Sunday August 5th, 2012 at Chicago Grant Park
The third and final day of the 2012 edition of Lollapalooza occurred under ideal blue skies and just right summer temperatures. In total, I witnessed thirty-three different live acts over thirty hours of music. Is Lollapalooza worth the money to go? It is without question one of the key destination festivals in America. There is no greater place to be in the summer than Chicago. I can see why eighty-percent of the attendees come from out of town. While the 2012 festival hit high marks all weekend, the third and final day proved to be the best of the bunch.
The Bowerbirds were on at 12pm on the Sony stage and despite the events of the night before; there was a decent crowd around the trenches of mud in front of the stage. Here is a three-piece band who writes truthful songs of hardship. They are sincere and spare. Lead singer Philip Moore even joked before one song introducing it at "the next number will be a dance number!" Unfortunately, his humor evoked the only crowd reaction I witnessed. Keyboards and spare drums embellished the slow plodding guitar chords of Moore's guitar. Beth Tacular's dress swayed under the summer sky as she swayed behind her keyboard. They did not translate as well as I had hoped to the larger stage. The Bowerbirds are a band you probably should seek out, but in settings that are more intimate.
The Verve Pipe
On the Kidz stage, the Verve Pipe performed a 30-minute set consisting heavily of material from 2010's A Family Album. This kid's record may appear to be a left field release but it is full of catchy songs ready made not just for young children, but for anyone who appreciates well-arranged melodic indie rock. A Family Album is a rare children's record I would listen to even if I did not have children. "Wake Up", "Be Part of the Band" and "Suppertime" rocked the early morning crowd of their parents and kids. The songs while directly aimed at a younger audience housed elements of the blues, indie rock, alternative rock and the Sun Records sound. Their entire nine-song set that could elicit a smile from even a curmudgeon fan. Most who came felt they would hear "The Freshman" and there was a chant towards the end of the set to hear it, alas, it went unaired on this day. Nevertheless, what the Lollapalooza crowd witnessed was something a little less intense but more enlivening. At the end of the sets penultimate song "Cereal", Brian Vander Ark lifted his acoustic guitar above his head and shook cereal out falling all over him and the stage. Granted, Vander Ark has nothing on Gene Simmons, but he played the part and the children ate it up (metaphorically
not literally). Closing out their set was a cover of the Beatles "All You Need Is Love".
Appearing on the Kidz stage following the Verve Pipe was thirteen-year-old Quinn Sullivan. He has made a name for himself in recent years with some of the most electrifying blues guitar I have seen and I live in Chicago. Mentored by Buddy Guy, Sullivan is just coming into his own. While graced with an inherent talent most can only dream of, Sullivan displayed starry-eyed intensity on the Kidz stage. He probably awed more of the parents as the younger ones have yet to grasp how challenging and intricate it is to master an instrument. The most rewarding aspect of his performance was that his playing does not so much replicate those of the past as it reflects his personality. With each note that flew into the air, Sullivan put a piece of himself into the performance. Not everyone who is a prodigy can communicate and connect, they are often stuck aping others, but Sullivan performed with brave beauty. He is one to watch, because if he continues to hone and master his craft while throwing a piece of his soul into the music, he will be undeniable in another five or ten years.
The White Rabbits
When taking in a multi-day festival, the mid-afternoon sets prove to be the most testing for acts. They hit the stage with good intentions and often perform exhilarating sets, but depending on the muscle of the sun, it is hard to gage whether the artist made the impact intended. This happened to Delta Spirit the day before who had to try every trick in the audience engagement book to elicit applause. It was not because they were off or performing poorly, it is simply that most of the audience needed an afternoon nap. The White Rabbits unfortunately had the same difficulties. With a pair of drummers drilling down on the crowd, they bring a life-size sound to a festival stage and considering they were on one of the biggest. Without question, they are a impressive live act whose concerts give the material an edge not on their studio records.
Gary Clark Jr.
