Basham on Lollapalooza

Grant Park, Chicago, Aug. 4-6

Music Reviews Lollapalooza
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Basham on Lollapalooza

(Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne—inside his infamous plastic Bubble—gets a hand back to the stage at Lollapalooza 2006. Photo by Dinah Kotthoff.)

It’s still morning as my plane approaches Midway International.

Looking out the window, I see a train snaking its way through a checkerboard of fields growing unidentifiable crops. Thirty minutes later, I’m on the Orange Line to Grant Park, looking out the window at a city I’ve mostly learned about through songs and books and films. Having rarely ridden a train, I can’t help but romanticize my short trip and I begin to hear the voice of the late, great songwriter Steve Goodman, a Chicago son who died much too early:

“Riding on the City of New Orleans, Illinois Central Monday morning rail…rolling ‘long past houses, farms and fields…Good morning, America, how are you?”

Sentiment aside, I make it to Lollapalooza 2006—yet another incarnation of Perry Farrell’s dream which began fifteen years ago. Eager to see if it, too, can earn a place in Chicago lore, I step through the gate.

DAY ONE

When first walking across the softball fields I hear the opening day fanfare blasting through the P.A. system right before a mass of humanity comes running onto the grounds. Ironically, Sound Team kicks off this end of the fest with “The Fastest Man Alive”. Much of the crowd, who had been heading toward the main stage where The Subways would be performing in 45 minutes, suddenly stop to check out the Austin band whose recent CD Movie Monster is attracting a lot of attention. Their power pop is fun, exuberant and sometimes very clever.

I learn firsthand just how big the new Lollapalooza is when I walk to the north end to catch deadboy & the Elephantmen. It’s a pleasant 80 degrees, and I’m surrounded by a crowd of shiny, happy faces of fans getting their first buzz of the day on $5 beer. Unfortunately I get my first taste of “sound bleed” when Midlake’s performance nearby is irritatingly mixed with deadboy’s—it’s a problem that continues throughout the festival. Still, the band plays loudly enough that you can hear the raw, bare-bones drama-rock vocals of singer/guitarist Dax Riggs.

I make the long trek back south and hear The Subways’ frontman Billy Lunn bellow out to the audience, “You look f—ing beautiful to me!” Soon he’s running through the crowd while bassist Charlotte Cooper whirls and leaps about on stage in her white short-shorts and cowboy boots. The set is terrifically buoyant, as Lunn and Cooper blast out pop like a fire hose as in “I Want to Hear What You Have Got to Say”.

Alone with his guitar, Sam Beam begins his set as Iron & Wine with the beautiful “Eyes Wide Open”. But hip hop rapper Lady Sovereign and her band, normally quite entertaining on their own, are easily overheard from a nearby stage. While theses bleeds could be an interesting blend, like something from a Captain Beefheart album, this isn’t one of those times. Beam’s band kicks up the volume with “Woman King”. Its primal beats and visual lyrics somehow harmonize with the sun’s descent and a rising moon. This metaphorical happenstance seems to revitalize Beam as his guitar playing becomes more intense and he introduces some new, blues-tinged numbers. Perhaps, after years of self-recording at home, Beam has learned a little from Calexico, with whom he collaborated on In the Reins. Maybe he could pair up with Lady Sovereign—but next time in the studio.

The overused moniker “supergroup” has once again been dragged out—this time to describe The Raconteurs, a union of The White Stripes’ Jack White, power pop pal Brendan Benson and The Greenhornes’ rhythm section.

But what’s truly super is the band’s performance, the highlight of Lollapalooza. At the risk of gushing, these guys have blended 60’s British pop with everything from Zeppelin to The Clash and created an original, but still familiar, sound that rocks Lolla to its core. It doesn’t hurt that they can play, but there’s a chemistry here that wasn’t revealed on their good-but-not-great debut album Broken Boy Soldier. In addition to their own material, the quartet thrills fans with a dead on rendering of Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang, Bang” and then out-Gnarls Gnarls Barkley a day early with a kick-ass blast of “Crazy”. We can only hope that a live CD or DVD is in the works.

