The ironic charm of music festivals, as everyone knows, is that they're actually a pretty crappy place to hear music. The festgoer paradox at an event as massive as Lollapalooza (which completely sold out beforehand for the first time this year) is this: should you fight your way to the front of the stage and stake out a spot early enough to actually see your favorite band, which means you aren't going anywhere, including to other stages where other bands are playing, until the show's over? Or should you try to "see" as many acts as you can from the back of the lawn, behind a tree, next to a bunch of drunk people who are talking louder than the band is playing? Ultimately, the best decision is to just focus on creating an experience.
So what was the experience of Lolla like on Saturday? Well, day two began with rain: buckets of mud-producing, sludge-inducing rain that quickly coated the extremities of festgoers. The day ended with heat: the sun came out with a vengeance, the temperatures rose, the humidity was oppressive. And somewhere in the middle, everyone got drunk. Really, really drunk. Yesterday's beautiful people? Gone -- or at least so covered in mud that they were unrecognizable as such. The festival grounds, which were expanded to make for a sprawling 115 acres in 2010? Still navigable, thanks to the crisscrossing network of paths and streets that make up Chicago's Grant Park, but it still requires an inner pep talk every time one is faced with the task of navigating through tens of thousands of sweaty bodies. The port-a-potty situation? Grim. What else was a girl and 90,000 or so of her closest friends to do but give in and just enjoy the ride, with all its highs and lows, twists and turns, uppers and downers?
High Point: Latin alt darling Ximena Sariñana got the day off to a positively joyous start at the BMI stage. Clearly thrilled to be playing her "first American festival" and repeatedly thanking the audience for braving the rainy conditions and early set time, the delightful Mexican singer-songwriter and her equally adorable band charmed the ponchos off the crowd, which grew considerably as Sariñana's oddly lilting voice drew people in from across the grounds. Her brand of electro-inflected indie pop, which ranges from cute and bouncy to dramatic and intense, was so infectious that the crowd began erupting in applause as choruses built to their climax. Fans of Lykke Li (who we'll return to in a moment), take note. This is your girl to watch.
High Point and Low Point, all in one: Waiting out a smattering of raindrops under the protection of the umbrella-covered tables at the biergarten was kind of a bummer. Realizing that I could hear stages going up all over the festival grounds and watch people skip off in all directions to catch shows from this central location, however, was pretty cool.
High Point: Joining the jubilant, rain-defying party that cropped up at the Playstation Stage for Chico Trujillo, a Chilean band that plays lightning-fast, ska-infused cumbia (skambia?), and acts like a cross between The Mighty Mighty Bosstones back in the day, a Latin American comic variety show (complete with funny shirts!), and a circus. I'm pretty sure their drummer, who played the set like he was a whole Latin percussion section, is the living embodiment of what it feels like to slam, like, six Red Bulls.
High Point: Happening upon Maps & Atlases, a Chicago band I knew nothing about, at the Google+ Stage and thoroughly enjoying their endearingly pretentious, exceptionally earnest and finely crafted indie folk-rock.
Low Point: Skylar Grey's set at the BMI Stage. I was interested to see what this up-and-comer, best known as of now for singing the hooks on every song on the radio that Bruno Mars hasn't gotten to first (Dr. Dre and Eminem's " I Need a Doctor," for example) was all about. Turns out she's about solid singing, which was good, but also about a kind of less polished version of early Avril Lavigne brattiness that I just wasn't quite feeling. The real point of this low point, though, was the increasingly rotten sound situation at the BMI Stage, where your options are to stand at the front and get blasted with too much bass, or stand anywhere from the middle on back and hear the Bud Light stage bleed in.
As promised, I dedicated over an hour of my day to just hanging out at Perry's Stage, the gigantic tent that's ostensibly the DJ are but is actually a de facto all-ages club scene perpetually packed to the gills with wasted 17-to-25-year-olds attempting to hook up (and sometimes, just stand up). Here is my report from the trenches:
3:25 p.m. Determinedly saunter toward stage. Hear the Super Mash Bros. throw on a bass-heavy, beats-happy Taylor Swift club remix. That's right, Taylor Swift. Quickly veer off into the Citi 20th Anniversary Lounge to regroup on the cool white couches there.
3:35 p.m. Attempt Two to enter the tent. Success! The place is crawling with mud-caked, neon-clad kids, chatting and dancing calmly while they wait for the next act. It's not that bad, right? Right?!
