Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Lollapalooza 2011

August 5-9, 2011

Crystal Castles Pummel Pre-Lolla Show
Fri, 05 Aug 2011 04:25:00

When Crystal Castles first surfaced, with the clutch of singles and remixes that culminated in the Toronto duo’s 2008 self-titled debut album, their shrill 8-bit stomp had the sweaty intensity of basement shows. But hooded electronics whiz Ethan Kath and recklessly shrieking frontwoman Alice Glass — joined on tour by a live drummer — soon showed they were much bigger than the bar circuit. Since unveiling their second self-titled LP about a year ago, this one slightly more expansive and pastoral than its predecessor, the group has been performing its nightly danse macabre at festivals around the world.

It tells you a little bit about how far Crystal Castles have come that the 1,300-capacity House of Blues in Chicago now represents something of a step down for them; the last time they came through town, in March, they headlined at the Riviera Theater, which holds about 2,500. The band’s next local gig, of course, will be at Lollapalooza, 7:15 p.m. Friday on the Sony stage — again, a step up from 5 p.m. on the Vitamin Water stage two years ago. If Crystal Castles’ packed pre-Lollapalooza “aftershow” Thursday night showed anything, it’s that their eerie, throbbing electro-din can probably withstand even bigger, more polished venues. But it’ll still be an odd fit to see them outdoors before the sun goes down.

The music has evolved slightly, though the setlist didn’t appear to include any material from a prospective third album. And the blue, red, purple, and white stage lights are no doubt more lavishly produced — police sirens! But Crystal Castles’ basic performance hasn’t changed a whole lot since I first saw them at New York’s Webster Hall in October 2008: Kath huddles over his electronics, Glass stalks the stage (and into the crowd) like some kind of cyborg-banshee, and half the time you can barely make out either of them — let alone the drummer I mentioned — through all the strobe lights and smoke. The songs don’t usually vary too much, either: Disjointed bleeps or ominously flickering keyboard chords set the grim scene for pummeling dance beats, vocals processed to the point of inscrutability, and discordant shards of noise.

Part of what makes Crystal Castles so compelling live is that their songs, especially once you’ve listened to them a few times on record, have a lot more to offer than that basic description might suggest. Bleakly yearning new-wave cover “Not in Love,” a hit last year for the group when released with a guest vocal from the Cure’s Robert Smith, hints at emotional vulnerability lurking underneath all these abrasive surfaces; Glass took the lead at HOB, as she does on the 2010 album, guiding the band’s main set to its appropriately stirring conclusion just as the strobe lights got their most blinding. Faster tunes, like the 2010 LP’s caustic “Baptism” or the debut’s synth-swirling “Black Panther,” had a visceral punch even if you didn’t have access to a lyrics website; and if you did, well, you’d have to sense a certain level of winking behind anything so nihilistic that could also have so many HOB-goers jumping around with their hands in the air.

The biggest appeal of the Crystal Castles show experience remains Glass herself. She has this way of being both violent and fragile at once — which, incidentally, is also something you could say about the group’s music. No fewer than five times, Glass surfed the crowd — once, in a particularly triumphant moment, somehow rising to her feet above the audience members while about six or seven rows deep among them. Each time, though, the exhilaration of the moment is accompanied by a sickly concern that something could go horribly wrong. Glass could thrash around aggressively during terse, punky encore “Doe Deer,” again from the 2010 album. She could whisper as gently as an indie-pop singer amid the dance pulse of “Celestica,” a 2010 single played earlier in the night. She could stand up on the edge of the barrier separating her from the audience, held up by one guy who was himself being supported by another, burlier guy; she could reach out into the audience and take a puff of a stranger’s joint. And when the second encore ended, she could walk off the stage, the curtains could close, and the final despairing “one more song” chants could dissolve into a boo here or there, as humdrum reality set in once again. But this time — among Lollapalooza-goers, at least — maybe only for several more hours.

Ryan Leslie Ignites Lolla Day One
Fri, 05 Aug 2011 13:45:00

“If you’re feelin’ how I’m feelin’, put your hands in the sky,” Ryan Leslie commanded as the New Brunswick-born pop triple-threat — producer, R&B singer, and rapper — performed “Beautiful Lie,” a recent single reportedly from his upcoming Les Is More. By all indications, how Leslie was feeling was bigger than his noon Google+ Stage slot, as he performed with enough energy for a brighter spotlight (well, not brighter than the midday sun — but I digress).

