Last week I made my annual pilgrimage to the center of the rock music world to Chicago’s Grant Park and Perry Farrel’s Lollapalooza. The festival, in its ninth year has at least nine more left in its North American home. Each year the music not only impresses but reflects the state of the music industry. And my main impression is it must be hard to make it in the rock world.
There are so many talented musicians vying for ones ears and in a business climate that calls for artists to practically give away their product for free keeps this business a labor of love. But boy to these musicians love it and that’s what makes these weekend affairs so splendid. Take Jordan Cook- a one man wrecking crew who performs as ReignWolf. His breakout performance at Lollapalooza was like no other rock show I have seen at this event. Playing guitar and drums at the same time, carrying all four parts of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” on an electric mandolin and singing in a rich deep blues tenor that is one part Rory Gallagher one part Gregg Allman, Cook enthralled a sparse crowd that had gathered. Cook is a prime example of an artist who turned heads during the three-day extravaganza while competing against a radio friendly, though quite sleepy performers the Little Green Cars. How is one to compete for attention?
Economies of scale was the weekend’s second lesson. Cook performed as a three piece with his brother carrying the bottom on bass, a drummer and a one man stage crew that had a hard time keeping up with Cook’s antics. You can’t have too many people in your band. If I saw one, I saw a dozen bands made up of less than four members. From the saccharine Matt & Kim to the ‘we want to be the White Stripes’ girl duo Deap Vally, and the enchanting Twenty One Pilots, duos appeared to be the new quartet.
Then there is the dance music. Sooner or later I might have to admit it’s become more than a fad. This Lolla weekend attested to the potential staying power of the “Macintosh” genre. Over the last few years there has been a stage dedicated to Electronic Dance Music (EDM) called Perry’s- named after the event’s founder. The action never stops there and it’s always overflowing regardless of the person (and it rarely is more than one) performing. Though I find many of the beats repetitive and lacking lyrical significance, there is no denying the genre’s huge popularity. Though the band Modestep brought really instruments and multiple persona to the stage, they certainly were the exception.
Which leads us to the final lesson of the weekend-Nothing beats live music. Over 300,000 people attended the Chicago event and witnessed thrilling performances from The Postal Service to pedestrian sets from Mumford & Sons. The event sells out minutes after tickets are announced and weeks before a single artist is named to perform. Similar events are moving tickets at similar pace throughout the country and world for that matter as the Lollapalooza brand has expanded into Brazil and Chile.
The business model has changed and artist are learning that getting it right live can make or break them. They just can’t afford to bring many musicians with them.
For a complete breakdown of Lollapalooza visit KZYR.com
Tom Genes’ show-by-show rundown of Lollapalooza
A look at what I saw and heard.
The Neighborhood- Pleasant enough harmonies and a promising future for this Southern California outfit.
Sam Cisco- One of the real joys of Lollapalooza is finding a band quite frankly I had never heard of. Playing in front of their largest American crowd ever, this quartet from Down Under impressed immediately. Scarlett Stevens on drums started a popular trend at this year’s event- Girls on drums. A snappy set from a power pop band. We will be hearing more from this band in the states and those lucky few who showed up for a early Friday afternoon set will remember the time they saw them up close.
Deap Vally- The girls on drums beat continues with a power duo from LA. Lindsey Troy on guitar and Julie Edwards on drums remind fans of what it was like when The White Stripes started out. Raw energy, power chords and well eye catching to boot.
21 Pilots- Ok so there are only two of them but they sometimes exhibit enough energy for the other 19. An arresting start complete with skeleton masks would have been much more effective in a nighttime setting, but the two Buckeyes from Ohio managed to channel significant energy to their afternoon show. It’s not every musician that can perform a back flip off a piano mid-song. Keep it up Pilots, you’ll soon take off.
Father John Misty- The first real surprise of the weekend was a entertaining, musically and comically, set from Joshua Tillman. The former drummer of Fleet Foxes brought his original band name out on tour in support of an album that translated well to the stage. He certainly benefited from the shortened set list that a festival provides. When he performed a few years ago with Fleet Foxes, the show lagged and turned into a real sleeper. Here, he raced through numbers while interspersing comments on everything from the VIP tickets buyers to Perry Farrel’s Pyro for Pornos. Not sure if he has the material to carry a full 2 hour plus show but I certainly agree with Rolling Stone Magazine who listed his performances as one of the top 50 live acts to catch now. Besides the Jim Morrison like look appeared classic as opposed to nostalgic.
Smith Westerns- A big stage for the hometown boys of Chicago and well, they dropped the ball. The word that just kept coming to me was- pedestrian. A late start and a slow finish to a show that never found its groove.
Band Of Horses- Finally the recognition. A major set in front of a huge crowd and they nailed it. This band has written some of the most, yes ill use the word, beautiful songs for the last few years and they have finally figured out how to turn them into awesome for 20,000 plus. Combine an inspired set list with an ode to recently departed JJ Cale in the form of a splendid cover of “13 Days” and a tearful reading of “Funeral” and you have yourself a Lolla Day 1 highlight.
