Celebrating its eighth year under the magnificent Chicago skyline and its twenty-first overall (it can now get into bars), Lollapalooza has once again become the institution it became in the early 1990's. Taking place over three days in Chicago's Grant Park, it serves up an eclectic taste of musical styles alongside tasty food choices, unlimited water and a wonderfully designed setting just off the lakefront with the world's greatest skyline looking down on it. Promoted by C3 Presents in conjunction with the city of Chicago, Lollapalooza has proven to be one of the must-see destination festivals. Eighty-percent of the attendees are from out of town and in my discussions with many of them most bought their passes and tickets before a single act was announced. That's power to have something with such a prevailing name recognition that people come for the experience regardless of who is gracing the concert stage. Despite the incredible atmosphere the engine that drives the festival is the music. Even going back to the original festival in 1991, it has always served up a truly eclectic assortment of music. The 2012 edition is no different with attendance expected to surpass 100,000 during each day. The entire purpose of a festival is for the acts to perform to a larger audience. In my experience alone, I was most surprised at the music discoveries and surprises during its opening day. Whether they are giving the same attention they would in a club, but every so often they witness something or are reminded of the splendor of music and why it invades our soul in an uncompromising fashion, especially when it occurs under a perfect blue sky in one of the world's greatest cities.
The first act to take to the stage opening the festival was First Aid Kit. Perfect blue skies surrounded the city as the folksy sister duo from Sweden ran through a set that bloomed in startling ways. Currently out in support of their second record, The Lion's Roar they performed a set tinged with folk rock circa 1969 with a dash of Nico thrown in for good measure. Despite only having three people on stage, they blended svelte harmonies and dressed them up with an ever so tender acoustic guitar, keyboard and percussion with the integral final ingredient being the fall-to-your-knees harmonies that the two sisters, Klara and Johanna Sφderberg, share song after song. There's a cathartic feel to the purity of their choral harmony vocals. Their formula is unfussy yet attractive but lifts you above the swamp of pain you've been drowning in. They had a drummer back then up who shuffled with spare spaciousness allowing the bare confessionals to be fully digested by the audience and delivered a hypnotic drum kick on "When I Grow Up". The xylophone opening of "Blue" furthers the despair of the narrator as they look into a mirror and no longer recognize the person they see on the other side. First Aid Kit's luminosity is in their minimalism. Unlike most acts, they have the lingering gorgeousness of their lyrics to whisk the listener away to a time and place where heartache was served up three times a day. Their sorrowful voices call to mind resolute longing but also tint our outlook towards greener pastures where the pain will dissolve into eventual happiness.
"Emmylou", their signature song name checks Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash and June Carter. How many acts are certain enough in their craft to compose such a striking love letter to those who opened worlds to them? Most acts would never dare whisper their influences and here is First Aid Kit wearing them on their sleeves and singing about them to its listeners. There was a great authenticity to their performance and despite performing to a large crowd standing on concrete; they made it feel like you were witnessing this in a living room. The First Aid Kit is a rare act who doesn't match the hype, but surpasses it.
On Perry's stage at the far end of the festival were several DJ sets with the White Panda casting a line and pulling in thousands in the process. Under the welting sun which was beating down harder and faster than thug with a baseball bat, the scene in front of the stage looked like a European festival you witness only on television. The crowd was near pandemonium as the beats and creative nature of the song selection captured the crowd's attention. This wasn't merely a random selection of songs but two childhood friends (Tom Evans aka DJ Procrast and Daniel Griffith aka DJ Griffi) who merged their talents becoming one of the defining groups mashing up electronic music. Mashing up a range of thirty years of music from Frankie Goes Hollywood to R.E.M. to Ellie Goulding to Britney Spears, the White Panda was an early highlight of the festival for the crowd participation which left many thunderstruck. Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs (TEED) followed the White Panda and while heart thumping bass beats burned slowly, the reaction from the crowd never quite reached the pinnacle of White Panda's set. I wish TEED had the opportunity to perform before White Panda as it may have changed my view.
The War on Drugs, the Black Angels and Dr. Dog competed against one another on three separate stages covering most of the same time. Catching portions of all three sets, while the Black Angels and their unrelenting buzz box guitars engulfed the large field and Dr. Dog performed a strident set it was the War on Drugs who proved to be the most surprising. On a smaller stage, guitarist and singer Adam Granduciel didn't just plod along but had his guitar zigzag in and out of traffic as the rest of the band followed his lead in quick pursuit.
