Saturday, August 04, 2007

Lollapalooza Day 1: War, Beards, and...Lithium

Well, if our plans hold together (and I'm pretty sure they will), a few things about Sunday night are pretty certain: a) I will be sneezing about every 45 seconds, b) Walsh will have skin cancer, c) we'll have seen between 25 and 30 bands, d) everyone's legs will have entirely given out, e) I'll be addicted to Benadryl (okay, I am already), and f) we'll have been part of a simply unbelievable music festival.

There was a distinct vibe in the air on Day One of Lollapalooza 2007. From Ted Leo & the Pharmacists singing "only you know what you've done," to the Polyphonic Spree's "When the Fool Becomes a King" (subtle), to Against Me! singing a refrain of "CONDOLEEZA! CONDOLEEZA!" to the strange political ramblings of Electric Six's Dick Valentine, to Ben Harper and Eddie Vedder trading verses on "Masters of War", the smell of politics was in the air. More specifically, it was the scent of political anger, righteousness, passion, and action. It's not an "I voted for the other guy" kind of energy--it's something deeper. And the crowd feels it too. There's an energy to political songwriting and performance that I haven't seen before, and it seems to grow with each passing year as more bands give political writing a try...and often succeed.

Ted Leo & The Pharmacists

At 1:30, Ted Leo and his band appeared on the Myspace stage, and apparently Leo slipped and fell early in the set, cutting his hand. We showed up directly thereafter, in time to see TL&P rip through “Where Have All the Good Boys Gone?” and "Annunciation Day/Born on Christmas Day." TL&P are, to me, a band with a lot of potential over the coming years, combining pointed, interesting lyrics with a somewhat modern rock sound. Leo's voice and melodies are mostly generic Fall-Out-Boy-esque high, but he takes tools he's been given and uses it the most creative, innovative ways possible. The guitar progressions are assertive, and each diversion from typical rock--particularly the smooth R&B of "The Unwanted Things"--works. TL&P wrapped up a relatively quick 40-minute set (they were allotted 60...maybe they came back for an encore...wouldn't know because we were hauling ass across the park to see Polyphonic Spree) by absolutely destroying (in a good way) "C.I.A.", a song as good as anything I've heard this year. Really good way to start the festival.

The Polyphonic Spree

There's really no unique way to describe this weird, weird band at this point...everything's already been said. They do indeed have about 12-14 musical instruments playing at any one time, they do indeed have a choir of about 9 backup singers, they do indeed wear matching uniforms (though for the first 3/4 of Friday's performance, they ditched the white robes for an all-black getup), and they do indeed strike you as something significantly resembling a cult. Walsh said he had the opportunity to see them in Dallas a while back, but he'd have had to go by himself, and he was worried he'd be singled out for being by himself and end up drugged and in the back of the Spree bus.

That said, I'm sure the novelty has somewhat worn off with what they're doing here, but they do put on one helluva show. I can't imagine watching them for 2-3 straight hours, but should be a requirement that all U.S. music festivals allot an hour to The Spree (and the Flaming Lips for that matter, but I digress). They're the perfect festival band, and they pulled out all the stops for Chicago. After the legendary Beetle Bob made an appearance, out came the Chicago Tap Theatre to dance, and suddenly there were about 40 people on stage. They wrapped up the set resplendent in the white robes I'd expected all along, pulling off a strikingly solid "Lithium" (yes, that "Lithium") and finishing with "When the Fool Becomes a King". They certainly made the most of their hour.

Electric Six

My buddy Walsh requested watching this band--he described him in the following way: "Every song of theirs is about either sex, nuclear war, or dancing." Needless to say, I was sold. What else do I know about them now? Well...they're the self-proclaimed "premiere party band" of Chicago, which is impressive considering what a collection of dorks this band appears to be. Oh, and they're also "Chicago's premiere political band," so keep that in mind next time you find yourself looking for such a thing in the Upper Midwest. Mid-set, lead singer Dick Valentine unleashed a rambling rant about politics and Bush and bad sound and--in a move reminding me of Guster's epic Oldsmobile rant (scroll down to the “Expensive Words” portion of the article), stage sponsor Playstation, while sarcastically thanking Perry Farrell (Lolla's founder) about 18 times. This is not a band out to make friends with peers. Oh, and Valentine dances like I would...if I danced in public, anyway (there are rumors that I danced at my wedding, but there is no photographic evidence...I made sure of it). As for the songs themselves? Quite interesting. Walsh's aforementioned description was dead on, as Bush material quickly turned into a "Dance Epidemic".

Honestly, Electric Six comes across as a cross between the MC5 and No Doubt. Seriously. And despite that statement, I highly recommend checking them out. There’s a shamelessness to their strange postures that is quite refreshing. I'm not saying you'll love them--but I strive to find unique bands, and...yeah...they definitely fit that bill, especially in a live setting.


Jam band checklist!

* Hackysack circle (replete with old guy in a "Pink Floyd 1987 World Tour" shirt, tights, and Bud Light beer kozies fashioned into gloves and stuck on his hands, and a bunch of high-school age dudes absolutely worshipping the ground he walks on)? Check!

