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Looking Back: Lollapalooza, Day 1

By Marcus Gilmer in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 7, 2010 5:30PM

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The Strokes / Photo by Jim Kopeny

Every year, we plan and plot our attack on the megafest that is Lollapalooza and every year we run ourselves ragged trying to see it all. It's an impossible feat, trying to squeeze in as much as possible while scurrying about Grant Park, trying to get in a little of too many bands. It never works. Something goes amiss, half a set is missed, moments pass and aren't appreciated. Lollapalooza, after all, is an experience, a marathon: the music, the people, the food, etc. For better or for worse. So this year, rather than spend 15-20 minutes at each stage, we decided to target a few bands and spend a little time taking in the festival experience as a whole. After all, that's what most people do, right? Day One was bright, sunny, and warm, and while it didn't present the overbearing heat the weather can bring in early August, it was still a good day to take it easy and get the lay of the land as the marathon fest kicked off.

Gospel legend Mavis Staples was the first act I caught under the warm (but not too hot) sun. While in the context of the entire schedule, Staples was something of a headscratcher among the bands of more indie rock inclinations, she was no less impressive. The 71-year-old singer had all the enthusiasm and grace you'd expect from someone of her stature and, wow, that voice. Opening her set with an a capella number, "Wonderful Savior," accompanied by back-up singers, she prepared us for a holy experience. The gospel groove kicked in and, proclaiming "I'm too close to heaven to turn around," she gave us salvation early in the day. She was joined on stage by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, producer of her upcoming album You Are Not Alone, playing acoustic guitar for the new album's title track and later for a cover of CCR's "Wrote A Song For Everyone." Tweedy received a loud ovation from the crowd, but even the hometown indie giant couldn't overshadow the hometown gospel queen whose talents were on display covering The Band's "The Weight." This was Mavis' set and even if, on paper, it seemed out of place at the fest, it was, in execution, a mighty start to our weekend. By the time she belted out the classic "I'll Take You There," she had set the bar mighty high to begin the day.

The southern-fried stomp of Drive By Truckers was, in a way, a perfect segue-way from the gospel of Staples. The raucous honky tonk of set opener "Get Downtown" kept the energy level high and the band stomped through their set. "Women with Whiskey" was another high point of the set and though the band's lyrics can be focused on the drunk and downtrodden - "So I'll meet you at the bottom if there really is one" goes the chorus of "Gravity's Gone" - a counter to the uplifting gospel of Staples, there was still life and vitality to the music. The DBTs are vets of festivals who know how to bang through a set that keeps the crowd enraptured and the energy level high even as they're singing about sorrow and pain.

Having already caught The New Pornographers the night before at the Metro, the mid-day lull seemed to offer an opportunity to wander a bit, which started by checking out Cymbals Eat Guitars at the new Sony Bloggie stage. Tucked away in a clearing surrounded by trees, the stage, part of this year's eastward expansion, will probably wind up a destination by many looking to get out of the sun. It was a pleasant setting to hear the melodic spazz rock and we expect to hit this stage a few more times throughout the weekend. A stroll down Columbus followed as we circled the grounds, enjoying the slightly smaller Friday afternoon crowds. With this year's expansion east, Columbus offers a new way to handle the north-south trip, an alternative to the clusterfuck of people that normally ensues around Buckingham Fountain. Whether or not this holds true for the rest of the weekend when more people are in attendance remains to be seen. But, yesterday, we were happy to use it to make our way south where we happened upon Graham Elliot at Chow Town South. The lobster corndog? Pretty damn delicious. A trip back north to complete the circuit gave us an opportunity to catch a bit of Semi Precious Weapons and during that bit, this happened. These are the moments we so often miss at Lolla though by wandering the grounds for an hour, we probably missed a few more.

Over at Perry's DJ stage, our own Jake Guidry had this to offer. Day one at Perry's afforded us plenty of variety, sun and dance beats. It's crazy to see just how far the once tiny-stage-with-a-canopy has come since 2008. The emergence of DJs and electronic music in general has propelled the stage into a formidable forray of the hottest and significant DJs in the world, year in, year out. We first arrived at Perry's once Ana Sia hit the decks, a dubstep phenom who plays everything from the cerebral to the testosterone-filled cheap thrills stuff. She commanded the crowd beautifully, causing mostly the teeny-boppers to go absolutely bonkers.

Peanut Butter Wolf explored the seemingly endless world of '90s hip-hop, taking us on a journey to everything from Wu-Tang to Kriss Kross. We then hung around and checked out Caspa, yet another dubstep DJ, the major theme of this year's Perry's stage. Caspa went more abrasive in his set than Ana Sia, opting to play mostly balls-to-the wall bangers for a solid hour. The set was proof-positive to the rising popularity of dubstep, as the entire crowd vibed with each new track in the mix.

We finally ended with Erol Alkan, the electro bad-ass known for making some of the best original tracks in the biz, notably including collaborations with our long-time obsession, Boys Noize. Erol Alkan is a glimmering hope in the dying form of electro, reminding us that the genre still has much to offer (it's not just distorted basslines and ill-advised moshing, people). His set delved into the familiar and not-so familiar, busting out some old faves and some fresh stuff we can't wait to be released to the masses.

Back at the main stages, after doing the circuit for an hour, it was time to plop down in the grass and take in Dirty Projectors, a band I'm, admittedly, not that familiar with and a band I won't likely be familiarizing myself with any further in the near future. That's not to say the band's set was bad. It was pleasant enough for the sunny late afternoon but too much of their set blended together. Part of that was due to a drowsiness that had settled over many of the people on the grass where I was, myself included, the music reduced to a background soundtrack while fighting off sleep. Songs like "No Intention" and "Knotty Pine" sounded okay but it wasn't the most captivating. Again, it wasn't a bad set but one that failed to do much to capture my interest.