One of the most anticipated sets of the entire festival was the reunion of the Afghan Whigs, originally formed more than a quarter century ago and is currently touring for the first time in more than a decade. They delivered a high energy performance that the die-hard fans, many of whom attended Lollapalooza to see exclusively, were elated in their reaction. Despite only having sixty minutes to make an impression to the uninitiated the band forged their instruments together for an undeniable late afternoon highlight. Greg Dulli didn't throw up any walls between himself and the audience and instead, appeared to be having the time of his life. Ironically, it was two covers that made me stand up and take attention- "See and Don't See", originally performed by Marie Lyons, and "Lovecrimes" by fellow Lollapalooza performer Frank Ocean. These two songs alongside "66" and "Somethin' Hot" showed me that maybe just maybe this reunion has occurred because they enjoy performing together.
The Head and the Heart were dashing and charming in their hour long set. This is a band not afraid to wear the beating hearts on their sleeves. They hail from Seattle, but they find this magical way to write these songs about longing and yet disguising them with a bubbly energy.
In contrast to the First Aid Kit from earlier in the day, they embellish their sound and it's amped up with bear hug warmth. The guitars dance along as if no one is watching them. Labeled as indie folk-rock, their fit the tag well, but there's so much more to them. They definitely have pop sensibilities and know their way around a song, there is craft in their talents, something often missing from the current generation of musicians. The set highlight was the eye-opening performance of "Ghosts" which portrays themes of growth and leaving home. Some of us expand our horizons; find a new world and others are afraid of the unknown, so in many ways, they die right then and there despite the blood flowing through their veins for several decades. The lyric "But all my friends are sittin' in their graves" is an astute observation and so spot on, you can't help but take it to heart. This is music made for intimate solo moments where the lyric may wash over you like an unexpected downpour of rain. You may be driving, you may have the music on in the background and a friend may play it for you urging you to listen closely while the music is endearing enough to steal your heart. The Head and the Heart tap into the essence of what makes music religious, it connects deeply, persuades the listener to make a alteration and above all else, provides road maps for life when you are lost and not yet found.
A few stages away thenewno2 offered much needed shade as they took to the stage with a brief gust of wind off of Lake Shore Drive behind them. Last time they were in the Chicago area they performed at the Pearl Jam Twenty festival at Alpine Valley and definitely made an impression. This time around, they are performing mere days after their second album release thefearofmissingout. The band opened with a trio of songs off their latest record, "Station", "Make It Home" and "Timezone". Their musical style may not be what most expects, but it's a rather engrossing merge of synthesizers, guitars, howling vocals and explosive drums provided by Frank Zummo who is a sight to behold behind the kit. Harrison worked the stage as the vocalist, all the while performing an instrument whether it was a guitar, a ukulele or a synthesizer. The live show is fundamental. The music leapfrogs to life with a crowd to bounce their sonic wonder off of. The musical puzzles they construct are wondrous on the albums, but the concert stage is where they must be seen to fully be appreciated. On "Timezone" the synthesizers put you in the middle of a concert on a rebel ship interrupted by an invasion of Stormtroopers. "I Won't Go" was a reaching rocker with a clear tip of the hat to 1990's David Bowie. Thenewno2 are a band I haven't seen the last of.
