CL on the Road Review: Lollapalooza 2011, Chicago

A look back at last weekend's 20th annual fest, with photos.


Timing is usually everything with festival sets, so the electro-dance pop of Foster the People [pictured right] was an excellent choice for the 3 p.m. Friday slot — perfect for the arriving-after-work crowd. The L.A. three-piece, backed by two touring musicians, has unquestionably been helped by local radio play of the unofficial song of summer, "Pumped Up Kicks," which they played right after an incongruous cover of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold."

Over at the Google+ stage, Teri Gender Bender led her Mexican garage punk trio Le Butcherettes as they ripped through a blissfully loud set of noisy and distorted rock that took a turn for the strange when drummer Gabe Serbian projectile vomited several times, yet recovered each time to pound the drum kit with even more fervor — a weird, wild and unforgettable rock 'n' roll moment.

At Perry's stage, the masked trio behind the relentless industrial techno of The Bloody Beetroots Death Crew 77 [pictured left] were bringing it hard, which probably looked awesome. I wouldn't know — throngs of spazzing teens and the prospect of baking under the newer, larger shed housing Perry's weren't something I wanted to brave.

One of the pleasures of such a big music event with more than 100 acts is having no real agenda and stumbling into discoveries like British rapper Tinie Tempah, who took turns rhyming over deep hip-hops grooves and grandiose, anthemic guitar chords. It was approachable rap-rock, a little cheesy, a bit over the top and completely fun to watch.

The exuberance of Tinie Tempeh was heavily contrasted at the north end of Grant Park, where Conor Oberst led Bright Eyes through a folksy, heartfelt set on the headliner's stage. I'm not a big Bright Eyes guy, but the indie, rootsy blues music worked against the backdrop — summertime splendor in a major American city. Then again, what music wouldn't?

Way at the south end of the park (and I do mean way the hell down there, more than a mile away from the north headlining stage), Muse was kicking off their headlining set. No strangers to mega festivals, their show was aggressive, tightly composed and psychedelic. Bolstered by Dominic Howard's precision hammering and the lush tones of frontman Matthew Bellamy's voice, the two-hour set was a composed sonic assault, even when the band veered into the dreamy and thematic.

Over at Girl Talk, it wasn't about cinematic, driving soundscapes. It was about beats. And hundreds of mash-ups backed by bass. Greg Gillis' raucous set at Perry's didn’t offer up surprises, but it did offer a long string of carefree singalongs, from Tag Team's "Whoomp! There It Is" to Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone," and closed with a crescendo that included the thrashing chords of the Guns N’ Roses epic, "November Rain."


An early soaking left parts of the park's low-lying south end a bit soggy. No matter. Fitz & The Tantrums drew a sizable crowd to the main south stage for a fun round of neo-soul tunes. Backed by a five-piece band and sidekick singer Noelle Scaggs, stylish frontman Michael Fitzpatrick [pictured right] shimmied, danced and sang his little white heart out, including during a choice cover of the Raconteurs "Steady as She Goes."

At the Google+ stage, indie pop rockers Dom provided one of the weekend's best sets. Led by the young, red-haired and slightly androgynous Dom, the four-piece band breezed through several tunes like "Jesus," which is ostensibly about a break-up and begins "The tears about to begin again / and the Ecstasy is kicking in." Fun stuff.

The newly reunited Death From Above 1979 was rewarded with a daytime headlining spot on the north stage. The duo's noise punk set was brash and intense, with drummer Sebastian Grainger, dressed in all white and looking sinister, leading the fury.

Just across the field, at Chicago's famed Petrillo Music Shell (the Playstation stage for Lollapalooza purposes), Deftones played angry and loud. But our stop there was short-lived — we just weren't feeling the "so dark and scarred it's beautiful" thing.

What was beautiful, however, was a big shaded tent with a bar, comfortable couches, chairs and coffee tables, which is where I caught the Local Natives set. It was projected onto a big screen situated under some shade trees. Critics have called the L.A. indie band's Lolla set uninspired and underwhelming, but what I saw was a band capturing the essence of the catchy, trippy folk rock that's surging across America's headphones right now. Highly enjoyable.

Here, we arrive at the weekend's biggest disappointment: Cee Lo Green. When he appeared on stage, clad in black shoulder pads with spikes and screaming "Fuck Yeah!" for about a minute straight, I was gearing up for a weird and infectious soul show. What I got was Cee Lo Green covering Danzig's "Mother" and Violent Femmess "Gone Daddy Gone." You're just going to have to believe me: it wasn't as cool as it sounds.

Lykke Li [pictured left]was another highly anticipated performer. Appearing on the Google+ stage, the Swedish songstress delighted the crowd with her voice, but the show was very low energy. Maybe that's the way it's supposed to be. Li and the band were dressed in all black, kind of rocking but mostly wailing through heartbreak tunes.

Leaving Lykke Li meant it was finally time to make the weekend's toughest choice — My Morning Jacket or Eminem? Here was my thought: My Morning Jacket you can probably catch again. Eminem you can't. Plus, we'd heard rumors Dr. Dre was going to appear. But we ended up at MMJ and I'm incredibly satisfied for several reasons:

1) Eminem's set was packed
2) We heard it was a let down
3) The Dre cameo was just a rumor
4) We were able to get surprisingly close to the My Morning Jacket stage
5) They nailed it.

