Lollapalooza, Day One: The ground was wet but the mud remained minimal as the 2013 edition of Lollapalooza kicked off in Chicago’s Grant Park. An early morning rain had soaked the grounds, and clouds produced one more serious shower soon after the festival’s commencement. Unlike the tsunami that hit Governors Ball earlier this year, or the significant storms that marred that last two renditions of Lollapalooza, this storm soon passed. So, anxious moments and the potential for yet another American music festival marred by nature gave way to sunny skies with fluffy clouds, brightening the mood of many a concert-goer. What clearly made this a distinctly 2013 edition of the now venerable festival: not a single act I saw took the stage without a keyboard, and it still rocked.
The first thing that strikes you about IO Echo’s live show compared to their recordings: a whole lot of sound. It’s full, rocking and powerful. It’s dreamy but aggressive, atmospheric and rocking, a unique mélange. Iona Gika provides a vigorous and charismatic presence, her vocals matching her presence. The young ones are early adopters while their elders are either still at work or just pacing themselves as the three-day festival kicks off at noon on a Friday. Those in attendance are wildly entertained, and the band smartly ends with their single, “When the Lillies Die,” saving their best for a crowd that has grown significantly. They reference Nine Inch Nails’ impending performance on the same stage, clearly appreciative of the career advancement associated with once again opening for Trent Reznor’s best-known project.
I’m not the target audience for the EDM-meets-Spice Girls pop that the Stockholm duo Icona Pop creates. Their audience is a big one, particularly at this time of day, but the initial mix unfortunately sounds like AM radio. (This stage has suffered from repeated sound quality issues in the past, most notably with a Crystal Castles‘ set two years ago where lead vocals were wholly inaudible for half the set). The sound improves over the set, fortunately, and most attendees seem fixated upon the dancing duo rather than the audio. The duo is wearing identical sheaths that seem like gladiator fashion meets runway, Caroline Hjelt in white and Aino Jawo in black. They’re warriors on a new front, and perhaps the exact definition of pop music’s contemporary zeitgeist. I have no information suggesting that they are the result of some sort of music industry focus group, but they do seem perfectly attenuated for this moment in music. They are rooted largely in that communal EDM moment, their live instrumentation limited to a fleeting kazoo, and their manipulation of buttons and the ephemera of EDM seems more symbolic than impactful, the vocals allowing a communal sing-a-long for those fans that undoubtedly give more personal performances in their showers. Their songs are generally candy-coated electropop, and despite the prominence of their charting single, “I Love It,” the highlight is the dubstep influenced “Ready for the Weekend.” Their crowd is ready, indeed, and the brief shower encountered during the set does nothing to diminish their unbridled enthusiasm.
Chicago’s own Smith Westerns were horrible the first time I saw them, a year and a half ago. Horrible. So, it was on faith that I went to see if they have learned anything in the interim about bridging the gap between their well-written songs that can veer towards a classic/psych rock bent and the requirements of live performance. The five-piece band is in much better form than my previous experience – thankfully – but doesn’t present anything beyond pleasant background music. I find myself wishing I was sitting down somewhere chilling rather than intently observing their stage show. The sound is much better than the previous set, allowing them to highlight songs (like, “Best Friend”) that posses a “Freebird” quality to them as the sun returns to dry up its recent tears. “Varsity” is a highlight from the new album, working well in the environment and performed with something resembling aplomb. Cullen Omori is wearing what appear to be white sweat pants and an Italian horn necklace – clearly relishing his freedom to choose more than caring about the presentation itself. He similarly indulges his ability to talk between songs with less thought paid to what he’s saying (it’s doubtful that festival organizers appreciate his discussion on how drinking and doing drugs are de rigeur underage activities at Lolla). They write great songs, but their stage presence still indicates a need to take their performances more seriously.
For a lesson in how verbalizing between songs can add rather than subtract, the Chicagoans only needed to look north to Father John Misty’s set. This seemed like a good time to sit back on the hill and listen, particularly given the sound issues this stage had recently presented, and luckily it proved to be an excellent vantage point. J. Tillman’s former band – Fleet Foxes – has always left me a bit bored, but the solo work of the erstwhile drummer takes on a more idiosyncratic and absurdist nature. Which, is to say, it’s absolutely interesting…in a macabre sort of way. His vocal tuning is perhaps the male equivalent of Neko Case, and those two should absolutely figure out a way to duet at some point. His alt-country/folk stylings are uniquely combined with his dark and absurdist sense of humor: think, 1980s David Letterman on stage in 2013. He is quite funny, actually, thanking Lollapalooza’s main sponsor, which he has unilaterally decided is “unicorns.” Macabre lyrics have never sounded so soothing, and Tillman balanced their melancholy his hilarious disquisition on Platinum passholders. In his mind, these “VIPs” receive benefits like having songs personally dedicated to them, they get to shake hands with “Imaginary Dragons,” and also to dry hump Lana Del Rey. He did acknowledge that he would find it a bit awkward later that evening when those Platinum folk were supposedly permitted to eat sushi off of his chest. It was hilarious, subversive and the opposite of what preceded it. Tillman has clearly learned from the Chris Isaak school of entertainment, and absolutely merits the price of a concert ticket when he visits your hometown.
