Twenty years old. Seems like just yesterday Lollapalooza was traipsing around the country, joyously introducing itself to the world as a music festival unafraid of genre diversity or political activism, one just as likely to showcase a Shaolin monk as a post-punk band. And now our little Lolla is all grown up. So what does America's biggest freak show and its "alternative nation" look like now that it's (almost) legal, and confined to one long weekend in Chicago?
That's the question on my mind as I join the already-sweltering masses who are (mostly) patiently waiting to scan their Sponge Bob-esque orange-and blue-wristbands and rush onto the festival grounds for the first day of Lollapalooza's 20th-anniversary bash. We'll attempt to answer that query for the next three days, at least when I'm not busy chowing down on lobster corn dogs or slipping over to the craft beer tent or dodging drunk kids or, you know, seeing like a gazillion bands. And Lolla, accommodating pal that she is, provides several stellar snapshots of what that answer might be right as I walk in the gates.
Impression One: wow, this place is swarming with kids who look to be about the same age as Lolla, kids who probably have no idea who Perry Farrell is. And not just any kids, but these ethereal, flowing-haired Mischa Barton (is she still a person of interest? OK, then maybe Ashley Greene) lookalikes impeccably clothed in those neo-bohemian fashions the celebrities are all so fond of these days. People in Chicago do not look like this, at least not enough of us to reach these numbers. It's as if these kids went to Coachella, then spent the next couple months living on some kind of post-hippie cloud before descending upon Lollapalooza. And they all seem wasted already. At noon.
Impression Two: walking up to Tennis' set at the Google+ stage, I come across a fortysomething couple on a blanket who are reclining against those little portable chair backs, swilling from one of the festival's wine thermoses and playing with their iPhones as their kids sleep in a double-wide stroller next to them.
Food for thought indeed, Lolla, but we'll return to our Question of the Weekend later. Hey, speaking of, let's talk about the food at the fest! The much-lauded vendor curation by rock-star chef Graham Elliott has resulted in some pretty high-quality fare, most of it from famed Chicago restaurants: lobster corn dogs (weird but a must) and truffle popcorn (delicious!) from Elliott's own Grahamwich, rock 'n' roll burgers from Food Network darling Kuma's Corner, and tons of fancy veggie snacks. The options aren't quite as grandiosely gourmet as last year; $5 Bud Lights just go better with fried junk food, I suppose. But is there any other festival in America where your culinary choices include cheese curds AND Scotch eggs? Probably not.
That's our Lollapalooza, though. She prides herself on being both diverse and classic. And of course, nowhere is that more apparent than in the fest's musical offerings. This year's lineup appears to be a throwback to the original Lolla concept: a schizophrenic scatterbrain of styles with a solid rock spine. I spent much of the day wearing out a path between the Google+ Stage (a hipster haven of buzzy bands) and BMI's "Emerging Artists" Atage, which I would like to rechristen the Unintentional Experimental Performance Art Stage.
The second act of the day at Google+, husband-and-wife indie-pop outfit Tennis, got busy beguiling the crowds with its sweet, shimmering brand of vintage-hued prom pop. Clad in teeny-tiny shorts, her massive mane of permy curls blowing fetchingly in the wind, Alaina Moore sweetly cooed a "thank you" after every tune, while the boys in the crowd harbored fantasies of her cooing those very words to them personally. (Bonus! First sighting of Foster the People shoelaces at this show!) Later in the day, British electro-hopper Tinie Tempah managed to make what could have been a lackluster set (electro-hop and live outdoor gigs are not necessarily compatible) dynamic and energetic, thanks in larger part to his live backing band and bouncing charisma. And Chicago natives OK Go seemed to really relish returning home again to charm the crowd with their blue-eyed funkier sound and general affability. Their incorrigibly quirky shtick (matching primary color suits! Handbells!) would get old really fast if these guys weren't such consummate professionals and, frankly, solid musicians.
Over on the Unintentional Experimental Performance Art stage, the scene was decidedly stranger and less slick. There was aural creepy baby-doll art in the form of impossibly tiny Estonian "sensation" Kerli, who was decked out in pink-and-blonde hair extensions and what appeared to be a vinyl dirndl, and accompanied her electro-pop tunes about love and, well, creepy baby dolls (see " Walking on Air") with compulsive pelvic thrusts. She also passed out candy to the crowd -- seriously.