3:45 p.m. Notice creepy old dude standing alone.
3:46 p.m. Wonder if someone else is noticing me, creepy old lady standing alone.
3:52 p.m. Bass penetrates soul.
3:53 p.m. Remember I have ear plugs! Hooray!
4:01 p.m. Become entranced with creepy but kind of sexy Skeletor-looking robo-lady image swaying to the music on the screen. Realize it's Etty, whose job is apparently to prowl seductively around the stage while Perry sings over the beats.
4:04 p.m. Get Super Soaker'd.
4:11 p.m. Watch failed pickup attempt by shirtless dude.
4:14 p.m. Realize Perry Farrell absolutely cannot dance. He can, however, drop the beat and pick it up by pumping his fist in an Arsenio Hall-esque way that shows his age.
4:18 p.m. Realize (a) that Etty has been offstage for quite some time now, and (b) that life without robo-Etty is boring. Head outside the tent to the equally banging spillover party on the lawns surrounding it.
4:27 p.m. Wish I were drunk.
4:28 p.m Watch kids buy pot, then look up to see a plane fly over pulling the following ad: "I'm higher than you are." No, I'm not kidding.
4:35 p.m. Back into the trenches. T-shirt sighting: "Sex. Drugs. House."
4:39 p.m. Notice that Perry Farrell has tired of bouncing and is now just kind of slowly swaying. Decide that's my cue to leave.
Whew! What a journey! And now back to our regularly schedule highs and lows.
Simultaneous High and Low Point: Former Fall Out Boy Patrick Stump takes the stage his ex-bandmate Pete Wentz commanded the day before -- only he shows up TWELVE minutes late. Low. Entire band is in tuxes and there's a keytar! High. Stump is kind of silly, and the whole performance, a sort of retro R&B revival that sounds a lot like a bunch of Prince covers, is a bit heavily stylized. Low. But Stump is still a solid singer -- and he busted out a medley of New Jack covers that included "Poison" and "This Is How We Do It!" High!
Low Point: Local Natives. I find this band's glistening indie pop a little lackluster to begin with, but they are having trouble keeping the big crowd that's amassed engaged with a set that's driven by new songs no one knows.
Low Point: CeeLo! I know! I can't believe it either. The salty-voiced soul slinger was a blinding lineup highlight for me, and all signs point to awesome as he takes the stage in a Viking King getup that involves a manly skirt and a vest topped with spiked metal shoulder pads. Unfortunately, his considerable vocal attributes are overshadowed by a heavy-handed Rock God concept that revolves around recordings of genre classics (like Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit") instead of around his blazingly hot all-girl backing band. And he spends way too much of his set exhorting the crowd to make more noise, even stopping the music several times to admonish us for not being loud enough. As the dude next to me put it, "Just sing, man!" I concur, dude, I concur.
High Point That Could Have Been a Low Point: I rush over to catch part of Lykke Li's set, only to discover that the crowd is so huge that there's nowhere to stand except in the back amid the shady but sight-blocking trees at the Google+ Stage. Giving up any attempt to actually see much of the Swedish pop chanteuse, I buy some kind of amazing "Brazilian grilled cheese on a stick" snack from one of the Farmer's Market vendors, settle in among the wood nymphs, and simply let the sounds of her otherworldly vocals and army of drummers (Lykke herself included) wash over me. Lovely.
High Point: Eminem. The star of the evening in every sense of the word. The muddy, drunken, huddled masses are exhaustedly tiptoeing around the sludge pits that dot the Music Unlimited field, but they are pumped. And so is Mr. Mathers. Say what you will about Eminem, he is a consummate showman: He stalks the stage wearing an ominous black hoodie (and later, a Bad Meets Evil t-shirt), alternately venomous and uncomfortably vulnerable rhymes erupting from his mouth. His not-so-secret power is the ability to stage his own perpetual near-mental breakdown with a theatrical violence that verges on camp -- and make us love him, laugh at him a little, and fear him for it. The sheer physicality of his flow makes him a dynamic performer. His willingness to cater to his fans with hit after hit ("Airplanes"! "Cleaning Out My Closet"! "Stan!") and exciting onstage guests (Royce da 5'9", of course, but also Bruno Mars!) makes him a formidable pop star.
And that, my friends, is just one way to ride the beast that is Lolla. Tune in tomorrow, when we wrestle with more rain, more heat, more drunk kids, more awesome bands, more cheesy snacks and, of course, the question of life at 20 for Lollapalooza.