As the seminal touring festival of the early to mid-Nineties, Lollapalooza served as a cultural marker of the alt-rock movement, creating an environment in which music fans could revel in an eclectic roster of performers. No longer the touring giant it once was, the festival, which was cancelled last summer, has been reinvented this year by founder Perry Farrell as a two-day summer festival at Chicago’s Grant Park.
“It already feels like this city is surrounding Lollapalooza,” a dapper Farrell, the weekend’s emcee, said at a press conference to kick off the event. “This is our way of staying in love with the world.”
And over the weekend, 33,000 people ventured out to see a roster that was as diverse — if not safer and more consciously mainstream — as the lineups of Lollapalooza’s heyday. Flanked by Chicago’s stately skyline to the north and west, and Lake Michigan in the east, concert-goers enjoyed two days of music, spread across five stages, including sets by New Wavers the Killers, reunited art rockers the Pixies, geek rockers Weezer, indie icons Death Cab for Cutie and buzz bands such as the Arcade Fire and the Redwalls.
Since their reunion last April, Saturday co-headliners the Pixies have proved to be a vital, cohesive live unit, resurrecting their influential and unique sound for new audiences, and their Lollapalooza set did just that. Frank Black crooned and shrieked, swapping disembodied harmonies with Kim Deal, throughout the band’s seventy-five-minute performance. Wearing a powder-pink shirt, Black growled and preened through renditions of “Cactus” and an especially scabrous “Tame,” sputtering the lyrics at a clipped pace, his voice leaping at times from an uneasy whisper to a harsh, reedy howl. Deal, clothed in all black, lent her delicate, ultra-feminine vocals to the crowd-pleaser “Gigantic,” with its powerful, surging chords.
Immediately following the Pixies, Weezer trotted out fan favorites, performing before their trademark oversized “W” marquee. The band played a safe set that guaranteed crowd participation, especially on the bombastic opener “Say It Ain’t So” and, naturally, “Buddy Holly,” which transformed into a gigantic sing-along. They folded several new songs into the mix, including “Peace” and “Hold Me,” which failed to garner the same enthusiasm. Nevertheless, Weezer sounded charged, drawing on energy specific to the festival. “I went to a few of the original Lollapaloozas and it always seemed like a very magical event,” frontman Rivers Cuomo told Rolling Stone backstage. “I think it’s great to bring it back.”
Sunday night’s headliners included groove-oriented jam band Widespread Panic, who played two sets, and the Killers, who offered a sizzling lineup of New Wave-inspired synth pop featuring their hit “Somebody Told Me.” Lead singer Brandon Flowers worked the stage with his robotic dance moves, adopting an icy persona — his dark eyeliner helped him there — which contrasted with his gracious banter.
But Sunday evening truly belonged to indie heroes the Arcade Fire, who treated the entire festival audience — they attracted hordes, and undoubtedly won a host of new fans — to a galvanizing, inspiring performance that was part-revival, part-block party and characteristically celebratory. The band, which includes upwards of nine players, offered raucous versions of songs off its debut album, Funeral, including a charged take on “Rebellion (Lies).” After their set, Farrell told Rolling Stone, “When they take the stage — and it happened when I saw Eddie Vedder for the first time — you just go, ‘There’s an energy here, and God’s blessed these people to bless the rest of the crowd.'”
Though the weather was a bit hazy on Saturday, and absolutely punishing on Sunday, with temperatures rising to a scorching 100-plus degrees, the festival launched auspiciously enough with a rowdy opening set by hometown mod rockers the Redwalls. Fans couldn’t get enough of the band’s fuzzed-out guitar theatrics on tunes like “It Won’t Be Easy,” with band members Logan and Justin Baren, and Andrew Langer trading harmonies and lead vocals. “It’s good to have support of your fans from Chicago,” Langer told Rolling Stone. “I get to roll out of bed and come here from my apartment.” The next day, another Chicago Act, popsters OK Go, played an early mainstage set. “The whole thing feels very real — you don’t have to drive three hours into the middle of nowhere,” frontman Damian Kulash told Rolling Stone of Lollapalooza’s new hometown. “It makes our homecoming triumph feel that much more surreal and oversized.”
