It’s hard to fathom that the music festival once synonymous with the scraggly, cynical alt-rock of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Rage Against the Machine welcomed Lady Gaga to its main stage a few nights ago. It’s also hard to imagine that Lollapalooza itself has made a full recovery and has found itself back on the throne of American music festivals, and I have to think those two developments are not mutually exclusive. A massive 240,000 people made it out to Chicago’s Grant Park this year, and judging by the band shirts I saw, Gaga and Green Day were the biggest draws (Soundgarden, unsurprisingly, less so). But there’s nothing wrong with that; the world needs a fest that has the ambition and cash to get undisputed superstars to play something other than a stadium. You end up uniting the indie-centric with kids who just simply want to see their favorite bands play and aren’t afraid to fork out a few hundred dollars to do it. But this review isn’t about the business side of things. It’s about the music. I had a chance to catch These United States, the New Pornographers, Hot Chip, Jamie Lidell, Grizzly Bear, and Metric, but it’s the following acts that made the biggest impressions, for better or worse.
It’s pretty rough when your band is scheduled to go on when it’s still technically morning. Brooklyn’s Javelin took the stage at 11:30 a.m. to a modest crowd, most of whom were biding time before the more buzzed-about Wavves. But as you could probably tell from their records, Javelin’s music is easy to sway to. They don’t take themselves too seriously, a lot of their music informed by the hipsterish, vaguely ironic nostalgia for 8-bit video games, Saturday-morning cartoons, and I imagine a fair amount of weed. However, they’re a lot more cheerful about the whole thing than most acts of that thread: There was a lot good-natured interplay between the two members, with the drummer essentially doing the running man the entire time he was on stage. A few of the songs sounded weird for weird’s sake, and Javelin’s music seems to be based on pure gimmick. I’m all for video game samples, but it’s something I expect from a YouTube remix or a “Weird Al” Yankovic song.
Growing up in San Diego, it’s been pretty surreal watching local boy Nathan Williams transform from some hipster skateboarder to scene hero to hotly debated blog topic to nationally regarded rock n’ roller. In its previous live incarnation, the awkward-looking dudes that make up Wavves banged out noise that somewhat resembled songs before mumbling a few thank you’s and wandering off stage. That’s not the case anymore: Williams looks really good playing a guitar now, with his moppy bedhead blowing in the wind, an indomitable arena-rock power stance, and a more developed angsty drawl. But that doesn’t help the fact that pretty much every Wavves song sounds similar when played live. The set seemed lumped together, a mishmash of slack-jawed “ooh-ooh” harmonies, buzzy guitars, and Black Flag-style drums. It also doesn’t help that the band has some of the most bizarre too-cool-for-school banter I’ve heard in a long time.
The Walkmen could very well be one of the most underappreciated acts of the OC generation. Death Cab for Cutie, Bright Eyes, and Modest Mouse all made the transition into mainstream adoration on the back of that teen show, but despite being featured several times, the Walkmen has always wallowed in the indie chamber. And so, they were given an early afternoon set on a minor stage, which they absolutely dominated. What one doesn’t realize about the Walkmen until seeing them live is just how powerful Hamilton Leithauser’s voice is. He’s the only one on stage with a microphone, with no harmonies or reverb to back him up, and when he belts wavering, emotion-swollen songs like “New Year” or “The Rat,” he couldn’t sound any more natural. He demanded and earned the attention of the entire audience with very little periphery chatter during the slow bits or set breaks. He possesses the same magnetic quality of the National’s Matt Berninger, enchanting what could have become a wayward audience.
This was a tough one. Fuck Buttons, Dirty Projectors, and Matt and Kim, all at the same time, all in completely separate parts of Grant Park. It was the sort of thing you circled when the schedule first came out, and spent the next three months figuring out exactly what to do. For me it simply came down to the fact that, though Dirty Projectors’s Bitte Orca might be the better record, Fuck Buttons’s Tarot Sport would make for a more visceral live experience. Fuck Buttons has a fairly unassuming stage show. It’s essentially two dudes standing on either end of a beer pong table with a labyrinth of electronics in front of them. One handles the bass; the other handles the drone. That modesty is completely eroded, however, when they actually start to play their music. As expected, elements like the synth drop on “Surf Solar,” the swooning clinks on “Olympians,” or pretty much the entirety of “Flight of the Feathered Serpent” were utterly mind-blowing and led to a lot of daytime dancing. It’s easy to give Fuck Buttons shit for playing drones for people who don’t like drones. The band’s live show does have a few experimental brushes, but most of those are buildup for bigger slabs of pure, invigorating pop. I don’t think they’re watering down difficult music for the masses; that’s far too cynical. Fuck Buttons has made it so everyone, not just John Zorn disciples or general weirdos, can experience the natural beauty of drones. Hats off.