(Above: Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis onstage at Lollapalooza 2006. Photo by Dinah Kotthoff)
In its second year as a static festival (as opposed to its heyday in the ‘90s when the traveling alterna-fest brought underground acts together with big name bands), Lollapalooza expanded to three days this year and hosted 130 acts across eight stages in Chicago’s Grant Park. There was a cornucopia of genre and music in which to indulge, including a Kidz stage (which two of Jeff Tweedy’s sons graced as The Blisters) and a BMI stage that focused on emerging local acts.
Beauty kissed Toronto’s Stars. Anchored by singers Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell, the seven-piece delivered a riveting set, though the big rock of Jeremy Enigk from a stage nearby drowned out some of Stars’ intricacies. Despite sonic competition, Millan and Campbell’s flirty vocal interplay was spot on. The tenderness of Iron And Wine followed, though it hit some rock heights one wouldn’t expect from the typically ballad-driven Jonathan Poneman. Later, My Morning Jacket delivered its reverb-drenched, Neil Young-nodding songs to thousands, and it fared well in such a large setting.
The night, however, belonged to Sleater-Kinney. The all-girl rock trio announced its “indefinite hiatus” in June, its Lollapalooza performance was supposedly the last. It was a straightforward but lovely send-off, void of sentimental banter – not even a mention that this would be its last stop. While fans could be disappointed that the gals didn’t offer much of a retrospective of their 12-year career, focusing primarily on excellent last album The Woods, its set was a punked-up, riveting ride.
Ben Gibbard’s soothing vocals were an appropriate way to cap off a long day of rock. “New Year” sauntered in like a lullaby, filling the evening with aching beauty. Later, “Sound of Settling” had the crowd singing jubilantly, while across the field, fireworks lit the sky.
Feist lived up to her name. Leslie Feist can somehow evoke fragility and power in one song. “Gatekeeper” offered sing-along “oo-wa-ha’s” from the audience; later she employed her foot-loop pedal to layer several of her own vocals and guitars. Her chemistry with the band and crowd incited smiles and sing-alongs early on, and she made up funny lines to songs before launching into them. On the other side of the festival, Wolfmother turned up the volume, paying respects to its Black Sabbath influences.
One of the most anticipated shows of Lollapalooza was Gnarls Barkley. The Cee-Lo Green/DJ Danger Mouse project lived up to the hype. Introduced by Lolla figurehead Perry Farrell, who said this was his favorite band, the 12-person group, all dressed as tennis players, filled the stage. Its apt string section began the set with a “We are the Champions” riff before launching into gospel-flavored “Go Go Gadget.” In addition to a cover of “Gone Daddy Gone,” Gnarls Barkley delivered a funkified version of the Doors’ “Who Scared You.” It was one of the most engaging performances of the festival, with dancing backup singers and plenty of grooves to ride. The crowd went “Crazy” for the song of the same name. (Jack White and Brendan Benson’s Raconteurs had covered it the day before, and the following day, Kanye paid respect to it.)
Dancing Santas, grooving aliens, a swarm of balloons and giant blow-up creatures stomping to the beat can only mean one thing…The Flaming Lips. Like kids with new toys, Wayne Coyne and Co. put on a visual spectacle. Coyne wowed fans by enclosing himself in a giant see-through ball and propelling himself into the crowd. Large balloons were filled and tossed into the audience, while Coyne shot confetti in the air. He served as conductor to the audience sing-along during “Free Radicals,” but it was the group’s earlier songs, such as “Do You Realize?,” that stood out.
As the sun made its way behind the city skyline, The New Pornographers brought sunshiny harmonies to the stage. Performing sans alt-country chanteuse Neko Case was a disappointment, but singer-songwriter Carl Newman’s niece and keyboardist, Kathryn Calder, did a fine job with Case’s parts. Standouts included “Graceland” and “Slow Descent Into Alcoholism,” during which a large conga line slithered its way through the field. Melodica, tambourines and crazy time signatures added to the group’s indelible charm.
