Anyone looking for evidence of how the Green Day headlining Lollapalooza in 2010 differed from the Green Day that headlined the festival in 1994 needed only to wait until the group’s second song, when Billy Joe Armstrong hoisted his guitar behind his head and tore out a searing solo while walking from one end of the stage to the other. If Green Day Mach 1 got by on big hooks and bratty charm, its current iteration has added another quality to that list: showmanship. Their Saturday evening show at Grant Park, at the close of the second night of Lollapalooza, was a scorcher, a full-tilt four-alarm extravaganza complete with towering digital screens, a small army of auxiliary musicians, and – why not? – fireworks.
Opening with a rousing version of “21st Century Breakdown,” Green Day’s set seemed designed to showcase the group’s dual history. There were the politically fraught barnstormers of recent vintage – most notably, a harrowing version of “Holiday” for which the stage was bathed in red light. And there was a euphoric run through the group’s straightforward early work – including a breakneck take on the charming “2,000 Light Years Away” – for which Armstrong donned his old, battered turquoise guitar.
Somewhere along the line, Green Day figured out how to cleverly fuse these warring halves; indeed, their rare gift is their ability to sing about smart subjects stupidly. During the opening of the emotionally fraught ballad “Give Me Novacaine,” Armstrong shook his hips and spanked his thighs mock-seductively. In the furious “Know Your Enemy” – a song that exhorts “Overthrow the effigy” – he duckwalked across the stage and contorted his face. He’s the Charlie Chaplin of punk rock: decked out in a tight black dress shirt, white tie and pink-and-black striped pants, his comically exaggerated moves found him always perched at the precipice of a pratfall. In other words, the band tabled their inhibitions in favor of a spectacle that was big, loud, gaudy, theatrical and fun.
It was also, as it turned out, a group participation sport. Throughout the evening, Armstrong pulled audience members onstage with him: a 5-year-old girl was pulled up for “East Jesus Nowhere,” and she ended the song by placing a consoling hand on Armstrong’s sweaty forehead; an enthusiastic woman inexplicably wearing a wool cap in the Chicago heat got to belt out the chorus of “We Are The Waiting.” Early in the show, Armstrong even cajoled a terrified-looking French fan into what was, in all likelihood, his first-ever stage dive. It came off as both good-natured horsing around and a sly nod toward the group’s punk roots: anyone had a right to be on stage; all they had to do was climb up and claim it.
At the North end of the park, the French group Phoenix were taking a subtler approach to headlining duties. If Green Day’s stage felt like a Broadway theater, Phoenix’s was an exclusive club. Their design was spare, comprised mostly of a row of fluorescent bulbs that glowed alternately blue, green and purple, and their frontman not as prone to high comedy. But that’s not to say they were subdued: Phoenix’s songs start small but build to tremendous crescendos, built on rubbery dance grooves that promote steady, aggressive movement. “Rally” seemed to change shape several times, progressing from a steady, relaxed chug to a bright, euphoric chorus. “Countdown,” too, took its time, letting warm waves of synth bathe insistent rhythms until the song gradually worked up to a kind of supernova brightness, beanpole vocalist Thomas Mars standing at the lip of the stage, rocking gently in time to the music.
Phoenix’s career had a similar slow build: the group languished in relative obscurity for nearly a decade before last year’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix won them a still-growing audience. As their show went on, they began to radiate a charming combination of both gratitude and disbelief, all of which came pouring out in a triumphant, show-closing run through “1901.” The song plays to the group’s strengths – a throbbing, propulsive number with a steady build to a winning chorus. Mars – who had remained mostly behind the microphone – leapt from the stage, working his way through the front row of the audience, grinning broadly and exchanging hugs and handshakes with the crowd. The song finished, but Mars didn’t seem to want to leave, saying at long last, “Thank you so much, thank you so, so much. I don’t know what else to say!” before disappearing backstage.
Earlier in the day, on that same stage the Austin group Spoon, who share Phoenix’s penchant for minimalism, delivered a tense, winning set during which frontman Britt Daniel – dressed in a white t-shirt and white jeans – seemed determined to build songs out of as few elements as possible. “Nobody Gets Me But You” was stripped almost bare, little more than Daniel’s hoarse voice, a dry drum crack and a snakelike bassline. “Don’t You Evah” was similarly skeletal, vocal melody curling like a question mark over split-second stabs of guitar. The group has also gotten better at incorporating the same sonic tricks they employ in the studio in the live setting. “The Ghost of You Lingers” was haunting, wraithlike backing vocals interrupted by odd, machinelike clatter. When the group did open up, the results were spectacular: “Written In Reverse” rolled in like a black cloud and built to a thunderous finale, Daniel howling and pleading over a thick sonic squall.
Green Day’s arrival was forecasted by two bands who also share an affection for politically-conscious punk, though they funnel them through decidedly different aesthetics. Gogol Bordello’s self-styled gypsy punk was ferocious; frontman Eugene Hutz brandishing his acoustic guitar like a machine gun and delivering songs in a steely, determined holler. His group is a dervish onstage, constantly in motion, a frenzy that peaked with the delirious “Start Wearing Purple,” the crowd matching the group’s manic pace. Immediately preceding Gogol Bordello was Against Me! who have been competing – successfully – for the title of Best Live Rock Band in America. “We’re on about two hours sleep,” frontman Tom Gabel explained, “so we’re not holding anything back.” Over the course of a blinding hour-long set, he made good on his word. The group turned out fiery renditions of “Rapid Decompression” and “White People For Peace,” Gabel’s hoarse holler yanking the songs desperately forward. They are a force of nature, potent and destructive, the face of punk to come.