Les Is More, his third album, has been delayed from an original July 4 release date, and Leslie gave off a palpable sense that he was hungry for what might come next. Singing and playing some neat keyboard alongside a powerfully bluesy guitarist and a DJ, Leslie wasted no time letting us know what to expect from his next record, declaring in the set’s first song, the 2011 single “Glory,” that “I’m rappin’ now / Let the hatin’ begin.” He changed up the opening verse to recognize Lollapalooza, noting, “I miss the festivals — but not Lollapaloo,” en route to a hashtag rap involving Miles Davis and, why yes, Kind of Blue.

While it remains to be seen whether Leslie can run with the current radio darlings when it comes to rapping, his more familiar R&B catalog still sizzled, with expertly played and sung, solo-brandishing performances of such hits as “Addiction” and “Diamond Girl,” both from 2009’s self-titled album. (A guy next to me in khaki shorts clapped along to every one.) “I’m gonna be back,” Leslie vowed at the show’s close. ”I guarantee ya I’m gonna be back.” Or to put it in hashtag-rap terms: #Terminator.

Naked and Famous Bring Icy Attitudes to Hot Lollapalooza
Fri, 05 Aug 2011 15:37:00

In hindsight, it wasn’t really fair that the Naked and Famous had the challenge of opening for Crystal Castles for last night’s Lollapalooza warm-up at the House of Blues. Both the New Zealand five-piece and the Canadian duo (plus live drummer) play moody, grinding, heavily electronic pop with a decidedly dark tone. But not only do Toronto’s Crystal Castles already have two albums to their name, they also put on the kind of vaguely disconcerting but entirely enthralling live show that just doesn’t come around too often, diving into the audience’s outstretched hands as fearlessly as they assault its ears with digital squall. The Naked and Famous, meanwhile, are touring on their debut, last year’s Passive Me, Aggressive You, and they have a polished, conservative approach far removed from the rough-hewn intimacy of great kiwi-pop bands like the Chills, the Bats, and the Clean.

Aside from the presence of the afternoon sun, never far from anyone’s minds, the biggest difference between the Naked and Famous’s set today and the one last night was the bass. The House of Blues is hardly a slouch when it comes to sonics, but as the band started into opener “All of This” (in which “all of this,” maybe including love, “is tearing us apart”), they unleashed a stomach-churning volley of low-end. Big, four-on-the-floor beats, occasionally joined by the band’s synchronized handclaps, helped drive songs like “Punched in a Dream,” a relatively straightforward plea to be somewhere else, and an enormous, quasi-dubstep bass wobble elicited a cheer during “Spank.”

But even when the guitars grew comparatively grinding and evil, they were still a little too polite, just as the band’s lyrical conceits tend toward the generic. Even the live drummer sounded like a drum machine.

Still, technology gives, and technology takes away. Both last night and this afternoon, the Naked and Famous spent more time interacting with the sound guys than they seemed to engaging with the crowd, at least beyond head-nodding, arm-waving, and other heavily rehearsed gestures. Floppy-haired bass player David Beadle, who shares vocal duties with Alisa Xayalith, mentioned last night they’d had a stressful day, so let’s hope that was the problem. “Thank you so much— you guys are fucking awesome,” Xayalith told the crowd at one point, and that was about as personal as the show got. But a more revealing moment may have been when Beadle said, “Holy shit, it’s warm.” Not quite passive-aggressive, but not quite the Presidents of the United States of America, either.

Foster the People Pump Up Lolla Kids
Fri, 05 Aug 2011 18:17:00

“There’s a lot of people who think things are black and white, you know?” Mark Foster said during a mid-afternoon set by his band, Foster the People, on Lollapalooza’s Sony stage. “I don’t think that way.” Then he led his Los Angeles-based group into “Call It What You Want,” one of several catchy, lightweight, disco-tinged indie-pop standouts from Foster the People’s debut album, this year’s Torches.

There may indeed be a substantial number of people who would argue shades of gray are as mythical as Santa Claus (or Slash, if you believe South Park). But this unnecessary defensiveness is probably the most annoying thing about Foster the People. Because when they focus on what they do best— playing hook-laden ditties halfway between a breezier MGMT ca. Electric Feel and a Southern California version of Passion Pit— it’s easy to see why this stage was the most slammed I’ve seen so far today.

