On the train home from Sunday of Lollapalooza, the annual Chicago fest’s fourth and final day, I overheard a telling conversation.
“I meant to see Justice,” said one wide-eyed teen to a stranger asking how the day went. “But I went to the wrong stage and ended up seeing Arcade Fire – I had the greatest time!”
Not only was the remark incredibly endearing (maybe young millenials haven’t been completely brainwashed by EDM culture after all), it was also a testament to the success of the festival’s 26th edition (the 13th held at Grant Park).
When the lineup was initially announced, it got a ton of flak, mostly because the roster’s top few lines seemed comprised of the usual suspects: Lorde returned for her second performance, Chance the Rapper, Muse and Arcade Fire for their third appearances, the Killers for their fourth and Cage the Elephant for their fifth (!) run at Grant Park. So many repeats could pose the risk of waning interest for loyal festgoers, particularly with so many of those names (and quite a few among the undercard as well), repeated across other major music festivals.
My suspicion, though, is that Lolla’s organizers were astutely betting that the majority of ticket buyers would be of newer generations who’d never attended, or only recently started attending, who – like the kid on the train – would be drawn in by a few of the newer acts that appealed to their peer group, then end up discovering some of these mainstays from an organic perspective because, hey, they’re already there.
Isn’t that how fests ought to function anyhow? As means of music discovery, even if it’s hearing an “old” band for the first time, as if they’re something brand new? It’s revealing that many of the bands repeated across other fests through the years still ranked among our top sets – fest organizers don’t book them over and over because they’re copout acts. They’re just damn good performers, merely proving that – as always – Lollapalooza has it’s finger firmly on the pulse of the live music scene.
5. The Lemon Twigs
Admittedly, the debut album from the brothers D’Addario (Brian and Michael), Do Hollywood – 10 songs riffing off an amalgamation of influences including the Beatles, Queen, Todd Rundgren and Roky Erickson, whose song “I Walked With a Zombie” they covered Friday on the Lake Shore stage – is just OK. That said, never in recent memory has there been a band that so consistently wins over unsuspecting fest audiences than the Lemon Twigs.
Though the set started with some sound hiccups (a pretty but all the same stifling cover of R. Stevie Moore’s “I’ve Begun to Fall in Love” was played solo by Brian while a keyboard got fixed), this occasion eventually resulted in the same phenomena. As soon as Michael – shirtless, with feathered hair dyed raven black in contrast to gothic-white face makeup – emerged from the drums to play guitar and sing, jaws became unhinged … and stayed that way. That’s because, particularly on closing Bowie-esque cut “The Queen of My School,” Michael revealed his penchant for epic performances, following nearly every riff with inhumanly high kicks far above his head and wild air-splits that might leave the most agile acrobats in awe.
What I said about the group’s album wasn’t meant as a slight – the production is just a helluva lot more refined than the shred-tactics they employ live. So, if you give it a listen and think that you might just kinda enjoy their live set, remember that a couple thousand people left the Lolla set chatting about how they just got their minds blown, and don’t even hesitate to grab tickets.
Since releasing aptly titled third album Three last October, electro rock duo Phantogram have dialed in their most powerhouse performances to date, partially due to the addition of an extra keyboardist and live drummer, allowing co-vocalist Sarah Barthel to get out from behind her keys and focus on being the formidable frontwoman she was always meant to be.
The band’s Friday evening performance was one of their most beguiling to date with what felt like half the fest’s attendees vying for a spot to dance exuberantly in front the massive main stage, and the group deserves massive kudos for using the platform to deliver what was perhaps the most relevant and important non-musical message of the 4-day weekend.
“I lost my sister a year and a half ago to suicide and dedicated most of the songs on Three to her,” said Barthel during a mid-set pause. “I want to take advantage of this moment to say it’s OK to not be OK. Mental illness is a serious illness, but it’s treatable. It’s 2017 and this world is fucking crazy … so be honest with yourself and talk to somebody if you need to. That’s all. Thank you.”
In light of the industry’s recent losses – not to mention all those that occur everyday around the world – I think I speak for everyone when I say, thank you, Sarah, for your words, for making your time on stage about something bigger than music.
3. Maggie Rogers
Halfway through Maggie Rogers’ early Sunday afternoon set on the massive Grant Park (main) stage, a buddy of mine (and experienced fest producer, it’s worth noting) turned to me and said, “She’s gonna be a star.”
By the end of the Maryland-bred singer’s set, it was obvious that – between putting out her hit EP Now That the Light is Fading back February and playing festivals the world over up to present day – she already is one, easily shining as bright as her youthful chanteuse contemporaries (Taylor Swift, Lorde).
She came off most like those established pop artists in her professional poise: dressed in a red jumpsuit with silver streamers dangling from the arms, she exuded fearlessness during choreography behind songs like “Dog Years,” “On + Off” and “Alaska,” and that fieriness leant balance to the gripping grace of quietly sung opener “Color Song.” Throughout all of those, she showed that at just 23 (and a year out of college, as she pointed out) her vocal range and pitch are a cut above – her flawless switches to falsetto were utterly rapturous.
