AUGUST 3, 2006
GNARLS BARKLEY at the House of Blues — Thanks to an invite from someone at Spin magazine, I was lucky enough to get into this pre-Lollapalooza private gig by one of the festival’s most anticipated bands. Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere album is certainly one of the year’s best – and if you think it’s hip-hop, think again. These guys may have their roots in that genre, but they’re exploring other roots here. For its tour, the duo of Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo Green has been expanded into a 13-piece big band, including three backup singers and four string players.
For this gig, they come out dressed as a diner’s chefs, cooks, bus boys and waitresses. For their entrance music, the band plays Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf.” A minute into the show, Cee-Lo cracks, “Any Gnarls Barkley fans here? Sorry, they couldn’t make it here tonight, so we’re going to cover some of their songs. We’re the Sam Cookes. Get it?”
The St. Elsewhere songs sound very good live (though the sound mix leaves the strings inaudible on all but a few tunes), and the band throws in an odd mix of covers. Of course, there’s the Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone,” which is on the album, but the group also plays the Greenhorne’s “There’s an End” and the Doors’ “Who Scared You?” – neither of them a song that many people in the audience would recognize without help from Cee-Lo. He introduces both songs as examples of Gnarls Barkley’s broad taste in music.
His banter also includes some raunchy bits – like encouraging the women in attendance to bare their breasts. “If you feel the impulse to pull those titties out, do it.”
Hearing the hit “Crazy” being performed live at this show (with an intro on strings) is a spine-tingling moment. Yeah, I know I should be jaded by now by this kind of thing. How big of a deal is it really, to hear a band playing a hit song? But still… When you know it’s a great song, and you hear it live for the first time, and everyone in the room is really into it, it’s still such a cool experience. And with “Crazy,” the room goes crazy, people waving their arms in the air, one woman climbing on top of some guy’s shoulders. And the song, with Cee-Lo’s soulful falsetto, just soars.
Thank God this year’s Lollapalooza isn’t going to be as hot as last year’s, but it’s still time to slather on some sun block. I show up in time to catch only the last song by MIDLAKE. I liked the band’s first album a lot and have been meaning to check out the new one. The little bit that I hear sounds good.
On the other hand, just a few minutes of BLUE OCTOBER is enough to convince me that I should head to the other end of the park. Yuck.
I see most of the set by HUSKY RESCUE at one of the small stages, which have some nice shade. These Finns play some pleasant pop music. It didn’t wow me (other than the charming looks and sweet voice of singer Reeta Corhola), but I liked it enough that I’ll listen to more. Introducing the song “Summertime Cowboy,” Corhola remarks, “The whole purpose of this American tour is finding me a real cowboy.”
The descriptions of CURSIVE sounded interesting, and the fact that this band uses horns does make it a little more interesting than the typical pop-punk band of today. But I still didn’t find much about it that was engaging during the few songs I heard. So I took another long trek past Buckingham Fountain (at least the long walks across the Lollapalooza grounds were scenic) and listened to the last half of the set by AQUALUNG. Pretty enjoyable Brit-pop ballads.
EELS were up next on the Bud Light stage at the north end of the park. I’ve liked but not loved the two Eels albums I’ve heard (the last two), but they were pretty darn impressive – and odd – in concert. First comes this dude with a headband, Fu Manchu beard and a black T-shirt labeled “Security.” People cheer as he walks out – obviously familiar with the shtick that’s about to happen. He ain’t no security guard – he’s part of the show. Then comes the band, most of them wearing green fatigues, with lead singer e in pilot goggles. The first few songs rock pretty hard, then e switches to keyboards and let things get just a little more mellow. The security dude utters some bizarre non sequitors in a stern voice. “Are you enjoying this? My condolences. I have to go break one of my fingers now. I’ll be back in a minute.” Later, pointing at an audience member: “Is that cocktail sauce?!?” Upon orders from e, the guy goes into the crowd once to give people high-fives, then later to spray whip cream in their mouths. At least, that’s what I think it was. Eels closes with two passionately played covers: a dead-on version of Screaming Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You,” and the Sinatra standard “That’s Life.”
