EDITOR'S NOTE: This year's 20th anniversary edition of Lollapalooza in Chicago's Grant Park was once again a live, breathing, three-day mixtape featuring star artists (Coldplay, Eminem, Foo Fighters), established performers, cult heroes and up-and-comers. Local writer Leyla Shokoohe attended her very first Lollapalooza this past weekend and agreed to write about the experience for CityBeat. Below is her report on Day 1 as well as video from some of the performances mentioned, mostly from Lollapalooza's YouTube page. Keep an eye on this space for Day 2 and 3 dispatches soon.
The first day of Lollapalooza 2011 in Chicago came faster than I expected. Cincinnati’s own Walk the Moon was featured this year (on Day 2), making it the perfect reason to get up to Chicago and cover the Dance/Pop band's lightning-fast ascent in the music world. I had the pleasure of interviewing the boys on Thursday, the evening before Lolla, and their excitement was palpable, but contained. (Look for the interview soon.)
I wandered around the grounds of Lolla (at the huge, lakeside Grant Park) before anyone was present— it was quite the ghost town, formidable-looking, and pretty damn cool. Excitement was racing through my veins; I’d never been to a huge music festival before, and didn’t really have any idea what to expect.
Rule No. 1 of Lollapalooza or any other applicable huge, outdoor music festival — Expect the unexpected. Always.
I got to Lolla first day Friday just before 1 p.m. with my list of bands marked and a map firmly in grasp. I’m not a free-falling risk-taker. I take calculated risks, where I think I can assess all potential outcomes and come up with solutions if bad ones arise. This is a strategy that doesn’t really apply to Lollapalooza, as will be further evidenced as I relay my mis/adventures.
First up was Young the Giant at the Bud Light stage at 1 p.m. This was on the very far right side of Grant Park, so I had a trek. (Mistake No. 1: Not wearing sneakers. Warning — thong leather sandals will leave you blistered.) I’d been introduced to YTG, a five-piece Indie Rock outfit from California, by a friend and I was looking forward to hearing them live. They didn’t disappoint.
Lead singer Sameer Gadhia has a voice like crackly honey, and the huge crowd was responsive and super-pumped. They remind me of the Strokes with their mid-tempo swagger, but then they kick it up a notch and blast into soaring, emotional anthems. I was impressed with the wall of sound produced during the show. I know Lollapalooza is all outdoors, but the sound really just resonated and carried. To that note, I made a mental reminder to find earplugs as soon as possible. (Mistake No. 2: Not bringing earplugs. I’ve never worn them; I’ve always enjoyed the experience of listening to music undiluted and unfiltered. Never more. My eardrums are too valuable to me.)
It was sunny and mercifully humidity-free (mostly), which made standing next to everyone like sardines in a can pretty bearable. I stayed at the Bud Light stage for Grace Potter and the Nocturnals’ first-ever Lollapalooza performance at 2:30 p.m. I had never listened to her before, but everyone buzzes about her back home in Cincinnati, so I figured what better time to see what the fuss was about than at Lolla?
She was awesome. A powerhouse vocalist with impeccable styling, Potter typifies the badass female singer. Her slightly gravelly voice is akin to a happier Stevie Nicks. She rocked out on the piano and her backing band, the Nocturnals, were equally cool and focused. There was so much energy on the stage. I love seeing musicians have a great time and put on a great show.
The audience was equally hyped. During their best-known hit, “Paris (Ooh La La),” Potter switched up the lyrics from “ooh la la la la la la la la” to “La-la-la-la-la-pa-loo-za,” which everyone got a kick out of. There were ginormous stuffed tigers laying on amps and something really cool — a sign language interpreter. I love that deaf and hearing-impaired people can experience Lollapalooza in this regard. The interpreter was having a lot of fun; she was shaking her ass as much as Potter. Their song "Medicine" is a wonderfully bluesy Rock tale of a temptress and her prey, and during its performance, the entire band went nuts. Everyone left their instruments, grabbed a drumstick and started pounding away on the drum kit. It was awesome.
I stayed on the far right side of Grant Park for the first three or four hours of Day 1, and at 3:30 p.m. Smith Westerns (pictured above) were up next on the Playstation Stage. I had missed them when they came through Cincinnati and played MOTR back in June, so I was glad for the chance to catch them at Lollapalooza.
I was right up front during the band's set, about four feet from the MASSIVE speakers. Cue my friend Jacques, who came up with my photographer friend Tiffany Dawn Nicholson. He was like a festival fairy, dropping bright-orange earplugs in my hand and offering a swig of smuggled Jack before continuing on his merry way. I took the earplugs, passed on the Jack. It was too early for drinking.
Smith Westerns turned out to be a reverby Dream Pop band of young dudes. Their music was fine, but nothing really grabbed me. I smelled more pot at this stage than any other one the first day, that’s for sure.
