By mid-Sunday in Chicago’s spacious Grant Park, the Lollapalooza air was abuzz with speculation that presumptive presidential candidate Barack Obama, a poster child for this iconic city, would join fellow Chicagoan Kanye West on stage for the closing night’s main event. When the rumours had begun a couple of weeks prior, it seemed highly unlikely- for surely a man seeking the most powerful position in world politics would have better things to do than hang around with 75,000 sweaty twenty-somethings whose vote he’s virtually guaranteed to begin with? Yet Sunday saw the erection of a dedicated -Obama’ booth, peddling shirts with slogans like ‘Mr. November,’ and for a moment it seemed as if a spectacular coup might be on the cards.
Alas, Obama was nowhere to be found, and thousands were left scratching their heads at what peculiar euphoria had led them to imagine the inimitable Mr. West would voluntarily share the spotlight with anybody not named Kanye West. Reprising his role as headliner at Lollapalooza 2006, West took the stage in a brilliant white jacket that was visible from practically any point in the venue, delivering a bombastic and surprisingly varied set that confirmed two basic points: 1) Kanye West has an amazing number of solid gold hits; and 2) Journey’s -Don’t Stop Believin” (it was his sadly deceased mother’s favourite song, apparently) sounds a hell of a lot better blaring out of Kanye’s speakers than it does chopped and mutilated amongst a dozen other pop culture relics in the perennially unimpressive Girl Talk’s (nÃ© Greg Gills) set.
On the opposite stage Sunday night, a full mile away at the northern side of the park, Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails (featuring Guns N’ Roses’ Robin Finck and the best drummer in the world Josh Freese) were delivering a show light on pomp but just as ambitious. Like West’s set, Reznor’s show was as much a visual display as it was a musical experience. Unlike Kanye, however, the Nine Inch Nails experience could be very tedious for those unfamiliar with the material, and even then the five-minute marimba break between two particular songs would test all but the most ardent fan’s patience. As it happened, Sunday night’s climax was, for concert-goers, every bit the dilemma it promised to be. For much of the hour-and-a-half duration (Nine Inch Nails started fifteen minutes earlier), it seemed as if there were as many people (including yours truly) ferrying between the two shows as there were committed to one or the other.
It brought a climax to a thrilling weekend that, in terms of raw talent, might prove to be the most successful Lollapalooza since founder Perry Farrell (of Jane’s Addiction fame) re-invented it as a three-day static festival four years ago. For once, the weather in Chicago was immaculate throughout: while pasty Irish people might find Chicago’s highs a little tough to bear, it was rarely sweltering and frequently temperate, as evidenced by the curious lack of bright pink people as the weekend drew to a close. Neither were there too many of the awkward scheduling conflicts that tend to plague catch-all festivals like this: there were few repeats of the Lupe/Winehouse or Muse/Interpol clashes that marred 2007’s proceedings. This year, the most troublesome choice facing concert-goers was whether to stick around for Radiohead on Friday or to eat a proper evening meal for once.
Friday opened with a bang- quite literally- in the form of Boston metal revivalists Bang Camaro. Quite literally the most ludicrously OTT band on the map today, Bang Camaro revere everything that was great about -80s metal: bone-crushing thrash guitar riffs, spine-tingling guitar harmonies and glamtastic gang choruses. The touring band boasts three lead guitarists and anything between 10 and 20 singers; in Chicago, they began with 11 (majestically arranged in symmetrical form according to height and hairstyle) and finished with 14, a window into the spirit of fun that has seen them become a mainstay on the Guitar Hero and Rock Band video game formats. Following Bang Camaro came veteran power pop maestro Butch Walker (whom State grabbed a quick chat with later on), who promoted material from his upcoming record Sycamore Meadows (written after his condo was destroyed in the LA bushfires last November), and Welsh songbird Duffy, for whom it’s no exaggeration to say one could close their eyes and imagine they were listening to the record playing.