* Long, rambling (sometimes too rambling) songs? Check!

* 18 contact highs? Check!

* Skill and quality solos? Check!

I wondered aloud when moe. started if they were physically capable of playing less than 60 minutes (their allotted time). They were not, bleeding several minutes over and cutting short Blonde Redhead's set. (Quick note: Blonde redhead's lead singer is neither blonde nor a redhead. Tawlk amongst yourselves.)

G. Love and the Special Sauce

G. Love's an institution at this point. Not just anyone can pull off his eclectic mix of jazz, funk, R&B, funk, blues, funk, crooning to the ladies (who outnumbered males in the front row about 4-to-1), funk, and improvised hip hop verses--not to mention pulling off a cover of Snoop's "Gin and Juice"--while remaining unashamedly, unabashedly white. Power to him. I can't really say much more than that. G. Love is G. Love...though I did love Walsh's comment, "I wonder what it would be like to actually have a conversation with this guy. I'd probably hate it."

The Black Keys

The first true discovery of the festival. I'd heard good things about this 2-man band from Akron, OH, but I hadn't ever actually heard their music. That is no longer the case. The Black Keys--guitarist/lead singer Daniel Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney--took the Bud Light Stage at 6:30 and overloaded the speakers even more than The Polyphonic Spree, who outnumbered them almost literally 20-to-1. Auerbach is a guitar powerhouse, knocking out both rhythm and lead guitar parts at once. Plus he's got a fantastic rock beard.

I didn't know any of the songs they played--though I plan to remedy that soon by diving into their catalog--but they sound like a cross between the Allman Brothers, Son Volt, and (of course) the White Stripes. They had a pretty hardcore, knowledgeable fanbase in attendance, as well (for a while, it seemed like the entire city of Akron was there in support), which helped with the overall experience.

LCD Soundsystem

After partaking in the best pad thai of my life--in a music festival of all places...seriously, if you come to Lolla, be sure to check out the hundreds (okay, tens) of cheap food choices from the Taste of Chicago festival--I headed across the park once again to check out Rolling Stone's #20 current live band. What did I think? If you dance, you'll love this band. Strong beats, lots of percussion...problem is, as I mentioned before, I don't dance. So what I'm left with is a pulsating beat and repetitious vocals. Not necessarily a bad thing by any means--a lot of people were enjoying themselves--but it's just really not my thing. So after a couple songs, we headed back across the park (ggh) for the last half of Femi Kuti's set.

(Hear No Evil stayed for the entire set and said it got better and better as the set wore on. So there you go.)

Femi Kuti and the Positive Force

Earlier in the day, on the way over to watch G. Love, we ran into a friend of ours from school--he's the one who introduced me to Jurassic 5 and Guster...I owe him big, I would say. Anyway, he's big into the Afrobeat stuff, and Fela Kuti is one of the kings of Afrobeat. He was telling me which Fela Kuti albums I should buy, and I was discussing the benefits of Hugh Masekela (it was the music nerd moment of the weekend so far!), and we both agreed that Femi Kuti could not be missed. They were precisely what one would expect from the Son of Afrobeat. Lots of folks onstage, those beautiful hopping basslines, horns, backups singers, et cetera. Unfortunately Walsh and I were absolutely exhausted by this point, so we sat on the grass a long way away in instead of fighting the crowd to groove (i.e. nod my head and bend my knees in somewhat rhythmic motion) up close. Really, it's pretty good sitting-on-the-grass-and-relaxing music too.

Ben Harper

While the younger half of the crowd was on the other end of the park watching Daft Punk--I had no idea they were as big with the youngsters (yeah, I just said youngsters) as they apparently are, though the rumored Kanye guest appearanace was not to be--Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals took the stage directly after Femi Kuti and lit a fire into the probably 20,000-30,000 fans watching (I'm horrid at guessing the size of far as I know, it could have been 10,000 or 50,000 too). They didn't mess around, starting their set with the incendiary Katrina response, "Black Rain", seguing in and out of Marvin's "Make Me Wanna Holler", giving bassist Juan Nelson lots of room for solos, and after about 12-14 minutes, moving into "With My Own Two Hands."

In the past, Harper performed almost entirely from his 'throne', sitting and playing variations of lap slide guitars for most of the show. Well he doesn't sit much anymore, and giving himself the freedom to move around and dance and cheer on the rest of the band has upped his charisma and intensity levels (never a deficiency before, by any means) tenfold. Leaning toward the crowd and singing (to the government, not the crowd) "Don't you dare speak to us like we work for you", was a mighty intense way to start the show.

Pot anthem "Burn One Down"--complete with an ungodly percussion solo from Leon Mobley--was third on the setlist, then after 3 songs and almost 35 minutes, the tone changed. Mixed into passionate performances of "Please Bleed" and "Forgiven" were three songs with an almost country vibe. First up was "In the Colors", the first single from BH&IC's upcoming album, Lifeline. It has a laid-back, loving set of lyrics and a country/R&B feel, and it works (though it'll work even more when the band is more comfortable with it and adds some solos). This is where their versatility as a band stands out. After spending the first third of the concert singing R&B/funk/rock-laced protest anthems, BH&IC's were able to switch styles almost completely without losing credibility. Next was another new song, "Say You Will", an uptempo number with the same vibe (and solos), followed finally by "Diamonds on the Inside", from the 2002 album with the same name. This is a country song that Harper took on an almost gospel detour toward the end, and like everything else, it worked.

