Living in the sprawl

Tom Pilcher

The New Pornographers (Jami Lin)

I always felt I was missing out on something by not going to a huge summer music festival. Warped Tour just never seemed to work out when I was younger, and by the time I got to high school, big outdoor music festivals lost their luster. Lollapalooza? Overpriced. Pitchfork? Kind of a gamble, music-wise. And I had already been to Summerfest enough times to know the routine.
However, this year I managed to score a press pass to Lollapalooza for The Lawrentian, which turned out to be a great way to end the summer. I met up with old friends in Chicago, saw tons of great music and interviewed a few bands; all in all, a really fun, really exhausting weekend.Friday
Lollapalooza is incredibly massive, and by the end of the weekend I had missed a few bands I wanted to see because I didn’t feel like walking for 15 minutes to get to the other end. But the first day, after finding the press check-in, I walked north to the other end of the festival to catch some Wavves – no, really, that’s the band’s name.
Though front man Nathan Williams is irritating to the extreme, he writes a few catchy tunes and the rhythm section, Billy Hayes and Stephen Pope – of the late Jay Reatard’s group – locked in well together. Still, one can only take so many songs about smoking weed, being bored and smoking weed.
Next, I trekked down to the other end of the festival to catch New York indie quintet The Walkmen. For a 1 p.m. set, the group drew a decent crowd that seemed to know the music well.
The languid, meandering guitar lines, non-traditional approach to drumming and lead singer Hamilton Leithauser’s powerful, Bob Dylan-tinged howl made for an excellent August afternoon soundtrack. “Lisbon,” the band’s new album, drops Sept. 14, and it should be a strong year-end list contender based on how “Stranded” and “Angela Surf City” sounded live.
After meeting up with some old friends, I passed the rest of the afternoon watching Chicago native and gospel legend Mavis Staples collaborate with Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy to cover The Band’s “The Weight.”
Canadian indie troupe The New Pornographers followed Staples with a set jam-packed with hits, and the rare addition of sun hat-wearing Neko Case and crazy-haired Dan Bejar made for an entertaining set. Best moment: Neko Case gently poking fun at headliner Lady Gaga by saying, “I bet Lady Gaga will have a better hat than me.”
Speaking of the Lady herself, I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like her two-hour headlining set. Here’s a laundry list of observations, which is the only way to convey the weirdness: bizarre neon signs, a green car with a keyboard in the hood, an outfit resembling a lampshade, a fountain resembling the Virgin Mary spouting fake blood, a “disco bra,” and Gaga asking all the guys to “whip out your f***ing dicks” after addressing the rumor that she has a penis.
And that covers maybe a fourth of her set. I’m no Gaga acolyte, but her set was entertaining, her backing band was talented and as Carl Newman of The New Pornographers said, “She seems harmless enough.”

Saturday
After interviewing Andrew Seward, the bass player from Florida punk band Against Me!, I caught the last 20 minutes of Harlem’s set as I looked for shade. Throughout the weekend, the idiotically named Sony Bloggie Stage proved to be a good place to rest and people watch, away from the sprawling, sweaty masses at the massive Budweiser and Playstation area or the immense Parkways Foundation stage.
I mentioned this earlier, but Lollapalooza really is a sprawl. I did appreciate the amount of music I got to see over the weekend, but a more manageable and possibly smaller festival would be nice. One great part of Lolla, though: free water refill stations, which most huge festivals don’t have.
Saturday should have been called “synth pop Saturday,” as Stars brought its orchestral-tinged grandeur and energy that afternoon and fellow Canadian band Metric played an impressively attended dinnertime set. Both bands frequently swap members with Canadian indie big shots Broken Social Scene, and their lively performances were great to see, especially in sweltering Chicago humidity.
That night, I chose to go see the French band Phoenix over Green Day, but it was a great decision. A strange choice for a headliner, the band nevertheless put on a great show and assembled a large, energetic crowd that was extremely familiar with its newer material.
Even though the light show outshone the songs at times, Phoenix sounded great live. Awestruck lead singer Thomas Mars even admitted, “This is the largest crowd we’ve ever played.”
The set dragged during a time-killing rendition of “Love Like A Sunset Part I,” but any band that can open and close its set with hits like “Lisztomania” and “1901” is a great festival headliner in my book.

Sunday
Lolla started to catch up with me Sunday, so I vowed to take it easy, much to the appreciation of my sore feet. The rain in the morning gave me hope that it would stay cool, but instead, the day just grew steamier as it progressed.
I wandered through the masses to the Playstation stage to catch the last half of The Dodos’ set and wondered if everyone else felt as tired as I did. By the looks on people’s faces, they did. Lolla is exhausting, and next time I go to a festival, I’ll let myself drift more and not enter with a set schedule.
Anyway, The Dodos were much better live than I anticipated, bringing an unrestrained, manic energy to rhythmic, upbeat, folk-tinged pop. Neko Case even joined them for a few tunes, so they must be doing something right.
I saw Minus the Bear, Yeasayer and Blitzen Trapper that afternoon, but none of the performances really stuck with me. However, while eating dinner, I watched the Scottish troubadours in Frightened Rabbit play an earnest, extremely enjoyable set for everyone who didn’t want to see MGMT. Though a muddy sound mix didn’t do them any favors, the group’s songwriting abilities shone through, and I decided to check them out later.
Sunday’s big story was the back-to-back performances by New York’s gloomiest band, The National, and Canada’s indie kings, Arcade Fire. Both groups released stellar new albums this year, so their back-to-back pairing seemed like a great way to end the festival – at least, it seemed that way until I realized that I would have to leave The National early to secure a good spot for Arcade Fire.
The National sounded great, as usual, but the band didn’t seem to have the immediate energy and presence that it had in Milwaukee last summer. This lack of energy may have had something to do with their opening number, the somber “Runaway” from 2010’s “High Violet.”
However, lead singer Matt Berninger did bring out Richard Reed Parry from Arcade Fire for a few tunes, which sounded excellent and let the crowd imagine all the other possible “cool indie rock” friendships out there.
What is there to say about an Arcade Fire concert that hasn’t been said already? The band’s explosive, larger-than-life performance energy matches the course of its recent popularity, recently selling out a few nights at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The band even convinced cult film director Terry Gilliam – Freshman Studies, anyone? – to direct a YouTube webcast of one performance.
Did I mention that their new album “The Suburbs” hit number one on the Billboard charts after it came out in August, even though the band released it on the independent label Merge Records?
The band’s closing set at Lolla proved that no other band out there can carry a massive festival crowd the same way, and that “Wake Up” and “Rebellion (Lies),” the two huge hits from 2005’s “Funeral,” still sound as poignant today as they did then.
Though everyone’s feet were so
re, backs damp with sweat and eardrums ringing, the crowd brought the same energy and excitement that they did for the first day of the festival.
As the huge crowd sang the wordless chorus of “Wake Up” to convince the band to play an encore, I realized that experiences like this were ones that I couldn’t duplicate at smaller club shows. Though the festival truly was a sprawl, it was a fun one, and I would certainly go back again if given the chance.

B.O.B. (Jami Lin)

Stars (Jami Lin)

The Dodos (Jami Lin)

Metric (Jami Lin)

The New Pornographers (Jami Lin)

B.O.B. (Jami Lin)

Stars (Jami Lin)

The Dodos (Jami Lin)

Metric (Jami Lin)

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