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Lollapalooza 2005: The Report

the first time I went to Lollapalooza was exactly ten years ago. I was 16, and it was the first rock concert I'd ever attended, so I was pretty stoked. I'd waited outside the record store the morning tickets went on sale, and I chattered in the car on the way to the New World Music Theater about whom I most wanted to see. I'd recently gotten into Sonic Youth, so I was looking forward to their headlining slot. And despite the fact that it rained that night, and the majority of Sonic Youth's set was from the then-unreleased Washing Machine, I had a fantastic time.

The second time I went to Lollapalooza was last weekend. For a while, I'd debated whether I was even going to attend, mainly because of the exorbitant ticket prices, but the lone show this year was in Grant Park, just a few minutes away from my Chicago apartment, and I figured there were at least a few bands I wouldn't mind seeing. So I found a cheap ticket on Craigslist and went for it.

If my experience at Lollapalooza '05 wasn't quite as immediate or exciting as the '95 outing, it's undoubtedly in part because I'm a jaded old man (26!) who's seen hundreds of shows now and mostly prefers small, dark clubs to giant fields swarming with doofuses wearing ironic mall t-shirts. (I'm tempted to print some choice slogans here, a la David Foster Wallace at the Illinois State Fair, but you get the picture.) And yet I'm not sure that entirely explains why much of the weekend was slightly unsatisfying.

From its inception in 1991, Lollapalooza has always striven to be eclectic, to not restrict itself to a single musical genre but instead mix arena alt-rock bands with hip-hop acts, indie outfits, and the odd renegade legend (George Clinton, Waylon Jennings). But what drove some of those early lineups was a belief in a unifying spirit in those disparities: although Rage Against the Machine was miles away sonically from Arrested Development, they both projected an earnest social awareness that had the potential of attracting a similar breed of fans. In fact, in the age of the campus PC wars and the multicultural Clinton cabinet, this very act of eclecticism was seen as a positive liberal value in and of itself.

These days, Lollapalooza's lingering diversity seems to be grounded in nothing more than a desire to sell as many tickets to as many different people as possible. That's a perfectly fine capitalist impulse, especially when last year's event had to be cancelled due to low sales, but it's hard not to be cynical about, say, the inclusion of Widespread Panic on the bill: a genuine attempt at musical variety, or a guarantee of higher profits, with the knowledge that legions of jam fans would surely follow the band to Chicago?

And yet I'm less concerned about Lollapalooza's loss of ideals, in a philosophical sense, and more about what that means for the actual festival experience. Because the effect of this new policy on the audience, it seems to me, is a mild form of alienation, as one is now caught between several different demographics (jam band, hip indie, reunion circuit, etc.) and the festival's loaded schedule (more bands than ever!) forces a choice nearly every hour. Although Lollapalooza featured a second stage from 1992 to 1997, it was mostly treated as a showcase for smaller bands and not as serious competition to the main stage; music was played concurrently but only through the early evening, when it was understood that everyone would then flock to the main stage to see the headliners. This year, with two equally billed bands playing at any given time, it wasn't unusual to feel isolated from what was happening on the other side of the park. It's difficult to revel in the collective energy and spirit of the festival when there's a huge Weezer show going on several hundred feet away that you haven't even noticed yet.

Yeah, yeah, so that's a rock festival in 2005 for you. Except I also spent the previous weekend at the Intonation Music Festival, which, for all of Kelefa Sanneh's railing about indie rock's insularity in his New York Times review, actually made me feel like I was a part of a community, rather than just someone wandering lonely past sunburned sorority girls and dreadlocked dudes on stilts waving flags. So all I'm saying is it's possible.

That said, I did have fun from time to time. Here's a recap:

Saturday, July 23
I eagerly showed up at 12:30 to catch M83, having missed them the previous times they've played Chicago. Around the time that Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts came out, I remember hearing someone say that the record was, like Add (N) to X, composed entirely on synthesizers. That's not exactly true, but I was still impressed at how well the band translated their synth-driven sound into a guitar-centered live show, especially on the vigorous new single "Teen Angst." However, even though the crowd was modest compared to later acts, I was literally the only one dancing out there. Believe me, I looked around. Was it too early? Did anyone even know who these guys were? Thanks for making me feel dumb!