I tried to get back to the south field in time for some photos of THE EDITORS, but by the time I got there, they’d already finished their third song and the photographers had been kicked out of the photo pit. (Like many concerts and festivals, Lollapalooza set a rule that the photographers can shoot only during the first three songs.) I stick around for about half of the performance. Seems OK, though the Editors obviously have a Joy Division fixation.
Back north for RYAN ADAMS. I’ve heard so much about his performances (the tirades and erratic shows), but never seen him before. Today, he and his band are definitely in a jamming mode. It occurs to me that he’s sounding a lot like the Grateful Dead – not being a Deadhead, I don’t realize that he’s actually doing three Dead covers. He also plays a nice version of “Hickory Wind,” and at least one Ryan Adams song that I recognize, “Cold Roses.” It’s a good show, though you have to wonder why he’d use this golden opportunity to showcase his music for a bunch of Dead cover tunes. Just another example of how mercurial he is, I guess. At one point, he goes on a rant about how Chicago doesn’t allow eggs to be served after 11 a.m. Huh? When he paused, his bassist made a remark about how the audience was there to hear his music, and Adams quipped, “Trust me – they’re not hear to here the music. They’re hear to see the freakout.” Just then, he noticed a helicopter in the sky and said, “Aw shit – the egg police!” Finally, launching into a song, he said, “Phew! That one’s over. That last bit, that wasn’t a song. It was just me making an ass of myself.”
I heard only a few songs by IRON & WINE, which sounded nice. I like Iron & Wine’s records, but the unremitting mellowness of it all gets to me after a while. With a band, the songs seemed a little more lively. And it is undoubtedly cool to see a large group of fans getting into a performance of such delicate music. Unfortunately, the setup at Lollapalooza this year, while not as prone to sound bleed as last year’s, did have some problems. The stage where Iron & Wine was playing (the Adidas-Champs stage, better known the rest of the year as the Petrillo Bandshell) was too close to the Playstation Stage, and several quiet acts were booked next to louder acts. In the case of Iron & Wine, noise from Lady Sovereign intruded on his soft folk.
I decided to head early to THE RACONTEURS, knowing that the photo pit will be jammed with photographers. It is fun getting an up-close look at the performers, but sometimes, there are just too many people in these pits, all angling for the best spot and struggling to get shots around the video camera handlers and the high stages. Sure enough, the Raconteurs pit is a madhouse. The band appears to be having a lot of fun onstage, like their old pals goofing around. At one point, Jack White and Brendan Benson push each other just after singing together into the same mike. Now, I wish I had been able to stick around for more of this concert (I end up missing the Raconteurs playing a cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”), but I’ve got to get in place for the Sleater-Kinney show back on the north end of the park. As I walk north, I can hear the sound of MY MORNING JACKET booming all the way across Buckingham Fountain. They sound as great as always, and I wouldn’t have missed seeing them – except for the fact that I’d seen them recently and they were up against the Raconteurs.
SLEATER-KINNEY was one of the bands I was anticipating the most at Lollapalooza. I really got into this group after their last album, The Woods, came out, though I had liked them before. I saw them for the first time in 2005, and this was my fourth Sleater-Kinney concert. I was crestfallen when I heard recently that the trio was going on “indefinite hiatus.” I do hope that just means they’re taking some time off and will be back, but this Lollapalooza gig might end up being one of their last. While My Morning Jacket is still playing at the other end of the field, the gals of Sleater-Kinney come out for a few minutes to do a sound check, and the photographers snap a few pictures. I overhear one photog saying, “I’ve got what I need. What difference will it make when they come out? They’ll just have the lights on them, and they’re just going to stand there. I’ve already got photos of that. Let’s go see the Violent Femmes. Maybe they’ll do ‘Blister in the Sun.’” I tell him that Sleater-Kinney isn’t just going to stand there, but he doesn’t sound convinced. Whatever…
The performance is strong, though maybe not quite as raucous as Sleater-Kinney’s SXSW gig earlier this year. Maybe I’m feeling my own bittersweet feelings about seeing the band for what may be the last time, but I sense more emotion on the stage than usual. Especially with Corin Tucker, who looks at times like she is going to start crying as she hits some of the high notes. She always has a little bit of that look in her, but I sense it more tonight. There’s one strange moment when Tucker points (maybe at a sound man, maybe at Carrie Brownstein, and exchanges what looks like some testy words off-mike), but then she seems like she’s her old self after that. After playing blistering versions of most tracks from The Woods, Sleater-Kinney closes with “Turn It On.”
