Photos By Jon Alvin, Words By Gabe Liebowitz
In Chicago, the festival experience truly begins the moment you take public transportation downtown. When I got to the Logan Square Blue Line at 1 p.m., the platform was filled with teens and tweens on their way to Grant Park, surely giddy with excitement to see Sir Paul McCartney play hits from yesteryear, back when Music Was Music and People Actually Played Their Own Instruments.
As a 27-year-old, being among this crowd truly made me realize my age. I can’t tell the difference between a tween or a teen anymore. As I packed into the train filled with these spritely youths headed downtown, I felt like I was in high school again, but this time I was the outcast because of my age and not for having an outspoken appreciation of “Weird Al” Yankovic and eczema.
When I made my way through the security lines to get into the festival with my travel companion Jon, Grant Park immediately felt like the Lord of the Flies for unchaperoned teens. We muscled our way through the crowd for Swedish pop singer Tove Lo, who’s recently dominated the pop charts with hits “Talking Body” and “Stay High.” We found ourselves in a labyrinth of Aidens, Codeys and Stephanies while the Top 40 sounds went in full swing. I yelled out in despair “Does anybody know where the critically acclaimed by hard-to-please white people music is???” Somebody pointed out that Father John Misty and The War on Drugs were playing back to back at the Palladia stage, so off we went.
Jon and I were lucky enough to get stage side for both sets. I Love You, Honeybear by Father John Misty was one of those albums that everyone went ape shit for this year but I just couldn’t totally get behind. Maybe I’ve been tainted by the unflattering Marc Maron interview or just got sick of all of the “Nilssonesque” comparisons, but I gotta say, after catching his set, I am a Father John convert. His backing band is totally aces, the rhythm section was in the pocket and worthy of any comparisons to The Band, The Wrecking Crew or those Muscles Shoals folks.
Lead singer Josh Tillman, in his own right, is a classic showman and entertainer and has got to be one of the best frontmen in the independent rock business right now. His stage banter has also become legend, and did not disappoint. After a song ended, he muttered “You’re all on ecstasy anyways, what does it matter?” and did some great riffing on a Trojan Bareskin Condom blimp that flew by during his set.
He was also incredibly giving to his young fans who had crammed their way to the front of the stage. There was a really moving moment when he made his way to the crowd to sing “Bored in the USA.” Kids gathered around him and hugged his legs as he grabbed a girl’s phone to take a selfie video while he finished the rest of the song. You could tell the kids in front had a lot of love for this guy who’d made music that has made an impact on them, and it was one of those powerful moments that reminds you how special the connection between artist and fan can be. A triumphant set with a lot of heart!
While we waited for War on Drugs to set up, we caught Hot Chip’s set from across the way. They played perfectly sufficient, kind of stiff dance music for people who like to feel the sensation of rhythm while also keeping their arms folded. By the time they went into a somewhat bland cover of Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” I’d gotten the picture.
I’ve jokingly said before how impressed I was that War on Drugs were able to have an entire album influenced by the 1983 Bob Dylan song “Jokerman.” Their set of Mark Kozelek-described “beer commercial rock” was mostly from their very critically acclaimed record Lost in the Dream, and they put on a hell of a show. The tones from the myriad of synths and guitar pedals were expertly crafted. Even though they’re known as a pretty laid back group, the way they were able to suck you into a vibe and then ramp up into really big, exciting climaxes was truly impressive. Lead singer Adam Granduciel’s vocal attack really cut through the gorgeous instrumentation, and the guy can play the hell out of a guitar solo, too.
Around 6:30 p.m. is that special time in Lollapalooza where kids have been drinking and drugging since noon and Grant Park becomes a walking museum piece for Teens Who Can’t Handle Their Liquor.
I met up with my writer pal Sasha to catch the beginning of headliner Paul McCartney’s set. We posted up in an area that was a sweet spot between the Paul McCartney crowd and the Perry Farrell EDM tent. As Paul McCartney began the set by launching into “Magical Mystery Tour,” a flabbergasted bro stumbled into the area with his impatient girlfriend and said “I had no idea there would be so many people here.” I pointed to the jumbo screen and said to him, “That guy was in the Beatles.” The adults around me chuckled, but this clearly did not register to the kid and he continued to look around for “his buddy Eric.” This continued happening in one form or the other for the entire time I was there.
