Lolla 2011 Recap: Day One

Coldplay | Photo Credit: Gene Wagendorf III

No summer would be complete without a weekend at Lollapalooza. So, we sent our two music buffs, Gene Wagendorf III and Andrew Hertzberg, with the job of giving us the good, the bad, and the ugly of what goes on at this epic festival. With an idea in mind of what not to miss, these two headed into the trenches of Chicago’s most famous music festival. Check out their recap of Lolla Day One…

No stranger to the Pitchfork Music Festival, I finally found myself attending my first Lollapalooza. A lot more bands, a lot more to cover. As a newbie to the festival, I was guided by seasoned veteran Gene Wagendorf III to tagteam the mother of Chicago summer festivals. Although both of us were initially under the impression that the headliners looked pretty meh this year, there was plenty to check out all day. Likewise, and you’ll never get him to admit it, but I could have sworn I saw Gene getting into Coldplay. Guess you’ll have to read on to find out what we did and didn’t like. Day one: let’s go.

Ruby Jane – Gene

My first act of the day was 16-year old country savant Ruby Jane. The Austin songbird was perfectly placed on a small stage in the shade, which took the edge off of the midday sun and created a soft, relaxed atmosphere for her songs to float around in. Ruby has a voice that suggests a maturity well beyond her years. She sings about love like 50-year-old country singers do, that is to say, not like most of the rest of the world’s schlocky high school poetry. Aside from being heralded as one of the south’s next great songwriters, Ruby gets a lot of buzz for being an expert fiddler. That may sound silly, but watching her tear into the instrument onstage was anything but. Ruby fiddled as if time was running out, as if the earth was splitting open in the middle of Grant Park and everyone was doomed to tumble into the abyss. If the last sounds those theoretically falling masses would have heard was Ms. Jane frantically bowing, there would likely have been few complaints. About the apocalypse soundtrack anyway — I’m sure people would complain about the terrible death. Ruby’s final number channeled the score to the old videogame Castlevania, her fiddling a menaced swirl that her band attempted to navigate through. The tune came out more like a Buckethead jam than country angst, but therein lies her true charm. Ruby covered all the bases when it came to crafting great live country ballads, but the surprising genre bends of her other tunes kept people on their toes.

Ruby Jane | Photo Credit: Gene Wagendorf III

Tennis – Andrew

Tennis started out the day exactly as I had hoped. Despite some technical difficulties, singer/keyboardist Alaina Moore provided airy keys with Patrick Riley’s reverberated guitar to create surf pop bliss. A drummer was recruited for the live show, backing up the duo with basic surf beats. Love songs combined with seaside imagery took us on a metaphorical boat ride along Lake Michigan. Likewise, this was definitely the band most likely to make you do a slow twist. The set focused around tracks from this year’s “Cape Dory,” named after the ship the married duo sailed around the eastern seaboard for seven months some years back. The band brought the breeze off the Lake for the early afternoon set. A few new tracks were played and it’s always nice to see the crowd respond with unsolicited handclaps. By the end of the set, things started to run a bit repetitive as you can only rock ‘Earth Angel’esque jams so many times. Either way, a pleasant way to start off the long week’s end.

Smith Westerns – Gene

Those few in attendance who weren’t aware that the kids of Smith Westerns were local boys were given a clue about the band’s origin when the group took the stage to the same music the ‘90s Bulls dynasty used to come out to. The band seemed genuinely thrilled to be playing at Lollla (lead singer Cullen Omori recalled Smith Western’s first Lollapalooza experience; as 16-year olds accidentally copping feels on crowd surfers). The Westerns had everyone at the PlayStation Stage dancing as they burned through a set list filled with get-away car power pop songs. Just as the audience began to settle, likely from a combination of the heat and the similarity of the song structures, the group leaned into a lengthy psychedelic number, complete with guitar-noodling, whispery lyrics and a soaring, slightly inflated George Harrison-doing-David Bowie solo. Performing more like veterans than a pack of green newbies, Smith Westerns then romped through their shimmy-inducing summer sing-along, “Weekend.” If ever there is going to be a common ground between trixies and hipsters, this song was it. The sequined and the bearded alike were more than content to smile, dance and sing until the songs conclusion. Smith Westerns dedicated their final song of the afternoon to none other than Michael Jordan, and received the appropriate amount of pop from the crown in doing so. Given that the band’s live shows have been called hit or miss, I feel especially lucky to have caught them when they were clearly rolling. Like MJ in his prime, on Friday Smith Westerns just couldn’t miss.