The audience was slightly more receptive to ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, who played afterward, but I sure wasn't. I liked that album from a couple of years ago, you know, the one everyone liked, but the frontman's lame attempts at subversive rebellion between songs ("Let's all get drunk and fucked up!" "They're givin' us Budweiser, but I don't even fuckin' like Budweiser!") left a sour taste in my mouth. Dude, I know playing a stage named after a telecommunications company at 1:30 in the afternoon isn't very rock and roll, but just deal with it, okay?

I was beginning to have my doubts about the whole thing, so I called an old high-school friend to see if she'd arrived yet. I ended up joining her in the front row for Liz Phair. In dangly earrings and a denim skirt, the 38-year-old Phair looked sunny and relaxed; I imagined her sitting in her California house with a few girlfriends, sipping chardonnay. I also expected that her new pop persona meant that she'd all but excised her tumultuous youth from the live act, and so I was surprised that she played no fewer than five songs from Exile in Guyville, including a seemingly impromptu version of "Flower" to close the set. I mean, I think "Extraordinary" is a fine single, and good for her, but in the end, no one was dying to hear the material from her new, forthcoming album. Maybe the look back was a tribute to the city that brought her up.

I spent the next two hours doing not much of anything. Forced to choose between Dashboard Confessional and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and then Cake versus the Bravery, I went instead for a black-bean burger and a Bud Light.

It was strange to think I had seen Blonde Redhead a few years back at the Fireside Bowl, a cramped, vacant bowling alley with shitty sound, and now here they were at Lollapalooza, and not much more famous, either. But they looked impeccable, especially drummer Simon Pace, whose salt-and-pepper curls and goatee resembled a gaunt Italian Wayne Coyne. And serendipity struck when one of Kazu's wispy, chiaroscuro songs was embellished by a brief drizzling rain. (I'm still not sure whether or not it's a coincidence that it was promptly followed by 1997's tense "Water.") A good, moody performance, but at one point, I picked up the carousing strains of "White Wedding" across the field and wondered if I should've seen Billy Idol instead.

But there was plenty more carousing an hour later when the Pixies took the stage. It occurred to me for the first time that the Pixies aren't really an indie-rock band anymore. I mean, historically, yes, of course they are; it's not like they ever even sold out. But as I stood on a grassy slope overlooking the massive sea of people, everyone from muscle-bound frat dudes to nerdy dads with preadolescent daughters huddled close and singing along, the term didn't make much sense. Not to mention the musicians on stage dressed like fun relatives that happen to be in a rock band, Frank in a pink Oxford shirt and Kim in a modest PTA-mom sweater. What an odd career.

If I wasn't absolutely overjoyed at hearing "Gigantic" and "Here Comes Your Man" live in 2005, it's because the Pixies don't occupy the same nostalgic corner in my heart as they do many of my friends'. (I heard bits of Surfer Rosa in late high school, found Doolittle in college, and only know the rest through osmosis.) However, Digable Planets, who closed Saturday's festivities, were one of the first musical acts that I unreservedly loved. Their 1993 debut, Reachin: A New Refutation of Time and Space, soundtracked much of my 9th-grade year, as I bopped to their boho Blue Note-bolstered hip-hop and memorized every breezy rhyme. Twelve years later, they've never soured on me, and so hell yeah, I was excited to see their reunion. Employing a keyboardist, electric bassist, drummer, and DJ, the group split its set evenly between Reachin' and its only follow-up, the sly, funky Blowout Comb. They affably engaged the crowd in call-and-response and then sometimes just let the band jam, which actually produced some of the set's high points (organ solo!). As I shook my hips and snapped my fingers (remember that intro to "Rebirth of Slick"?), it was the first time all day that I felt a measure of solidarity with my surroundings.

Sunday, July 24
Still sore from standing in cheap flip-flops all day, I decided to sleep in on Sunday and thus missed the Changes, one of my very favorite local bands. Seriously, I wish I could've reported on them, because they deserve the attention. Instead, I sidled in at 2:30, and unaware of the restrictions against unsealed water bottles, took out my frustration on the security staff. (Bureaucracy brings out my combative side.) So when a stranger from Texas offered me a hit off his joint, not five minutes after I arrived for Dinosaur Jr., it was hard to say no. At first it seemed to do the trick, and I stood there marveling at the intricacies of J. Mascis's bleeding guitar solos. But then I just felt woozy and paranoid, and suddenly aware that Mascis, whose long, stringy gray hair gave him the appearance of a seasoned roadie rather than a frontman, was loud as shit, burying Lou Barlow's vocals with shards of distortion. I walked away halfway through, feeling like my left ear was underwater.