The rest of the night’s anti-climatic. I stick around Butler Field long enough to hear several songs by DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE. I realize I’ve been a little too harsh on this band since seeing them at last year’s Lollapalooza. Their music is actually all right. I just feel like it’s overrated, or that they’re getting more than their share of popularity compared to other indie-rock bands. But I do enjoy hearing their tunes tonight. Then I catch the last half of WEEN. I have to admit I don’t know much about this band, other than by reputation. What I hear is interesting and quirky.
I’m not even sure who the winner of the “Last Band Standing” contest is, but it’s sort of amusing to see them playing in front of a big empty field at 11:45 a.m. and exhorting a few hundred people: “Come on, Lollapalooza, make some noise!”
The early bands today include RAINER MARIA, playing solid and tuneful rock, and LIVING THINGS, very stylish guys with rock-star attitude playing decent but not especially original glam-garage-rock. (They’re one of the two bands that I see Perry Farrell introduce as his “favorite new band” – the other being Gnarls Barkley.) I overhear the woman in BE YOUR OWN PET telling the audience, “I just threw up … It tasted like watermelon.”
THE GO! TEAM puts on a fabulous show in the early afternoon, with the singer Ninja putting on an amazing display of cheerleading-style calisthenics in the 90-degree sun. They’re just as fun as I remember them being last year at Metro, and a few non-album songs sound good. My only regret right now is missing the show by FEIST at the other end of the park.
BUILT TO SPILL makes great albums, with guitar licks that seem almost like architectural structures, with one riff piled perfectly on top of another. The one time I saw Built to Spill in concert (a few years back at Metro), I was a little disappointed. It was OK, but the band seemed a little listless. Maybe it was just my visual perception of the group, because I could see again today that Built to Spill isn’t all that exciting to watch. The music was excellent, though, and Doug Martsch was a little more animated than the rest of the guys. With his gray-streaked beard, he’s looking pretty old. Overall, they look like a bunch of grizzled mountain men. The band makes some cracks about all of the corporate sponsorship on display at Lollapalooza, with Martsch saying, “We would still be playing music even if Bud Light hadn’t brought us here.” Someone in the crowd shouts back, “You wouldn’t get a paycheck!”
CALEXICO is another reliable band, and they put on exactly the sort of show I’ve come to expect. A nice surprise is Nicolai Dunger coming out for guest vocals on the Love song “Alone Again Or,” which Calexico dedicates to the late Arthur Lee.
On the way south, I overhear a couple songs by WOLFMOTHER – a group whose appeal escapes me. Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath retreads, as far as I can tell. Too much Spinal Tap for my tastes.
Though I’d love to see SONIC YOUTH, I go to GNARLS BARKLEY – yeah, I’d just seen them on Thursday, but I am covering Lollapalooza for some newspapers, and I figure Gnarls has more news value. Staying true to their vow to wear different costumes each time they perform, they’re dressed this time as tennis players. The set list and Cee-Lo’s banter are pretty similar to the House of Blues show. Being farther back for most of the show, I don’t find it quite as enthralling as Gnarls’ club performance, but it’s still pretty great. They should save “Crazy” for their last song, but sticking it 15 minutes before the end of the set, they send a multitude of fans streaming the other direction.
I’d never seen THE SMOKING POPES back in the day, so it was cool to see the reunited band playing its tuneful pop-punk here. A couple of new songs, which will be on a forthcoming album, sounded strong, very similar to the classic Popes music.
