Even in its earliest incarnations, the focus of the Lollapalooza festival was on discovery. Beginning as something of a touring freak show in 1991, Lolla brought musicians and performance artists that proudly operated outside the margins to parts of the country still struggling to make sense of punk rock, encouraging and celebrating new sounds and ideas.
Twenty years later, that focus hasn’t changed. Though it’s now held only in Chicago’s Grant Park, it still offers abundant opportunities to discover your next favorite band while reacquainting yourself with those you already know. In honor of that spirit of exploration, this guide is divided into two sections: the acts playing Lollapalooza that you likely already know, and the acts that are worth getting to know a bit better. Use this as a guide, and then design your own schedule on Lollapalooza’s website.
THOSE YOU KNOW
The Kills, 4:30 Friday, Bud Light Stage
The biggest shock that accompanies seeing the Kills live is discovering just how much noise two people are capable of making. Alison Mosshart is a dark dynamo, stalking and lurching her way across the stage while Jamie Hince summons thunder from a bottomless supply of instruments. Their music has lately grown more restless and expansive, spiking their dark garage rock with dashes of blues and reggae (they’ve lately been dropping a sinister cover of Dawn Penn’s dancehall classic “No No No” into their sets.) No matter how bright the afternoon, Hince and Mosshart are guaranteed to bring the cloud cover.
Bright Eyes, 6:30 Friday, Bud Light Stage
He’s come a long way from the nervous bedroom four-tracker who led curious eavesdroppers quivering through 2000’s breakdown-through-a-boombox Fevers & Mirrors. Since then Conor Oberst has evolved into a steady and assured songwriter, and The People’s Key – his final record under the Bright Eyes moniker – finds him at his most experimental, dressing his songs in neon synths and rocketing percussion. What hasn’t changed is his way with a heartbreaking hook. He may not be oozing pathos the way he once did, but Oberst’s songs these days are still storehouses of emotion. He’s not less passionate, just more articulate — just like the people who grew up right along with him.
A Perfect Circle, 6:00 Friday, Music Unlimited Stage
Recently reactivated after a seven-year hiatus, A Perfect Circle is the stuff of art rock fan fiction, helmed by warped visionary Maynard James Keenan and augmented by the talents of James Iha, onetime Nine Inch Nails drummer Josh Freese and Ashes Divide’s Billy Howerdel. Like Keenan’s main gig, Tool, A Perfect Circle excels at writing songs that are as dark, deep and churning as the ocean at night. But where Tool’s songs favor knotty constructions, A Perfect Circle is all coil and bite. It goes without saying that the live show will be spellbinding. While Keenan has a tendency to stick to the back of the stage, A Perfect Circle puts him out front, leading the group through their harrowing, turbulent songs.
Coldplay, 8:30 Friday, Bud Light Stage
So much more than the heirs apparent to U2’s heart-on-sleeve arena-beating, Coldplay have managed to retain the warm, weird sense of texture that defined the Dubliner’s Unforgettable Fire era without sacrificing the requisite level of pomp and grandiosity. More important, they have what every self-respecting headliner needs: hits, hits, hits. It’s been three years since Viva La Vida, and this set will be the first opportunity to see where the band is headed next. And also to see if they wear those faux-colonial military uniforms in the blazing Chicago heat.
Big Audio Dynamite, 4:30 Saturday, Music Unlimited Stage
Well, sure. Dreamed up in 1984 by Mick Jones as a way to take the globetrotting grooves he was exploring in the Clash even further, B.A.D. these days resembles Lollapalooza in miniature – a heady concoction of funk, soul, reggae, R&B and punk rock all peacefully coexisting. At first pass it seems like a curious choice for a reunion – was anyone really pining for this? – and yet now that it’s happened, it makes a strange kind of sense. We’re increasingly inhabiting a world that knows no borders, where hundreds of different cultures collide with each other on an hourly basis. Shouldn’t our music sound that way, too?
Deftones, 5:00 Saturday, Playstation Stage
Wrongly categorized as nu-metal some 23 years on from their inception, Deftones instead are one of the most forward-thinking, confounding and thrilling bands in hard rock. Each record is a bit weirder than the one that came before and their latest, last year’s Diamond Eyes, is arguably their most accomplished and inventive to date. Laying Chino Moreno’s haunting wail over thick sheets of blackened guitar, they imagine the bottomless sorrow of the Cure as written by a morphine-drowsy metalhead. Their current stage show is their most visually astonishing to date, pairing their songs with eerie short films that draw out both the menace and the mystery lurking at the center.