Given Foster the People’s skill at giving the, uh, people what they want, an especially good fit was their cover of Neil Young’s classic-rock hit “Heart of Gold.” Few diehard Neil heads would probably choose that one as their favorite, but there’s no arguing that it has been an effective advertisement for the man’s weirder stuff over the decades, and it was well suited for a huge festival like Lollapalooza. Then they followed it with “Pumped Up Kicks,” the song that got them here (and got them covered by Weezer). Because they’re not so attached to labels they’re exclusively populist, they played another two songs, too— and they were almost as good.

White Lies Contemplate Love and Death
Fri, 05 Aug 2011 18:47:00

The latest in a long line of somber, serious English bands somewhat indebted to Joy Division, White Lies sing about somber, serious subjects. They usually approach those subjects in the least subtle way possible: Their 2009 album was entitled To Lose My Life…, and its most memorable song was the new-wave anthem “Death.” Show, meet tell.

While that heavy-handedness has earned the band opprobrium from some critics, it didn’t stop To Lose My Life… from hitting the top of the U.K. album charts. Live at Lollapalooza’s Music Unlimited stage, what came across to me on record as humorless or pretentious gained a well-mannered, down-to-earth charm that somewhat anchored their loftiness. As White Lies powered through their bleak arena-rock with militaristic exactness, songs ranging from the debut’s “Price of Love” (“‘Don’t lay a finger,’ I said / But he held her with five”) to finale “Bigger Than Us,” from this year’s Rituals (“I want you to hold me”) started to sound like just… arena-rock.

The crowd was a bit thinner than at some shows today, but the fans’ evident, unabashed passion certainly helped. “Everything has got to be love or death,” lead Lies man Harry McVeigh intoned. Well, sometimes it can just be a day in the sun.

A Perfect Circle Adds to Lolla Legacy
Fri, 05 Aug 2011 21:23:00

Maynard James Keenan, lead singer for the rock bands A Perfect Circle and Tool, has played Lollapalooza five times, he informed the early-evening audience at the festival’s Music Unlimited stage. The first time was with Tool and dated back to 1993, he said. Keenan turned his seniority into a joke— “So you’ll probably have to speak up; I’m a little old”— but there was something poignant in the way he bowed to the crowd and thanked Chicago at the close of A Perfect Circle’s roughly hour-and-15-minute set.

A Perfect Circle’s Lollapalooza set comes after its first tour in years, and any rust that may have existed when the last superstars of what used to be called “modern rock” first reunited on Jimmy Kimmel Live! last October was clearly absent. Keenan crouched impassively in his corner of the stage, joined by guitarist/co-founder Billy Howerdel, former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, bass player Matt McJunkins, and drummer Jeff Friedl. The set drew from each of the band’s three albums, but may have disappointed some of the band’s early fans by skipping 2000 radio hit “Judith.”

The songs were intricately detailed, proggy, near-metal dirges that built to cathartic conclusions, with vocals that could quickly veer from decorous to furious; as a sheer display of lockstep precision, A Perfect Circle was impressive. As sheer rock, you could see the effects of their songs about suicide, forbidden love, and halos that choke all hitting their fans in some primordial region of the brain as they shouted along. This is a kind of music you don’t hear as often anymore— partly due to Keenan’s bands’ absence— in the era of the quick mp3, but it belongs to the same epic, almost-Manichean strain as, say, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Even their covers from critically derided 2005 album eMOTIVe, whether logical (Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks”) or radically transformed (John Lennon’s “Imagine”) coalesced naturally enough tonight into their domineering aesthetic. Make it six?

Ratatat Cap Day One With Dance Party
Fri, 05 Aug 2011 23:58:00

Brooklyn’s Ratatat are one of those electronics-backed groups that tend not to vary their live shows all that much. Arcana from vintage films will be projected on the stage behind the guitarist Mike Stroud and bass/synthesizer player Evan Mast, some blazing Trans Siberian Orchestra guitar leads will ring in good cheer, and various synths will blare over loping, funky rhythms. During the final show Friday night at Lollapalooza’s Google Plus stage, at least, the results were a glow-bracelet-waving dance party, with here and there a sweaty crowd-surfer.