If you were looking for the polar opposite in a quality musical experience, your next choice would have also been Crystal Castles. The Montreal group adds vigorous drumming when performing as a trio, even though Ethan Kath and Alice Glass are most frequently credited as being the entirety of the project. Kath’s dark and incendiary beats explode into a noisy atmosphere as Glass’s vocals gash through the desperate haze with anxious ardor. It’s an intensely enjoyable experience, simultaneously dissociative and revelatory, and one that has made them a popular pick on the festival circuit. (The size of their crowd during the Biblical weather that surrounded their performance at Governors Ball was as stunning as its indomitable spirit). Their crowd at Lollapalooza was much larger in size and largely young, and the fact that they weren’t staged at Perry’s was a testament to their unique spot within EDM. Glass emerged as a blonde, slugging from a bottle of whiskey while sucking down the first of many cigarettes. Luckily, the sound was necessarily impeccable from the beginning, because they dropped “Baptism” and the filthy bottom line undergirds it early in the set. Having seen them many, many times, they inevitably remind me of a weekend in Montreal, one where I escaped the group, ending up at a (literally) underground rave in a stunningly large warehouse space…it was an amazing and unique experience, a night I’ll never forget with music that was prelude to what I later heard from Crystal Castles. The unifying theme: vocals that are largely unintelligible, and in fact, actually knowing what was being uttered would undoubtedly diminish the experience. Much as with Sigur Ros, it’s best to let music and rhythm and beat stand in for thought. It’s best to simply let go and embrace the sensory experience.
It’s tough to think of another band I’ve seen as many times as Thievery Corporation, back to their days as the house band at D.C.’s Eighteenth Street Lounge. This performance was both shorter and not quite as incendiary as their most recent set I’d witnessed (Governors Ball) but it was absolutely a fantastic exposition of the umpteen genres they incorporate into their unique style. Lounge and hip hop, reggae and latin, bossa nova and rap, jazz and soulful funk. Obviously it takes panache to incorporate all of that, and Eric Hilton and Rob Garza are smart enough to not attempt to squeeze all into each track. That could make for a schizo vibe, but they find a way to keep the party going amidst political lyrics, keeping their audience thumping or grooving, freaking or funking, lounging or preening. The tartness of live brass was as always a key to their performance, as is the cast of characters that emerge, song-by-song, to play their role. Thievery Corporation was truly one of the most unique acts at Lollapalooza, and one I never tire of seeing perform.
At this point, getting to see New Order was almost unreal. Almost, because it required the skills required to win at Frogger and “The Most Dangerous Game” to navigate the 300,000 people separating me from their stage. But being denied was not an option; New Order, after all, is pretty much the most influential new wave band ever. They, along with Sunday night’s headliner, serve as the source of inspiration for probably 80% of the bands creating indie rock music these days. The synthpop kids in Brooklyn would do well to study their live show. They’d be well-served to learn that there’s a lot more to it than simply playing synths with a tonally idiosyncratic bass. They’re – quite simply – still a great band, even with the unfortunate absence of Peter Hook. Of course, having written some of the most memorable songs of a generation – and indeed, defining a genre – deserves all the praise they’ve received over the years. The key, as this performance made clear: they still have what most synthpop never will…greatness.
And, without New Order, it’s hard to envision a world where Hot Chip exists. Their fellow Brits do something quite a bit different, but the electro-influence of New Order is undeniable. One of their truly unique abilities is the fusion of somewhat, ahem, “laid-back” vocals and eminently danceable beats. Truth be told, this wasn’t my favorite performance of theirs (seeing them follow Sleigh Bells and precede LCD Soundsystem at the Hollywood Bowl gets that distinction) but that isn’t to say there was anything wrong with it; it’s more of a commentary on how draining it can be when the beat goes on for hours one end, particularly when one is totally sober. Their funky low-end synth bass, though, (particularly on “Night and Day”) was reason enough to get the hips moving, serving as the catalyst for their compositions. The kids dug it.
Which brings me to the insanity that is Nine Inch Nails: this was not a legacy show. It was not simply a way to say, “Hey, thanks for playing the inaugural Lollapalooza in 1991, c’mon out and reintroduce the band.” In addition to pulling out new tracks – some of which they had recently debuted in Japan – they attacked their classic material with the sort of aggression that causes people to file restraining orders. I’m largely without the necessary vocabulary to describe what was one of the more memorable performances I’ve seen this year (and ever, for that matter). Trent Reznor retains that authentically dark and mysterious aura, which must be tougher to pull off after making millions, achieving success scoring films (see: Grammys / Oscars), and just, you know…getting older. But man, oh man…the pigs were out. It was an all-out auditory assault, an awe-inspiring display of the power of guitars and drums and vocals and the search for catharsis. It was the soundtrack to a variety of sex that few people will ever have (willingly). It was only unfortunate that more people didn’t witness it (competing interests included Lana Del Rey, The Killers, and Steve Aoki) because it definitively proved that Reznor wrote songs in the mid-1990s that remain more modern than most anything existing in 2013.
Lana Del Rey was hip before she was lame before she was invisible, and on some level, this was a bit of a comeback performance. She drew a pretty large crowd to a pretty small stage, decked out like a hippie princess. I only caught two songs, one of which was her grassroots hit, “Video Games.” Frankly, her voice sounded amazing and her crowd was enthusiastic. It was also somewhere between an 8:2 and 7:3 girl:guy ratio. So, fellas, if you were wondering where all the girls were…well, they weren’t at NIN. While I only caught a snippet of her show, it was enough to convince the listener that the SNL gig was the exception, not the rule.