“I don’t know if you guys knew this right now, but I’m on the main stage at Lollapalooza, so everything is awesome!” she half-shouted with a laugh. Seems likely it won’t be her last run up there either, though she’ll doubtless be billed much higher from here on out.
2. Cage the Elephant
In less than a decade, Cage the Elephant has become one of America’s greatest live bands, and within the last year the Kentucky-bred rockers have proven themselves worthy of headliner status at major festivals across the globe. On Friday at Lolla, they took the runner-up spot to Muse on the Grant Park stage, which was all for the better given that it meant they avoided the storm that halted the British trio’s set only three songs in.
Besides, with the glow of the setting sun cutting through the Chicago skyline, it was far easier to see the shine of frontman Matt Shultz’s pink sequined dress, which he paired with fishnet stockings and studded platform shoes, looking like some cross between Iggy Pop and Rocky Horror’s Dr. Frank-N-Furter.
“I thought I’d look pretty for you guys today,” he said, subtly referencing the title of the band’s most recent studio album. “I like to look pretty.”
Promotion of transgender rights wasn’t addressed directly, but certainly a push for freedom of expression and equality for all people was intended.
“There’s so much hatred, division and separation in this world, and it simply does not exist!” he exclaimed. “There is one race on this planet … so let’s celebrate love today.”
Suffice to say, among a slew of catchy, career-spanning anthems – especially paired with the band’s freewheeling stage antics, which included multiple runs into the crowd, flamboyant antics, partial nudity and high jumps surrounded by pyro – that mission was mightily accomplished.
1. Arcade Fire
Over the course of two nights in Chicago – Saturday at the intimate Metro, and Sunday on Lollapalooza’s main stage – Arcade Fire created a collective moment that easily nabbed top marks among the 26th annual fest’s expansive roster.
At the former gig, the Canadian 7-piece treated 1,100 fortunate fans to seven of thirteen songs off fifth studio album Everything Now, with the anthemic call-and-response of “Creature Comfort” rising above as the most galvanic of the bunch. It felt like the whole room was belting out every word flawlessly, despite the record dropping just under a week ago (July 28). The reaction was easily on par with all-in crowd choruses for older favorites like “No Cars Go,” “Ready to Start” and “Here Comes the Night Time,” which saw frontman Win Butler clearing the barricade and dancing through the audience until the song’s conclusion. The “after-show” gig was made even more special with the live debut of “Dimensions,” an instrumental cut off the Her motion picture soundtrack, which here featured lyrics for the first time ever.
About the 24 hours later, the group delivered an epic Day 4 rally and fest finale at Grant Park, scaling back on new tunes but weaving in more from Funeral (“Neighborhood #1 [Tunnels]”) and Reflektor (the album’s title track made for an electrifying one-two punch dance-off paired with “Afterlife” toward the set’s end). Though each night’s encore began with their usual closer, the massively cathartic “Wake Up,” an expected coda of John Lennon’s “Mind Games” followed in both cases. It felt particularly momentous on Sunday, in front of tens of thousands who may have never heard the song previously, when the band belted out the choruses: “Love is the answer and you know that for sure / Love is a flower / You got to let it, you gotta let it grow.”
And when the group wove in snippets of Radiohead’s “Karma Police” and David Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things” with the song’s final measures, they snuck in one more key idea: Just as those tunes are connected forever by the artists’ capacity to communicate powerfully poetic ideals over uncannily similar chord progressions, so are all people inevitably bound by their propensity to propel one another toward peace. And what better way to begin than with live music?
Honorable mentions, in no particular order:
Jain, the Frenchwoman whose dance-inducing African-influenced beats and vocal melodies could’ve only been enhanced on Thursday by a live band and visuals evoking the magnificence of her music videos (trust me, regardless of musical tastes, you should peep those immediately).
Chance the Rapper, whose Saturday night headlining set, though somewhat underwhelming compared to expectations, reportedly drew the largest audience in Lollapalooza history.
The Districts, the Pennsylvania-based 4-piece whose material off upcoming new album Popular Manipulations – in combination with their emotionally powerhouse Friday afternoon performance – felt like a precursor a future full of arena gigs.
Royal Blood, currently Britain’s rowdiest rock duo, who on Saturday injected their distortion-laden grooves with enough swagger to give their obvious influencers Queens of the Stone Age (who they’ll open for on tour this fall) a run for their money.
Sylvan Esso, a whirlwind of sultry-smooth vocals, mesmerizing dance moves and infectiously catchy electro-pop beats (a là members Amelia Heath and Nick Sanborn), whose relentless energy Saturday night might’ve swept up as many or more music fans as either headliner that evening (Chance, the xx and Mac DeMarco) had they been given the (deserved) chance to command a main stage.