Next up, Harper said he was going to welcome a friend of his to the stage..."you'll probably recognize him".

Me: Ooh, I bet this is Eddie.
Walsh: Who? (crowd goes bonkers) Oh, THAT Eddie.
They both had a seat and started strumming acoustic guitars, and I could see it coming. A few weeks ago, to get Walsh pumped up about going to Lolla (not that he actually needed any help in that regard), I sent him a copy of The Roots covering Dylan's "Masters of War" to the tune of the National Anthem. It's insanely good, and Walsh was hoping to hear it today during their performance. Well...this is no knock on The Roots' version of it--it really is amazing--but I'm not sure there's any way to top watching Ben Harper and Eddie Vedder close their eyes and belt this one out. Vedder is the only performer more intense than Harper, and they kept one-upping each other as the verses progressed. The TV screen to the side of the stage had close-ups of them while they were performing, and I swear...if I didn't know for a fact that my legs were shaking due simply to exhaustion, I'd have sworn the raw intensity of their performance had made me weak in the knees (and I'm comfortable enough in my masculinity to say that). It was the perfect way to cap off a day of politically-tinged performances, right down to the last verse--you know the one...the "And I hope that you die/And your death will come soon" verse--which got an almost frighteningly intense cheer from the crowd.

A rousing version of Both Sides of the Gun's "Better Way" finished the set and sent us scattering onto the streets of Chicago, looking for a cab. We failed, and after an hour of walking around and searching, the subway had thinned out enough for us to take that back to Hear No Evil's neighborhood for a beer, a bite to eat, and a bed. In an hour or so, we leave for Day Two.

And now, a quick rundown of Day One (coming directly after the long rundown of Day One):

Biggest surprise: I was about to say the Black Keys, but they were pad thai. The food choices at Lollapalooza are fantastic and cheap. I was expecting the typical burger-and-brat fare, and those are definitely options, but the Lolla Food Court features lots of local Chicago treats, including an amazing Star of Siam stand with pad thai, potstickers, tempura, and cool-looking chicken satay, all for $5-6. I might eat there all weekend.

Best beard: Apparently in 2007, the cool look for bands is to look like...The Band. I was already preparing myself to compare My Morning Jacket to The Band on Sunday, but looks-wise, everybody's imitating them nowadays. Two members of Ted Leo's Pharmacists--bassist Dave Lerner and drummer Chris Wilson--had some killer growth (Lerner took the look further with the ratty long hair to go with the beard), but the main competition was between Wilson and the Black Keys' ­­Auerbach. I'm going to give the edge on Day One to Wilson, who ended up looking like a cross between Nirvana's Krist Novocelic and...Christ. With maybe a little Bronson Pinchot thrown in. Walsh should have him beat by the end of the weekend, but for now I give the edge to Wilson.

Worst hair: G. Love’s bassist, Jimmy Jazz (of course G. Love's bassist would be named Jimmy Jazz). Just gross.

Best cover: G. Love's "Gin and Juice" was enjoyable in a "shake your head and pretend that this sucks" kind of way, and I was more than prepared to give this award to Polyphonic Spree's "Lithium", but all was trumped with about 20 minutes left in Day One when Eddie Vedder joined Ben Harper on stage. They show up at each other's shows a lot, it seems, and I've heard phenomenal renditions of PJ's "Indifference" (which they apparently played at Pearl Jam's secret Vic Theatre show Thursday night), but...watching the faces of these two while they were performing the most intense song of all-time was something that was, well, worth the $195 price of the festival in and of itself.

Best contact high: I assumed moe. would dominate the scorecard on this one, but I'd say they only scored about an 8 on a 10-point scale. Polyphonic Spree, on the other hand, scored about a 12. Ben Harper followed with about a 6, and everybody else hovered around the 3 range.

Most Frustrating Part of Lollapalooza: The dirt. As more people fill the park on Days Two and Three, I'm pretty sure the future winner will be the crowds (unless the weather trumps it), but for now...I love the Buckingham Fountain that welcomes you at the Lolla entrance. It's cool, it gives off a nice, much-appreciated breeze, it reminds me of Married...With Children. But it's also surrounded by dirt and gravel, and to get from one end of the park to the other (it seemed like we had to cross the park after every act yesterday), you have to cross it and inhale an alley's worth of dust. Needless to say, the Benadryl is going to be out in full-force for me this weekend. Ugh.

Number of Mizzou Shirts in the Crowd: 3 (2 not including my own).

Best Incomplete Praise: The dude in the torn-up (on purpose) 1987 Pink Floyd shirt really was a hackysack badass.

Top Three Acts of Day One: 1) Ben Harper, 2) Polyphonic Spree, 3) Ted Leo & The Pharmacists. No surprise there.

And finally, Walsh's Lolla Beard:

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