My Morning Jacket, 8:00 Saturday, Bud Light Stage
Even if you’d never heard a note of their music, you could tell My Morning Jacket were rockers of the old guard just by looking at them. Frontman Jim James has the classic look of a grizzled rock mystic, and so it’s only natural that, when he opens his mouth, a voice that’s both as worn and resilient as Neil Young’s comes forth. Over the course of their 13-year existence, MMJ have gone from mysterious Southerners penning songs shrouded in reverb to barrel-chested classic rockers whose live show is the stuff of legend. Getting through the weekend without seeing them would be unforgivable.
Eminem, 8:30 Saturday, Music Unlimited Stage
So what if he was trumped by Arcade Fire at the Grammys? Eminem is still, by common estimation, last year’s reigning champion. Having emerged both tough and clear-headed from a haze of substance abuse that threatened to derail his entire career, Em wasted no time constructing a live set to match the muscle and gusto of the gazillion-selling Recovery. His toothy new material translates perfectly to the big stage – feeling spectacularly threatening, the razor-sharp wordplay inviting mass participation. There are few hip-hop stars who have successfully scaled up their music to fill huge spaces. Even in that small group, Em is one of the three best.
Cee Lo Green, 6:30 Saturday, Music Unlimited Stage
Though he’s best known for being an R-rated chart-topper – and lately, for a spot at the judges’ table on The Voice – the biggest mistake you could make would be to consider Cee Lo a novelty act. He’s got bona fides, stretching all the way back to his days in the underappreciated Atlanta hip-hop group Goodie Mob and right on through his celebrated tenure with Danger Mouse as one half of Gnarls Barkley. And though it’s likely everyone in Grant Park will be headed to this set to shout two naughty words along to one very popular song, we’d encourage you to get there early. It’s no accident that one of his early solo records was called Cee-Lo Green is A Soul Machine; expect his live show to be an R&B production piece of the old order, with plenty of flash and panache while keeping the emphasis where it belongs – on Cee Lo’s spectacular pipes.
The Cars, 4:00 Sunday, Music Unlimited Stage
In 2005, the Cars were touring as the New Cars with Todd Rundgren in the lead vocalist’s seat and Ric Ocasek issuing snide take-downs from the stands. But times change and hatchets get buries and now the New Wave godfathers are fully reconstituted (save original bassist Benjamin Orr, who passed away in 2000) for a perfectly-timed victory lap. There are traces of the Cars’ nerdy quirk in countless younger bands, but few of them manage the mix of angularity and accessibility as well as the originators. Plus, you know, they’re gonna play “Just What I Needed,” and it’s going to sound incredible as the sun is going down.
Best Coast, 4:45 Sunday, Grove Stage
You may think you know Bethany Cosentino, author of bright songs buried in a late-August haze, but seeing her live is an entirely different proposition. Turns out her stellar debut, Crazy for You, buried her greatest attribute: her voice. Cosentino is a powerhouse vocalist and on stage she’s right out front, brash and commanding. It’s no surprise she’s lately taken to covering Loretta Lynn’s “Rated X” in concert – in the live setting, her burnished alto takes on an unlikely twang, moving her confidently from retiring bedroom auteur to bona fide star-in-the-making.
Arctic Monkeys, 6:00 Sunday, Music Unlimited Stage
The Arctic Monkeys may have started out as crass cut-ups with a fondness for blunt hooks and cheap beer –but with each record, they get a little closer to being the second coming of the Kinks. Their latest, the cheekily-titled Suck it And See, is another step in that progression. It sands down the group’s jagged edges in favor of bright, jangling pop with a cockeyed worldview, putting Alex Turner’s wry voice front-and-center, and allowing him a few opportunities to try out a Morrissey-esque croon. Live, they’re masters of tension and release, crafting the kind of live show sure to leaven their high-gliding new material with stormier moments from the past.
Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley and Nas, 6:15 Sunday, Bud Light Stage
Jr. Gong and Nas have been showcasing their unlikely partnership across the country for two years now. By this point, they’ve condensed the set to a perfectly-executed series of, er, highs. Marley lends his inimitable croaking patios to Nas classics like “One Mic” and “Made You Look” and Nas dutifully cedes the spotlight during Marley’s still-stunning one-drop redux “Welcome to Jamrock.” The material they recorded together is no less bracing, whether it’s the hard-charging stage-setter “As We Enter” (which nicks a riff from Ethiopian jazz legend Mulatu Astatke) or the steady groove of “Road to Zion.” Their mid-afternoon show is the perfect way to raise your adrenaline before nightfall.