Fortunately, everything cleared up in time for Tegan & Sara, where I ran into a gay friend of mine and teased him for coming to support the team. Ever since I heard the winning single "Walking with a Ghost," I've been feeling amenable to the Canadian wonder twins' blend of emo-folk and power pop, and their stage presence was just as charming as I'd imagined. As temperatures climbed at midday to 100 F, supposedly Chicago's hottest in ten years, they led the audience in communal swaying, which felt strangely comforting amid the heavy air. Unfortunately, the heat got the best of Sara, who left mid-song and returned a few minutes later, explaining, "I'm really sorry. I had to figure out whether I wanted to barf in front of you guys, but then decided that we don't really know each other that well yet." After two more songs, though, she slipped out again, leaving Tegan to tackle "Time Running" on her own—at least until two guys from a band touring with the duo bounded on stage to take Sara's vocals. I have to say, everyone recovered from the situation really well, and the crowd, though disappointed, understood when Tegan finally announced that they couldn't go on. Easily the most gracious band at the festival.

It's official: Canadians rock! The decision to queue up an hour early for the Arcade Fire was perhaps the best I made all weekend. I had been wondering how the past year's biggest indie-rock success would fare outside of certain closed communities, but that was answered just as soon as the band launched into "Wake Up," and everyone surrounding me raised their fists and bellowed the wordless chorus like soccer hooligans. I'm on record as finding Funeral a tad overrated (for one thing, the production's too murky), but they were truly impressive live. Win Butler's throaty voice commanded its proper attention, but the rest of the band, including members on violin, accordion, and "freedom horn" (wink), and others adeptly trading off instruments, were the real stars. I especially liked the auxiliary percussionists, whose job consisted mostly of rambunctiously beating drumsticks against helmets, often while worn; the simulated fight that eventually ensued conveyed a healthy amount of absurdity and mischief. Kelefa Sanneh chided the Intonation Fest lineup for not possessing enough "swagger and ambition and hunger"; if the Arcade Fire had been on that bill, as its organizers had originally hoped, I can't help but wonder if he would've changed his tune.

Of course, it was all downhill from there. I missed the first half of Spoon's set to sneak a snack, but what I caught sounded so rote and weary (in contrast to their scrappy performance here in May) that I abandoned ship for the Killers. Despite Perry Farrell's proclamation of the band as the greatest in America (this coming after his weirdly breathless announcement that Lance Armstrong had just won the Tour de France), despite even my estimation of the first three singles on Hot Fuss as some of the best songs of the past twelve months, rarely have I seen so popular a band look so uncomfortable on stage. Seriously, Brandon Flowers was downright bewildered behind his eyeliner, even going so far as to apologize for his complete lack of presence: "I wasn't born with the gift of gab, so I have a tough time between songs." Plus, I'm realizing that when they stick to the sleek goth textures, I can forgive their occasionally amateurish lyrics; a song like "Indie Rock and Roll," however, is just plain embarrassing.

For those of us not into the patchouli-and-Birkenstock scene, Lollapalooza weekend wrapped up with a band that's either the darlings of indie rock or the genre's punching bag, depending on whom you ask. Honestly, I've always sorta liked Death Cab for Cutie; despite his shaggy-dog earnestness and endless supply of Hanes Beefy Ts, Ben Gibbard certainly knows his way around a melody. Still, I couldn't muster much enthusiasm for the band this time around; even the two new songs, from their forthcoming major-label debut, Plans, seemed unremarkable. Favorite moment: the ditzy college girls in front of me arguing about whether the line "I love you, Guinevere" (from "We Laugh Indoors") was a literary allusion. Also, those new shirts that sort of look like the old Seattle SuperSonics logo are pretty sweet. Satisfied, I headed home and slept on the train, happy to not come to another one of these things for a good long time.

By: John M. Cunningham
Published on: 2005-08-02
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