Imagine Dragons- Fortunately the typical Lollapalooza offers more surprises than disappointments but the Dragons certainly fall under the latter. In their defense, they were victims of a transformer blowing in the middle of their set and the overwhelming crowd seemed to find immediate displeasure, but the Vegas boys did little to rescue their set and showed a surprisingly lack of creativeness during the turmoil. They learned some lessons this day. Which might make them better in the future.
Modestep- Here’s something you don’t hear often- An electronic Dance rock band. The leader Josh Friend introduced everyone as a Modestep brother and they sounded like it. One of the surprise discoveries at the Perry stage- which usually is dominated by EDM muscle beats and sleeveless shirts on college men.
New Order- It was an interesting transition to go from the electric power rock and synthesized dub step sounds of Modestep to the band that practically invented synthesizers. New Order had a strong fan base who were ready to reminisce and they didn’t disappoint. A set of hits delivered with vigor and excitement. The old men still got it.
Lance Herb Strong- These guys have got to come to Colorado. So they don’t really play any instruments and well they just kind of run around stage and pull off silly antics like throwing fake spliffs to the crowd but it’s all in good fun and the crowd was basking in the good cheer. They would fit right in at a Mountain Games- Are you listening VVF?
Lana Del Ray and Nine Inch Nails- Now I literally was running back and forth between these shows and the dichotomy in sound spoke volumes of the meaning of the word Lollapalooza. These two acts were on the extremes of music in presentation and sound yet together both exhibited passion and great skill. Where Del Ray was elegant and charming, Trent Reznor of NIN was smart and driven. Rage as love and love of rage. Where one was fury the other was calm. Both performances’ were stand out and yet the spoiled listener had to make a hard decision. The sounds of the spectrum.
A picture perfect day. Chamber of Commerce- take some pictures -Chicago was never so charming.
Shovels and Rope- Get me some I need to dig a hole to crawl into while listening to this. Not too good.
Little Green Cars- Ok a lot of the attendees I’m sure are hung over as it’s just after lunch on Saturday but really LGC? Any body home? Yes they rolled out “Harper Lee” and thank goodness. I didn’t have to wait to till the end of their set to hear it. It’s a joyful song but this band needs to add a few stronger numbers to their repertoire. But the good news is their show was so lithe it allowed me to leave to catch the best performance of the day.
ReignWolf- Jordon Cook welcome to rock stardom. Ok it may still take you a few hundred more performances like this set at Lollapalooza but come on. This guy is a wrecking crew. He storms out in an all black outfit including a winter knit hat and by himself performs on guitar and drums- at the same time! One hand on the fret, the other holding a drum stick while he pounds the beat on the kit and adds drum roll flurries to go along with savage guitar licks. The sparse crowd is soon rapt as he lunges into a one-man performance of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” where he plays all 4 parts-Drum, bass, lead and vocals. Lindsey Buckingham was seen clapping in spirit. The rocking never stopped or at least appeared that it might not and the crowd refused to let him leave his allotted time so he continued the onslaught with ferocity until security literally came onstage with the hand gesture across the neck to pull the plug. A lolla performance for the ages.
Charles Bradley- Sometimes Lolla presents an audio version of whiplash. Not five seconds after Reignwolf took us into hellish feedback and ripping deals with the devil, Charles Bradley literally took us to church. This soul pioneer is finally getting the recognition of an artist of rare and quite special talent. It’s moments like these that you can see the connections that music makes. As Jordon Cook took his fans and himself to the deepest raunchiest levels of rock, Bradley cleansed our souls with a gospel of truth, love and gritted passion. Did I mention his dance moves? Sure there are James Brown comparisons but so what. James Brown was the greatest of entertainers and he is no longer with us so if Bradley can step up and fill that void with the grace of Otis Redding, I’m all for it. I had never heard one of his songs before but I knew them all in my heart. And that’s place where Bradley delivered them from. Passion is no ordinary word and Bradley is no ordinary talent. Wake up world to Charles Bradley.
Matt & Kim- Sorry. After Reignwolf and Bradley, The Beatles would have had a hard time, but Matt & Kim were so sweet and chatty and oh it just bothered me. Really Will Farrel drop-ins? At a rock show? Kind of pandering to their overflow crowd who, well, overwhelmed me and made me shake my head and leave.
The Dunwells- I just want to say the Dunwells did. They did well. Nothing earth shattering but still rocking good time.
Eric Church- Every so often a wild card country act is thrown in for I’m not sure why but, they usually hold their head up pretty well and certainly Eric Church was no slouch. Complaining of a hang over from an after party show he performed the night before, Church provided the sun drenched crowd with enough reason to keep drinking. And isn’t that the country way?
Foals- Just caught the tail end and it was a pretty good performance from a new band that may surprise in future.
Heartless Bastards- Rock and roll women! Gots to love ‘em and Erika Wennerstrom is definitely one of them. A powerhouse band that just needs a hook here or there and they might take the reign from the band they tend to sound like occasionally- The Black Keys.
The National- I just don’t get it. I mean good song structures but man the brooding. It’s a fine performance but it’s not very festive and we are at a festival.