Later on at the main stage, self-styled Ukrainian gypsy punks Gogol Bordello and the increasingly more introverted Londoners Bloc Party dealt in very different ways with the obstacle of disinterested Radiohead fans, camped out early for the band’s solo headlining slot later that night. Gogol, the self-styled gypsy punks who would surely go over a treat if marketed to the Irish public, wreaked their own particular brand of Romany folk-fuelled havoc, quite literally playing their fans 10 rows back having been slightly bemused at the cold reception given from the front. Bloc Party, whose music one feels is better listened to while stood still with the arms folded, were tepid and generally unenthusiastic, even during edgy early material like -Helicopter.’ By 8:00, those memories had been vanquished, when Radiohead took to the stage to play in front of the first-ever sold out Lollapalooza, Yorke & co. playing material from their recent release In Rainbows to a captive audience (it was literally impossible to get out).
Saturday began early with English twosome The Ting Tings on the main stage. Much of the focus on this twosome to date has focused on wardrobally-challenged singer Katie White, but it was George Michael lookalike Jules De Martino who really impressed on the day, displaying the weekend’s most remarkable feat of technical brilliance when he managed to open the set while playing guitar, drums and singing simultaneously, before the pair ran through hits like -That’s Not My Name’ and State favourite -Shut Up And Let Me Go’ with nary a hitch. American sensation Dierks Bentley, who blasts out modern pop-country with the gritty conviction of a -70s rock singer, provided the perfect soundtrack to a sunny afternoon, while MGMT were horribly miscast in the blazing sunlight right after, their brand of stoner-y pop rock much better suit for a sunset slot.
Saturday’s undisputed highlight came in the form of Texan experimental rockers Explosions In The Sky. A criminally underrated post-rock act with the mass appeal to match our own God Is An Astronaut, EITS ran away with the honour of Loudest Band At Lollapalooza. Their furiously dynamic set showcases crushing crescendos that reminded many of why it can occasionally be fun to bleed from the ears, but perhaps exposed their weakness for being a touch noodly and indulgent in their quieter moments. Lest any further proof be needed, none other than Jesse Lacey (singer with Brand New, who were playing at the opposite end of the grounds) summed up a reportedly horrific set (which ended 15 minutes early) by telling the audience ‘you should all be watching Explosions In The Sky.’ Realist or just a shithead? You decide.
Dressed flamboyantly in Grand Ol’ Opry-style colourful suits, Wilco took the stage at the northern end of Grant Park, while in the south, a sizeable majority had turned out to see the original rap-metal troupe Rage Against The Machine in all their reformed glory. Rage have made a mint the past 12 months on the festival circuit at home and in Europe, and despite their radical socialism, their core audience remains an awkward mix of 12-15 year olds and private college meatheads, the latter of whom ruined an otherwise thrilling show by charging the front rows, while an attempt by outsiders to bum-rush the gates left many innocent spectators with bruises and broken bones. Never afraid to exploit random acts of violence to further his political ideals, Rage frontman Zach De La Rocha thoughtfully announced, ‘save that shit for the streets.’ Needless to say, Rage will not be invited back.
Following the action of the previous days, Sunday was subdued by comparison. Rainclouds loomed on the horizon for much of the day (though, thankfully, they never broke out), while political folk rockers the Weakerthans (formed from remnants of anarcho-punks Propaghandi) were inexplicably absent, perhaps frightened off by the welcome given their idealistic cousins the previous night. The sole act of Irish interest, Flogging Molly, fronted by Dublin exile Dave King, were the highlight of the evening, trotting out a plethora of hits that have made them underground darlings in the US but little more than a blip in the auld country. Super-producer Mark Ronson and his orchestra brought out a succession of guest singers (‘contestants’ as he termed them), including Kenna, Daniel Merriweather (of -Stop Me’ fame) and -California’ rockers Phantom Planet.
Yet it was Radiohead who would provide the enduring snapshot of Lollapalooza 2008. The pay-or-don’t-pay system the Oxford rockers vaulted on an unsuspecting public (though they were by no means the first) last October had an exaggerated presence at these here festivals. Two of the event’s headliners- Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails- have provided the model’s three most successful products to date, while both Butch Walker and Reznor alumnus Saul Williams recently took their leave of major labels to try the format for themselves. In Walker’s case, he believes it was more than mere coincidence: ‘I’m a much smaller artist than those are – they have much bigger fanbases- but at the same time we follow the same ethics. I believe it was the reason I was asked.’ Whether the ‘Radiohead model’ is the future of the music business or not, it’s clearly been working for the artists on the bill at Lollapalooza.