes glee in their found sounds: Bandleaders Josh Lloyd-Watson and Tom McFarland fold creaking doors, rustling keys and crunched soda cans into their self-titled debut (released in July on XL). To open the main stage on Saturday afternoon, the band went on a high-energy tear through their slick singles "The Heat," "Lucky I Got What I Want" and "Time" — hitting their high-end keyboards and guitars with fervor as their drummer struck a set of strung-up glass Coke bottle chimes. Keep it real, lads.
It was just a mylar balloon shaped like a sombrero — not the most or least interesting prop to hover above the crush of bodies at Lollapalooza. Yet when its owner lost grip on it during Spoon's Saturday afternoon set, and it began to float upward lazily into the cloudless Chicago sky, it seemed like the most alarming and fascinating spectacle Britt Daniel had ever seen in his life. The Spoon singer stared at it as it rose, the massive main stage video screens zooming in on his unblinking gaze and furrowed brow. Up soared the balloon, up rose Daniel's eyes in perfect accord. This lasted for several verses of "The Underdog" and was a strange joy to behold — and Daniel didn't flub one word throughout, though he looked glum when the mysterious zeppelin finally left his sight. Someone else released a happy-face balloon after, in empathy, but it just wasn't the same. We'd all been through too much already.
Not since "Sloop John B" has a vacation gone this awry. Jenny Lewis made her Lollapalooza entrance great form, pacing the stage with far more assertive energy than a woman in that much pastel can usually convey. She kicked off with a country-fried take on "Just One of the Guys," the lead single from her new solo album The Voyager, and hit a delightful (if schadenfreude-heavy) emotional apex with "Aloha & the Three Johns." In it, she grinningly detailed a train-wreck tropical excursion, replete with a stranger getting an al fresco hand job, her boyfriend smashing a television, her awkwardly demanding an engagement and everyone generally praying for death. Her Lolla set, thankfully, was miles more fun.
For the last few years El-P and Killer Mike have been the rap Joan Didion/ John Dunne partnership — two masters whose kinship clearly elevates each other's game, in, what from the outside, looks like the platonic ideal of reverent collaboration. El-P bounded on to stage, practically skipping, with a goofball grin from ear to ear, giddy in the throes of what's becoming a mid-career boom; Killer Mike made it clear there was no place he would rather be than rocking the mic and making the music he loves, alongside his friend.
New York punks Parquet Courts hit the Palladia stage — complete with its scalloped set design that amusingly mimics white marble columns — on Saturday, and appeared disinterested in matching the ambition of their surroundings. Their mixing began much too small for the large field, the guitars tinny and singer Andrew Savage indecipherable past the fifth row, as they popped out tracks from their punchy new album Sunbathing Animal. But by that album's "Vienna II," Savage had found his stride, seething, "How'd it die? / We broke its neck / We raised it to the power of 10" as the back rows cheered. Parquet Courts lost that momentum shortly after, via a downtempo interlude of fuzzy ballads, but capped it with their Light Up Gold anthem "Borrowed Time."
The Melbourne-based three piece is a fairly subdued and simple live act, but Barnett and Co. kept a crowd despite the rain with charm and familiarity: When they offered up "Avant Gardener" with no particular fanfare, near the end of the set, it was clearly the song the entire audience had been waiting to sing along with. Barnett is still primarily a club act, but the momentum she's built in the last few months has meant that she's now fairly adept at handling festival crowds (she's done Glastonbury and Coachella in recent months) — but yet there was nothing more showy than a two chord solo on her new guitar. By being herself, Barnett provided the perfect antidote to some of the overblown acts on the bill.
Very few of the acts were as cross-generationally appealing as Fitz and the Tantrums — teens, twentysomethings, and families whose days at Kidzapalooza had ended all flocked to dance to "Out of My League." Everyone was in for a treat when the band exploded with a raucous cover of the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" that got everyone moving despite probably feeling some waning energy on the festivals' hot second day. The neo-Motown vibe of their tunes, though a bit plastic, sufficed for a perfectly uplifting hour that ended with whistling soul single "The Walker."
The biggest surprise of the weekend was Joywave, who are riding the wave of their burgeoning hit "Tongues" (their previous stop was a performance on Late Night). The young band's set proved their success is hardly a fluke. All their songs are as fun as their best ones; their chemistry makes them compelling and their time on the road has made their set seamless. While the shaded grove of the BMI stage is often the favored place for dads to nap between sets, Joywave brought the disco to the forest, moving the kids that comprise their fanbase, as well as their parents (and other folks old enough to appreciate a band using Upstairs at Eric's as a template), who ran "this is my jam!"-style down the embankment to boogie in the pit with their kiddos. One of few bands at the festival this weekend who seemed as capable of connecting with an audience as they were entertaining them.