As far as the set itself, it was hard not to feel the weight of history and the amount of influence McCartney has had on every act playing at the festival. It was truly awe inspiring. Of all the Beatles I always thought Paul had the most raw voice of the lot, especially in songs like “Oh! Darling” and “Monkberry Moon Delight.” Now an old man of 73, even though he strained from time to time, that raw power was still very much there, and he was able to wail some supremely impressive high notes. Still got that edge!
The set was no nonsense and seamless. While enjoying so many recognizable Beatles and Wings songs from a far distanced and being lulled into a calm by the warm blue visuals, I started feeling the sensation of watching a PBS special. When he told old stories about Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, it totally felt like you were hanging out with your old British grandpa by the fireplace. Amazing! After playing a bit of an acoustic rendition of his current Rihanna/Kanye West hit “FourFiveSeconds,” we made our way to the much smaller Pepsi tent to catch mind-bending producer Flying Lotus.
We got a good spot up front, and with all the blunts being smoked in such a small proximity, there was definitely more THC in the air than oxygen. I was the highest I have been since I was 18, completely due to a contact high. When producer Steven Ellison made his way on stage, he seemed excited that an enthusiastic crowd had turned out despite competing with Paul McCartney and teen heartthrob The Weeknd. “You guys came!” he said with a big smile into the microphone, before making his way up to his elevated DJ chamber. The set was a whirlwind. As the dense, chaotic mesh of jazz and electronica pummeled through the speakers melded with an impressive visual show that was projected onto the stage, it quickly became a transcendent, multi-sensory experience. You truly got the sense that Flying Lotus was a mad scientist up there, conjuring up bizarre sounds and beats and punishing low end. Although we got pre-recorded raps from Chance the Rapper, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar (mostly from his fantastic record You’re Dead), towards the end of his set he “introduced” his rap alter ego Captain Murphy. I was surprised at what an impressive, charismatic rapper he is.
Not only is Flying Lotus behind some of the most exciting music production around these days (with his own solo output, but also with Thundercat and Kendrick Lamar), he’s also one hell of a showman and entertainer, which can be a rare combination. By the time sound was cut off at 10pm for curfew, the crowd was screaming for more. However, I was eager to get home so I could ride out my pot buzz by watching a few 9/11 conspiracy videos on Youtube and see if anything added up this time.
Observation: When you enter Lollapalooza, it almost feels like an Ellis Island of puzzled shirtless white 17-year-old dudes, but instead of making their way through large crowds in an unknown land to find their family, they’re just looking for their buddy Brock. Yeah, I actually heard someone yell “Where’s Brock??” within ten minutes of entering the festival.
I’ve been following Charli XCX’s career for a couple years and was incredibly excited to catch her set. I’d been a fan since her 2013 debut True Romance, but since then she has made some serious dents on the pop charts, co-writing Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” and her own smash “Boom Clap.”
She also put on one of my favorite sets of the festival. Her stage presence is somewhere between Britney Spears and Johnny Rotten, gyrating on cameramen, yelling for the crowd to stick up their middle fingers, and also displaying some pretty impressive dance moves. The set was an incredibly well put together hodge-podge of modern pop and blistering new wave/punk. The BMI stage had been showcasing a lot of pop acts and often times the sound had fallen pretty flat, but the use of pre-recorded samples along with a powerful backing band of drums, bass and guitar was way on point, catapulting her strong vocal delivery. (Yes, there were backing tracks too, it’s a pop show, get over it.)
She knows how to command a stage and she knows how to rile up a crowd, too. By the time she launched into a version of Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” the dance party was in full effect. Her raw sexual energy was a welcome change from the mostly male dominated acts swinging their dongs in the air via guitar solos and EDM beat drops at the fest. Her outstanding pop sensibility along with her expert showmanship makes her one of the most exciting young artists in the business right now. I’ve seen some criticism of her presence being “unladylike” and her songs being “dumb.” She’s a young female artist in a male dominated industry who writes her own songs and has been responsible for some of the biggest pop juggernauts of the past few years, chooses her own collaborators, and does whatever the fuck she wants. This should be celebrated. Very excited to see her grow, and hopefully she has a slot later than 3 p.m. next time.
We caught the end of Death From Above 1979’s set to get a good spot for Tame Impala. DFA 1979 played perfectly fine aggressive penis rock.