DAY TWO

Why Joey Burns isn’t hounded by paparazzi and stalked by Paris Hilton is a mystery of life. The charismatic leader of Calexico is rock-solid on guitar, has an incredible voice and puts out a wall of sound that Phil Spector would kill for. (Oops. Sorry, Phil!) Sometimes joined on vocals by flamenco artist Salvador Duran, the band’s signature Mexican/southwest Indian influence permeates much of the music as in the infectious “Guero Canelo” and an electrifying version of “Alone Again Tonight Or” where thousands of audience members aren’t just clapping in time but are doing it in syncopated rhythms, and doing it well. There’s a power and majesty to many of the band’s tunes, some that rock hard and heavy. Burns introduces one song by saying it’s “about driving off a cliff with an 8-track cassette of Fleetwood Mac.”

Using his compelling freestyle form of rap and feeding off the audience, Common commandeers the crowd with heartfelt hip hop, charming them, even lecturing the men on being faithful to their women and avoided outside temptations. “Damn!” he exclaims. “Stifle it!” The small band works in his favor by highlighting his incredible talent and not covering it up with top-heavy arrangements.

If some of the Lollapalooza acts lack a little in stage presence, don’t worry. The Flaming Lips have enough to go around for everyone.

Never boring, the Lips bring out the BIG stars—literally—with giant caricatures of astronauts, Santa Claus and an alien. Additional Santas and space girls dance about the stage, obviously promoting the band’s upcoming film Christmas on Mars. What’s remarkable is that ringleader Wayne Coyne and the rest of the band can bring all this fun and still play great pop classics like “She Don’t Use Jelly” and newer favs from their more recent CD At War with the Mystics like “W.A.N.D.” and the “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” which had Coyne preaching his own brand of worldwide enlightenment.

DAY THREE

Two guitars, bass and drums, great vocals, catchy songs—an apt description of The Redwalls and of their biggest influence: the Fab Four. A surprisingly small crowd is treated with strong performances of fan favorites like “I Just Want to Be the One” and “Build A Bridge”. The Beatle effect is there, but they still manage to bring a sound to call their own.

Manchester Orchestra’s lead singer, songwriter and guitarist Andy Hull is beginning to get noticed—by fans and record labels. The Atlanta band’s mix of melodic but hard-driving songs receives a big ovation from a small, but very appreciative, crowd. With an album’s worth of work completed, it’s only a matter of time before these guys are signed and delivered nationwide.

The worst case of “bleeding” comes tonight, as the set of acclaimed, rocking bluegrass band Nickel Creek is basically ruined if you’re more than 50 yards from the front of the stage. The sound level of a nearby electronic synth band appears to be turned to max, effectively over powering any nuances of Nickel Creek’s set. And considering that the band has no drummer, that isn’t hard to do. We can only assume the performance was good for those closest to the stage.

USA Today’s description of Andrew Bird as “Beck meets Itzhak Pearlman” describes the singer/violinist/guitarist/whistler perfectly. Bird, with help from accomplished keyboardist Martin Dosh, begins to layer live performances by recording short sections and then switching instruments. This “instant sampling” technique may appear confusing, but he pulls it off and play some wonderfully complex and entertaining songs.

Playing in front of one of the largest crowds of the festival, Matisyahu continues to mystify with his widespread appeal, giving hope to music lovers everywhere by offering up something different from mainstream radio pablum. I say “mystifying” because an Hasidic Jew in yarmulke and black suit, dancing and stage diving while singing reggae about his love of Judaism, would have been considered some sort of novelty at face value. But there’s nothing gimmicky about his band’s performance. His soaring voice and stage energy entrances the afternoon audience and even his prayer for peace is received enthusiastically.

On the way over, a cabbie asks me for the meaning of “Lollapalooza”. Giving him what I think is the correct answer, I tell him it means something really big. Later, looking on my online dictionary I can only find “something outstanding of its kind”. Outstanding? Hmmm, maybe.

Lollapalooza 2006 is big—perhaps too big. Multiple, long walks from one main stage to another and unexpected “battles of the bands” are two issues that must be addressed. But the festival proves that capitalism and entertainment don’t have to include empty-headed, half-dressed mannequins lip synching through a set of songs hand picked by a record label exec who wouldn’t know a Tweedy from a Tweedle Dum. At one point during the last day, I witness high winds tearing much of the giant blow-up letters off the main entrance so that all you can read is “L-o-l-l-a”. Is the sign “a sign” of things to come? Was the smaller 2005 version more workable? Or will organizers make adjustments and “make it right,” just like the sign that was back in place an hour later, born again like the festival itself.

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