As the White Rabbits set wound down, Gary Clark Jr. hit the opposite stage with dynamic and smoldering blues guitar riffs opening his set with "When My Train Pulls In". Almost immediately, he grasped the crowd and held onto them with confounding concentration. Considering many in the crowd barely know him or his songs, this is an especially remarkable accomplishment. His guitar playing brings on a hurricane of hurt bringing dark dreams into focus. Props need to be given to his four-piece backing band that brought his vision to life. Anyone can tell a story, but a great artist desires to be heard. While the blues does not lend itself to the physical extremes of EDM, the Lollapalooza crowd hung on every note that emanated from Clark's guitar. There was a keen awareness amongst the crowd that his talent is not par for the course. It is as if uncovered the secret to channeling his horror and dread. On "Don't Owe You A Thang", the six-strings on his guitar distorted soul that echoed throughout the crowd. The urgency of his playing made Clark and the blues feel potently relevant. The performance was as if a hyperactive freight train who left heartbreak station with no destination. Clark brings a sense of conquest to the music. While the blues is often about drowning your sorrows in the past, the tilt of his music is steeped in rejuvenation. There is a sense that even though the unknown lies before us, this is still a better situation than the one we are leaving behind. Listening to him wail on "Things Are Changing", I am reminded that great artists do not merely perform, they paint visceral pictures of life and impart wisdom onto the listener. With the guitar as his paintbrush, Gary Clark Jr. is panting masterful pictures of not just our lives, but roadmaps for where we want to go.
Dum Dum Girls
Another great surprise on the Google Play stage, the four piece female group delivered a set high on melody but channeled through hard-hitting rhythm and wholly emotional lyrics. Lead singer and principal songwriter, Dee Dee, delivers poignant performances paired with spiral guitar fills. Dressed all in black, the four piece band lives in this world between punk and pop and they manage it skillfully. The sugary bare-knuckle songs resonated with the crowd and anyone who saw them will seek them out again in the future.
So how exactly do you pronounce Sigur Ros? Over the course of the day, I heard at least a dozen different ways of pronouncing it on Sunday alone. A year ago, I would not have even thought of watching this show and yet it was an extraordinary and miraculous set full of choral beauty. How does one describe their music? Well it is orchestral, experimental, classical, spacey, verbose, ostentatious and Icelandic. Twelve musicians were onstage as lead singer and guitarist Jonsi led the proceedings like a conductor of a great orchestra. I would be lying to you if I told you what their songs mean, how you could find yourself inside the emotional crevices of the songs or even what they stand for. I cannot
but I can tell you there is something mystical and dreamy about their music. Jonsi recently scored Cameron Crowe's We Bought A Zoo starring Matt Damon and the unexpected and obtuse score worked magic through some key sequences. I have always deeply admired Sigur Ros but their music has always been a brainteaser to me. Opening with "Svefn-G-Englar", which for years went unrecorded and was only a portion of their live shows. Cameron Crowe managed to snag a recording for his trippy and nightmarish Vanilla Sky in 2001. As Jonsi made his way to the microphone to sing, he squints his eyes and as he began to sing, he went into a realm of solemnity. The music is enterprising and bold and aside from Radiohead, I cannot think of a single act on the planet who can create soundscapes so magnificent and yet so uncommercial. On "Varuo", the instrumentation took on a ghostly demeanor. Simple piano notes evoked images of a grand piano in an empty oversized house where children once lived but have now left to form their own lives. You can see someone sit at the piano dexterously caressing the keys as her life flashes before her eyes. The house was once bustling and full of life and now it is still with nowhere to go. At their core, Sigur Ros is a band who creates songs that at their core are effortless, yet on the concert stage, they ascend to a higher plane climaxing with cathedral crescendos. Even without the standard visuals that often enhance their performances, the band captured the crowd's attention with staggering supremacy. Sigur Ros makes music made for cross-country trips where one only drives in the dark of night. As we drive into the darkness, we are running from our past but are too terrified to make a complete break from it. Somehow, Sigur Ros manages to be a phenomenal festival band and they fit Lollapalooza like a glove.
