Lollapalooza 2013 Review
Over three days in Chicago's Grant Park, somewhere around 130 bands play the festival's seven stages. So any review of Lollapalooza is going to represent a small, singular, highly subjective experience. Talk to another Lollapaloozer and he or she will surely have totally different tales to tell. At any rate, here's my personal highlight reel.
Friday for us was all about the headliners – Nine Inch Nails and The Killers. Lollapalooza does this (maddening) thing every year where they make you choose between two headliners. And everyone who’s been to Lolla tells you that you really do have to choose, because the distance between the two main stages is something like 10 city blocks, and every step of that distance is flooded with people. But we said no, damn it, we’re seeing both of them. And so we did.
After having the time to watch only a few songs by Frightened Rabbit, we sought out a good spot for Nine Inch Nails. I wanted to start with Nine Inch Nails because I knew I'd have a razor-like level of anticipation since I've been listening to their old stuff for 20 years. The only other time I'd seen them we were in the nosebleed seats of an arena.
The show started with Trent on stage by himself with a synthesizer. A minute or two into the song, another guy came out with a synthesizer. Then one by one, three more musicians carried their instruments on stage and made a line of five, Trent in the middle. It was a cool opening. I'm not a fan of the more recent Nails material, but the pulse of lights and electronics was riveting from the beginning. (Full concert here.)
The fifth song for me was when the lid came off my head and I lost my goddamned mind. When the opening drumbeat of “March of the Pigs” kicked in, I lost physical control of my physical self and began screaming at the top of my rage. That song was the pinnacle of the whole festival for me. They added a huge section to the end that shaved a couple layers off my brain. Transcendent. Electrifying.
They played two more songs from The Downward Spiral after that, and of course "Closer" was a crowd favorite. I gleefully dove into the mosh pit for “Gave Up,” from Broken, right before we had to dash to the other stage.
And I do mean literally dash. We thought it was odd that we were the only ones running. Did these people we passed on the way not realize that Nine Inch Nails and The Killers were both playing? They seemed in no particular hurry, whereas we couldn’t get from A to B fast enough.
After we got to The Killers and pushed our way into a decent view, we thought we may have made a big mistake. They played this painfully lame Sinatra cover about how Chicago is their kind of town, with a slideshow playing behind them of Chicago skyscrapers, Michael Jordan, Barack Obama and other gratuitously cliché images related to Chicago. We looked at each other and said, this is what we left Nine Inch Nails for?
They played a few more boring songs – I’m a Killers fan, and I thought they were boring – before slam-dunking the encore. I knew they’d have a great encore, but I was crestfallen when a guy next to me informed me that they’d played “Mr. Brightside” before we got there. (Apparently they opened with it. I thought for sure it would be in the encore.) They closed with “All These Things That I’ve Done” and “When You Were Young.” Everyone danced and sang along with abandon – detonating the kind of exuberance achieved only at a festival. A very strong finish. But in the match between Nine Inch Nails and The Killers, Nine Inch Nails won. It wasn’t even close.
The most exciting band we saw on Saturday was Foals. They opened with a smooth, rocking instrumental that let us know we were in good hands. We were giving up a big chunk of The National to see these guys, but it didn't take long to realize that was a good decision. "Inhaler" came at the height of the set. If you haven't heard that song, check it out. It blasts off slowly with a thick plume of smoke and takes a couple minutes to get fully into orbit, then keeps you at that height burning up vast amounts of space.
We caught the last leg of The National's set and got to hear some good ones, like "England" and "Terrible Love." We'd just seen them in New York, so we were fine with sacrificing the bulk of their performance. There are always sacrifices at these festivals. No way around it.
The headliners on Saturday were The Postal Service and Mumford and Sons, and we were again determined to take in a little of both. We started with The Postal Service. It's pretty wild that Ben Gibbard released this one-off side-project album with Jimmy Tamborello, didn't tour, and then managed to headline a major festival 10 years later. People just really loved that album, myself included. It caused a much bigger wave than anything Death Cab for Cutie (Gibbard's full-time band) ever did. And I'm guessing there may be a nostalgia factor at work for some fans, with the music instigating flashbacks to 2003.
The Postal Service was good. Gibbard and Tamborello enlisted two hot chicks to play keyboards and sing backup. And Gibbard played drums a couple times. I guess if I could play multiple instruments I'd be showing off, too.
Shortly after we arrived for Mumford and Sons, the band members gathered around a single microphone and played a soft, acoustic song. I'm sure this seemed cute to the people in the front row, but we couldn't fucking hear it. Again we looked at each other and wondered why we left the first stage for the second. I know Mumford and Sons are larger than life these days, but I still haven't figured out why.
First up, Alt-J, a band that is making quite a splash with just one album out. We got to their stage plenty early, only to find that a few thousand people had the same idea. Their music is hard to describe. The lead vocalist has a very strange voice that somehow works perfectly with the bright serenity of their instrumentation. They have a second singer as well, and the two voices weave in and out of each other in lovely, trippy harmonization. If you come to their show in an altered state, I'm guessing you'll enjoy yourself plenty.
Next up, Vampire Weekend. I've seen these guys three times now, and I plan to see them every time they tour for the next couple decades. I liked Contra even better than their first album, and their latest album has some great stuff on it, too, with excellent production. They're one of those bands where, no matter how much you like them on record, you're still blown away by how amazing they are live. Their immaculate upbeat grooves made the park sparkle as the sun went down. "Giving Up the Ghost" would definitely be on my list of top five songs for the weekend, somehow surprising me with its effortless grandeur as if I'd never heard it before.
Frontman Ezra Koenig told the crowd that they're from New York and said, "New York and Chicago have a lot in common. Both have a lot of big-ass buildings, a lot of half-Irish, half-Italian people. But one thing we don't have in New York is a festival anything like this." And he's right. New York has tried its hand at a couple of three-day music festivals, but nothing on the scale of Lollapalooza, and certainly not right in the middle of the city.
We closed the weekend with Phoenix. The Cure was the other headliner that night, which made for an easy decision for us. (I've seen The Cure before, and found them a bit soporific.) So finally we could stay in one place and watch the whole set. I expected Phoenix to be good, but we were thoroughly impressed. I could try to describe how talented their drummer is or how rich and clear their singer's voice sounded, but suffice it to say that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. In the middle of the set they combined the songs "Love Like a Sunset" and "Bankruptcy" into one, starting with the first part of Sunset, switching directly into the spacecraft landing of Bankruptcy, and then finishing with the end of Sunset. I don't think I moved during that song, stunned and mesmerized as I was. The entire screen at the back of the stage lit up in a pure and pinkish white, turning the night to candy as vibrations penetrated softened marrow. The I-can-walk-into-traffic-and-die-happy moment.