The Shins were playing on one of the largest stages in the festival and their late day set was an unforeseen letdown. The Shins are a band whose records I have found great comfort, release and joy in. I will confess to not being enraptured with their latest album, Port of Morrow which was just released in March. The driving force behind the Shins is James Mercer who acts as guitarist, singer and songwriter. The Shins have always been a band who music is euphoric in the jolt it gives you when those music chords ascend upon your ear tunnels. However, "Simple Song" and "Bait and Switch" from their latest release Port of Morrow left me underwhelmed. "Phantom Limb", "Saint Simon" and "So Says I" were the three cuts that appeared to cause some movement in the crowd. Especially notable was "Phantom Limb" which had the front portion of the stage reaching their arms to the sky where they concurrently swinging them back and forth for an eye catching concert moment. However the early sunny morning mist feel of his earlier work is absent on Morrow and in concert, it didn't move me the way I had hoped. Mercer is a brave individual taking chances and he performed valiantly, I am just not sure if there was chemistry between him and his band and aside from the aforementioned three songs,
What can you say about Dawes? The straight ahead no nonsense delivery of songs has earned them a fervent following that turned out for their evening set. "My Girl to Me" echoed the Band and Jackson Browne. Musically, they're not a game changer, but that has never been their motive. They're simply four friends who love to make and perform music. The crowd was split between stanch followers and curious observers covering a wide range of ages. Teenagers stood next to couples in their fifties mouthing along to every song. "Fire Away" was a song the die-hards ate up which climaxed with a drum-roll crescendo that made everyone's heart skip a beat. Slowly but surely, the non-believers inched closer to the stage. The arrangements call to mind the sensation of being stuck in a highway jam before making your way to a road wide open where you put the pedal to the metal. "When My Time Comes" found singer and guitarist Taylor Goldsmith hopping one-footed playing his guitar like a kid living out his dream. The single strongest song reaction of the day occurred during this song. Despite my hesitancy to embrace the band, I must confess my love for this song and without question the single greatest song performance I witnessed occurred here after a mid-song break where the band stopped cold in their feet and let the audience take the song away singing every last word through their dehydrated bodies as if their life depended on it. Without question, "When My Time Comes" was the single paramount performance of the day.
Headliner Black Sabbath sounded as thick as a river of lava that would incinerate you head-to-toe on first contact featured fiercely on "N.I.B." and "Into the Void". "Under the Sun" from Black Sabbath Vol. 4 found Ozzy Osbourne in excellent form as he interplayed with the audience as he led a impressive arm waving. Watching the band perform, specifically the unspeakable chemistry between Iommi and Butler, you fully appreciate how the meticulous nature of the composition of the songs. There's a slithery rhythm followed by mid-song breaks and jams before redirecting the energy to bring it back where it started. It's definitely not paint by numbers rock. Maybe it was the ten hours of music I had witnessed all day and maybe it was because they're just that damn good, but watching them not so much perform but play their instruments is something everyone should see at least once in their lifetime. Much the same way the Black Keys (who were headlining at the same time as Black Sabbath at the opposite end of the festival) would seek out still living blues musicians. You see where decades of music we love have come from. "War Pigs" and "Iron Man", two of the most essential songs in the Sabbath catalog, were over performed and desperately needed drummer Bill Ward to rein the band in. It shouldn't show shades of speed metal, it should stir up profound horrors of war. Tommy Clufetos threw himself into the performance like a giddy kid and he did great, but his style didn't serve the song. It felt like a solo Ozzy Osbourne performance and not Black Sabbath. The band recovered on "Electric Funeral" featured an overactive midsection and induced the sound of the world being torn apart (the song is about nuclear war and the repercussion from it). The song and album (Paranoid) is more than four decades old and sadly, its themes are as relevant today as they were forty years ago.
What made the Lollapalooza performance so heartbreaking is that with all they have had to endure Black Sabbath played like champions but was missing one integral piece of the puzzle. The core of Sabbath delivered a powerful set showing every other act at the festival the difference between simply being in a band and being legends. The harmonies that rise from Tony Iommi's six-string are matchless. No one can sing the Sabbath catalog with a varying degree or horror and humor like Ozzy Osbourne. Geezer Butler's leaping four-string dexterity is captures ferociousness that no words can do justice. Lastly, no one can replace Bill Ward. He was missed on the Lollapalooza stage. Assuming Tony Iommi recovers from his cancer scare, Black Sabbath will have a chance to make a wrong a right. As it stands, the Lollapalooza performance will either be a footnote in their history or a devastating final chapter. With the loss the members of Sabbath have experienced over their lives (Ronnie James Dio, Randy Rhoads, Randy Castillo) one would think they were imparted wisdom and life lessons from them. Life is too short to throw forty years of friendship to the wind over an imprudent money quarrel. As long as the four original members of Black Sabbath are alive, there is no excuse for using anyone else to be on a concert stage when it is billed as Black Sabbath. For their sake, I hope they look back upon as a bump in the road because the alternate path is too distressing, too daunting and far too permanent. If this is one of the last performances the band ever gives, all I can say is that they should have ended it the way they began with Tony Iommi on guitar, Geezer Butler on bass, Ozzy Osbourne on vocals and Bill Ward on drums.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Lollapalooza 2012: Day One