Foo Fighters, 8:00 Sunday, Music Unlimited Stage
If there was ever a time to see Foo Fighters live, that time is now. Riding high on their strongest release in years, the group seems fully reinvigorated, piloting songs that graft Dave Grohl’s longstanding love of metal on to their time-tested knack for huge hooks. Stages like this are what Foo Fighters songs are built for – as bright and stunning and potent as summer lightning, this set can only fail if half the members miss their flights.
THOSE YOU SHOULD KNOW BETTER
Wye Oak, 12:30 Friday, Sony Stage
Led by one of the most underrated guitarists in rock & roll, Baltimore duo Wye Oak know well the power of slashing chords paired with tender vocals. Their cover of the Kinks’ “Strangers” for the Onion’s Undercover series surpassed the original, and their latest album, Civilian, is an early candidate for one of the year’s best. Wasner is a master at coaxing rough, ruddy sounds from her instrument, delivering the kind of potent squall that used to characterize old Dinosaur Jr. records. Taken with the devastating ache of her parched tenor and drummer Andy Stack’s turbulent percussion, Wye Oak are the kind of band you leave a festival talking about for weeks.
Smith Westerns, 3:30 Friday, Playstation Stage
Proof positive that David Bowie will never go out of style, Dye it Blonde, the second record from Chicgoans Smith Westerns, proudly dons Ziggy’s lightning stripe makeup for a spirited romp through the Seventies’ glammier FM radio tropes. Neon-bright, zig-zag guitar lines? Check. Fey, sighing, singable choruses? Check. Percussion that stomps like platform boots? Check. Better still is that, unlike many of their young peers, Smith Westerns are able to replicate this sound perfectly in the live setting, tossing in a few dirty jokes and well-deserved solos for good measure. Their afternoon set is a trip back to festivals past, and a celebration of all that is still right about the classic rock formula.
Cults, 4:45 Friday, Grove Stage
As mysterious and foreboding as their name implies, New York duo Cults – led by the boyfriend/girlfriend duo of Brian Oblivian and Madeline Follin – set ghostly schoolyard chants atop hopscotch rhythms, summoning the kind of eerie nostalgia that usually crops up in David Lynch films. There’s something sepia-toned and flickering about their music, and even when Follin is doing her best Shirelles impression – as she does on throwback blue moon ballad “You Know What I Mean” – it sounds more like she’s singing from another dimension than another decade. How these songs will hold up in the summer sun is anyone’s guess, but there’s enough promise in the group’s self-titled debut to make it worth your time to find out.
The Mountain Goats, 5:30 Friday, Playstation Stage
Erudite, hyper-literate songwriters don’t often make the best frontmen, which is just one more thing that makes John Darnielle such a rarity. Not only is his band, the Mountain Goats, the rare act that’s able to articulate the ups and downs of the human condition without seeming either pretentious or cliché, but their live show is shot through with genuine joy. He’s accrued a passionate, vocal legion of fans, all of whom shout requests and belt out the choruses of his driving, cathartic indie rock with the same passion and dedication that he does. To see them once is to be a fan forever.
Black Lips, 3:00 Saturday, Playstation Stage
Here’s why you need to see the Black Lips live: because there’s no telling just how many laws will have been broken by the end of their set. The group has a finely honed reputation for chaos, scaling up their antics to correspond to the size of the stage they’re playing. A 2009 concert in India resulted in the band being expelled from the country, and the list of venues in which the group is no longer welcome is formidable. It’s hard to say if the Lollapalooza bookers knew any of this when they added the Lips to the roster, but if past performances are any indication, the potential for fantastic catastrophe is high.
Mayer Hawthorne, 3:30 Saturday, Sony Stage
Mayer Hawthorne takes his performance cues from the Motown revues of old, packing the stage with backup singers and dancers and wearing a suit and tie no matter the temperature. His music is as smooth as his appearance, a coy blend of throwback soul and vintage pop that tugs at the heartstrings as it pleases the ears. Hawthorne is the consummate ladies’ man: slow-burners like “I Wish It Would Rain” may cast him as a solitary man, but they’re delivered with such smoldering sensuality, it’s impossible to believe he’ll stay that way for too long.