Le Butcherettes – Andrew

I took a chance on Guadalajara-based Le Butcherettes. I wasn’t that familiar with the music going into the show, but had heard good things about their live performances. Only the fourth band I had seen at the festival and I already feel nothing can top them. Donning an apron smeared with blood (real or fake is yet to be determined) lead singer Teri Gender Bender (Teresa Suarez) is a literal ball of energy — she was possessed. I still can’t fully comprehend what I saw. In the tradition of the Cramps, Le Butcherettes turn horror films into music. It’s campy, it’s violent, it’s unpredictable and brilliant. When not singing, Teri would run around stage, jump into the photo pit and get in spitting battles with the drummer. She threw her shoes into the audience. She crowd surfed. She sang intensely; she sang out of the whites of her eyes. She screamed profoundly. This makes it sound like the music comes second to the spectacle, and, well, it sort of does. The credit doesn’t fall on just Suarez: the bassist was filled with just as much energy. Not sure whether it was from drugs, dehydration, sickness or an awful combination of all of them, but the drummer ended up vomiting about a gallon of his insides right before the last song. It felt dangerous just to witness this show, a feeling severely lacking at a Coldplay headlining event.

Cults – Andrew

Cults are probably the buzziest of buzz bands around right now. Whatever your opinion of “hipster” music may be, the duo makes some great pop tunes. With the theme to Twin Peaks setting the mood, the sun conveniently blocked by the CNA building and a friendly misting of water from behind me, the mid-afternoon set was a great reprieve after the intensity of Le Butcherettes. The highlights of the set were from their 7” out last year, including “Most Wanted,” “the Curse,” and the perfect outdoor festival tune, “Go Outside,” of which the bass line perfectly complemented the lead xylophone. The 35-minute set felt a bit abbreviated, but they put on a great show and were much appreciative that we chose them over the Kills.

The Mountain Goats – Gene

Songwriter John Darnielle popped up onstage dressed like Johnny Cash at Easter dinner: black suit, black slacks, black guitar, black tie, pink shirt. Once I got over marveling at how he could wear layers in the August heat, I started to wonder why my record collection was lacking in The Mountain Goats.

Neither Mr. Hertzberg or I had every really cared much about the band, but we settled on seeing them together due to convenience of location. Their set was exactly in between where we would both be at 5:30 and right by a bar. We lucked out. The songs were mostly earnest, funny and endearingly nerdy numbers about (un)requited love, highlighted by “You Were Cool,” a tune that got Andrew smiling like a Cheshire cat and made me wish I had penned the line “It’s good to be young, but let’s not kid ourselves. It’s better to pass on through those years and come out the other side with our hearts still beating.” The icing on the cake was a guest appearance by Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak, a casualty of scheduling that I missed for Ruby Jane. Darnielle and Wasner dueted on an elastic and inspired version of “This Year,” which was possibly the song of the set, and left me a little stunned that I wound up liking them so much.

Bright Eyes – Andrew

Growing steadily into my 20s means that the majority of my Bright Eyes listening days are behind me. Having never seen Conor Oberst perform live though, I figured this was the best chance to do it. And damn was that a hell of a show. Oberst has certainly come a long way from the emo posterchild, becoming an intense and dramatic frontman full of energy, incorporating elements of folk, electronic, and even dance music into his maturing tunes. An extended trumpet solo in “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” was a nice surprise. And the combination of the setting sun, the cooling breeze and a passionate rendition of “Landlocked Blues” sent literal (and please excuse the cliché) chills down my spine. “Road to Joy” found Connor backed by two drummers, two more percussionists and some great noise trumpet, the lyrics that recognize his privilege mirrored by the excess of the music. But he doesn’t come off selfish. He recognizes how ridiculous it is for him to hold the status he does. That’s why he jumped off stage during the close out of “One for You, One for Me,” hugging members of the crowd and security as well. Overall, a surprising, inspiring and powerful set.

Bright Eyes | Photo Credit: Gene Wagendorf III

Bright Eyes – Gene

If The Mountain Goats surprised me, Bright Eyes blew me away. I can’t talk about this show without making it perfectly clear that I have never liked this band and only agreed to check them out in order to share some more drinks with Andrew. Conor Oberst, the driving force behind Bright Eyes, was always just too damned whiney for me to care about. Well, apparently now I’m a huge fucking Bright Eyes fan. How do these things happen? The group opened up with the urgent and enchanting “Four Winds” before shifting into full-on folk rock jam mode. The music was appropriately desperate, punctuated by sophisticated arrangements complete with string and trumpet, and held together by Oberst’s brutally sincere lyrics. Perhaps my judgment of the band early in its career was a bit unfair; Oberst was only 17 when he formed the band, but either way I’m happy to report that our little Conor is all grow’d up and making mature, dynamic, and above all interesting music. Wherein he used to remind of Peter Brady during that famous puberty-induced voice-change episode, Oberst now just sings with confidence and conviction, exactly what’s needed for his poetic lyrics. The entire set had me in stunned disbelief, that is until the “One For Me, One For You.” The preachy, hyper-Bono tune was a little to repetitive and eventually crumbled under the weight of Oberst’s George Romero like heavy-handedness. That said, the tune did give Lolla Day One one of its cooler moments as the singer jumped into the photo pit and made his way around the crowd, stopping to hug fans and the occasional security guard. I guess if you’ve going to do cheesy, go all the way. It just might work.