And who cares if the MMJ set was essentially the same one they played a month and a half before in Chicago's Auditorium Theatre? Jim James sported a cape. The skyline was twinkling. A breeze was blowing. The sound, which arrived in waves of soft and hard American stoner rock, was close to perfect. It was a perfect end to Saturday.


Sunday began with bad dirty blues provided by Little Hurricane. Maybe I'm being too critical, but it didn't seem like the San Diego hipster blues act was cutting it in the world's finest blues town. For the three numbers CL photographer Mike Wilson and I stuck around, the crowd just wasn't buying it either.

But it's not like a few bad tunes spoil an entire day. Next, we headed to catch Midwest hip-hop group The Cool Kids [pictured above], who blew the crowd away with danceable beats and smart rhymes. A true party in the park.

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, aside from having perhaps the best name of all the acts at the festival, brought a big crowd with a big 80s-inspired indie pop sound that fit nicely with the sunny Sunday backdrop.

Pro tip: If you have the opportunity to see The Cars, don't. Just put on any of their records, close your eyes and imagine four motionless men on a stage, none of which are appearing to be having all that much fun for a classic rock act supposedly in the midst of a revival. Still, their blend of New Wave rock was crisp, and they plowed through hits like "Just What I Needed" and "My Best Friend’s Girl" in workmanlike fashion.

The other pride of Wasilla, Ala., indie-psychedelic four-piece Portugal. The Man [pictured left] drew a crowd clearly digging on handsome frontman John Gourley's falsetto and the rest of the band's hooky art rock. But what started as momentum ended in rude fashion as dark skies threatened to open up on the crowd. (That's to say nothing of what happened to the band's van, which was stolen in Chicago — it was later recovered, but with all of their equipment missing.)

And the skies finally erupted into a Tampa-worthy deluge rarely seen for such a sustained time in the Midwest. Plain and simple, it poured and sent countless thousands searching for shelter, whether in portable toilets, under tarps or inside vendor tents.

And I suppose there's two ways for an act to handle such a setback: cut it short or let it rip. Cage the Elephant chose the latter, and thousands of brave souls stuck it out. I remained tucked under a flimsy umbrella with my wife, well out of viewing range but close enough to hear frontman Matthew Shultz acknowledge the legend-building performance.

"Rain or shine, right? Rain or shine," he said before diving into the band's hit "Ain't No Rest For the Wicked." But the high energy was soon tempered with the stark realization that it was still raining, still muddy and still probably going to be a major hassle to leave.

No shit, here's what happened next: The rain stopped, the sun peeked through the skyscrapers, Damian Marley summoned the drenched crowd with a Jamaican flag [pictured right], Nas MC'ed over dance grooves and a brilliant rainbow emerged, the ends of which seemed to touch down exactly on each headlining stage.

It was a pitch-perfect rally to remind the crowd there was plenty of fest left if they were ready to fight. I wasn’t.

We accepted our fate and left Lollapalooza for good. Powering through the Deadmau5 set, or trekking down to Foo Fighters, would eventually mean slogging through ankle-deep mud and dazed ravers. So we left, boarded a nearby train and headed home. And that's when I began to think about the divide between the paradigm-shifting 1991 Lollapalooza and its incarnations as a destination festival.

With a contract in Chicago through 2018, Lollapalooza won't ever again return to its contrarian, early '90s roots. Is that so bad?

It's a question I'd pondered long after I'd showered off the mud, enjoyed an ice cream cone and watched Foo Fighters in my bed via the festival's live YouTube broadcast.

All hail rock 'n' roll.

More photos by Mike Wilson:

click to enlarge CL on the Road Review: Lollapalooza 2011, Chicago - Mike Wilson
Mike Wilson
CL on the Road Review: Lollapalooza 2011, Chicago

click to enlarge CL on the Road Review: Lollapalooza 2011, Chicago - Mike Wilson
Mike Wilson
CL on the Road Review: Lollapalooza 2011, Chicago

Forget for a few moments about lobster corndogs and social media tents with smartphone charging stations. You're here for the music. [Text by Casey, photos by Mike.]

That's what I kept telling myself on the walk to Lollapalooza — specifically, the 20th anniversary of the iconic music festival, held once again in Chicago's Grant Park. The anniversary aspect was hard to forget — it was emblazoned on wristband passes, mentioned by countless bands and promoted endlessly on the festival’s website. But the inaugural, raunchy traveling festival's roots and the corporate-backed mega-concert it's become couldn't be more different.

Despite this fact, there were an estimated 270,000 music fans gathered inside the massive public park nestled between mighty Lake Michigan and the skyline of the Chicago metropolis, and paid the hefty price of $215 for regular three-day passes — not bad, until you factor in hotel and food costs.

But you get what you pay for, and the grounds were clean, spacious and thoughtfully laid out. The vendors served foodie-quality morsels and about 140 acts took to eight stages. We tried to see as many as humanly possible. Read about the highlights after the jump:

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