During Flosstradamus' set Sunday afternoon, the DJ duo told the crowd they'd been banned from ever performing at another Chicago street festival after an especially rowdy mosh pit some years prior. They then instructed the thousands in attendance to all raise their hands and flip off the Chicago Police Department, who were posted up nearby. The cops' response? Just shy of ROFL-ing. When we asked a nearby officer if he was aware of Flosstradamus being outlawed on the streets of Chi, he merely replied, "Uhh, no."
Jagwar Ma came out as Friday's only rainfall was finishing up and the Australian indietronica act's house vibes and echo-y vocals made for a perfect soundtrack to the light sprays causing festivalgoers to put on their ponchos and whip out their umbrellas. Beginning with Howlin' opener "What Love" was either a perfect coincidence or an appropriate setlist change with lead singer Gabriel Winterfield in full unhinged mode and repeating the lyric "waiting for tomorrow brings another day another sun" as the light started to peak through the clouds. The group kept their set upbeat, highly danceable, and Nineties alt-esque for its entirety with tracks like "Uncertainty" and "Let Her Go" serving as crowd-pleasing favorites for the packed audience at the shaded Grove stage.
It is a testament to Bomba Estéreo's showmanship that their crowd doubled in size as buckets of rain doused Lollapalooza on Sunday afternoon. The psychedelic electro-poppers from Colombia shrugged in response, paint-streaked singer-rapper Li Saumet shaking her blue headdress toward the grey sky and continuing to sing her bilingual preachings of peace and goodwill, shouting the ebullient chorus of "Pure Love" (from their great 2012 disc Elegancia Tropical) over piercing synths and heart-rattling percussion. The faithful flung up their hands and remained in her thrall, dancing through the worst of the day's storm; tellingly, those who'd queued up across the field for Delta Rae scrambled for cover like they were steerage class on the Titanic.
Myers has had some minor success (the corny "Monster," the explicit "Desire") in the last two years with videos that present her as more unhinged Fiona Apple — which is not a necessarily a bad look. Myers' career seems like it stands a chance if only she (or, perhaps, her label?) could figure out what kind of artist she is going to be beyond a jumble of bad-girl clichés. However, Myers has a tremendously powerful voice that most immediately recalls Evanescence's Amy Lee, and much like Lee, you have to wonder what Myers is doing with this band. In Myers' case, she's in a sometimes-pop, sometimes metal-ballads band with an electric cello. With an occasional EDM-lite drop in the chorus. And Myers playing an acoustic guitar and singing sweetly, nervously tugging down her crop top and swimsuit bottoms. And then closing the set like she's auditioning for a screamo band, flinging her body around in a way that make's Lorde's stage moves look like that of a sedated Tai Chi master. Get thee to a proper metal band, Meg Myers!
Even money that Slovenian EDM DJ-producer Gramatik is a huge Anchorman fan: He began his Saturday afternoon Perry's Stage set with a piercing, interminable flute trill. Gramatik (real name Denis Jasarevic) favored cuts from his 2011 album Beatz & Pieces Vol. 1, including his zydeco-influenced "The Drink Is Called Rakija" and the reggae-leaning "Break Loose," and he also paired live sax and trumpet with those heavy dubstep beats and glitchy bass drops. A mid-set highlight: He seamlessly mixed "Superstition" by Stevie Wonder with "Digital Liberation Is Mad Free" by Grizmatik (Gramatik's side project with the producer Griz) — and no flutes were harmed in the process.
"This is a Christian band, right?" a gent in a neon Cool Story Bro tank asked us urgently. "They have to be." He said this just as the singer-guitarist Ian Holljes let out a roaring "We're so fucking excited to be here," complicating the case, but the question was understandable: Throughout their set, Delta Rae projected a freshly-scrubbed enthusiasm bordering on Ned Flanders levels of earnestness. ("We live together in a house in the woods," cried singer Brittany Holljes at one point. "It's great!") The North Carolina folk-poppers led a stomping, stirring a capella take on "Bottom of the River," a single from 2012's Carry the Fire, but it was a cover of "Because the Night" (written by Bruce Springsteen and Chi-town native Patti Smith) that most roused their audience — and was delivered by singers Holljes and Elizabeth Hopkins with beaming smiles, of course.