The Gaslight Anthem
The New Jersey bred Gaslight Anthem receives a fair amount of press, but it is for good reason. The landscapes of their music are the stuff dreams and desires are made out of. They speak to the human condition with accentuated compositions of yearning, dreams, desires and nightmares. The topography of their music is straightforward and unfussy yet delivered with purpose and passion not matched in the current musical climate. Despite only have forty-five minutes to get their point across, the band hit the stage with "Great Expectations" and for forty-five unrelenting minutes, went for the jugular song-after-song. The Google Play stage is off to the side under trees. It provides the most scenic of scenes at Lollapalooza but for the Gaslight Anthem the real scene of splendor was watching the crowd thrust their hands to the air, song-after-song, and singing along to every word. The band tore through twelve songs in forty-five minutes including several off their latest album Handwritten. "'45'"and "Handwritten" flexed their muscle on the concert stage while "Howl" preached to the punks in a slap-dash ditty that clocks in under two-minutes. The most ardent reactions were reserved for the selections from their seminal record The '59 Sound. "Old White Lincoln" drove like a dream (with a snippet of "Dear Chicago" by Ryan Adams) as Alex Levine's bass took over the steering wheel and drove the band straight to liberation.
The set closed with the one-two punch of the yearning ballad "Here's Looking At You, Kid" and the sweltering tale of awakening "The Backseat" (with a touch of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"). One of the reasons the Gaslight Anthem's fans are so zealous in their admiration of the band is because when Brian Fallon steps up to the microphone they see him as the voice of their inner heart while drummer Benny Horowitz, bassist Alex Levine, guitarist Alex Rosamilia channel Fallon's passion into their instruments making sense of it all. The band's unrelenting drive makes us consider that not only can we prevail over our darkest days, but more importantly, we can turn tragedy into triumph. I will go on the record saying it is dumb to love anything this much, but I do. Like filmmaker John Hughes from three decades back, the Gaslight Anthem has a finger on the pulse of our insecurity at this particular moment and yet when you hear their music it infuses us with the drive to turn things around. To me rock n' roll has always been the sound of salvation and at Lollapalooza it could be found in the beating heart of the Gaslight Anthem.
Amadou and Mariam
As the crowd filled the area around the Bud Light stage as they waited in anticipation for Florence + the Machine's set, they were treated to the world stylings of Amadou and Mariam. The married Mali couple are both blind and have been together for thirty-five years. When Santigold was married, she sent an invitation to them to play at her wedding. Amadou and Mariam carefully mixed their brand of music with passionate percussion and some wicked rhythm. They may not have had the glitziness of most acts at Lollapalooza but their musical aptitude was unparalleled.
Florence + the Machine
Florence Welch was born to be on a stage and a majestic one at that. Taking to the stage in a full-bodied gown, from the moment she sang the opening notes of "Only If For A Night", she held the Chicago crowd (which appeared never ending) in the palm of her hand. Each song was a high performance platform for Welch who sauntered across the stage. The theatricality was met with a refreshing depth. Welch conducted the crowd with her lithe stage moves. She encouraged the crowd to hug the person next to them before "Spectrum" and even encouraged the crowd to lift their loved ones around their shoulders. They followed her orders with military precision. She even unleashed a song in concert for the first time, "Breath of Life". However, it was the band's two larger-than-life singles that ascended to heights unforeseen. I have always been a fan of seeing acts in smaller and more intimate venues, but Florence + the Machine proved their worth on "Shake It Out" and "Dog Days Are Over". Both songs are soul-baring anthems of conjecture. Welch stood at the tip of the stage with her arms open welcoming the crowd into her heart and mind and they followed her. Even during the last portion of "Shake It Out" where it transformed into a dance beat remix, the crowd followed without issue. "Dog Days Are Over" swept through the crowd like a windstorm. Despite three days of intense heat, a rain delay and over one hundred performers, the crowd ascended to new heights on "Dog Days" as men and women clapped, sung and danced their problems away as the sun began to set over the Chicago skyline. Florence + the Machine delivered a set that was conspicuous, theatrical and endearing. While I am sure they are capable of capturing any audience, anywhere, I am not sure if the magnitude of their Lollapalooza set will be matched any time soon. Anyone fortunate to catch this set found Florence + the Machine at the peak of their powers.