The Drums, 4:45 Saturday, Grove Stage
Call them the new New Romantics: with their foppish haircuts and perfectly-tailored trousers, Brooklyn’s the Drums hearken back to the classic era of foppish pop, their hiccupping melodies and echoing guitars seemingly designed to soundtrack a Molly Ringwald film that never was. Their live show invents a kind of post-punk camp, frontman Jonathan Pierce flailing and primping melodramatically while the band constructs airtight Eighties guitar pop behind him, as propulsive as prime New Order, as pristine as a pair of white jeans.
Lykke Li, 7:15 Saturday, Grove Stage
No longer anyone’s Next Big Thing, Lykke Li is edging from the margins to the mainstream. Her latest effort, the rich and nuanced Wounded Rhymes, finds her buttressing her Brill Building melodies with big beats and strange instrumentation. She’s transfixing onstage, typically donning a flowing black shawl and fanning it out grandly as she spins and sways – Stevie Nicks in photonegative. She often seems to vanish completely, lost in a trance as her band beats out dark, tribal rhythms. When she beckons, eerily, “Come on, honey, give yourself completely” on “Youth Knows No Pain,” it’s impossible not to obey.
Titus Andronicus, 12:45 Sunday, Music Unlimited Stage
Lonely and miserable at college in Boston, Jerseyian Patrick Stickles watched Ken Burns’ famed miniseries on the Civil War and saw in it a metaphor for the breakup he was going through. Years later, he and his band mount live shows that rival that same epic sweep and scope. They’re as ragged and reckless as their heroes the Replacements, Stickles’s severe stare and 27-pack-a-day voice the perfect conduit for the band’s firebrand punk. They shun brevity in favor of grand seven-minute songs with multiple movements that build and recede and build again until they explode in sweat and conviction and determination. Rarely has a band embodied their sound so physically: guitarist Amy Klein beams and bounces constantly and her bandmates likewise hurtle like wild pitches. Their sound and fury make for the ideal early-afternoon release.
Joy Formidable, 1:00 Sunday, Bud Light Stage
Formidable is right: this Welsh trio is terrifically tempestuous, swaddling frontwoman Ritzy Bryan’s searing voice in layers of roaring guitars. Much is made about their ability to mimic the squall and power of Nineties alt rock giants like the Breeders and L7, but the Joy Formidable also have an innate sense of tunefulness, making their songs instantly indelible. Songs like “Cradle” gleam and grind, Bryan driving the songs relentlessly forward as oceans of sound pitch and heave around her. It’s no wonder they landed an opening slot for no less an icon than Paul McCartney and are about to head off on tour with the Foo Fighters. The Joy Formidable are rock legends in training, and Lollapalooza will afford them the opportunity to win over a few more loyal subjects.
Lia Ices, 2:00 Sunday, BMI Stage
In a festival setting, a hard-and-fast rule is usually that the biggest noise gets the greatest attention. Even bearing that dictum in mind, do not let Lia Ices pass you buy. Her delicate songs are possessed by a sense of mystery – think Joni Mitchell at a Ouija board – their fluttering acoustic guitars and delicate pianos hiding a host of enigmas. Her voice – one part Norah Jones, one part Kate Bush – sounds both rapt and worried all at once. Her songs unspool like fairy tales: a little bit childlike, a little bit strange, a little bit mystic. She’s Lolapalooza’s resident fortune teller, and her songs are beautifully bewitching.
Jay Electronica, 3:00 Sunday, Perry’s
We’ll concede he should have thought twice about his name, but an endorsement by Jay-Z is enough to trump any awkward handle. A recent addition to Jay’s Roc Nation stable, Jay Electronica turned hip-hop heads with early singles “Exhibit A” and “Exhibit C,” the latter of which boasts hazy Golden Age production by the legendary Just Blaze and is centered around Jay’s tough, determined flow. Sonically, he favors classic hip-hop building blocks: boom-bap beats and hazy soul loops, the perfect complement to his limber rhymes. His full-length debut is hotly anticipated, and early leaks prove he’s got the toughness and timing to meet expectations – meaning small sets like this one will be a thing of the past in no time.
Cage the Elephant, 5:15 Sunday, Playstation Stage
Cage the Elephant is on the short list of bands who deserved better than they got: their hyperactive psych-punk, with its clear and loving nods to the Pixies, generated no small amount of buzz, but the band remains one of rock’s best-kept secrets. Lollapalooza could change that: frontman Matt Shultz is practically combustible on stage, flinging himself forward and back and pulling out piercing shrieks from way down in the lower level of his guts. From the first note, the band rockets forward, and the fact that they often seem to be coming apart at the seams is what gives Cage’s live shows such a spectacular charge. When mid-day weariness begins to set in, Cage provides the perfect jumpstart.