Chitown rocker Liz Phair was also in evidence, on Saturday, unveiling two new songs from her forthcoming album, Somebody’s Miracle, including the straight-ahead, slickly poppy title track and “Everything to Me” with its sugary chorus. But, of course, Phair mixed the new material with classics, leading her band through a loose set. She stopped often to chat with the crowd and interact with the musicians onstage. Before playing “Extraordinary,” Phair joshed, “I don’t leave a trail of dead behind me. I just leave a trail of dirty clothes,” referencing the preceding set by rockers …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and her own self-cultivated reputation as a vixen. Phair also peppered the set with bouncy, more pop-oriented versions of staples from her breakthrough, Exile in Guyville, including “Fuck and Run” and a saucy, spacey take on “Flower.”
A spirited set by British rockers the Kaiser Chiefs proved an early highlight Saturday. While lead singer Ricky Wilson — sporting a black shirt, jeans and a light blue tie — was slowly losing his voice, he remained incredibly mobile, pogo-ing around the stage, tambourine in hand, flailing and rocketing around. When he realized the inevitable strain on his voice, he plucked two fans from the front of the crowd to sing his part on a winning version of “Oh My God,” with its anthemic, breakaway chorus.
“I woke up this morning and I couldn’t speak at all,” a creaky-voiced Wilson told Rolling Stone. “Everyone was trying to ignore the fact that I couldn’t speak. But when I got out there, the adrenaline just kicked in. But [before ‘Oh My God’] I thought, ‘If I sing the next song, I’m not going to be able to sing for the rest of the year.’ And then I noticed [the fans] singing the words to songs I don’t even know all the words to, so I thought, ‘I can get them up here.’ I met them afterwards, and they had just been married. This was their big holiday!”
With the continuous procession of performances, concert-goers had to be selective, discriminating viewers: On Saturday, fans of blues duo the Black Keys missed a bizarre but satisfying performance by Primus — who performed in front of two large, inflated rubber ducks — and, at night, the Walkmen siphoned crowd members away from the Pixies’ performance. And for fans of hip-hop, unfortunately, Digable Planets, performed simultaneously with Weezer.
The most rewarding aspect of large, multi-stage festivals is always the opportunity to learn about new bands, and the smaller, side stages provided festival-goers with an array of options. On Saturday, Blonde Redhead played a set of their ethereal, dissonant rock. And, on Sunday, Spoon’s tautly crafted, keyboard-driven pop translated well in the festival setting, despite the sweltering heat.
The temperature was a problem for Canadian twins Tegan and Sara, who gamely sprinted through their bouncy folk-pop until Sara succumbed to heat stroke, walking offstage for a brief spell. Attempting to laugh it off, Sara returned, joking with the crowd, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know if I wanted to barf in front of you. I didn’t know if we were that far along in our relationship yet.” The sisters and their band then launched into a more reflective version of “Speak Slow” — before Sara had to walk off yet again. Before their set, the two discussed being a part of such an American institution. “Lollapalooza really defined our musical taste,” Sara said. “To be included in Lollapalooza now makes us feel like we are being recognized in a genre that we identify with.”
Lollapalooza’s cultural impact was most on the mind of Farrell who, apart from serving as ringleader and splashy host, also debuted his latest project, Satellite Party. The performative piece of spacey rock featured band members Nuno Bettencourt (Extreme) and Tony Kanal (No Doubt). Farrell spoke about the Satellite Party concept as a celebration of performance and the arts, and his ambitious goal with Lollapalooza itself.
“Imagine a group of people — musicians, artists, dancers — that throw parties on Earth,” he said. “Through a vast visitation of energy on the radio one evening, all of them listening, their spirits get drawn up into the heavens where they are privileged to be performing and participating in another party — but a party in the heavens. It’s one that will include all the arts.”