The Big Pink
An English rock duo from London tore through a high octane set on the Google Play stage. They had a monstrous and massive sound I could not pass up. Somersaulting layered instruments interjected the performance with fuzz box rock. Adding a dash of melody and heavy footed production that echoes Mutt Lange records from two decades back, the Big Pink is a band who even if they don't impress you will stay with you if for no other reason than the ringing that will remain in your ears long after the performance concludes.
Lollapalooza 2012 ended with one of the most admired, loved and quixotic performers of the last decade, Jack White. In what would be his first solo performance in Chicago, he performed a rousing one-hundred minute set consisting of twenty songs from his entire career. Two entirely different bands performed the set one all male dressed in black and one female, dressed in white. I've always viewed Jack White as the Quentin Tarantino of rock n' roll- he took an art form and amalgamated his sound from dozens of influences and yet the way he unites these sounds is unlike any other. He did not do this for one or two records, but ten. Continually challenging himself and forcing reinvention, he deserved his spot on the headline stage and while I wished, I could have seen him in a club or theater, to see these bands infuse new life into the White Stripes and Raconteurs songs and to see the crowd hang on every piercing and squealing guitar chord was a remarkable sight. Opening with the solo cut, "Sixteen Saltines", White and the male band, the Buzzards, were a powerful force. Other solo numbers "Missing Pieces" and "Hypocritical Kiss" and "Take Me With You When You Go" had an understated urgency. The most extraordinary moments of the first set were "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" and the far-reaching mad dash jam of "Cannon/Nitro/John the Revelator". "Dead Leaves" found White on piano, back-to-back with the organ player, giving the White Stripes classic new dimensions with a full band. White's Lollapalooza stage was nominal with only instruments and lights, but he did not need them, he simply relied on the fuel-injected performances to capture the audience's imagination and he and his two backing bands did just that.
Midway through his set, the male band took their bows and retreated as an all female band, the Peacocks, proceeded to whip the Chicago crowd into a tizzy. Opening with the soulful blues organ of "Love Interruption", White and his all female band took the energy up a level. Despite the buoyancy of the male band, I have to give a minor edge to the female group who did not just root out the soul of the songs but the sensual nature of them as well. They turned the White Stripes classic "Hotel Yorba" into a full-fledged Nashville creation with weeping violin and sturdy pedal steel. Jack White has the capacity to take any instrument and make it sexy. The Peacocks relished their time onstage with searing performances. The encores were among the best I witnessed all weekend- "Steady As She Goes", "The Hardest Button to Button", "Freedom At 21" and the roaring White Stripes classic "Seven Nation Army". "Army" had the crowd heaving back and forth as that iconic riff soared from the stage to the furthest reaches of the park. Drummer Carla Azar and White had a unspeakable chemistry between the two of them. She was White's foil when he was soloing or playing his thick rhythm guitar. White and both bands had a familial understanding between them. Most artists spend their entire lives trying to find the right combination and somehow Jack White has found a multitude of musical partners allowing him to flex and embrace many genres of music. Part of any festival experience that goes hand-in-hand with the music is the connection the crowd feels to the music. I found it peculiar that many of the acts at Lollapalooza are club and theater acts and yet they find a way to whir up crowds of ten-thousand to fifty-thousand. Jack White mastered the Lollapalooza crowd like a stadium veteran.
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