Lil Baby was performing across the field. Only two years after “My Dawg” launched the Atlanta rapper from his label’s glorified weed carrier to the leader of his city’s next generation, he was closing out the first night of Lollapalooza. He’s one of the most popular artists working today but, curiously, two 12-year-old boys didn’t bother flocking to the American Eagle stage to see the paragon of modern trap. Instead, they patiently waited for five rockers (arguably) past their peak to hit the stage.
“If they don’t come out soon this might turn into Woodstock ‘99,” one of the pre-teens earnestly said to his friend 10 minutes after the band’s start time passed with no Strokes in sight. His friend nodded in agreement before one of their moms badgered the two for a photo. Then — thankfully — Julian Casablancas sauntered on the stage to 2006’s “Heart in a Cage,” and the worries of failed festivals past evaporated.
The Strokes are almost 20 years old; it’s a long time for a band to exist, and they’ve tenaciously held onto their place as the flag-bearers for a New York City rock scene that’s decidedly reached its twilight for longer than any observer could have predicted. Watching Julian, Nick Valensi, Albert Hammond Jr., Nikolai Fraiture, and Fabrizio Moretti stand together, signature aloofness intact, but cut with an air of obligation was equal parts striking and mournful. Gone was the despondent, lackadaisical, and intoxicated men of their reputation, in their stead (at least for Julian) was an array of dad jokes, complaints about the “techno monster” playing in the distance, and politics. At one point, Julian remarked that “sister weather” was shining upon the band. The loudest response was to a misplaced “yeah, bitch” from the crowd.
Despite the youngsters in the crowd, the passage of time loomed over the entire performance. “You know what’s cool about the Strokes?” a woman who looked to be in her thirties yelled to her friends. “They’re old. I downloaded the album, damnit!” Mothers and fathers old enough to witness the first wave of Strokes-mania stood next to their children, still singing stories of bathroom hookups, alcoholic benders, and one-night-stands. There is nothing more awkward than Casablancas wailing the lyrics “Yeah, we were just two friends in lust / And baby, that just don’t mean much” to a crowd filled with parents who sired their children under similar circumstances. In contrast, everyone under the age of 30 were only able to muster a shred of excitement when a song like the Guitar Hero-buoyed “Reptilia” blasted across the grounds.
Is This It and Room on Fire, the Strokes’ debut and sophomore albums, still define and confine the band, nearly two decades later. There was a direct correlation throughout the night between when in the band’s catalog the song was released, and the crowd’s response — the earlier, the better. The simplistic song structure, aggressive guitar solos, and nihilistic hooks that reshaped early ’00s rock was just as effective at inciting the small, passionate Thursday night crowd. But it also illustrated the dearth of real-world hits that scene created. Albert Hammond Jr.’s guitar solos did more work in the allotted time than most of the band’s actual hooks were capable, despite taking double the time.
The only thing that showed no signs of aging was Casablancas’ voice. His signature whine and apathetic growl carried across the crowd; his bandmates seemed content knowing the Lollapalooza check cleared. By the time “Someday” closed the show, all the nostalgia chips were checked in. All that was left in its wake was awe — at this band lasting through numerous implosions, at this form of rock lasting for so long, at how far the band’s prolific run carried them.
“You gotta be a little more subtle in your ass-kissing,” Julian said at one point during the set. He was describing the tendency for musicians who come to New York to awkwardly point to the fact that performing there is a myth-making moment for them. Lollapalooza 2019 didn’t add to the legacy of the Strokes, but it proved no one is ready to give them up just yet.