THE FLAMING LIPS turn out to be the highlight of the festival for me. This is in spite of the fact that I was disappointed by the previous two Lips concerts I’d seen, and I’m not a huge fan of the Lips’ new album. Sometimes, the group’s circus-like spectacle seems like too much of a gimmick, but fun gimmickry fit in perfectly with the festival atmosphere here. With gals in green alien masks and guys in Santa Claus suits cavorting on the stage, singer Wayne Coyne inserted himself into a large plastic bubble and walked out on top of the audience. (Beforehand, he’d asked the audience to pretend that he’d descended from the sky and that they hadn’t just seen him getting into the balloon on stage. “I apologize in advance if I step on your head.”) Returning to the stage and firing off confetti, Coyne urged the gathered Lips fans to sing loud enough to stop traffic on Lake Shore Drive, hoping the noise might somehow bring peace to the Middle East. “I wish singing could stop people from killing each other,” he remarked. The sing-along may not have achieved peace, but it did create a surreal spectacle: tens of thousands of people waving their arms and singing along to “She Don’t Use Jelly.” Maybe it was my vantage point up front – seeing the antics of the first three songs unfolding right above my head was amazing – but it all seemed so joyous that I couldn’t help smiling. Oddly, I see that some of the other critics in attendance (Greg Kot of The Chicago Tribune and Jon Pareles of The New York Times were underwhelmed by the Lips’ performance). A short while later, I overheard a guy on a cell phone telling a friend, “The Flaming Lips were out of control!” That guy was right.
THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS are an excellent band, but I’ve seen them twice recently, so I didn’t make a special effort to see them, other than hearing them on the way to KANYE WEST. Although I think West is overrated, I did get somewhat excited about seeing him, especially after giving another listen this morning to Late Registration and remembering how many interesting tracks it has. As a mini-orchestra of female string players, wearing masks over their eyes slinky black dresses, took the stage amid puffs of fog, the crowd was eager for West to make a dramatic entrance. Unfortunately, when he arrived and launched into his rapping, it was barely audible to the fans standing any distance from the stage, and some audience members chanted, “Turn it up!” Apparently trying to correct the problem, West left the stage for three momentum-killing silences between songs. I heard people yelling, “Come on!” and “What’s going on?” West eventually went on a tirade about how terrible the sound was at his hometown gig, threatening that “Changes will be made.” (Huh?)
Whenever West finally got around to playing his songs, it sounded strong and the crowd really got into it. But the show itself lacked the quick pacing necessary for a good concert. Too many speeches, not enough music. All that being said, I could see this was a special moment for many of the fans. Lupe Fiasco, Common and Twista all made guest appearances. And I started to get really sick of hearing musicians saying, “Chi-Town! Make some noise!”
I’d seen an announcement at the media tent that PATTI SMITH would be making a “surprise” appearance today at 12:45 p.m. at the Kidzaplooza area. (!) So I showed up in time for that, catching PERRY FARRELL & PETER DI STEFANO performing several songs for the kids. Then Smith came out, noting that she was born in Chicago. “My dad’s name was Grant, and he used to tell me he owned Grant Park. So, Daddy, here I am in Grant Park.” But Smith seemed ill-prepared. In an awkward moment, she began playing her song “Grateful,” but only after a few false starts and forgotten chords. “That just goes to show you that any asshole can play guitar,” she said, oblivious or uncaring about the fact that she was supposedly playing to an audience of kids. (Actually, the adults seemed to outnumber the tykes.) For her third and last song, Smith played “Qana,” which she said she’d just written the day before about the Israeli attack on the Lebanon village of Qana. The dirge-like song – a moving protest piece, even though it sounds a little too much like any number of other Patti Smith tunes – includes the repeated line, “The dead lay in strange shapes.” Smith told the crowd, “While we are celebrating our children, think how we would feel if 27 of them were blown away by bombs.” I wonder if any of the children at the Kidzapalooza stage asked their parents later, “Who was that scary lady?” (“Qana” can be downloaded here.)
