It sounded like the perfect plan: leave the KDHX studios at 1am and drive all night to Chicago, arriving at my crash spot with time to spare before picking up my badge and beginning coverage of Lollapalooza. As usual, the best-laid plans did as they are wont to do and before you know it, I've blown through a toll booth, gotten lost in the Art District and, of course, gotten soaked in the unexpected torrential downpour.
The beginnings of the trip were likely just a fluke, a narrative red herring to make me appreciate the rest of the trip, since I was in for one of the best music festival lineups in the Midwest. Over the next three days, I will see legendary new-wave pop band New Order, industrial bohemoths Nine Inch Nails, goth godfathers The Cure, indie-pop's wunderkind The Postal Service and dozens more bands whose names I can't even remember right now. 140+ bands on 7 stages over 3 days, 12 hours a day. Like everyone else on the Eleven staff, I have my “must-see” list, I have some outliers whose records really moved me and I have the dark horse, come-from-nowhere bands whose names are the only indication I have of their quality. Yes, I know these bands are eminantly Googleable, but for the moment, I'm going to let the festival spirit guide me. I recall a few bands whose existence was a mystery to me until happening upon them at other such festivals: the two-girl hip-hop attack of Thee Satisfaction at LouFest, bludgeoning L7-style glam metal goddesses Betty Blowtorch at a Warped Tour and also at the same Warped Tour a hyperbolic rapper who goes by the name Glue. The point is, no amount of preparation can prevent sudden downpours or traffic jams, and the same holds true for which bands will make a mark on a festival-goer. There are just some moments you can't prepare for and that's exactly why we're here.
The day is particularly beautiful for a Chicago summer. Despite a few moments of light rain, the weather is near perfect.
There seems to be an EDM theme running through the first day of Lollapalooza, starting with the first group I encountered, Brite Lite Brites, a house-by-way-of-big-beat version featuring a glorious female singer who managed to captivate a small but appreciative audience early in the festivities. The next stop was Robert DeLonge, a future LouFest performer, whose version of EDM was quite different: using vocal loops and some live percussion, he was able to impart a heartfelt, funky human element that EDM is often missing. The crowd, though still nowhere near its eventual mass, reacted quite well, creating pulsing waves of movement with each new bleat and squawk. When he sings “did I make you fucking dance?” the answer is a fist-in-the-sky HELL YEAH!
I was less impressed with The Neighborhood, whose sound and live show left a lot to be desired. They were a full-throated Coldplay/Snow Patrol style mid-tempo AOR band, but the reception from the crowd was quite good, so maybe the fault doesn't lie with the players but with my taste in particular.
My taste also includes a huge love of '90s R&B; from TLC to Next to ABC and back, I love it all. Which is why British chanteuse Emile Sande hit all the right buttons for me: classic-sounding R&B with a live backing band, which sometimes would ramp into a devious breakbeat ala British electropop.
On a similar if not same page was D-Pryde, whose throwback '90s hip-hop was anchored by even more classy production. Imagine if Will Smith wasn't shy about writing songs about real things rather than just playing up his roles in movies. That was precisely the comparison this warranted: DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, like the TV shows and the movie roles never happened. Classic feel-good positive hip-hop.
One of the groups that was an unknown to me before this trip was girl-girl duo Deap Vally. Despite their ridiculously spelled name, they flat out ruled. Two-woman guitar/drums blasts with shades of Zeppelin. Blues-influenced two-piece bands are nothing new—see also Pack A.D., Black Keys, etc.—but rarely does their singer have as much gusto and talent as was on display here. A sleeper hit, in my book.
The rain started and stopped just in time for Swedish metal band GHOST B.C., whose sound doesn't owe to black metal screamers as it does to their contemporaries System of a Down or, hell, even Dio. Theirs is a brand of metal more melodic in its focus and more operatic in its vocal delivery. Thus far, one of the heaviest bands – so loud and heavy that you could hear them clear across Grant Park, which is no easy feat.
Bricks and Mortar, another upcoming LouFest performer, requested a shout-along near the end of their set and they sure got it. The ragga-influenced beats-and-keys duo brought a funky focus to their Matt and Kim hyperactive bash-and-pop. Drums were truly front and center, a crushing storm amidst the fractured beauty, and the last song, “Bangs,” was fuzzed-out bass heaven.
