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Friday, 12 August 2011 07:00

Festival review: Lollapalooza 2011 blows away the Windy City

Festival review: Lollapalooza 2011 blows away the Windy City Nick Cowan
Written by Nick Cowan
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I've been back from Lollapalooza for four days now, after being there for all three days for the first time. The blisters have healed, sunburn is aloe'ed to the gills, and leg muscles have finally relaxed to put some notes to paper.

There were a few bands that didn't catch our interest for whatever reason and a couple that flat out sucked. So I'd rather spend more time on what I think would be cool to check out then what to pass over. The beauty of a music festival is that if what you're listening to isn't the best thing you've heard all day, move on.

Here are some of my favorites.

I've been digging on OK Go's recent live album ("180/365") a lot and they were my only "gotta see" on Friday. Man, did they deliver. The band came out in different solid-colored suits and proceeded to rock out. I found out at that point that Chicago is their home town, and it was clear they were happy to be home and the crowd was happy to have them home. They played mostly hits, nothing too obscure, no covers, and they even played one song with handbells (white gloves and all). A lot of fun and the crowd was into them.

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals commanded a big stage like the veterans they are. After doing something like 800 shows in the past five years they're getting some bigger exposure and this can only help their cause. Grace Potter doesn't really reinvent any particular wheel, but what she does is good ol' fashioned rock 'n' roll with swagger, confidence, a great band, super songs and a clear love of performing. There's some tone and feel of late '60s early '70s stuff to the sound. Grace herself sings, plays guitar and organ and writes most of the songs. She surrounds herself with great players (her bass player was really impressive) and they play together with passion. When an artist really knock those things out of the park you get to see a show that's out of the ordinary. It was my first time seeing her; it is not going to be my last.

The Disappears' field of sound would have made Sonic Youth proud, from whaling distorted guitars to what looked like some sort of homemade synthesizer pushing at the crowd to pay attention.

Friendly Fires was a freaking groovy band. The lead singer was amazing and had the energy and enthusiasm of a little kid who happened to play cow bell. The drummer was great and they had a couple of horn players too. Very infectious. I almost danced in public, which has only happened twice since my wedding 10 years ago.

I hadn't seen Ween before, and they were a highlight among highlights. The tightest band we saw all weekend. They started with some of their crazier pop stuff and got a little more conventional (as much as they will) as the one hour set progressed. They ended the set with "You F'ed Up" (one of the great break up songs of all time) and earlier they whipped up a tight cover of the David Bowie tune "Let's Dance." For that one, Dean Ween sang it in a faux lounge style that poked a little fun at Bowie.

Big Audio Dynamite. Hell yeah! When I saw them open for U2 in 1992 their stuff was too far ahead of my tastes then. Well, twenty years later I think their music is still a bit ahead of me. All that stuff (what fit into an hour anyway) came out great live and the years have been generous to Jones' voice. They even played a couple of new tunes. The only one they named was "Robbing Peter To Pay Paul," a nice, guitar-heavy gem laying out the current financial crisis in 3 1/2 minutes (as Jones stated). Even if their set hadn't rocked, how often do I get to see Mick Jones?

Le Butcherettes tore up the damn stage. The program billed them as "Mexican Garage Rock," which I suppose might have some truth to it, but they were a bit too fierce for such a simple tag. Lead singer Teri Genderbender was an amazing front woman. She was decked out in a simple dress with a bloody apron tied to the front; quite frankly, she was a bit terrifying. Teri leered and gazed into the crowd and delivered intimidating stares that shot all the way to the back. For a whole song she ran around the stage like a crazy woman. She did almost all of these things while still playing guitar or keyboards. Her bassist and drummer kept up and struck me as her musical bodyguards as well as clever musicians. They matched her huge personality with equal musical power. We found later that the drummer was puking (massively) through the set and he kept the crazy pace. In one song Teri sang, "Do you want to take off my dress?" but it wasn't a come on. It was probably an invitation to be the next bloodstain on her apron.

It seems like every year I'm up in the Windy City I become a fan of another really cool Chicago band. Gold Motel was that band this year. The best part is that we had just arrived, heard a band and walked up, not knowing anything about them, and they were great. There must be a scene here with really smart power pop, great arrangements and restrained musicians that could be jamming out a lot more than they do. I appreciate the restraint, though. Of all the bands this past weekend, this is the one I'll probably listen to much the same way I heard them -- with lots of fresh air under a blue summer sky.

Joy Formidable had huge walls of guitar, passionate vocals and a very busy drummer. Their sound was a bit shoegazer, a bit Manchester (England)-ish pop, with some sonic freak outs thrown in. Oo oo oo!! And the bass player had a Fender Jaguar bass (don't see those everyday!) that he had clearly mastered. I'm not a gear head, but I do know that bass has a few more levers and such that can get more tones than a regular bass. And if you can dig the difference, he played it like a four-string guitar rather than a bass. Really incredible. He laid out some melodic points in addition to rhythm. What a solid band. Joy Formidable is coming to the Firebird next month; I'm anxious to see how it sounds in front of a few hundred people.

Explosions in the Sky was another of my "must see" acts. I saw this Austin band on Austin City Limits a few years ago and instantly became a fan. They play long, instrumentals that can easily be soundtracks to wonderful or terrible things. The (average) nine-minute tracks bare some of the trademarks usually reserved for classical music and some jazz. Speaking of soundtracks, they began just as the sun started to set; it had rained for forty minutes, so the sky was perfect, the air smelled nice, ground and people were all muddy. It was a perfect outdoor setting. The band's latest album is called "Take Care, Take Care, Take Care"; it's one of my favorites so far this year.

Wrapping up, we managed to see a third of the bands and noticed a few general things. I'm not going to call them trends, just casual observations.

A lot more bands had horn sections than in past years. I believe this to be a good thing. Horns are like musical bacon; they tend to make good music better. There were a lot of simple drum kits too, smaller than what's standard for the quick load out typical of a musical festival. It seems most folks just had four drums and a couple of cymbals. Also, a lot of bands were embracing a solid '80s new wave vibe. From the Nick Lowe or early Elvis Costello kind of power pop (Vaccines) to straight new wave (a band called Chain Gang of 1974 even intro'ed a tune by saying, "This song is about Molly Ringwald," and then banged out the vibe of an updated Thompson Twins). Those are just observations; maybe something well see more of at LouFest.

Speaking of LouFest, in the next week or so I'll be sharing a few things I've learned about navigating festivals, hopefully to give newbies a leg up.

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