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 end today with coverage of Sunday, the most relaxed day of the weekend.
John Butler Trio
2:15-3:15pm, Bud Light Stage
Hailing from Australia, the John Butler Trio specializes in acoustic jamming with JB’s own rustic vocals atop it all. And while the band was undeniably skilled, their entire set melded into one singular sound: the twang of an acoustic guitar. Little invention was involved in the three-piece’s show, and even a midset drum solo was more beat-keeping than skin-pounding. Fans who think Jack Johnson too simple and Ben Harper too complex, however, would find a safe haven in JBT’s grooves.
The Black Kids
3:15-4:15pm, Citi Stage
Back in the ’70s, David Bowie was notoriously sloppy in concert — but there was something eclectic about his coke-fueled, off-pitch ramblings on stage. Our generation’s closest approximation to that might just be the Black Kids, whose supremely catchy brand of art-rock is hard to deny despite an overall messy presentation. Reggie and Ali Youngblood, who share vocal responsibilities and duel on guitar and keyboard respectively, are quite enigmatic in concert: Reggie sings barely above a whisper at times; Ali, meanwhile, shouts more than sings. The rest of the five-piece ensemble was engagingly loose throughout the set, running through the instrumental hooks on hits like “Look At Me” as if everyone was playing a solo. So maybe that wise-assed Pitchfork review of the Kids’ debut LP was a little harsh; the band just needs to mature a little.
G. Love & Special Sauce
4:15-5:15pm, AT&T Stage
Though he essentially writes the same song over and over again, Philly’s G. Love & Special Sauce was quite a set for bros and babes. The hipster’s sound is pure acoustic funk, tossed around with some Southern blues for good measure — the band’s bassist played an extremely authentic stand-up bass throughout the show. And if there was a thesis to be offered from leadman G, it’s this: dude loves weed. Just check the lyrics from, umm, “Who’s Got the Weed”: “Who’s got the weed?/I got the weed…Legalize it/Decriminalize it/I’ll advertise it.”
5:15-6:15pm, MySpace Stage
Plagued by more than a decade of popular irrelevance, Blues Traveler’s John Popper did a smart thing with his setlist for Sunday’s show: instead of drifting too far into the group’s latter-day output, he previewed just three songs from BT’s new disc and used each one as a launch pad for much better-known material. The first anonymous track, for instance, quickly morphed into “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” — a thinly-veiled vehicle for Popper’s harmonica skills, as the heavyweight frontman hit the violin solos note-for-note throughout the cover. Next came a hybrid that lead to “Run Around,” which sounded fantastic even fifteen years after its chart debut. Then came an impressive, thirty minute blues jam — the day’s longest if you discount Girl Talk’s unending DJ set — that culminated in Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” and the band’s own “Hook,” both of which are quintessential tracks for a beer-drinker’s end-of-summerfest. So I guess Blues Traveler left me dually surprised: firstly because they still tour, secondly because they sound so tight.
6:15-7:15pm, AT&T Stage
Though Cee Lo’s stage mobility is limited by his weight, the GB frontman’s vocals certainly are not. One of my most chilling Lollapalooza memories, in fact, was walking away from Gnarls’ Sunday set towards the other end of Grant Park — all while Lo’s haunting upper register approximated perfectly the verses from Radiohead’s “Reckoner,” which GB has taken to playing in concert as of late. His voice literally hung high above everything else going on at that moment: Girl Talk’s party set on the Citi Stage, The National’s opening moments on the PS3 Stage, even the streaming waters of Buckingham Fountain. The rest of Gnarls’ show was similarly exotic, from a daunting run through “I’m Going On” to a crowd-pleasing rendition of “Crazy.” (I saw a girl who couldn’t have been more than three singing every lyric to the latter.) This was my first Gnarls show, and I have to admit that I was nervous about the band’s ability to translate electronic album tracks into live instrumentation. But the GB outfit, from Danger Mouse (onstage, the dude always looks like a mad scientist) to a duo of schoolgirl back-up singers, proved entirely capable of doing just that.
7:15-8:15pm, PS3 Stage
The National’s Boxer, one of 2007’s best indie albums, has kept the band touring for almost a year now. And I really wish I didn’t miss them open for R.E.M. at Chicago’s United Center, because the dreary pianos and lullaby guitars of their sonic landscape might have sounded nice in an arena. At Lollapalooza, much of the subtle instrumentation was lost in the wind, and frontman Matt Berninger’s sea-deep baritone was drowned out by the bustle of the audience. That said, “Fake Empire” and “Mistaken for Strangers” sounded great — but those two tracks mark the entirety of the National’s repertoire with enough crunch to cater to festival fans.
8:30-10:00pm, AT&T Stage
Having attended Bonnaroo earlier this summer, I’ve already been involved in some festival-related Kantroversy: namely the two-hour wait ‘Ye forced on some 60,000 Manchester music fans without explanation or apology. Back then, he learned the hard way that fest-goers — no matter their drug-addled inability to grasp the concept of time — will notice an extended delay, and that their reaction might be less than enthusiastic. So kudos to Kanye for starting his Lollapalooza set immediately at 8:30, despite the decision to ditch his acclaimed Glow in the Dark Show (and its complicated technics) to do so. Instead, Kanye presented a simpler lights show and switched up the order of his setlist for maximal adrenaline as opposed to maximal euphoria. (“Stronger,” in its jungle-heavy remix form, took the final spot in lieu of “Homecoming” — which was played mid-show.) The show’s highlights, of course, had more to do with Kanye’s band than his swagger: a cover of Young Jeezy’s “Put On” (as in “I put on for my city”) was blissfully electronic; a show-stopping “Good Life,” in spite of Kanye’s incessant reliance on a vocoder, showcased the most syrupy synths this side of sap; and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” during the encore was pitch-perfect and drenched in nostalgia. (I’ll also admit that flashing an image of Chicago’s own Smurfit-Stone Building during “Diamonds” was quite the aesthetic touch.) And hey, what’s a Kanye show without ego? This time around, Mr. West compared himself to Hendrix, James Brown and
God many other great performers. But I’ve seen him enough to know that the magic’s in the music, not the mouth.