Lollapalooza day one

With 120 bands, this year’s Lollapalooza had plenty to choose from. Some of my favorite bands played, as well as some bands that I either hate or feel completely indifferent about. A lot of bands I barely even know, which in some cases seemed to be just as well. Walking around the park in between sets, I heard a lot of music coming from the various stages and most of these passing impressions could be summed up: Well, that sounds sort of generic. Not fair, I know. Spend more time listening to a band up-close and you might learn to love it. But first impressions do count.

Enough griping. While I didn’t necessarily discover that many new artists, I witnessed some terrific performances by old favorites. And I avoided getting my arms and/or photographic equipment smashed to pieces by staying away from the Rage Against the Machine mosh pit.

DAY ONE, Aug. 1: I catch a couple of songs by Swedish singer Sofia Talvik. Quiet folkie stuff. It doesn’t grab me right away, but I’m not writing her off. I’m just in a hurry… heading north for the Black Lips. PHOTOS OF SOFIA TALVIK.

The last time I saw the Black Lips, one of the guys in the band threw up in the middle of a guitar solo. There was no vomiting this time. The group ripped through some very fine-sounding garage rock. The B. Lips know the power of a good “Whoa-oh!” chorus. Their guitars sound best when they seem to be slightly out of tune. Makes it more garage-y. The only flaw comes when the band indulges in some drawn-out psychedelic noise. A little bit of that goes a long way, especially in the context of what should be three-minute Nuggets. PHOTOS OF THE BLACK LIPS.

I like the music of Rogue Wave, but I haven’t been paying especially close attention to the band lately. They still remind me of the Shins, though their melodies aren’t quite as inventive. They put on a pretty good set today, a little more lively than the Rogue Wave show I saw a few years back at Schubas. PHOTOS OF ROGUE WAVE.

I wasn’t sure whether to buy into the hype surrounding Yeasayer, having heard both rave and mediocre reviews of their shows through word of mouth. Their album is pretty interesting, and the music sounds even stronger in today’s live set, with twitchy dancing, shimmering layers of sound, and quirky beats. Still, I wonder if I should have missed the Go! Team set for this. PHOTOS OF YEASAYER.

Another choice I have trouble making: The Kills or Duffy? If I were simply deciding based on what I personally want to hear, the Kills would win hands-down, but I did see (and photograph) an excellent show by them recently at Metro. And I’m curious about Duffy, so I make the long trek north again. Her show turns out to be a disappointment for me. She’s got some good pipes, which she shows with a couple of a cappella bits. And her band isn’t bad, but somehow these pseudo-soul songs are falling flat for me. It doesn’t help that I’m picturing Sharon Jones (who will take the same stage tomorrow) kicking Duffy’s ass into the photo pit. OK, I’m just being mean now. Duffy has some potential, but I didn’t hear her achieving it just yet. And I say this as someone who admits to being an Amy Winehouse fan. PHOTOS OF DUFFY.

I love Eastern European and Gypsy music, with their unusual keys and rhythms, so it seems natural that I would enjoy the Gypsy punk-rock of Gogol Bordello. I’ve sort of neglected this band until now. The studio recordings I’ve heard were maybe a little too relentless in their intensity for me to sit back and take it in. What I needed to experience was a live performance. I’m lucky to catch one this afternoon. This is hands-down the most energetic concert of the whole festival. Singer-guitarist Eugene Hütz rampages across the stage like a crazy man. I’m still not sure what I think of the songs but I have a hell of a time watching Hütz and his band partying onstage. PHOTOS OF GOGOL BORDELLO.

Back north past Buckingham Fountain… I’m really putting in some miles today. Cat Power is up next. She plays a set pretty similar to the last two Cat Power concerts I’ve seen (at Pitchfork 2007 and later at the Vic). She mostly sings cover tunes, including a lot of the tracks on her newest album, Jukebox. With that crack band playing behind her, Cat (aka Chan Marshall) seems to feel more freedom to roam the stage as a lead singer. And man, does she put herself into her vocals. Just look at some of the expressions in my photos. She looks like she’s growling or screaming, but she’s actually singing with lots of nuance and flair. She embellishes melodies and plays around with the timing and tempo of the songs she is covering, improvising like a talented jazz vocalist. Today’s set includes a cover of Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” (a popular song to cover during the era of Bush and the Iraq war), transforming into a bluesy ballad that sounded all her own. Only flaw in the set: Some sound problems. Marshall has allowed herself to get flustered by that sort of thing in the past, but she gamely makes do, despite the occasional annoyance of loud feedback. PHOTOS OF CAT POWER.

Are the Raconteurs becoming Jack White’s regular band? As much as I like them, I hope not. They don’t pack quite as much oomph as the White Stripes. Still, they’re a hell of a live act. I like the first Raconteurs album quite a bit. Yeah, it was derivative stuff, nicking lots of touches from classic rock, but I don’t mind derivative music if it’s fun and catchy and reasonably smart. The second Raconteurs album has its moments, but it hasn’t grabbed me in the same way. Songs from both records sounded great, however, as the Raconteurs played them at Lolla. The riffs and bluesy guitar licks came at us non-stop. PHOTOS OF THE RACONTEURS.

The Brazilian band CSS has been getting a lot of buzz, especially for their live act. I don’t know the music at all, but I make it over to their stage and catch a couple of songs. I like what I hear – and what I see. These ladies know how to get your attention with their costumes. And they know how to get a crowd moving. PHOTOS OF CSS.

A few minutes before Radiohead begins its headlining set, I found out that I’m not getting access to the photo pit. The band’s publicists are restricting access, and I do not make the list. All I can is: Ugh. I’d feared something like this would happen, but it sure would have been nice to find out earlier. I make my way through the crowded field (talk about “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box”) and get close enough to take some telephoto shots through the crowd… and to enjoy a top-notch show by one of my all-time favorite bands.

One thing that made this show special was the history behind it. This was in Hutchinson Field, on the south end of Grant Park, the same field where the band played a magnificent show in 2001. That concert was the first time in years that the city of Chicago had allowed a rock concert in Grant Park other than free events like Taste of Chicago shows and the Blues Festival, and it laid the groundwork for Lollapalooza a few years later. Now, Radiohead was back on the same field, with a sold-out crowd of 75,000.

Although Radiohead has a huge following, the group sometimes seems like an unlikely candidate for mass appeal, with all of its tricky time signatures, peculiar sonic mixtures and dark lyrics. It’s a strange spectacle to see this music performed live in front of a big crowd of enthusiastic fans.

Girls in bikinis dance as Yorke sings about the next world war. People whistle and clap whenever Yorke holds a long, high falsetto note. A collective “Ahhh!” goes up each time fans recognize the opening chords of a song. The audience seems to enjoyed Radiohead’s slower and moodier songs as much as the rockers, softly swaying along to the band’s introspective music.

The set spans virtually Radiohead’s entire career, and the songs from last year’s In Rainbows fit right in alongside classics from OK Computer and The Bends. The big sound system brings out a startling clarity in the individual parts played by each member of Radiohead. This is not a band that improvises much, but it somehow manages to make its songs sound fresh and alive, as if everyone in Radiohead is finding a new way of playing these tunes right there on the spot.

Near the end of the show, when the crowd falls quiet between a couple of songs, Yorke jokingly checks to make sure the audience was still there. “I’ve got a bit of jet lag,” he says. “This could entirely be a dream.” It did indeed seem a bit like a dream… PHOTOS OF RADIOHEAD.

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