Early in the day at such an event, it's a mad scramble to get from one stage to the next to the next to the next, then back again, trying to catch at least a part of everything—especially since most of it is so brand new. I don't really want to miss anything, for fear I'll miss out on something I really wanted to see but didn't yet know I really wanted to see.
So it was for most of the day, and the picks above really reflect that. But once the 5pm hour hits, the really difficult decisions loom: a choice must be made between several established bands that I'm already a fan of and determine which one I actually like more. Do I pick the blues-metal of Queens Of The Stone Age, whose new album “...Like Clockwork” is a continuation of their already stellar catalogue? Or do I go for a rare live performance by a sorta-reunited New Order, the band born from the ashes of the ne-plus-ultra bands I loved as a teen? For me, the inner goth won out, as it tends to, and he demanded New Order. I think we made the right choice.
Before New Order could take the stage, Imagine Dragons had to finish and, despite my irritation at their new single “Radioactive,” they brought a huge crowd and kept them satisfied. Even I, in my stone-hearted abstinence, found myself saying, “Well, I like THIS one.” Their rise is quite unique—my travelling companions tell me that not more than a year ago these same guys had a hard time filling the Firebird. That type of meteoric rise is noteworthy at very least, right? I don't have many notes on them as I was still trying to rectify the image I had of them from their single and how the songs sounded in a live setting.
If the theme of the day was dance music, well: New Order has made some of the fiercest, most popular dance tunes to come from Tony Wilson's Factory label. They stormed the stage and slayed with a combination of classic tracks and some deeper cuts. Despite their aging appearances, New Order really made the night for me. Hearing those classic tunes—“Bizarre Love Triangle”!—in a live setting made them all that much more special. After all these years, these tunes, which are so dear to me, are lovingly reproduced and almost curated like a museum display by their original creators. But the real icing on the cake was the final two songs of their set, which were, to my surprise, Joy Division tunes. My personal favorite, “Transmission,” and the biggest JD hit “Love Will Tear Us Apart” brought the massive crowd together in a singalong of epic proportions that I'm sure Ian would have loved. As the last line of “Transmission”—"dance dance dance to the radio"—rang out, the dubstep/trap duo Flux Pavilion next door threatened to drown them out. But then came "Love Will Tear Us Apart." And the screens behind them read “FOREVER JOY DIVISION.” If that doesn't make you wanna cry, you have no heart.
Some part of choosing your battles on festivals like these is also knowing when to leave. After New Order, I made my way to the stage where industrial legends Nine Inch Nails were to play. Before NIN would take the stage, the band opposite them needed to finish their set. And who would that be but blunted EDM-aping remix artists Lance Herbstrong. Despite their stoner-baiting name, the delivered a glorious set of weird electro-rock jams, with live guitar and funky onstage video installations. Although their set consisted mostly of their new album Meth Breakfast, they did sneak a few surprises in, not the least of which was an inspired Bloc Party remix.
Nine Inch Nails. What is there left to say about Trent Reznor and his dark legacy of industrial angst? Plenty more, by the looks of things. The stage show has always been a dash of alchemy: some songs when presented live don't have the sturm and drang that they do on a heavily produced album, so re-workings happen constantly. But the ebb and flow of those changes—playing old material straight, adding in new songs that haven't been released, throwing a glimmer of KISS-esque spectacle—seems to make the show much more worthwhile.
Reznor and company exploded onto the stage with a brand-new song from the upcoming album “Hesitation Marks,” an as-yet-unidentified song about being a mindless drone, a “copy of a copy of a copy.” (This brings up a weird parallel, since Chuck Palahnuik, author of Fight Club, has intimated throughout the years that Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral were the soundtrack to his writing that particular novel, well, now Palahnuik has one of his lines from Fight Club woven into a song by Nine Inch Nails. Funny how that works.)
From there, the set veered wildly into both new and familiar territory—the tension/release of “March of the Pigs” was particularly brutal—while still feeling fresh and new.
Which one could interpret as being another theme for the day. After all, without Trent Reznor's chart-topping ode to sex and self-loathing “Closer,” and New Order's bass-driven melancholia “Blue Monday,” would guys like Flux Pavilion et al still exist?