Doing a far better job were Black Keys whose gritty blues rock was perfect for the park as dusk descended. Some sound issues aside - the first few songs sounded a bit too quiet, at least from as far back as I was standing - the duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney pounded through "Thickfreakness " and "Girl Is On My Mind." Bringing two additional players on stage, including some organ, providing more texture - and more noise - for the band. As the sun dipped below the skyline of Michigan Avenue, the band grooved through "Next Girl" and "Tighten Up," a stellar set that perked us up and motivated us for the headliner to come.

By now, it's impossible to say anything about Lady Gaga that hasn't already been said at least 100 times over. If there were expectations, they were focused around the spectacle more than the music. Yes, the pop songs are catchy, but this was to be an event, one that was going to attract the hardcore fans and first-time onlookers alike. It was, in essence, a pop set at a fest known for being heavy on indie rock acts but that only heightened the anticipation. Could Gaga pull this off? There had been some talk in the days leading up to last night of Gaga's 2007 performance at Lollapalooza on the BMI stage and it was certainly on her mind as well and she referenced it several times, sometimes in a bitter tone. Not that I'm going to begrudge her that "Fuck the haters" moment, but in light of what followed, the call-backs rang a tad hollow.

The show, similar to what she's been performing on her current tour, began well enough, her silhouette, striking poses, projected on to a white curtain that hung across the entire stage. The set was, indeed, a spectacle, and the show began with something of a plot, but as the first half-hour continued, the show began to lag. The set and costume changes, not to mention extended monologues from Gaga herself, dragged the show out. The theme of the show, of "being free," was appropriate, given Gaga's stature as a new icon for gay men as well as this week's Prop 8 ruling. For the Gaga fans, this was what they knew was coming and they seemed to enjoy every minute of it. For the casual fans, though, the first half of the show was a disappointment. Not that we expected her to come out and blaze through her hits, one right after the other, but the show was disjointed, interrupted by the aforementioned breaks and talking. And talking. And talking. The show never found its flow, its rhythm. For the average non-Gaga obsessed attendee, it was easy to lose focus on what was happening on stage.

That's the problem with fests like Lollapalooza. Crowds are fickle and can lack the long attention span necessary for a full-blown show. After a day in the heat taking in 45- and 60-minute sets and frantically running from one end of the park to the other, the casual fan will look to be hooked and brought right into the show. But the first half of Gaga's show was, to the casual fan, uneven, filled with some spectacle and impressive set pieces but long on talking and heavy breathing and short on songs. In the first 45 minutes of the show, Gaga had worked her way through only a handful of songs. By the time the second part of the set began, a number of those casual fans had lost patience and begun a steady flow either towards the exits or to The Strokes on the park's north end. Not even Gaga's attempts to be provocative - a lot of swearing, a few references to "dicks" - could hold our attention.

The show began to find its footing a bit with an extended interlude in which Gaga, while still taking the time to pepper the audience with anecdotes, spent some time at a piano and doing something we didn't really expect: simply playing songs. It was a welcome change of pace from the disorienting start-and-stop of the first half of the show. And it's not that we didn't know she was capable of this; she's proven she's capable of carrying herself as a singer without crazy costumes and flashing lights and rotating stage pieces. The show then transitioned back to the themed-portion but, to her credit, it picked up considerably in the second half as she, yes, rolled through the hits: "Poker Face," "Alejandro," "Paparazzi," and set closer "Bad Romance" that was the costumes, dancing, and lights spectacle we had been expecting all night. While Gaga kept her interaction with the crowd up, it was quicker, snappier, the pace kept even and the show was better for it, feeling like we were racing through the final 45 minutes.

Hardcore fans will read this and cry "blasphemy" while hailing her performance as triumphant. But what we took away from the set is that what works in small doses just doesn't translate as well to the bigger stage. At least if you don't pace it correctly. We expected an onslaught of aural and visual stimulation which, of course, isn't fair to the performer. To give us that kind of show is physically impossible and, admittedly, we went in with unfair expectations. But with all the focus on her, with such grand expectations and a crowd more full with non-fans than hardcore devotees, there was room for tweaking, for streamlining, a balance between reaching out to those casual listeners while not betraying the big fans and simply trotting out a mundane set of hits that does little to capture the imagination.

Throughout Gaga's set, I couldn't help but think back, somewhat appropriately given their proposed (and then canceled) 2009 tour, to Kanye's stripped-down set that closed the fest in 2008. At the time, I said, "He would sink or swim by himself, on his talents alone. In the end, he didn't swim; he flew." The small touch of hyperbole aside, he did. He conquered. He did what he does best and he relied on his music and performance to carry him. Say what you will about his ego, but using just the barest of essentials, he was carried by his talent and a blistering ferocity that clearly drives him. Perhaps Gaga's set would have been better to have done something similar. But that's not who she is. With the stage show and her off-the-stage antics she's shown that she is the spectacle. While some of the better moments from last night show's, ironically, came from that simple piano segment, it's not something we expect to see or hear more of. While we have to share the blame for our disappointment given the expectations we placed on the show, the spectacle was still a letdown. On a day that started with us swaying to the gospel of a legend, we walked away from music's current superstar icon disappointed and unconverted.

Oh yeah, and Tankboy saw The Strokes and all he could say about that was, "Um, well, they sounded just like The Strokes."