Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Lollapalooza Afterthoughts...

It’s hard to go to a festival like this and not leave pretty optimistic about the current state of music—maybe not popular music, but music—as long as you see the right bands, anyway. One of my favorite music writers, Jim DeRogatis, blogged his way through all three days of the festival, and I swear...I’m not sure we saw more than about five of the same bands all weekend. Let’s compare notes. I’m going to sample liberally from his blog, but trust me...I’m leaving plenty behind to read for yourself, including his testy jab exchange with Perry Farrell.

Yes, it was odd to see heartfelt political punk Ted Leo and his rip-roaring band the Pharmacists hammering out their smart, galvanizing call-to-arms anthems in the couldn’t be more apolitical, oh-so-middle-of-the-road setting of Lolla. But it’s a testament to the strength of songs such as “Bomb. Repeat. Bomb.” and “Army Bound" and a credit to the fact that Leo never fails to give less than 110 percent on any stage he takes that his set lost none of the power it had two years ago at the Pitchfork Music Festival.


The high of Leo’s performance was soon dissipated by the next two acts in Hutchinson Field: Jack’s Mannequin and Slightly Stoopid, both of which were about as low as Lolla’s lowest points have ever gotten.
You should have been watching Polyphonic Spree (entertainment value) and Electric Six (strangeness value), Jim!
Following in Yawn's [Pete Yorn] spirit on the Jackson Street stage was the Montreal-based Sam Roberts Band. I've been searching all weekend for a name for the gently lilting, vaguely rootsy genre that they represent, and "Sound Opinions" producer Jason Saldanha finally provided one: "One Tree Hill" acoustic rock.

Looking over the list of what I've seen so far in the fest, Anders' accounts of what I've missed and what's still to come at Lolla's half-way point, I have to say that more than a third of the acts booked this year can easily be lumped into one of three thoroughly generic and instantly forgettable sounds: this sort of "One Tree Hill" acoustic rock; pointless jam-band wankery or pleasantly jangley indie-rock. Enough already!
Yes, but they’re Canadian. And they’re crowd was fantastic. I’m worried that I’ll pick up their latest album and come to the realization that I didn’t actually enjoy their music at all last Saturday, only the atmosphere. We’ll see.
Although the start of his set was delayed 20 minutes by sound problems, and the rain that had been threatening all day finally started gently falling just as he began to perform, South Side rapper Rhymefest took the stage with his usual high-energy assault.

The rapper, whose mom calls him Che Smith, proceeded to spin his gruff-voiced rhymes about working-class life, including a new and still-unnamed track recently recorded with Just Blaze and another with Kanye West, over the accomplished but under-amplified and poorly mixed backing of a big band that included a hype man, a DJ, two keyboardists, bass, drums and a four-piece horn section.

Though his gig didn't quite match the intensity of last year's turn at the Intonation Festival, it still had a large and enthusiastic crowd shouting and clapping along as Rhymefest pulled out all the stops, rocking up some of his material for the occasion, free-styling with no musical backing at one point and taking a quick jog through the crowd at another.
I really hope his talent catches up to his enthusiasm and performance. He hit every right note on Saturday, but the songs themselves came up a little short for me.

All in all, Lolla left me encouraged about the state of rock music—what with the enthusiastic response garnered for bands like The Hold Steady, Ted Leo & The Pharma, and Tapes ‘n Tapes—but I’m no more optimistic about the state of hip hop than I was before the week began. The week started with Common releasing what is probably pretty easily the hip hop album of the year...and it still left me a bit disappointed. But that's just probably because I worship Com's 2002 album, Electric Circus. It's possibly the most musically interesting, adventurous hip hop album ever, and after he caught flak for going a little overboard on EC he stripped everything down to simple beats for 2005’s Be. Well, his new album, Finding Forever, doesn’t really break any new ground either. It’s obviously solid, very good in fact, but it didn’t move hip hop forward any.

Meanwhile, basically the only hip hop Lolla had to offer were Rhymefest, The Roots (who were obviously amazing...but they’ve been amazing for a long time, and they obviously haven’t had an effect on how the rest of hip hop is doing), and Lupe Fiasco, who’s unique and interesting, but not amazing. I’m ready to be blown away by hip’s been a while.

