Lollapalooza Day One

I was dreading Lollapalooza in some ways – worrying about the heat, fretting about what sort of access I would have to the photo pits, thinking about all of that walking. As it turned out (for Friday at least), I had quite a fun time and no problems to speak of. So far, so good with this year’s festival. It is indeed a long walk from one end of the park to the other – leave a good 15 minutes in your schedule if you need to make that trek, which will undoubtedly mean missing some music – but somehow, it seemed to go faster than it did last year. It is strange to see the swarms of people walking in both directions around Buckingham Fountain, all heading to see one band or another.

I felt similar to the way I did at the recent Pitchfork festival – a little too peripatetic for my own good. Rushing all over to catch as many bands as I could, both to get photos and because I wanted to hear all that music. It was nice when I could settle down and just listen to an entire set by a band, as I did with the Black Keys. Was there a breakout band on Day 1, someone that excited the crowd more than anyone else? That’s always such a tough thing to judge. Most of the performers had an enthusiastic bunch of people up front, but then as you walked farther back, you found yourself surrounded by people who were lazily enjoying the Grant Park setting, treating the whole thing like a picnic and (seemingly) not paying that much attention to the music. Or enjoying it in a way that was a little more passive.

Based on what I could see, POLYPHONIC SPREE generated a fair amount of excitement with its big spectacle of a show. It was not as outlandish as last year’s extravaganza of a show by the Flaming Lips, but there was a similar spirit of putting on a performance that was both big in size and freewheeling in spirit (freewheeling mostly in the form of frontman Tim DeLaughner). I’m of two minds about Polyphonic Spree: I find their concerts incredibly fun, but I’ve never found their records nearly as compelling. Maybe I need to see it as well as hear it to get the whole feeling. The last time I saw the Spree, they were still wearing those white robes. They’ve switched to dark uniforms, which makes them look less like a cult and more like a USO troupe or something.

The first band I saw on Friday was THE FRATELLIS, who played a fairly spirited set. Maybe not as spirited as they would have been later in the day. One of them remarked, “We’ll wake up by the end of the set.” Funny, they sounded awake to me.

I headed to south end of the same field for the next show, which was Austin’s GHOSTLAND OBSERVATORY. Never heard a note before. Well, maybe I did, but I couldn’t recall hearing anything by them until now. I suppose this would be categorized as electronic, though the duo did play some guitar and actual drums. Dance music, in any case, and it seemed pretty creative and lively to me. The drummer/electronics dude was dressed like Count Chocula. The other guy had a ponytail and very tight clothes and he jumped around a lot.

TED LEO AND THE PHARMACISTS played next (well, they were the band that I saw next, forgoing a show at the other end of the park by Son Volt). You can count on Leo to put on a strong show, and he did once again. He also sings with such force and passion.

I caught a couple of songs by VIVA VOCE, an excellent wife-on-guitar/husband-on-drums duo from Portland, Ore., whom I saw opening several months ago for the Shins. The songs I saw were catchy as well as energetic. Then I headed north for the aforementioned POLYPHONIC SPREE.

I stopped by one of the smaller stages, the BMI stage, for POWERSPACE, a young suburban Chicago pop-punk band, who were pretty impressive. These kids have their sound down pat, and they also know how to look like they’re having a ton of fun onstage.

I had just seen SPARKLEHORSE the previous night at the Empty Bottle, so I was planning to skip their Lollapalooza set. However, it was just too tempting to get some photos of Sparklehorse in actual light, so I headed over to the stage for a couple of songs. It was a decent performance, like the one the night before, though Sparklehorse main man Mark Linkous seemed a little distracted at both shows. He’s a very good songwriter, and most of those songs come off pretty well in concert, but he is not the most exciting performer. I tried zipping over to the nearby PlayStation stage to get some photos of ELECTRIC SIX, but I showed up just as the band was finishing its third song, the point at which the security guys say vamoose to those of in the photo pit. I wasn’t too thrilled with the Electric Six music I was hearing, so I rezipped back over to Sparklehorse and enjoyed the rest of that concert. Where I was standing (halfway up that paved area at the Petrillo bandshell), the crowd seemed a little apathetic.

At the far north end of the park, M.I.A. was next on the lineup. I’ve never really seen her, other than about one song at SXSW two years ago and I suppose that doesn’t count. The knock on her has been that the live show didn’t live up to the record. I don’t know. It sounded quite good yesterday, I thought. I like the uniquely Indian beats and patterns of her hip-hop. And heck, she was fun to photograph. As I left after the third song, I did notice that she was having some sort of technical difficulties. Or was that just a lull in the show? M.I.A. made some remark about an aborted beat, saying it would sound better in a club. Hmmm.

SILVERSUN PICKUPS was playing on one of the smaller stages, and I caught a few songs, complete with gymnastic guitar solos, but then I headed over to see BLONDE REDHEAD. This is a band I like but don’t (yet) love. Enough of my friends rave about them that I feel like I may end up loving them eventually, after I listen more to their music. They did sound great last night. On the surface, their new album 23 strikes me as indie pop with an electronic sheen, but in concert, they emphasize the shoegazer intensity of the music.

THE BLACK KEYS were one of my favorite performers all day. I can’t say they did anything I haven’t heard them before, but they’re such monsters of the guitar and drums. I love the loopy, curling sound of those bluesy riffs. I didn’t have anywhere else to zoom for a while, so I was able to sit down and actually listen for a change. Ahhhh.

The next time slot offered a difficult choice, between LCD Soundsystem and FEMI KUTI & THE POSITIVE FORCE. I went with Kuti. I love his father’s music, and I recently saw his brother, Seun, play at Millennium Park. This seemed like an opportunity I couldn’t miss, while I figured I can always see LCD Soundsystem again. Kuti got the crowd dancing with his band’s infectious grooves, not to mention the dancing girls onstage. It occurred to me that it was too bad Kuti couldn’t play to the same folks watching that other dance band on the other side of Buckingham Fountain (LCD, that is).

Speaking of which, I rushed south past the fountain (passing a very, very squashed rat on the pavement, which was just lying there like a pancake as thousands of people walked by)… hoping to catch a little bit of LCD Soundsystem. I heard their music as I went passed, but by this time I had to hurry to get a spot in line to photograph DAFT PUNK. I was photographer no. 46 out of the 50 allowed in the pit. Phew! But then… well, I can’t say I’ve ever been a Daft Punk fan. When LCD Soundsystem (an electronic dance band I actually like, which does music more to my speed) dropped their name in a song (“Daft Punk is Playing at My House”), I thought I really should take a remedial course in what this band is all about. Well, I’m still not getting it. I guess I’m just allergic to certain (but not all) forms of techno. A black curtain on the big stage fell away to reveal the two Daft Punk dudes in their standard robot helmets, way up at the top of a pyramid (the part were the eye would be in that dollar-bill picture)… doing whatever it was they were doing. For all I could tell, they were just playing one of their CDs. The crowd (or at least the crowd in front) was having fun, moving and clapping to the music. But… eh. Such simplistic beats and melodies just don’t do much for me. The light show and stage were cool, but they were also pretty cold. Maybe it was cold in an ironic way – “Hey, look at us, we’re robots!” – but it was boring either way.

See my photos of the Fratellis, Ghostland Observatory, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Viva Voce, Polyphonic Spree, Powerspace and Sparklehorse.

See my photos of M.I.A., Silversun Pickups, Blonde Redhead, the Black Keys, Femi Kuti and Daft Punk.

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