I wandered to the media tent at this point, seeking free water. The nice thing this year at Lolla was the fact that if you purchased a $2 box of water (yes, box … with advertisements for Rango, a western movie about a lizard), you could refill it all weekend at any of the Camelbak water stations. I guess it’s been different every other year, but that’s what the friendly website told me. That was nice, but I’m dead-broke, so I passed and made the mile hike to the tent.
I was totally that girl, passing by all the tents that held radio people and Spin reporters and Rolling Stone writers to grab two boxes of water and stuff my bag with the free mini-size granola bars and bags of vegan pecans. I also hoard hotel shampoo and conditioner, thank you very much.
I heard a few minutes of White Lies, playing on the Music Unlimited stage, another of the four main stages (two each at opposite ends, which blows for catching pieces of multiple simultaneous sets, what with navigating through throngs of drunk, stoned and stupid teenagers and burnouts). A really good Indie Rock group, the lead singer reminded me a little bit of Morrissey, the drums were pounding all over the place and the crowd was massive.
I booked it to see Cults on the Google stage, a name that makes a lot more sense if you have Google . I do, but didn’t at the time I found out I was going to Lollapalooza, so I just thought it meant Google PLUS music. Cute, Leyla, really cute.
In any case, I had had the absolute dumb luck to run into a guy at the media meet-and-greet (a place for writers, photogs and other press people to get wasted on free vodka and Heinken) two days before who is not only from Cincinnati (Forest Park! Represent?) but also works for Chicago venue/bar The Empty Bottle. The club had an official Lolla “after-show” on Thursday, featuring Cults and two other bands, Guards and Writer. (Nobody likes the word ‘the’ anymore, it seems.) He scored me a ticket to the sold-out show, and I fell “in” with Cults. (See what I did there?) In any case, Cults were great that night in a crowded, dirty, dimly-lit, baby-powder-prank-filled club, and just as good outdoors in the sunlight.
Lead singer Madeline Follin has a lovely voice and she really entranced the audience. She was so passionate during Cults’ performance. They sound like waking up from a dream or a beach party in the rain. Definitely Dream/Noise Pop, but their live performance brings a more powerful element of reality to the mix. The song “Go Outside” sounds twinkly and vaguely eerie recorded, but fresh and surprising live.
Oh, and it has to be said — I ran into another person from Cincinnati at the Empty Bottle during Cults’ show. Steve Schmoll, who does/has done sound just about everywhere in Cincinnati, is running Cults sound during their tour. He did a great job.
I booked it back to the other side of Grant Park, again, to catch Two Door Cinema Club on Sony’s stage at 5 p.m. They had the biggest crowd I’d seen yet, and were energetic, fun and earnest. The crowd went insane when they played “What You Know," a prime example of the band's cleverly layered guitar hooks, punchy drums and sing-a-long refrains.
My feet hated me by this point in the early evening, so I took a break from everything and camped out in a vacant lounge chair under some trees. I missed Bright Eyes, who I had really wanted to see (Conor Oberst definitely understood my 19-year-old angst and disillusionment), but I was so tired, I honestly didn’t care.
I chilled for about an hour and mustered the energy to pop into to see Crystal Castles, back at the Sony stage, around 7:30 p.m. I was unimpressed. I’ve listened to them before and find their Thrash-Indie-Noise-Electronica fun and intriguing, but live? Not that great. I don’t know what it was, but the sound seemed really off during the whole set. I get that they are all convoluted sounds and effects, but I couldn’t make any sense of any of what I heard. And I’ve listened to their entire self-titled debut album on repeat, many times. It just didn’t translate for me this time. I did appreciate vocalist Alice Glass crowd-surfing in the throng of dance music worshipers gathered in adoration. That was definitely cool.
I caught about 20 minutes of Afrojack at "Perry’s" stage, the enormous white tent where people tripping on everything possible find musical mecca in thumping bass, flashing lights and too many glowsticks to count. Afrojack was SO MUCH FUN. My notes literally say just that, in all caps.) They did a hot remix of ‘Time of My Life," that Dirty Dancing song, spliced with the Black Eyed Peas and everyone on the adjacent street was dancing and singing along. It was an outdoor rave, with even more ridiculous lights and Port-A-Potties.
I had a tough call for the end of the night: Girl Talk or Muse? I had just missed Girl Talk in Cincinnati and I really, really wanted to get my dance on, even though I love Black Holes and Revelations and Muse in general. I rolled the dice and stayed at Perry’s for Girl Talk. And I was satisfied. I danced until I couldn’t breathe anymore, probably aided by the eight million people that were crushed up around me, so I made a sprint for the closest open side of the tent and enjoyed the last reverberations of Girl Talk as I made my way out of the park, to navigate the “L” then return for another, better-hydrated day of Lollapalooza tomorrow.
Photo by Tiffany Dawn Nicholson