Music festivals are for the young and tenacious. Soiled clothing, swarms of post-adolescent beer cretons, sweaty fried food, the stench of human mass. Its all in a days work if youre Taleen Kalenderian, one of my prime ladyfriends.
Shes worked festivals before, not just for the meager pay and quick deadline turnarounds but, more or less, for the music. Lucky me, she has a media pass for Lollapalooza 2011 and Im her girl-in-tow. While she has to battle her fellow photographers in a cramped sub-stage pit, I get to hang back, listen to music and avoid direct exposure to the sea of raised armpit.
I missed day one of the show because of other obligations and general tiredness. Yes, what a pity to miss out on the nondescript wailing that is Coldplay. But my heart mends well and Im able to make it out the next day with renewed spirit. As covered in slidy bug spray as I may be, I am finding the prospect of a festival scintillating in spite of all its sensory muck.
My past experience with the festival circuit was at a more appropriate age, 19 and at Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennessee. The main difference between a traditional camp away type festival and Lollapalooza is setting. For Bonnaroo, scads of concertgoers file into a massive field for a weekend long stint. They pitch tents in mosquito-ridden ditches and sleep next to their cars. These types of festivals beget a more pastoral vision, like Woodstock of years past.
But even Woodstock was sullied, of course. Its 1999 incarnation was more about flames and masculine rap-rock than peace and love. But we already know that story. Its obvious that the music festival, once the domain of spirited youth and political revolution, has been co-opted by the savvy promoter. It is a tool of branding impresarios and wily venue managers.
Lollapalooza is perhaps the most pure incarnation of the commercialized festival. It is nestled in the financial center of Chicago. Instead of lush trees, lapping ponds and rolling vistas, Lollapalooza patrons are treated to scenes of towering phallic skyscrapers and are made to wallow in artificial gravel pits. Everyones trying to sense this greatness and a cultural connection with people in their time and generation. Unfortunately, everyone is behaving like a douche bag, probably lobbing corn dogs.
Its 2011 show has more sponsors than musical acts. Its website has a heading titled experience. This festival is as mediated and expensive as Disney Land, but for the musically minded proto-adult. Depending on which stage you play, a band is either a rock god, demigod or some kind of sideline deity. Each stage has its own corporate brand identity, for Gods sake. Theres the Google Plus stage, a smaller hideaway behind a canopy of trees. Then theres the Sony Music stage and, like Sony itself, is big and comprised of some good and some messy. There is a Bud Light stage where much of the music is watered down. Perhaps most nefarious of all is the State Farm Bag check. Like a good neighbor, youll stow my shit?
Immediately upon entering the Loop after our odyssey from the West Town vicinity, its clear where everyone is going. The orange and blue wristbands are the telltale sign. If not for them, it would be see-through lace tops, bandanas, inclement flip flops and plastic-rimmed sunglasses.
As we walk east down Monroe Street, Tal and I spot the first of many security guards. These ones perch precariously atop the ledge separating the sidewalk from the Modern Wing of the Art Institute. Perhaps the pristine, white Renzo Piano piers need to be protected from the children. Perhaps its another reminder of how precious art museums can be. Maybe its just good sense for something that expensive to be protected from festival-goers.
Up at the gate, its controlled chaos. The anxious ticketholders wait in line as theyre siphoned into the packed streets ahead. We get to file into a line that says VIP and Special Something or the Other. Still, despite its name, its somewhat long. But were in pretty quickly. Must chalk it up to efficiency.
After eviscerating two mushroom veggie burgers by the hippie dippie food area, we go to our first enumerated act for the day, Maps & Atlases. This is going on at the Google Plus stage, a place much more pleasant and secluded than most of the stages at the show. At first I mistake them for this other band, the Tune Yards, that has a female front woman. Obviously, that they are not. Taleen turns to me and says, They sound like Kings of Leon. I said, yeah but the front man has this rugged femininity. You cant picture him standing in a stadium performing. His name is Dave Davison, by the way.
Theyre a Chicago band which is pretty rad. Dave made some comment about this being the homecoming show of their tour. What, a Chicago band at a Chicago music festival? Lollapalooza isnt really about whats going on here after all. Its the center of the country, population-wise. A good backdrop but thats about all.
It is a good set, some fun proggy tunes but we dont stay too terribly long. There area lot of sets we need to duck into. Taleen, after all, is there primarily to photograph the event. She heads off to the side of the stage, darting behind these bicycle rack-like partitions. For about two or three songs she is permitted to muscle and elbow her way through the other photographers to get some decent shots. Then, after, we move on to the next.
