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Thursday, Aug. 7, 2008

Lollapalooza 2008 @ Grant Park, Chicago

August 1 - 3, 2008

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   This April's Coachella was a warning to all other outdoor music festivals that audiences want quantity and quality. Coachella's overstuffed lineup was heavy on usual suspects but skimpy on big names, and its ticket sales suffered accordingly, even after the desperate last-minute addition of Prince to the bill.

  Lollapalooza, the first and still the savviest of the major music festivals, appeared to go out of its way to skirt Coachella's amateurish mistake, anchoring its three-night 2008 run with five mammoth headliners: Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, Wilco, Nine Inch Nails and Kanye West, whose climactic performance filled Grant Park like a German Barack Obama rally. Attendance hit record levels, with all three days selling out.

  Despite dubious rumors, Obama himself was a no-show, but Lindsay Lohan was spotted during an unannounced DJ set from her girlfriend/reported fianc Samantha Ronson, and, in a team-up that will almost certainly bear a short-lived supergroup, omnipresent Guns N' Roses icon Slash joined Perry Farrell for two sets, including one at the festival's children's stage. During their not-particularly-kid-friendly set, Farrell played a couple of Jane's Addiction songs and introduced a cover of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" by telling the little ones about death. For his part, Slash sucked on a cigarette.

  As always, the temperature and humidity bordered on stifling, but ample water fountains and shaded areas provided relief. Far more threatening than heat stroke was the crowd for Rage Against the Machine. Once a poster child for progressive causes, the band has become a magnet for meatheads looking to throw down. A hulking degenerate patrolling his surrounding while wearing a vicious Mexican-wrestler mask before the show portended the smack-down that awaited. Sure enough, when Rage began pummeling away, the crowd surged toward the stage, crushing each other as they breached a security barrier. Zack de la Rocha paused the show several times, pleading for the crowd to "take five, 10 steps back" and show some civility, but he wasn't much of a role model. When the music returned, he'd thrash across stage screaming incendiaries like "Burn!" and "Move!"

  This season's buzz band, Black Kids, seemed rightly shaken by the tepid response they garnered. Despite going all in with their cheery, teenage slumber-party shtick, the group could barely muster applause-let alone dancing-from the overheated crowd, even when they played That One Song.

  It was a more seasoned buzz-band-of-yore that better worked Sunday's relaxed crowd: Gnarls Barkley. The talk of the festival in 2006, when their hit "Crazy" was covered by several of their peers, this year they returned without the circus for a set as understated as their costumes (sports coat and ties, nothing too silly). Their signature hit was unceremoniously buried in the middle of their set, and instead of their more familiar, happy-go-lucky take on the Violent Femmes' "Gone Daddy Gone," they covered Radiohead's "Reckoner," with Cee-Lo's otherworldly falsetto turning the already somber waltz into a mournful funeral dirge. "Hope you liked it, Thom," Cee-Lo grinned afterward, as the audience shook off its goosebumps.

  It's doubtful he ever seriously considered it, but Obama was wise to avoid West's flashy closing set. While the Illinois senator dodges accusations of elitism and celebrity, West actively courts them. To a rapturous crowd of tens of thousands, West boasted of carrying Chicago on his back and likened himself to Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and John Lennon. West's arrogance is mostly tongue-in-cheek-an amusing stage persona that contrasts the childish, big dreamer under the surface-but even if it were genuine, West has earned his bragging rights. A cinematic display of neon lights, pyrotechnic smoke and Japanese video-arcade visuals, his space-odyssey live show is every bit as innovative and as thrilling as his albums. Pausing only to honor his mother (touchingly) and his hometown (patronizingly), West blitzed through thunderous, drum-line arrangements of his greatest hits, pounding his chest and dramatically falling to his knees. It was a show for the ages, one that should be remembered alongside U2's "Zoo TV" and the Talking Heads' "Stop Making Sense" tours.

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