Ratatat didn’t stray too far from the script last night, either—- hey, it helped bring them to the attention of the likes of Kid Cudi— and this made for an unexpectedly multi-purpose set: For every guy holding his arm aloft in the face of the person next of me so he could ask if his armpit smelled, there were plenty more casual passersby just dancing or checking out the tunes for a moment or two on their way home for the evening. And Ratatat played the tracks you’d probably hope for from them, too, whether the squiggly synths and gently chiming ornamentation of “Party With Children,” from last year’s LP4, or the self-explanatory growling of “Wildcat,” from 2006’s Classics.

Videos of two gigantic human or animal hearts, set apart in pillars on each side of the stage, with a glimmering ocean set as a backdrop between them? Ratatat had that, too.

Disappears Bring the Noise With Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley
Sat, 06 Aug 2011 16:30:00

About 45 minutes into Disappears’ set, on the Chicago rock’n’rollers’ second-to-last song, everything fell into place. Lights flared for the first time, carving swirling patterns into the hazy whorls from the smoke machine. Local noise duo White/Light set up on either side of the band, one member seated and playing slide guitar, the other standing, with immaculately parted hair and a white dress shirt, over an array of ear-piercing electronics. The four members of Disappears, in the center, rocked out what they promised would be a 10-minute song, stretching out whirring drum patterns and winding, distorted guitar leads, each of which carried echoes of German art-rockers like Can and English psych-rockers like Spacemen 3.

The purposeful, gorgeously unfolding scorcher was typical of Disappears’ set, which drew on songs from 2011’s Guider and 2010’s Luxe. Disappears singer-guitarist Brian Case, who has also served in Ponys and 90 Day Men, even had a trace of a smile in his cheeks as he delivered his effects-draped lyrics in swaggering, dead-serious tones.

But it was the recently added drummer, Steve Shelley — best known for his work with Sonic Youth — whose steady propulsion kept the heady instrumental work from drifting away into the sky, which darkened briefly over the festival grounds. “Check it out, we brought the clouds,” Case remarked at one point. A squalling thunderstorm of a Suicide cover will do that.

Friendly Fires Give the Drummer(s) Some
Sat, 06 Aug 2011 18:04:00

At least at one point during Friendly Fires’ afternoon set on Lollapalooza’s Bud Light stage, every band member played some form of percussion. Except the two hornplayers, as far as I could tell, but lacking video evidence, I’m not willing to rule anything out. Signed to taste-making label XL, the English group plays swooning, guitar-based dance-pop that puts an inordinate (for the genre) amount of emphasis on the heavy, heavy funk.

The more prominent of Friendly Fires’ two actual drummers came up to the front of the stage to play hand percussion and sing during “On Board,” one of several exuberantly catchy songs that the band played from their self-titled 2008 debut. Even when the jolly-faced beat-keeper was back at his kit, he had a position close to the front of the stage, on the right. As the set neared a frenetic peak, during “Hawaiian Air,” one Friendly Fires member played guitar with a maraca, and the same drummer pounded out a furious but brief solo. A false ending followed; with Friendly Fires, it usually did, often with the effect of a well-paced DJ set.

Not that the appropriately Hawaiian-shirted frontman, Ed Macfarlane, was lacking in energy or charisma. Even when the songwriting tended toward drabness (“It sets my heart on fire,” he sang on “Blue Cassette”), Macfarlane never failed to enliven the show with his contagious enthusiasm, manic dance moves, and spirited entries into the crowd, particularly on the band’s best songs, such as second travelogue entry “Paris” and fist-pumping “Kiss of Life.”

As Macfarlane sang on the lovesick “Hurting”: “With the sun kissing my face / There’s no way that I can lose.”

Mayer Hawthorne Debuts New Tunes During Soulful Set
Sat, 06 Aug 2011 18:36:00

Mayer Hawthorne is from Ann Arbor, MI, which is near Detroit. He’s quick to point both facts out, emphasizing the first syllable of his closest city: “DEE-troit.” And so he should, because the 32-year-old crooner’s sound— provided here courtesy of accomplished band the County, on organ, guitar, bass, keyboards, and backing vocals (horns and strings were delivered via the magic of pre-recording)— is deeply rooted in the tradition of the city’s Motown sound.

Hawthorne, who is readying a new album that he says will arrive in October, was actually at his best when he leaned more toward the luscious ’70s of another soul capital city, Philadelphia. On slow, orchestra-soaked 2010 single “I Need You,” produced by hip-hop’s Nottz, his velvety falsetto suggested not so much Detroit’s Smokey Robinson as Philly’s the Delfonics, and either way was vastly more nuanced and evocative than the high notes from Coldplay and their many Lollapalooza descendants (see also: Friendly Fires’ lead singer Ed Macfarlane).

