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.
It’s funny how the Lollapalooza organizers put Lady Gaga and the Strokes on at the same time. In terms of performance, they couldn’t be more different. On one hand, you have Gaga’s massive, bombastic, sometimes awesome, sometimes hopelessly melodramatic performance-playhouse spectacle: costume changes, rubber monsters, dodgy symbolism, and of course, explosions. On the other hand, you have the Strokes, whose Julian Casablancas muttered, “Fireworks, shit,” when he saw the giant display exploding above Gaga’s stage. There’s absolutely nothing scripted about the Strokes; they just want you to open your ears and listen to their songs, and if you don’t want to, that’s okay too, man. The Strokes are inherently unplanned: their music seems to lazily slide out of their instruments; every rasp, yell, or talk that Julian lets loose sounds spur-of-the-moment; and the guitar solo on “The Modern Age” sounded more spirited than ever before. They’re so goddamn cool, but without ever trying to be cool. It’s almost irritating. Naturally, the crowd at Lollapalooza welcomed the former It Band with open arms. Everyone is happy the Strokes are back, even the Strokes themselves.
The Morning Benders
The Morning Benders was one of the most surprisingly shafted groups in the lineup. Given the buzz surrounding Big Echo, as well as their mtvU spots, you’d think they’d demand a later slot than a 12-o’clock, 30-minute set on the Bloggie stage. That point was reiterated when almost the entire field was occupied by early-risers making a specific effort to catch the band. The Morning Benders certainly seemed grateful, understanding the concerted effort their fans took to get there that early, and like the crowd-pleasers they are, their set was composed completely of material people know. Nothing off of earlier efforts Talking Through Tin Cans or The Bedroom Covers. Every song they played came off of the strong Big Echo. The set sagged in the middle due to a few slower cuts, but the audience was plenty enamored to stick it out, and it all came to a head with the kaleidoscopic, sample-heavy “Excuses,” which quickly turned into a full sing-along. It was a summer set at its finest.
I’ve seen the xx three times now. Because of that, I’m probably a little more prone to becoming fatigued by their shtick than the casual fan. The band has been touring the same 40-minute record and pair of covers for about eight months now, and I’m as surprised as anyone that they still seem enthusiastic about the whole thing—or at least they’re good at faking it. When Romy Madley Croft started slamming down on a cymbal (as he always does) during closer “Infinity,” he still looks genuinely enveloped by the song despite repeating it night after night. The band incorporates their iconography into their act in a meaningful way. There’s something rather striking about three pasty, goth-lite, barely-out-of-college kids dressed in all black, with a huge monolithic “X” looming over them. The visuals have a cold, majestic effect, especially when it’s juxtaposed with atmospheric cuts like “Crystalised” and “Intro.” They seem to recognize the power that their minimal, monochromatic cover design has, and it’s striking even in the mid-afternoon August heat. As they proved with their Coachella appearance earlier this year, the band is gifted enough to overcome even the brightest of environments.
This was the act I geeked out about when the lineup was announced, the one I swore to attend even if it meant abandoning Spoon early to snag a good spot, and judging by a few conversations I had with the other people in the first few rows, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Cut Copy doesn’t often get out to the U.S., which isn’t surprising for an Australian band, so, naturally, the crowd went absolutely apeshit when the sharply dressed, sharply synchronized foursome kicked off their set (with the single “Lights and Music”). The audience was made up entirely of diehard Cut Copy fans; hell, when the band rolled out the brand-spankin’-new single “Where I’m Going,” people repeated the hook like it was a heavily fetishized B-side. Cut Copy’s was easily the most euphoric and entertaining show of the weekend.
Audiences still don’t really know who Phoenix is yet. They’re the “1901” band more than anything else. Even the band knew that they probably weren’t big enough to be headlining a night at Lollapalooza. “This is the biggest crowd we’ve ever played for!” said an overwhelmed Thomas Mars after a couple of songs, and it was true, at least for a while. The deeper the band got into their set, the more the audience began to dwindle. There was even a significant exit after the first song, the immensely popular “Lisztomania.” The audience treated older, classic jams like “Long Distance Call” and “If I Ever Feel Better” like unfamiliar tracks from an upcoming record, and some people simply talked all the way through Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’s quieter cuts. Longtime Phoenix fans were certainly pleased with the dedication the band had to their older material, but it just seemed like a weird end to day two—because of the inattentive audience, not the band.
There was a time when a band like Yeasayer really wouldn’t have been welcomed into the indie realm. They’re just so cartoonishly weird, and so unabashedly into what they’re doing. They’d be more at home opening for the Grateful Dead. But things have changed, and as the indie populace has grown more and more accepting of the formerly blacklisted subgenre of psychedelia, Yeasayer is now a bona fide champion of the indie scene. Watching Chris Keating writhe around on stage like he was having a bad acid trip was easily one of the festival’s more odd moments. The whole head-tripping spectacle actually went really well with the heat and humidity of the afternoon. The band’s throbbing psych-rock sort of merged with the already surrealistic environment of the pastoral, weed-blemished stage, and they thankfully avoided the missteps on their latest album, Odd Blood, and performed only the most live-friendliest of cuts.
The well-bearded Scottish quintet sounded a thousand times thankful and vaguely intimidated by the massive American crowd that had gathered to greet them. The band played a solid mix of material from both The Midnight Organ Fight and The Winter of Mixed Drinks, highlights being the stomping, triumphant “Living in Colour” and the mystical, heart-wrenching ballad “Good Arms vs. Bad Arms.” Frightened Rabbit is at their apex when they’re playing songs about girls, and Scott Hutchinson’s strangled howl is even more resonating when heard live. If this is what emo’s final evolution sounds like, then I’m more than okay with that.
Yes, Arcade Fire was the best band of the weekend (Cut Copy and the Strokes took second and third place, respectively), and yes, the band is plenty big enough to fill a venue of any size. There were some questions from a handful of music journalists about whether Arcade Fire would be able to handle a crowd that literally stretched to the stage on the opposite side of the field, but those were quickly put to rest by big moments like “Neighborhood #1,” “Intervention,” “Neighborhood #3,” “Rebellion (Lies),” and “Wake Up.” Arcade Fire’s songs transcend any questions of popularity and simply trail off into the sky along with the hearts and minds of everybody watching. Predictably, the slower moments came with the newer tracks: “Rococo” and “Sprawl II” don’t have the same immediate gratification, but neither does The Suburbs as a whole. But that didn’t matter, as in the heat of the moment, the band really did become the young, beautiful, and stupidly ambitious teenagers they sing so much about, banging on their instruments as loud as they could and getting wild in the purest of ways—through music.