Then there was the can't-look-away-from-the-possible-emotional-breakdown charm of former Fall Out Boy leader Pete Wentz's new "band," Black Cards. Their set consisted primarily of singer Bebe Rexhe being seductively chased around the stage by backup dancers in wolf masks and harassed by Wentz, who almost manically zipped from laptop twiddling to exhorting the crowd to make some noise to stage diving to getting kind of aggressively up in Rexhe's face while she was trying to sing. It was a fascinating, uncomfortable experience, and Wentz seemed very aware of how strange it was, taking the mic at one point to apologize to his mom for just "throwing toilet paper into the crowd and being weird." After a year that he described as "kind of like a hurricane," Wentz said he created Black Cards because he just wanted to have fun onstage. Pete, we're pulling for you, buddy. (It's worth noting that this is the same stage where an as-yet-unknown Lady Gaga played one of her early and much-maligned shows -- and the stage where, last year, she returned for a cameo stage-dive before packing the main-stage lawn.)
One of the more interesting and often overlooked facets of this year's Lolla is the lineup's relatively large number of Latin acts, many of them culled from the festival's new Chilean branch, staged in Santiago in April. Pounding on a drum and sassing the crowd in Spanish, Mexican electro-popper Ceci Bastida opened the BMI stage with a vibrant set that included a cover of The Go-Go's hit "This Town." Over on the big Playstation stage, Concepcion-based band Los Bunkers got fists pumping and Chilean flags waving to the tune of their swaggering, Beatles-saturated indie rock. And my own personal biggest bummer of the day was missing fierce Chilean emcee Ana Tijoux, whose set at the more electronic-tilted Perry's Tent didn't start on time.
So how's about that aforementioned rock 'n' roll? Well, there was plenty of it, in all shapes and sizes, on the main stages at either end of the massive fest grounds. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals kicked it old school, burning up the Bud Light Lawn with their smoky blues-rock. Potter's weathered, whiskey-kissed voice was made for environments like this, soaring over the grounds like a hipper Bonnie Raitt. Meanwhile, Foster the People struggled to carry their understated indie pop over the insanely massive and somewhat disgruntled crowd they drew at the Sony Stage. Overheard in the audience: "I'm here for one goddamn song. Just play it!" And yes, after an eerily spot-on cover of "Heart of Gold," they finally delivered their big hit, "Pumped Up Kicks," as the satiated crowd sang along.
And then came the headliners. With the hipsters safely ensconced at the Google+ Stage for Ratatat, the evening came down to a battle of the Angsty British Dudes -- and their very different crowds. In the south corner, we had Muse, who blasted onstage as riot sirens sounded and jumped right into a version of "Uprising" righteous enough to get the head of every dude on the lawn banging. Much as I love this band's meathead symphonies, though, things quickly started to get a little intense. By about the fifth song, I'd been almost stomped on almost as many times, so I hightailed it the other end of the grounds for Coldplay -- but not before I witnessed evidence that Muse had apparently made a deal with the devil, or Chicago, or just someone who knew what time it was: the city's theoretically unrelated fireworks display began erupting behind the stage just as the band finished a Jimi-ish rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" that segued into "Hysteria."
Up on the north end, Coldplay offered a more serene end to the evening. If Muse is neo-prog rock for disenchanted backwards-cap dudes, then Coldplay are most definitely for lovers. As Chris Martin tinkled the ivories, waxed romantic about love and life with Gwyneth, and occasionally politely checked in to make sure "everyone's OK so far," couples in the crowd leaned into each other. Even as he took up the acoustic guitar to play the slightly less glistening "Violet Hill," you could almost hear the crowd sigh in contentment.
Whatever your Angsty British Dude pleasure, then, it was the perfect ending to a great first day. Tune in tomorrow, when we dig further into the Question of the Weekend -- and I attempt the impossible for a fest-goer over the age of 25: staying in Perry's Tent for an extended amount of time.