THE HOLD STEADY were as great as usual, stoking my anticipation of their new record, coming out in October. “This is easily the most fun we’ve ever had before 3 in the afternoon,” singer Craig Finn said.
NICKEL CREEK has struck me as a little bland in the past, but the bluegrass trio definitely has virtuosity to spare. They performed a nice set on the north end of the park, with the nearby trees creating the perfect pastoral setting. They played covers of Radiohead’s “Nice Dream” and Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” As the group noted, this may have been a Lollapalooza first – three consecutive acts featuring fiddle (THE FRAMES preceded Nickel Creek, and ANDREW BIRD followed).
Bird was as impressive as always, and it was interesting to hear several songs from his forthcoming album. Unfortunately, the sound sucked, with way too much bass.
THE SHINS were next. When did these guys become such stars? I guess it’s because their music was on “The OC” or something, but jeez, I remember hearing about the first Shins album, Oh, Inverted World, when it was a pretty darn obscure indie album few people knew about. These guys deserve all the adoration. Their songs are smartly constructed and incredibly catchy. The band played a few new tracks from the third album, which they’re still working on, and they sounded very promising, with a little bit of Byrds guitar in one of the songs. Glenn Mercer is looking a lot like Kevin Spacey now that he’s shaved his beard. For some reason, they were all wearing military-style green shirts. As one of them explained, “We’re wearing these shirts because we like them. They’re green and uncomfortable.” (Someone else mentioned to me later that the sound at the Shins was too low and people in the back couldn’t hear, but from what I experienced, it sounded fine near the front and back in the middle of the field.)
WILCO and QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE were playing in the same time slot. And while I’ve really seen Wilco plenty of times and would have personally preferred checking out QOTSA for a change, seeing the hometown band seemed like the thing to do. It wasn’t the best Wilco performance I’ve ever seen – it seemed like Wilco toned down the stranger or more extreme parts of its repertoire for the festival audience – it was still quite good. The set included four new songs. The guitar solo on “Impossible Germany” was really, really good, and I liked the chunky riff in “Let’s Fight.” Jeff Tweedy is looking pretty hirsute these days, and his straw hat made him look like a character from the 19th century. Seeing the big crowd singing along with “Jesus etc.” was one of those nice “we are the world” moments.
BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE was a lot more fun on stage than on record, with members of the big collective coming and going. For most bands, the following statement would be no big deal: “We’ve got the whole band for you tonight – the whole band.” But for Broken Social Scene, getting everyone together is something of an accomplishment. The show gave me a chance to see at least a little bit of Feist. This band had an enviable time slot, playing at the north end of Hutchinson Field as tens of thousands of RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS fans filed in. I hope some of the people unfamiliar with Broken Social Scene’s music took notice.
I’m not a big fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, so I wasn’t especially looking forward to their performance, but I was duly impressed with their musicianship and energy. And the weird covers or snippets of covers: the Clash’s “London Calling,” Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her.”
While I certainly don’t agree with Perry Farrell’s introduction of the Peppers as “the greatest band on the planet today,” I also think Jim DeRogatis of the Sun-Times was a little harsh on them, calling them “boneheads.” They did seem to inspire boneheaded behavior in the audience, though, as people pushed and shoved their way forward. I did not get there in time for a spot in the crowded photo pit, and I ended up watching most of the concert from the media tent up on a nearby hill. From there, I could see an almost constant stream of fans being escorted out, either because they’re jumped over the barricade or been pushed.
It was an unpleasant way to end a pleasant festival. So what was Lollapalooza all about this year? It wasn’t as cutting-edge as the Intonation and Pitchfork fests, and it’s questionable how much of the music qualifies as “alternative.” Alternative to most mainstream pop, yes. But Kanye West and the Red Hot Chili Peppers are too popular to truly count as alternative. Some of the schedule conflicts were maddening, and it was a long walk from one end of the park to the other. But as long as you didn’t get hung up on having to see everything, it was a damn nice time with some fine musical performances.