Finally, day two ended in Hutchinson Field with the weekend's most mediocre headliner (though Interpol in the north was barely more worthy), the English quartet Muse.

The inferior English answer to America's similarly theatrical, atmospheric but much more clever My Chemical Romance, core band members Matthew Bellamy, the group's philosophically minded guitarist-vocalist, bassist Chris Wolstenholme and drummer Dominic Howard attempt an unlikely merger of radio-friendly alternative, vintage symphonic/pomp-rock (heavy on the imitation Queen), funk, electronica and hair metal. Live at Lolla as on the group's most recent album, last year's "Black Holes and Revelations," the whole mess just falls flat, toppling under the weight of its own bombast and pretensions.

The band kicked things off with a bit of taped oratory by John F. Kennedy, and that was the most coherent and eloquent part of its show. Keyboards tinkled, Bellamy trilled, a synthesized orchestra swelled, drums boomed and guitars laid useless, flashy filigrees atop it all, making my head hurt, my ears ring and my second day at Lolla end with a pompous whimper rather than the bang I really could have used.
Okay, that balances out the “Dude, it was like Radiohead” review we heard Saturday night at a bar. I regret our decision to leave the rain early a bit less...though we did apparently drop the ball by missing out on Spoon.
"Hello, motherf---ers!" Iggy shouted after opening with "Loose," which was followed by "1969," "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and "TV Eye," making for four of the most incendiary rock songs ever written in row. "We are very happy to be here at f---ing Lolla-pop-apalooza!"

While families straggling over from Kidzapalooza may have cringed at all of the cussing, I for one was glad to have the Stooges in all of their vulgar, deliciously dirty, incredibly ugly, blood pressure-raising power, and even the songs from their lame comeback album, "The Weirdness," sounded good live, especially "My Idea of Fun (Is Killing Everyone)," which Iggy sang from the midst of the stunned, somewhat frightened but nonetheless energized crowd. All oldies/nostalgia acts should be this good — and for that matter, so should many of the current up-and-comers a quarter the Stooges' age who polluted the park throughout the weekend.

The climax of the band's set: "No Fun," during which Iggy invited the crowd onstage, and hundreds of fans jumped the security fences and climbed up to dance beside him in a wild frenzy, thoroughly freaking out security and the promoters, just like great rock 'n' roll should. No fun? No way; quite the opposite! Though I couldn't help but wonder what the Stooges' No. 1 fan and original champion of punk rock, rock critic Lester Bangs, would have thought about seeing his heroes here, at this time and in this most corporate-rock of settings. It would probably have killed him, if he wasn't dead already.
I’m an optimist, so I’m looking at it from the other direction: the Stooges’ appearance legitimized Lolla instead of degrading the Stooges. Lord knows the festival was better off for their having been there. Their performance pretty much told another 20 or so hard rock bands at the festival to go back to the minor leagues.
Next up were the Louisville, Ky., alt-country cult favorites My Morning Jacket, who churned out their ersatz Neil Young grooves and in the process impressed only those who had never heard that giant himself. Then the group promised to offer something a bit more than its ordinary musical Xerox act by joining forces midway through its set with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra.

Unfortunately, the young classical musicians were very poorly amplified, and band leader Jim James hadn't really thought out beforehand how to utilize them to best effect — a problem he shared with the Decemberists when they joined forces with the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra at Millennium Park a few weeks ago. But the band almost redeemed itself with its final song when it covered Kanye West's "Touch the Sky," an appropriate and fitting tribute to Chicago, and the sort of simple but moving effort to acknowledge the festival's home that too few bands made this weekend.
For the record, I’ve seen Neil Young perform, and while he was fantastic, I still enjoyed the crap out of MMJ. I do agree that some of the CYSO’s parts were quiet (though the fact that the band plays such a full sound and drowned them out half the time had something to do with that) and thrown together, but...I was okay with that. It was a noble attempt, and it really did succeed 3-4 times throughout the 40 or so minutes the CYSO was on stage.