The Lumineers- I love this band’s debut. I think they are a stronger song writing crew than Mumford and Sons. However, its time for them to get back in the studio and write some more music. They had a hard time carrying a full performance and realized it by throwing down one of the few covers I heard all weekend -Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” This is the problem with a hit song off a debut album. You are rushed around the world to perform, fans wait for the hit and then disperse so you’re forced to save the hit for the end and well the show part of your performance suffers. I think we still will hear more from the Lumineers and that’s a good thing.
Speaking of Mumford and Sons they were on after the Lumineers so I skedaddle and was I happy I did.
The Postal Service- I was just a tad too old I guess originally to get the Ben Gibard thing. The leader of Death Cab for Cutie and former husband of me favorite Zooey Deschanel, Gibard’s rise to fame caught me sleeping. I never was a huge Death Cab fan and quite honestly had not heard of the Postal Service until their one and only album was reissued this year after ten years. Well it’s never too late and I’m glad I know them now. Their headlining performance up, against Mumford and Sons, was enchanting and apparently very motivated by their billing against the most popular band in the world. Gibard and fellow band mates Jenny Lewis and Jimmy Tamborello were more than aware of their predicament and were up to the challenge. Changing instruments and sharing vocal leads in a set mostly dominated by their sole album, the trio blazed through what they referred to as their second to last concert ever. And they played like they may never play again and those are musical memories. Their blazing intro to “Natural Anthem” was legendary and the crowd responded and no one was sad they gave up Mumford for this performance.
Always the toughest due to 20 previous hours of music and beer, however with perfect air-conditioned temperatures, Sunday rolled in as glorious as Saturday ended.
Palma Violets- Hard core rock is easy to find but hard to do. The Violets are quite good at it and though it was a lazy Sunday morning time slot, they managed to wake a few of us up.
The Orwells- Look out world here come the Orwells. All of these band members graduated from high school two months ago! Made up of twin brothers, a cousin and a lead singer possessing Robert Plant hair, Iggy Pop vocals and Ozzy Osbourne antics with a cocky rock and roll attitude to match, The Orwells have just begun to fight and they know it. Lead singer and consummate showman Mario Cuomo even said it, “Thanks Lollapalooza see ya next year when we are headliners.” Playing at the side stage called the Grove, the band hit their groove early and never let up including a unrehearsed crowd demanded encore. Cuomo’s antics, which included stripping out of his jeans in mid-song to reveal a pair of Batman boxers, would be entertainment enough for a short set; however, the confident guitar work of Dominic Corso and Matt Okeefe will carry this band to their high aspirations. They are off to a fast start and the crowd who witnessed their baptism will remember the day.
Jake Bugg- Not even a Neil Young cover of “Hey Hey, My My” could save this 19-year-old’s set. As posed and confident as the similar aged Orwells were, Bugg seemed out of place with the huge crowd he drew. The Young cover was indicative of the entire set, initially arousing the crowd with the selection, it soon petered out to a whimper like much of his original material. Sure he’s talented but so is everyone who gets this stage, he has to prove he belongs or at least act like it the way The Orwell’s Cuomo did.
Alex Claire- You hate to say it was a great discovery of someone who has a hit in America that has been heard a zillion times as part of a Bing! search engine commercial, however, Clare was a nice find. His voice was reminiscent of dare I agree with my pal Phil- Van Morrison? Claire’s voice was the one constant in an array of songs that varied from Peter Gabriel imagining to dub step thrillers like the mass hit “Too Close.” Though little recorded music to date, Clare will be around for a while and I imagine will be more than a one hit wonder. And those are the kind of things you learn at Palooza.
The Mowglis- This was an unfortunate setting. Booked a while ago, the Mowglis fell to a small stage that could not handle their overflow crowd and the sound was not doing them justice. One of the rare missteps of Loolla organizers and a shame. I call this a no review.
MS MR- Another duo bringing not as much as the other duo. This twosome lies somewhere between Matt & Kim and Deap Vally on the rock scale and I feel not enough to overcome in a crowded field.
Two Door Cinema Club- Or as pal-a-looza Dave calls them, Death Cab Cinema Club. Yes, they sound striking like DCFC however, they exhibited enough energy and originality to claim some ground for themselves. Perhaps not the most us unique sound, but well executed.
The Vaccines- I keep thinking this band would never had existed without The Ramones and that’s a good thing. Fun rock.
Vampire Weekend- There have been a lot of words to describe VW but loud has not been one of them until now. Taking advantage of the choice Bud Light stage, the Weekend blared throughout the park with their breezy songs that surprisingly sounded very true to recorded versions. I was skeptical since I figured they were more of a studio band and would have a hard time translating their sound to not just a live audience but a HUGE outdoor mob. They delivered a snappy set filled with their most popular numbers as well as forays into their brilliant new album. New found respect for Vampires.
Beach House- This was a tough bill. Late Sunday evening fans gathering for the Cure, yet they seemed to hold their own. Bands like Atlas Genius and Little Green Cars need to take notes on how to deliver a solemn sound to a large crowd. In fact “Myth” is still in my head.
But it all really happened over three days in Chicago.