Over the course of the set, Hawthorne and the County introduced two songs from the new album. The first, titled “Dreaming,” had strings and bouncy piano as Hawthorne fantasized about California falling away; it led into a rousing cover of Hall & Oates’ ’80s hit “You Make My Dreams Come True” (elsewhere in the set, he alluded to their “I Can’t Go for That,” perhaps seeking to establish a blue-eyed soul connection). He set up the other new song by teaching the crowd a Michigan called the Errol Flynn, echoes of Archie Bell & the Drells in his voice; the hook went “It’s gonna take a long time,” and the performance ended with a blistering guitar solo courtesy of the County.

For a while, as Hawthorne sang songs like “No Strings,” I was hard-pressed to say what he really added to the soul tropes with which he works. After all, there’s not much new or particularly necessary about a soul song that compares a sexual relationship between two emotionally uncommitted people as having “no strings attached.” But as Hawthorne spoke and added little interjections to his songs— “Somebody, anybody, scream!”; alluding to Snoop Doggg’s “Gangsta Luv”— I realized that what this Stones Throw signee adds to classic R&B is kind of obvious. It’s hip-hop— dressed to the nines like George McFly at Enchantment Under the Sea dance night. Or not.

Local Natives Kill It With Multi-Part Harmonies
Sat, 06 Aug 2011 19:56:00

First, the elephant in the room; the gorilla in the manor: Local Natives only have one album— yes, Gorilla Manor— and it came out in 2009. And yet here they were, Saturday night at 5 p.m., on one of Lollapalooza’s biggest stages. Taylor Rice, the singer/songwriter/guitarist probably best known as the band’s lead mustache, acknowledged as much, as the L.A. five-piece started into their last song of the night, the alternately beatific and howling “Sun Hands.” Local Natives built a studio in L.A., he said, and they’re working on a second album right now, but “you don’t take this for granted.”

Local Natives certainly didn’t in their performance, which was generous in pastoral multi-part harmonies, languid guitars that sparkled like morning dew, and climactic, sing- and/or clap-along moments. Another highlight was the intensely communal “Airplanes,” the group’s “I want you back” song; but then, still another was the existential, Bible-haunted “Wide Eyes.” Basically, if generous, mellow, warmly rootsy folk-rock with sweet vocals is ever your cup of tea, these guys have a song that might sneak up on you the way they have on festival bookers these past couple of years.

Earlier in the set, Rice acknowledged that  this was the biggest audience Local Natives have ever played to — “by far.” I think he said that last part twice. They’re are at that thrilling, disorienting moment where it remains to be seen if they’ll play for even bigger ones.

Why Beirut Are a Sub-Genre of One
Sun, 07 Aug 2011 00:30:00

When Zach Condon was 14, he fell off a bridge and hurt his wrist, forcing surgery three years later that limited its mobility. The more Beirut’s career progresses, the more that seems to me like the most important thing you ought to know about the Brooklyn-based band’s 25-year-old songwriter. Even more important than the young Condon’s trip to France, where he discovered that Parisian kids revere their Balkan brass band records the same way they do their très chic electro-lounge acts. Condon’s wrist injury is important because it effectively stopped him from playing guitar.

Beirut’s brass-heavy, decidedly Continental sound naturally draws comparisons to other bands infatuated with Eastern European folk music, whether the punk-infused Gogol Bordello, techno-backed Balkan Beat Box, or even an actual Macedonian Romani band like Kočani Orkestar. The gypsy connection, in turn, can lead to charges Condon & co. are lacking authenticity. Well, they were headlining Saturday night at Lollapalooza, on the same stage shared the previous night by Brooklyn electro-funk instrumentalists Ratatat and set to be occupied on Sunday by Los Angeles schmindie rockers Cold War Kids— of course Beirut, led by a precocious kid from New Mexico, aren’t a genuine Romani band! They’re a pop group. One that has grown slowly and organically, so the word “indie” definitely applies, but a pop group nevertheless.