(And it was a cover of the song Kanye sampled for “Touch the Sky”, “Move on Up.” Respect Curtis Mayfield!!)
Although I get grief from fans complaining that I'm holding them up to an impossibly high standard (even though it's a standard they set) whenever I mention this, my benchmarks for a great Pearl Jam show are the two I caught at the Blossom Arts Center outside Cleveland and what was then the World Music Theatre in Tinley Park when the group performed as part of Lollapalooza 1992, and Evanston native Eddie Vedder literally climbed the rafters of those outdoor venues during the shows as a very physical expression of how exciting the band's music was back then.
I will forever compare Pearl Jam shows to the nearly 3.5-hour show I saw at Alpine Valley (East Troy, WI) on my wife’s birthday in 2003 (She was there too...though we weren’t yet married at the time...PJ’s the only band she would ever care to see live.)
It's a different Pearl Jam 15 years later, better in some ways — the band is certainly more subtle and varied in the differing textures it brings to its songs — but not nearly as good in others. There was a time when Vedder was as exciting to watch and listen to as Iggy Pop, at age 20 or at age 60. I won't apologize for saying I miss that.
I agree with this...Eddie was much more physical in the past, though he still carries that intense, earnest mystique. He doesn’t have to climb on the rafters for you to know how intense he is. He earned a lifetime’s worth of cred with his early-‘90s antics.
To its credit, though, Pearl Jam delivered one of the most intense and hard-rocking shows I've seen it deliver since Soldier Field in 1995, when everything seemed to be on the line for the band as it played one of the few American gigs it was able to during the midst of its battle with Ticketmaster.


Other magical and inspiring moments during Pearl Jam's set:

* The fireworks show in Soldier Field that erupted in the midst of "Evenflow."

* Vedder urging concertgoers to boycott BP/Amaco until it abandons its plans to further pollute Lake Michigan: "Think of it like a girlfriend or boyfriend who never brushes their teeth: You wouldn't kiss them. So don't show BP/Amaco any love until it cleans up its act!" (Tens of thousands responded by chanting "No BP!" as Vedder proceeded to improvise a short song with that lyric on the spot.)

* A gorgeous, acoustic-guitar-driven version of "Daughter" that merged after a while into Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall, Part II," with Vedder segueing from the massive, crowd-aided sing-along chant of "We don't need no education / We don't need no thought control" into "George Bush, leave this world alone!"

* The blast from the past that was "Alive," which Vedder introduced by saying how much its appearance on Lollapalooza 1992 meant to the band.
By far the best version of this song I’ve seen.
* And the group's moving cover of Victoria Williams' "Crazy Mary." Pretty great stuff, all of it.
This song has advanced light years thanks to Boom (BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM) Gaspar.


Other random thoughts and links:

I think it’s absolutely fantastic what Lolla has done here, recording setlists (for nerds like me) and photo galleries and linking to iTunes downloads of performances. A very convenient, very welcome tool. It’s taking all I have not to download the sets of PJ, The Roots, MMJ, Hold Steady, Stooges, Ted Leo, and Tapes ‘n Tapes. Seriously, my hands are shaking a little bit.


Here’s a photo gallery from the Roots’ performance.


Now this one was a Lollapalooza to remember



Props to Ted Leo and other Day One performers.


How Lollapalooza helps the Music Industry
The North American concert business has been particularly strong in 2007, according to first-half numbers reported on Billboard Boxscore. Attendance was 20.4 million from January through June, generating box office revenues of $1.05 billion from the 6,886 reported shows. Last year, major tours from the Rolling Stones, Madonna, U2 and Bon Jovi set record highs.

Meanwhile, despite the surge in digital sales, the recording industry continued its downward spiral last year. Retail dollar value of digital and physical recordings dropped 6.2 percent from 2005 to 2006, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

“The recording business is dead, but the music business is healthy,” Farrell said at the festival. “It’s an ideal time for musicians.”
Normally I would just say "Thanks for the festival, Perry, but please stop talking." In this case, he might just be right. Now stop thinking "We'll Make Great Pets" is actually a good song, and we might be getting somewhere...

Finally, I should also mention how great it is that Lolla is making Chicago the focus of the music world once a year. Chicago is as proud a city as there is, and it makes me happy how the city has embraced the festival and vice versa.

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