Tame Impala’s fantastic record Currents is one of those fascinating albums like Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories that blurs the line between live instrumentation and electronic studio production, and I was really curious as to how they were going to pull the songs off live. They had a number of tech assistants side-stage, dressed in full-on white lab coats, to make sure that the execution of pre-recorded sample tracks mixed with live performances went off without a hitch, and the result was absolutely sublime. Although every instrument on the record was performed by frontman/wizard Kevin Parker, the live band was impressive, especially the drummer, who often switched between blistering fills on the live kit to sample pads.
Kevin Parker came across as a shy, unassuming Australian Wes Anderson-type character with a maroon scarf. I’ve heard his voice compared to John Lennon a lot, but his reverb/echo-drenched falsetto filled up the space and often created trancelike effects more reminiscent of Animal Collective’s Panda Bear. They got into serious grooves with Currents cuts like opener “Let It Happen,” but when they transitioned into more guitar oriented rock from 2012’s excellent Lonerism like stomper “Elephant,” they showed that they had the heavy chops to stand up with the best arena rock acts out there, too.
Tame Impala is truly on the cutting edge of what it means to be a modern rock band, implementing techniques and aesthetics from hip-hop production and Top 40 pop to make some truly new and exciting music. After being completely blown away by their live show, they don’t have long to go before they can truly be called their generation’s Radiohead.
After Tame Impala, we wandered over to Perry’s tent to catch some of Carnage’s EDM set. The transformation of Perry’s tent from a small DJ area to a gigantic pit with a throne and elaborate pyrotechnics shows just how quickly the rise of EDM has been on our culture. Weaving through some of his excellent originals like this year’s ILoveMakonnen collaboration “I Like Tuh” and remixes of some Top 40 hits like “Trap Queen,” Carnage definitely gave a forceful performance. Sometimes when the beat would drop, THE STAGE WOULD SPEW OUT FIRE.
If electric guitar is becoming passé, is the EDM throne the new extension of male ego in the festival circuit? I don’t think there was one female DJ in Perry’s tent the entire weekend. Don’t think that’s Lollapalooza’s fault necessarily, festivals only reflect the culture and book what’s popular. Can’t think of any female producers along the lines of Calvin Harris or Skrillex who have made a dent on Top 40 and also headline festivals. Something about dudes standing high above from everybody else, delivering masturbatory beat drops down below to their adoring minions all weekend long is a little troubling, no?
We’d seen a lot of good acts so far in the festival, but I felt like I hadn’t seen a true vocal powerhouse yet, so we decided to opt out of Metallica to get a good spot to see headliner Sam Smith. I was happy to find myself making my way through a crowd of polite, mild-mannered youths, most of whom seemed to be involved in high school theater. A very inoffensive group of people to wind down the evening with. No marijuana cigarettes here, just good clean fun. Can’t ruin our vocal cords for our big solo in Pippin.
When the sun went down and darkness filled the skyline, Sam Smith and his backing band made his way on stage for a massive and enthusiastic crowd. He launched into set opener “I Know I’m Not the Only One” beaming ear to ear, and I was definitely not disappointed in the vocal department. In fact, as soon as the first song started, I was instantly hit by the power of what was going on on stage. Here’s a 23-year-old with some of the best vocal chops around, who has exploded so quickly since making his solo television debut on Saturday Night Live last year, and has already become a festival headliner.
He continued going through songs from last year’s debut album In the Lonely Hour while being extremely gracious and personable with the audience, every now and then giving some back story to the songs. At one point he said, “This album is so important to me because it was the first time I could truly be myself.” He was of course referring to the fact that he is openly gay, and a lot of the album is experiencing love and loss through that experience. When he started singing “Leave Your Lover,” tears finally started welling up. I was thinking about how recent it has been that artists have had to stay in the closet in order to have a career — and here’s an openly gay pop star who has dominated the charts and award ceremonies, singing the line “Leave him for me” in front of tens of thousands of people singing along with him. Powerful. Sam Smith is an instant classic. As my concert buddy Jon pointed out, as long as he doesn’t get in some sort of freak accident, he’ll be singing for us forever.
As soon as we got into the festival for Day Three, it immediately got evacuated for a severe weather warning, so our first three hours were pretty much spent pushing through crowds of children in the sweltering heat to get to and from the gates.
There wasn’t anyone on the lineup I was terribly excited to see other than FKA Twigs, but I definitely made some good new discoveries wandering around when we made our way back to the park.