On the basis of Saturday’s 16-song set (including an encore), Beirut can be a pretty solid pop group, at that. The Balkan influence may be their most immediately striking aspect, like Lady Gaga’s celebrity-as-art shtick or the Strokes’ downtown cool, but the songs would often work in any pop-oriented idiom. Just ask Blondie. These songs may be centered around swaying accordion or sprightly ukulele— hey, aren’t a lot of tracks on the radio using saxophone now?—- but from 2006 debut Gulag Orkestar’s daydreaming “Scenic World,” which uses a standard alternative-rock chord progression, to brand-new third album The Rip Tide’s piano-driven “Vagabond,” where the sonorous horn line bears some slight resemblance to “Come on Eileen,” there’s still plenty to appeal to the vast majority in this audience who’ve never otherwise listened to Balkan-influenced anything. There was even an unidentified dude who suddenly appeared behind the band and then, just as suddenly, stage-dived.

“They call it night, and I call it mine,” Condon sang, in his typically trumpet-like tenor, as Beirut performed the funereal Gulag Orkestar title track. “I call it mine”— it’s a telling acknowledgment, isn’t it? That nagging sense of familiarity Beirut’s songs can create may have less to do with our long-lost ancestral folk traditions and more with our shared pop and rock canon. Sure, the group’s tunes have always tended to blend together for me, the sparse lyrics to seem as if they’ve always existed somewhere— though I’m not sure if that second part is a bad thing!— and what’s probably always going to be most noticeable about Beirut is the European-brass deal (because every act has its signature). But when they played the one Blondie covered— the aching “A Sunday Smile,” from 2007’s The Flying Club Cup— or the tersely romantic “East Harlem,” from The Rip Tide, it was hard not to become a Beirut fan, at least for the hour and change.

As for that encore? “Siki, Siki Baba,” by legitimately Eastern European band Kočani Orkestar. A song that, once again, may have been familiar to many audience members who don’t know Romani from Romans: It’s in the soundtrack to the movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Condon said he hadn’t played it in a while.

Lykke Li Chases Away the Blues
Sun, 07 Aug 2011 01:49:00

“Rich Kids Blues,” from Lykke Li’s sophomore album, Wounded Rhymes, is a weird song for a crowd at Lollapalooza to sing along with. It’s also, I’m beginning to think, possibly the catchiest thing on a superbly catchy album. Which is confusing. Lush, dark, and booming, the song features the diminutive, husky-voiced Swede repeating, “I got the rich kids blues / And it’s got nothing to do with you.” When the masses joined in Saturday evening at the Google+ stage, it could’ve been an ironic commentary on prohibitive festival ticket prices. Or it could’ve been wry acknowledgment that there’s something a little silly about a pop singer proclaiming, as Lykke Li did in a stirring rendition of another Wounded Rhymes number, “Sadness is my boyfriend.”

In those and other ways, however, you could argue that “Rich Kids Blues” was one of the most honest songs performed today — Eminem, raging a bit later on a larger stage, surely wasn’t going to make such an admission about his superstar complaints. More generally, I like to think “Rich Kids Blues” hints at how, Americans and Swedes alike, love to express our problems through sad songs, but even the most impoverished among us first-world concert-goers have a good bit less to be sad about than the many people throughout the world enduring famine or war. (Forget the national debt, already.) All of which is a particularly extreme example of the huge bundle of contradictions that is the artistic persona of Lykke Li Zachrisson: vixen and naïf, pop star and eccentric, extroverted performer and self-doubting introvert.

Lykke Li was in all of those modes Saturday night. Dressed completely in black, like her unassumingly expert band, she blared the kazoo on “Dance, Dance, Dance”— one of many standouts from 2008 debut album Youth Novels— and she banged on cymbals while singing about her unstoppable ascent on the same album’s “I’m Good, I’m Gone.” And that was in between well-received Wounded Rhymes songs like “Jerome” and “I Follow Rivers.” But as talented and winning as Lykke Li can be, she still came across as a bit needy in an otherwise lovely cover of Burt Bacharach tune “Please Stay” (recorded most famously by the Drifters, but I like the Cryin’ Shames’ version better). Which was too bad, because she followed that with a captivating version of the new album’s quietest song, “I Know Places.”

