If you call Lollapalooza ’08 the best music under the sun, you mean it quite literally: this year’s Chicago-area festival rocked and rolled through three days of over 90 degrees in scenic Grant Park. And with a lineup boasting area faves like Wilco and Kanye alongside modern-day legends like Radiohead and Rage Against the Machine, some are calling it Lolla’s best year ever. I was there to test that claim — and I continue today with coverage of Saturday, a largely unfamiliar day of music for me.
4:00-4:30pm, MySpace Stage
Counting Bonnaroo, I’ve now seen the last half hour of two MGMT shows — and the band certainly plays by the “all’s well that ends well” rule of spectacle. During the final stretch of their Lollapalooza set, the band went from “Electric Feel” to “Time to Pretend” to “Kids”: all three huge songs from their critically-beloved debut Oracular Spectacular. “Time to Pretend,” as usual, exercised one of the catchiest riffs from all of Saturday; better yet was “Kids,” whose central electric motif sounds like something the Killers would’ve loved to have written. And sure, MGMT will eventually need to learn how to amplify its guitar and rhythm sections as not to be overpowered by pre-recorded synth lines — but I guess when you write riffs like this and this, guitars are the least of your worries.
Explosions in the Sky
4:30-5:30pm, Bud Light Stage
Certainly there’s an injustice in Explosions in the Sky — a trippy instrumental outfit from Austin — playing their entire set in broad daylight while Wilco played “Sky Blue Sky” in nighttime darkness on the same stage. (Maybe not injustice; at very least irony.) That’s because Explosions specializes in writing slow, sad, psychadelic songs, few of which clock in at less than eight minutes. And being entirely unfamiliar with their recorded output, I can’t name a single track they played on Saturday — but suffice it to say this: in their quieter moments, Explosions is content to ingrain simple, repetitive guitar lines into your head; at their loudest, the band consistently evokes the sheer paranoia of Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky” with nary a lyric. Great things, evidently, happen in the sky.
5:30-6:30pm, PS3 Stage
Another bout of new music for me, Okkervil River was billed as The Cure-meets-Spoon by my Lollapalooza brochure. And with lead singer Will Sheff — who looks like a less mainstream David Cook — decked out in a suit and skinny tie, at least Okkervil’s image was half Cure (the emo part) and half Spoon (the sophistication). But their sound was not — teaching me that not even in a festival as credible as Lolla should you trust a band’s reputation, nor should you judge a book by its cover. Instead, judge a band by its covers: like Okkervil’s mid-set take on the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B,” which turned their whole show into a damn good time. Similarly enchanting were new songs like “A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene,” played live with a full brass band. Ultimately, Okkervil’s entire set turned my expectations on their head.
Broken Social Scene
6:30-7:00pm, Bud Light Stage
Broken Social Scene is kind of a giant indie family, with a roster that’s incorporated nearly twenty members over the years. But for ‘Palooza, the band numbered about ten — with a few extended introductions for more famous members injected throughout the show. The band’s sound, however, is still a mystery to me: shades of punk, emo-pop, blues-rock and even shoegazing floated in and out, with nothing really resonating during their first half hour. (I left to see Lupe at 7:00.) That said, BSS is taking some of the highest praise in the wake of their hourlong set, which makes me feel like I missed something either while I was there or during the show’s last thirty minutes.
7:00-7:30pm, AT&T Stage
Back in May, it surprised me when Lupe played Chicago’s United Center without a full band; granted, that was an ephemeral opening gig for some dude named Kanye. Then in June, Lupe showed up for Bonnaroo without a band — once again testing the appeal of two mics and a giant soundsystem to a crowd of thousands. But an hourlong slot at Lollapalooza, set in the heart of the city he calls home, was finally enough for Lupe to bring out the brass, as hip-hop’s deftest emcee rolled through a full sixty minutes with accompaniment fit for a jazz show. I only caught the last half, which was enough to hear new hits like “Paris, Tokyo” and a Matthew Santos-assisted “Superstar” — which eventually turned into six minutes of jamming and freestyle to close the show. And wake up, Mr. West: Lupe Fiasco’s “Daydreamin’,” still the best live rap song I’ve ever heard, is enough to put your whole ego to sleep.
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
7:30-8:30pm, PS3 Stage
Perry Farrell, of Jane’s Addiction fame, was supposed to wow Lolla’s Saturday crowd with a ‘Special Guest’ at 3:30pm. That unearned anticipation cost me thirty minutes of MGMT’s afternoon set, and the special guest (who strolled out well past 4:00) turned out to be Samantha Ronson — whose “Built This Way” was barely a hit after making the soundtrack of Mean Girls in 2006. My point is this: much more exciting were Sharon Jones’ special guests, who turned the soul singer’s hourlong set into the premier non-headliner slot of all of Lollapalooza. First came Syl Johnson, a Chicagoan blues legend, who duetted with Jones on his day-old hit “Diff’rent Strokes.” Johnson ended the jam with 20 consecutive hits of his signature dance move — quite a display for a man of 72. Then Jones went from an old man to a young man: she invited a cargo-panted, college-aged gentleman on stage for “Be Easy,” admitting that she was looking for someone “she could go to jail for.” The ensuing scene (see below) was one of comic genius: the dude introduced himself as ‘Adam Love,’ and his wife of one year as Dana; Sharon mock-humped Adam to teach him how to “slow it down” for the ladies; Adam danced in perfect step throughout the entire extended jam; and Jones ended the ordeal by dedicating the song to Love’s long-forgotten wife. (“Was it Donna?” she asked.) The rest of Jones’ set was incredibly enjoyable, including rollicking takes on “Nobody’s Baby” (during which audience members were her backup singers) and “100 Days, 100 Nights.” So while Jones might not yet be a household name, she’s undoubtedly the hardest-working woman in show business.
Rage Against the Machine
8:30-10:00pm, AT&T Stage
For me, seeing Rage Against the Machine was a culmination of five years of introverted teenage angst. Back in middle school, the band’s self-titled debut was my album-du-coeur — with the ensuing Evil Empire and Battle of L.A. representing two discs to which I knew every lyric. So I can’t exactly call RATM’s Saturday-night set anything less than magical, despite countless interruptions by lead singer Zack de la Rocha to ask the moshing crowd to back up “5 to 10 steps.” Sure, it was weird hearing rock’s angriest band plead with its crowd to simmer down. And sure, the band could have sounded tighter, more focused, and better synchronized on huge hits like “Bulls on Parade” and “Guerrilla Radio.” But nothing can take away from the highlights of Rage’s set: an extended “Wake Up,” in the midst of which de la Rocha launched into an anti-Republican, anti-Democrat rant; a brilliant “Bombtrack,” with Tom Morello’s guitar and Timmy C.’s bass pairing perfectly; and the one-two punch of “Freedom” and “Killing in the Name” during the encore, the two Rage songs that stress Brad Wilk’s two-toned cowbells. The set was probably more enjoyable for me as I was removed from the mosh pit; at one point, a friend of mine sputtered out from the crowd, dazed and covered in dirt, with the singular goal of getting the hell out of Grant Park. But my intentions couldn’t have been further from that: I would have rocked with Rage until the dawn, and the band left the impression that — if not for Lolla’s tight scheduling restrictions — they would have too.