Day One Headliners: Coldplay vs Muse – Gene

Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” blasted through the north end of Grant Park at about 8:25, hyping the crowd up for… Coldplay? Um, yeah. A laser light barrage that’d make George Lucas cream himself burst out over the crowd when Chris Martin and crew opened their set with “MX.” As the cloud-like song wound down, Martin, a front man somewhat lacking in the art of stage banter, asked the crowd “Is anybody out there? Is anybody out there?” His audience was back at attention when the band broke into “Yellow.” Even those unfamiliar with Coldplay would’ve known the song. Not because of its extensive radio play, but because the repetitive lyrics amount mostly to Martin crooning the word “yellow.” On top of that, the stage poured yellow lights onto the crowd for the duration, causing Andrew to quip “I thought all the yellow was a nice touch.” The band did find its mark with “In My Place,” an elegant and wistful ballad that sadly wound up being the exception and not the rule. Before the next song began, Martin tried to pump the crowd up by hollering “We’re gonna rock your fucking socks off.” Andrew didn’t know Coldplay knew the f-word. Hell, I didn’t think they knew the r-word. So what next? A strummy acoustic tune with all the punch of… something that lacks any and all punch. I’m sorry to any of you “Clocks” fans, but Coldplay is one of the most boring bands I’ve ever seen live. They’re not bad musicians, they’re probably not even bad people, but I just can’t foresee a situation, outside of lack of sleeping pills, in which I’d ever voluntarily listen to them again. You can have all the lights and balloons and pomp money can buy, but eventually people will still realize that the emperor is naked.

Still fully socked, Andrew and I made our way across the park, stopping briefly at Ratatat, before ending out first day of Lollapalooza with Muse. Just taking the stage for their encore, the band began with a kind of jolly little hook that devolved into a wild bend before exploding. “Plug In Baby” seemed to shake the leaves off every tree in the park and aid in sobering up every drunk. Aurally bombastic and backed with a stunning light show, the song instantly had me regretting my decision to split time with the headliners. After the noise crashed the a halt, lead singer Matthew Bellamy implored the crowd to “look up at that bloody beautiful skyline” before adding “Gotham City. It’s good to be back.” The next song, Knights of Cydonia,” began with a woozy harmonica wail and a stilted, haunting melody before popping into full on rock opera territory. It played out with all the swagger and grandeur of a hair-metal western, testing the audience’s ability to follow phasering guitar solos while being all but blinded by the aliens-have-landed white strobes. The whole thing crescendoed with a gnarly drum solo and giant plumes of tornado-like smoke. I don’t know If I could have endured two hours of music at the pace of Muse’s encore, but presumably their main set switched things up a bit. What I caught left me pumped, curious and wanting more. Not a bad set of feelings to have post-show.

AFTERSHOW: Two Door Cinema Club at The Belve Music Lounge at The W Hotel – Gene

Having missed Two Door Cinema Club because they were on the wrong side of the park at the wrong time, it was hard to miss the opportunity to see them play a short set at The Belve Music Lounge. Add free cocktails to the equation and there was no way Hertzberg and I wouldn’t be there. The band blasted through a series of swirling, catchy dance songs, seemingly content to allow the crowd to focus on grooving. One song featured an impressive mix of hoofbeat drumming and fairy dust percussion over which a few sharp guitar solos raced. The next, “Cigarettes in the Theatre,” made the inside of The W feels more like 2pm in Grant Park with its catchy, lollipop melody and infectiously danceable beat. Taking a cue from Muse, TDCC saw fit to absolutely blind the crowd before leaving to a raucous round of applause. A few free cocktails later and it was time to head home (read: out for one more beer).

About UPchicago Team

Urban Philosophy is a way of thinking that you develop when you’re a true city person. Whether you’ve spent your whole life living in Manhattan, or you just moved from small-town Iowa to the city of Chicago, the longer you stay, the more you come to understand what it means to live in a city. Our Urban Philosophy is that no matter who you are, where you are from, and what your likes and dislikes may be, there’s something for everyone in city life.

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