But in the set’s second half, all aspects of Lykke Li’s personality co-existed wonderfully. Her early hit “Little Bit,” has since been appropriated by Drake, and it introduced one of her most compelling paradoxes: Lykke Li can go from “too proud for love” to giving “anything, anything / To have you as my man” in the space of a single pop song. That dramatic push-and-pul is even starker on the set’s finale, the lead single from Wounded Rhymes, “Get Some,” where the same figure who earlier in the night was calling herself “shy, shy, shy,” now declares herself a “prostitute,” once again easily persuading much of the crowd to sing along. An extended electronic introduction to “Until We Bleed,” her duet with Kleerup (a.k.a., the Swedish producer also behind Robyn’s U.K. No. 1 “With Every Heartbeat”), briefly had the Google+ stage sounding like Lolla’s rave tent, often still within earshot. ”Come back / Stay gone,” she implored.

Desperate to be loved, but equally desperate not to give her love away too cheaply, Lykke Li’s immaculate Scandinavian electro-pop may be about the feelings of rich kids, relatively speaking or otherwise. But it’s also, deep down, about how everybody feels.

Titus Andronicus Whip Flag-Waving Crowd Into a Frenzy
Sun, 07 Aug 2011 15:37:00

More American flags were on display for Titus Andronicus’s early-afternoon set on Lollapalooza’s Music Unlimited stage than I remember seeing all weekend. Not only the one hanging from bearded singer/guitarist Patrick Stickles’ khakis, either.

If we’re experiencing the decline of the American empire, what better band to document that disintegration than this five-piece from Glen Rock, New Jersey, who know well enough to flip Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” to a hoarsely screamed “born to die,” over shout-along anthems that mingle classic-rock BBQ-friendliness with hardcore mosh-ability. The third or maybe fourth time the group’s most passionate devotees, standing front and center, broke into a chant of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”, Stickles shrugged it off. “You got it,” he deadpanned. “That’s where we’re at.”

Steeped in imagery from politically engaged rock’n’roll and high school AP American history, as well as vivid details from Stickles’ own observations along the Eastern seaboard, Titus Andronicus’s songs are fist-pumping, often multi-part epics about the pointlessness of all this fist-pumping. While the fans in the know jumped around and crowd-surfed, much of the audience at this early time on the festival’s third day was remarkably sedate, all the way to the front— even more so than the last time I saw them (which was in Des Moines, so step it up, Chicagoans).

Playing songs from both 2008’s The Airing of Grievances and 2010’s The Monitor, Titus Andronicus led this assortment of onlookers into one rousing refrain after another, whether commenting caustically on our tendency to “rally around the flag,” the fact that “the enemy is everywhere,” or how “you will always be a loser, man.” On “Richard II,” from the self-titled debut, Stickles promised to roll around in his humanity “like a pig in feces/ Because there’s no other integrity/ In awaiting the demise of our species.” Guitarist-fiddler Amy Klein, perched atop the monitor with a huge smile, remains the band’s not-so-secret weapon— her furious playing puts the songs over the top.

“The next song goes out to that little eagle puppet over there,” Stickles announced at one point, during the set’s longest moment of stage banter. “And what have we got over there— we’ve got some red thing.” Then the band powered into The Monitor’s “The Battle of Hampton Roads,” which unsparingly sets out the stakes of the conflict: “There’s a way to live the values your forefathers gave you / Prepare to be told, ‘That shit’s gay, dude.’”

For the guitar-blazing, riotous finale, which saw several savvy audience members crowd-surf over the security partition to make a quick escape without tromping through putrid mud, Titus Andronicus did The Monitor’s “Four Score and Seven.” Starting slow but ending chaotically, the song depicts a war that’s hugely important but also, ultimately, vainglorious.

“It’s still us against them, and they’re winning,” Stickles bellowed acidly. For whatever reason, a lot of people were smiling.

Lia Ices Celebrates Lolla Homecoming With Pink Floyd Cover
Sun, 07 Aug 2011 16:49:00

Lia Ices, a Brooklyn singer-songwriter with two albums of fleshed-out avant-folk, was playing her first Lollapalooza this afternoon on the BMI stage. She looked like she couldn’t have been happier, exuding a tingling gratitude that added warmth to her languid compositions. Accompanying herself on keyboard, Ices sang with airy, sylvan elegance, while a three-piece band backed her on bass, guitar, and drums. The shaded, grassy stage, though sparsely attended, made for an uncannily appropriate setting.