By the time headliner Kanye West arrived onstage, the field was a sea of heads. Homegrown West gave many shout-outs to his city, bringing out other local but famous talent, like Common and Twista, along for the ride. He and Twista performed the latter’s single, “Celebrity,” and the pair’s massive breakout hit, “Slow Jamz.” Rising star Lupe Fiasco sauntered in on a skateboard to deliver his West-produced hit, “Kick, Push.” West’s backing band was comprised of an alluring string section, backup singers, and his stellar DJ A-Trak. All the big hitters joining him, however, they couldn’t solve the sound issues—long pauses and some ranting from West plagued the set at times. But when he was on, he was on, and all the hits were rolled out, including “Jesus Walks” and “Gold Digger.”
Surprise guest Patti Smith performed three songs on the Kidz stage. Smith’s set was far from aimed at the tots, saying, “I’m living proof that any asshole can play guitar.” She dedicated the poetic “Wing,” a song written for her daughter Jessica, to Love’s Arthur Lee who recently passed away. But it was her recently penned tune about the conflict in Lebanon that galvanized the audience. Her song vividly depicted the deaths of 27 children in Lebanon: “Little bodies caked in the mud,” she sang. “Small, small hands in the street. American bombs, American made. The new Middle East.” It shouldn’t have been surprising to fans of Patti Smith, who’s always been intellectual, political and controversial, but it probably didn’t need to be presented on the Kidz stage.
Ireland’s The Frames put on a riveting show. Singer Glen Hansard smiles and flirts, and sweeping violins give way to full-on rock. On the inspired “People Get Ready” Hansard’s lilting vocal was buoyed by the audience, who sang along as if the mantra could make it so: “We have all the time in the world, to get it right, to get it right. We have all the love in the world to set alight, to set alight.” Nearby, Hot Chip’s ‘80s synth-driven rock bled into Frames’ set on occasion.
Few people would consider Albuquerque, New Mexico, a thriving center for indie rock, yet The Shins, one of the most promising groups to make the scene early this millennium hail from the adobe-bathed city. Frontman James Mercer’s penchant for wry lyrics and early Brian Wilson-styled vocals create the band’s allure and timeless sound. The country-tinged “Gone For Good” and “Kissing the Lipless” were anthemic, and the group tested out a few new tunes from its much-anticipated forthcoming record.
Later, Wilco drew its rabid fanbase to its stage. Jeff Tweedy is pretty much a God in these parts, and the group’s fans can—and do—sing every word to every lyric during its hometown shows. As Wilco often does, the group injected a mix of solid new songs into its standards. “Shot In The Arm” and “Handshake Drugs” were of note; and “I am Trying to Break Your Heart” did just that. “Via Chicago” was especially poignant, its morbid sentiment (“I dreamed about killing you again last night”) a sharp contrast to the pretty music, until Glenn Kotche added an exuberant crash that punctuated the song’s lyrical themes.
Meanwhile, the members of Broken Social Scene were gathering to perform one of the best sets of the festival. It’s hard to tell where the band began and its entourage ended—no less than 75 people gathered on the stage to watch the Toronto group perform. Its members are a Who’s Who of Canadian indie rock, comprising singer/songwriter Jason Collett and members of Stars, Feist and Metric, among others. BSS’s five-piece horn section blasted the crowd into attention, and incited cheers throughout the set. Feist slinked onstage to sing “7/4 Shoreline,” pretty guitar pickings and keyboard line simmering around Feist’s leads before horns happily ushered in. Kevin Drew led the percolating “Handjobs for the Holidays” and the infectious “Superconnected.” But it was “Anthems For a Seventeen Year-Old Girl,” which Drew introduced as a song to break up the “sausage fest” at Lollapalooza, that stole the show. With all the females in BSS (Feist, Amy Millan, Emily Haines) in attendance – a rarity to have the entire crew live – the ladies sang seductively in unison to a roaring crowd. The band had to cut its final song off the list due to an abbreviated set. It was 15 minutes shorter than other main stage performances, due to its stage being located directly across from headliners Red Hot Chili Peppers. Fans chanted for an encore to no avail, screaming “One more song,” “We’re not leaving” and “F— the Chili Peppers.”
It was unfortunate, as Red Hot Chili Peppers haven’t had much new to say in awhile. (How many songs can one band write about California that sound basically the same?). Its white-man funk pleased the crowd, but it was far from the best the weekend had to offer. As the festival’s end drew near, “Give It Away” had a crowd dancing, while the rest of us filtered out of the park into the final sultry night of Lollapalooza 2006.