Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2008

The 2008 Lollapalooza Wrap-Up

By Evan Rytlewski
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Nobody would confuse the Lollapalooza grounds for Club Med, but compared to some of the other major summer music festivals, Chicago's annual gathering is a cakewalk. Even as attendance hit record levels this year, the festival remained manageable. Shade and water were plentiful; lines were long but they moved; food was crappy and overpriced, but not exorbitantly so; and even the bathrooms were clean-or at least as clean as could be expected.

Competing against an increasingly crowded market of imitators, Lollapalooza brought out the big guns this year, anchoring its line-up with five mammoth headliners: Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, Wilco, Nine Inch Nails and Kanye West. The side stage acts were more of a mixed bag, but there were nonetheless plenty of highlights.

Okkervil River struggled with their loud mix, with Will Sheff calling for sound adjustments between songs and, at one point, during them, singing a verse begging the soundman to take the excess guitar out of his monitors. Once the kinks were ironed out, though, the set soared, as the convulsing singer teased and played off the crowd. After signing off with a foam-mouthed rendition of "Westfall," the only song in the set that predated Black Sheep Boy, Sheff hopped off the stage and exited flanked by two security guards. I've seen Okkervil River about once a year since 2002, when they were a still pigeonholed as a modest alt-country band, and each time they've played to a bigger audience and fallen more comfortably into their roles as burgeoning rock stars.

Despite all the man- (and horn-) power in their roster, Broken Social Scene couldn't compete with Okkervil River's energy. They noodled and pitter-pattered their way through an sleepy set until I cut my loses and headed off to find something more exciting, which wasn't difficult. I found it in Uffie's sleazy, barely legal electro-pop, and also in Lupe Fiasco's grandiose spectacular, which paired the rapper with a band, a massive choir and a pair of male/female backing vocalists who spent as much time on the mic as he did. Like Fiasco's latest album, The Cool, it was a little uneven, but exhilarating in its ambitions.

Grandfathered into a prime spot opening for Rage Against the Machine, the Toadies left the audience in the odd position of anticipating "Possum Kingdom," the only single in the band's tiny canon. "Kingdom" brightened the band's otherwise oppressive hard-rock with a little bit of Spin Doctors levity. The rest of the band's repertoire isn't nearly as forgiving.

Although it sounded great, Rage Against the Machine's set was every bit the smack down everyone expected. The band continually stopped the show to plead for the audience to calm down, but their between-song calls for civility were undermined by their mid-song calls to "BURN!" They may want to rethink how they handle crowd control. They also may want to reread Obama's war on terror proposals. In his longest screed of the night, Zach de la Rocha gave a tentative endorsement of Obama, but said he knew plenty of people who'd be pissed if Obama didn't immediately withdraw all troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. (Obama, of course, plans on sending more troops to Afghanistan.)

There's something to be said for children's music that doesn't pander to children, but Perry Farrell's set Sunday at Lollapalooza's children's stage barely even acknowledged the fact kids might be listening. Save for Farrell's Mr. Rogers song introductions, the set was aimed squarely at those 30 and up, with Farrell and guest guitarist Slash ripping through gritty rock versions of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition," Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and Jane's Addiction's "Jane Says," a song about a heroin junkie. Despite the ample "no smoking in children's area" signs, Slash puffed away on stage.

The audience at Black Kids was so impassive they acted like they were doing the buzz band a favor by standing through their set-even when Black Kids did their signature song about dancing, only those front and center could be bothered to move. Singer Reggie Youngblood blamed the heat, but he seemed shaken by the audience's disinterest, and with good reason. Black Kids were supposed to be the festival's big show-stoppers, but audiences have clearly already moved on.

Nine Inch Nails fans came out in droves to see Saul Williams in hopes that Trent Reznor might make an appearance. He didn't, though he was there in spirit: Williams' frequently channeled his screaming collaborator, and the harsh, roaring industrial beats bore Reznor's unmistakable stamp. Three thoughts: 1. It was odd seeing an almost entirely white audience cheer for Williams' racially charged, N-word-laden diatribes. 2. Nine Inch Nails tattoos, of which there were many, show no clear consensus on whether the first or second "N" in NIN is supposed to be backward. 3. Williams' incendiary shout-raps about racism were oddly juxtaposed by the rapping frat-boy G. Love, who performed on a neighboring stage, as usual channeling nasty racial stereotypes through his lazy back-porch bluesman drawl.

Cee-Lo was in especially fine voice for Gnarls Barkley's surprisingly autumnal set, particularly during a sorrowful cover of Radiohead's already bleak "Reckoner." They weren't the only one's to cover Radiohead; Mark Ronson tackled "Just" and kept the covers flowing during his super-sized ska-rap-pop set. Channeling The Specials' at their Dance Craze peak, the performance was initially a blast, especially the horn-laden takes on Pharoah Monch's "Simons Says" and M.O.P.'s "Ante Up," but by the time Ronson led a version of Phantom Planet's "California," the audience was ready for the overlong set to finally end.

"Is this what you've been waiting for!" a frenzied Kanye West hollered during his closing performance, a streamlined, greatest-hits rewrite of his "Glow in the Dark" tour set. Lights flashed. Screens lit up. Drums pounded. Colored smoke engulfed Kanye, who feel to his knees, rapping chopped and screwed versions of his songs. He compared himself to James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon and boasted of carrying Chicago on his back. The man has an ego, but man, has he earned it.

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