Ices said she and the guitarist, Eliot Kessel— whose faux-Afro puffs could help him go for Halloween as a paler Lenny Kravitz (I’m just jealous)— were both born in Chicago, so the set was also a homecoming of sorts. In addition to songs from this year’s Grown Unknown, Lia Ices’ Jagjaguwar debut, the band played a nicely moody, slow-grooving cover of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” Quipped Ices, “I’m sure no one’s ever played that at a festival before.”

The set closed with recent video selection “Daphne,” an understated album standout that builds to a stomping conclusion. “It’s pretty amazing to be here,” Ices said, before gracefully exiting the stage. On a bigger stage, the band’s subtle tunes might get lost, but at this point on a hot day, right here was definitely a fine place to be.

With Practice, the Cars Could Be Big Someday
Sun, 07 Aug 2011 18:40:00

“I gotta learn that one one day.” That was Ric Ocasek, moments after his band, the Cars, played their biggest hit, 1978’s “Just What I Needed.” Thing is, he wasn’t entirely joking— something about the performance, and I’m not sure what exactly, sounded pretty out of whack.

That was par for the course for these Senior PGA-eligible new-wavers. Where Devo’s sense of irony has helped those ’80s contemporaries keep winning over younger audiences with outlandish video displays and off-kilter songs that have come to sound only more prescient, the Cars sounded very much like an oldies band on Lollapalooza’s Sony stage late Sunday afternoon. They played through increasingly sappy-sounding hits like “All I Want Is You,” “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” and “Let the Good Times Roll,” as well as songs from their 2011 reunion album, Move Like This.

Chicago doesn’t host the Illinois state fair. Appropriately, the capital, down in Springfield, does. But the Cars sounded like in another year or two they’ll be ready to join fellow ’80s rock standbys Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, and Def Leppard for a lucrative good-times, great-oldies show at a state fair near you. That said, I’m pretty sure they’ll be the only ones with an X-Ray Spex T-shirt.

Arctic Monkeys Deliver Hot Set After Heavy Downpour
Mon, 08 Aug 2011 09:08:00

As soon as Arctic Monkeys started playing, a rainbow opened up over the sky at Lollapalooza’s Music Unlimited stage. The U.K. rockers were supposed to begin performing around 6 PM, but the first of two cascading downfalls of the night led to a prolonged and intense “weather delay.” Understandably, their set leaned heavily on songs with weather-related connotations: 2007’s “Brianstorm,” 2009’s “Crying Lightning,” and this year’s “She’s Thunderstorms.”

Turner’s comments to the crowd were plentiful but terse and professional: he barely acknowledged the elements except by way of song introductions. As the band took the stage, the man once heralded as young the hope of British guitar rock cheekily said his group was from Sheffield, Australia. By the time the Monkeys, driven by ferocious drummer Matt Helders, reached early standbys like “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” “The View From the Afternoon,” and finale “When the Sun Goes Down,” the rain was mostly forgotten— though for less time than anyone could’ve realized in the moment.

Kid Cudi Covers Hendrix, Gets the Plug Pulled at Lolla
Mon, 08 Aug 2011 09:33:00

Ratatat closed out the first night of Lollapalooza. But when Kid Cudi played “Pursuit of Happiness,” the song the Brooklyn electronic duo produced for the rapper’s 2010 debut album, Man on the Moon: The End of the Day, their contribution was nowhere within earshot. After a three-song medley that peaked with nocturnal druggie litany “Day ‘N’ Nite,” Cudi had violated Chicago’s noise ordinances, and much of the sound from his stage was cut off.

Blame— or credit— city mayor Rahm Emanuel, then, for the a cappella version of “Pursuit of Happiness,” which Cudi asked the muddy audience to help him sing. The rest of the set, the artist sounded refreshingly lucid as he crooned and rapped his way through songs from his two studio albums, as well as his first mixtape, 2008’s A Kid Named Cudi. He asked onlookers to act like they were at a club in Barbados, but this time he didn’t appear as if he’d already spent all week at one.

Not even a quick cover of Jimi Hendrix murder ballad “Hey Joe” did the trick. Taking place on the festival’s electronica-oriented stage the same time as Deadmau5 played an even bigger one, Cudi’s set had plenty of shuddering dubstep low-end, but also squealing guitars. The rapper was this cruise’s activities director, constantly checking to make sure the crowd was keeping “party in mind.” When his skewed, melancholy take on hip-hop clicked, many seemed to join in the festivities. And then they had to tromp back up a hill that had dissolved into a giant mud puddle. This festival had everything.

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