Philadelphia’s Strands of Oak had a light crowd due to a schedule change-up from the evacuation. After being herded around rambunctious teens all day, I was relieved to see that most of the audience were thirtysomethings who value personal space. The sound of the band was epic. Strong songwriting over dirty Crazy Horse-style grooves. The powerful, gnarly bass and crunchy distorted guitars could have filled up a canyon. Lead singer Timothy Showalter’s voice had that great Springsteen quiver, and also at times reminded me of Bonnie “Prince” Billy and later career Bob Dylan (like, after he turned fifty). Sometimes they would launch into slow, sludgy jams that really made you feel like you were catching a doom metal group like Candlemass or Isis. Really unique, dark and dirty.
Skylar Spence is a band fronted by bedroom pop producer Ryan DeRobertis, formerly known as Saint Pepsi (he had to change his name due to legal threats by Pepsi, and ironically was supposed to play the Pepsi stage before being moved to BMI for weather change-ups). He’s made a big splash on the Internet with tracks like “Prom King” and is releasing his debut full length album later this year on Carpark Records. DeRobertis and his band are very young, and are so polite, nice and scrappy that you can’t help but root for them. Their groovy, echo’d out guitar licks would certainly make Johnny Marr of The Smiths proud. At times the dance pop vibe reminded me a lot of Orange Juice’s 1983 album Rip It Up. The band was a little rough around the edges and the harmonies were sometimes unlistenable, but it gave the set an endearing garage rock quality you don’t always hear in dance music. They still have a lot of growth in the songwriting and performance department, but they have clearly already amassed a small but loyal fanbase, and I’m sure they’ve got a good couple years in store for them.
Nashville rock shredders Bully took the BMI stage right afterwards. They’ve generated an insane amount of buzz since their Columbia Records debut Feels Like, and I was definitely excited to see what all the fuss was all about. This was one of those sets where all the music critics walk around and recognize each other. When they launched into their first song, my jaw dropped. Lead singer Alicia Bognanno has some of the most incredible rock vocals I’ve ever experienced live — conjuring up a lot of grit and bile for some supremely epic raw power. The music is aesthetically akin to ‘90s grunge and further guitar rock like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. The band was tight and the songs are solid. Definitely lived up to the hype. These folks are not just cashing in on ’90s nostalgia, they are the real deal.
While in the press tent, I was forced to hear some of Of Monsters and Men’s set. I weep for the future, with that many people eating up their “Arcade-Fire-in-a-can” pop music. Is hell just Of Monsters and Men yelling “HEY!” on repeat for all eternity?
I ended the festival experience by getting way up close to see one of my favorite new artists, FKA Twigs. I’ve been a fan of hers since EP2 came out in 2013, but her stunning 2014 full length debut LP1 has skyrocketed her fan base and critical acclaim. I had high expectations and the set exceeded them. For anyone not familiar with her music, think R&B Bjork. The production is very minimal and trippy, and her vocals are pretty subdued, more often sexually cooing in her high range than belting. Instead of playing to pre-recorded tracks, there were three performers behind her that played everything live on sample pads. This enabled the music to slow and speed and climax and fall in the moment. Very alien and very human at once. Twigs as a performer was enchanting. She used to be a professional backup dancer (as sung about in LP1 cut “Video Girl”), and those skills really came through in her stage show. Her performance was expertly choreographed, and made me feel more like I was watching modern dance than a music set at Lollapalooza. This is truly music of the future. No one does what she does, and it was an incredibly satisfying way to end three days of festival-going. My personal favorite set of the fest.
This is an incredibly exciting time in music. People are truly using technology and creative to the fullest to push the boundaries for what music-making can be. Songwriters and performers are on the top of their game. Audiences and more than willing to take it all in. Shit, one of the two principal songwriters of The Beatles is still alive. If you made the right show choices, Lollapalooza showcased all of the exciting changes going on in music right now and it was truly exciting. Even if I had to get puked on by a 16-year-old named Chad.
Favorite sets: FKA Twigs, Sam Smith, Charli XCX, Tame Impala
Favorite bros: Chet, Brock, Aiden, Michael, Conor, Michael
Favorite stressed out dads: Richard, Jeremy, Stephen
Favorite indie nerds who saw the Replacements reunion tour: Toby, Robert, William