This puts me in a wonderful non-commital position, standing out from the crowd. Its a great thing to be in the bystander mindset at a human carnival such as this. Patterns begin to emerge when you allow yourself to just observe the crowd. There are certain types of individuals that traverse out to an event like this and they generally fall into categories. There are:
A. The Family Affair: a mom decides she wants to bring her kids and expose them to culture. Its a shared experience. Not a great idea. People are acting like idiots everywhere. At any point a riot could break out.
B. The Band T-Shirt Guy: The only reason this man spent his hundreds of dollars on a ticket is to see one set for the one band for which he has a musical boner. He wears it on his chest. Its a uniform of camaraderie. Its devotional. Pretty much like putting on your robes to meet the pope or donning your Sunday church clothes. They tend to stand at the very front and post bad photos to their blogs. Clueless fanboys.
C. The Experience Girl/Guy: These people buy the full three-day pass. This is their destination event. They are staying in, but probably dont live in, the city. Travel has taken them multiple days so, God dammit, they are going to have a good time. Whether thats getting drunk on overpriced Bud Light or just shouting woo all day, they show their incorrigible enthusiasm at every opportunity. Key example, a shirtless guy at the Maps and Atlases show couldnt stop rocking back and forth and punching his fist to the sky. Does he know the band? Does he even care what the music sounds like? Probably not. He just wants to get his moneys worth. P.S. Put on some shoes, guy. City parks arent known for their cleanliness.
D. The Jaded Freeloaders: We fit into this category. Most of these folks are in the media or some sort of promotional capacity. Bless the regular patrons hearts; they spent a ton of money. But we got in for free so less is at stake. We like to sample our shows and we dont mind leaving early once we get festival fatigue.
E. Big Spender: The hundreds of dollars is a drop in the bucket for them. Maybe theyll see a couple bands and thats it. They stay in the Hyatt or the Hilton. Designer clothes are their threads of choice to trudge about in the mud pit. Gladiator, multiple strapped trudging.
F. Groupies: No, not Band Aids. These youngsters come in a large group of pals. Its a little harder to do this without the camping but coming to Lollapalooza is a bonding rite of passage for these cliques. Back in college they will talk about that time Brandon took a spill on a burrito wrapper and hit Katie with his apple bong during the Arctic Monkeys set.
Next is the big Black Lips show back on the asphalt plateau at the front of the festival. The sun is beating down strong. It is taking the band a while to get on the stage. Im guessing that Friendly Fires set length at the adjacent stage is impeding the shows progress but one cant be sure. The crowd is big, especially considering Black Lips started out at house show venues. Sound guys file out, bringing with them several cans of Bud Light. Apparently, even the bands need to be on board with the branding at Lollapalooza.
Finally, the guys come out about a quarter past the hour. Cole Alexander his flipped up hat. Most of their set comes from the new album, Arabia Mountain. I have to admit, I am a bit suspicious about it not because of the music but the cover art. It features their band name in a Cyrillic style font. Kind of obnoxious but the music is good so well let that one slide.
Before the set even starts, guitarist Ian Saint Pe shotguns a beer on stage. Pretty characteristic antics for the band. They play the standards, Katrina, and, of course stuff from the new album. Black Lips is an energetic act, full of spine and venom. Some of the acts at Lollapalooza, upon preliminary listening, fell into the dubious deflated adult contemporary-style indie. Luckily, there are still bands out there that perform on the stage.
Which brings me to our next act du-jour, The Chain Gang of 1974. They perform on one of my favorite stages, its smallness only rivaled by the Kidzapalooza stage. Originally, the band hails from Denver but half of the members reside in LA now. They pack an electro, post-punk punch. Leader singer Kamtim Mohager has the Prince swagger going on with a Joy Division vocal style. In true grunge fashion, most of the band members are donning plaid. Mohager even has a flannel shirt tied around his waist, bringing to mind the poses of JC Penneys catalogs from days of yore.
A standout tune was the bouncy Heartbreaking Scream. The band shows itself to be playful, definitely performance based. They enjoyed being on the stage unlike some of the bigger acts. The smaller bands tend to put more into their shows probably because an increase in fan base is at stake. At one point, Mohager grasps his mike stand and rockets into the crowd. A circle of onlookers immediately circle him as he bounds about. I have to give him a lot of credit for being a real front man. He isnt afraid of the concert-goers because they scared the shit out of me. I would be concerned about getting hit with an errant flip flop or promotional Google Plus fan/spritzer.
Afterward, Death From Above 1979 plays around the corner at the aforementioned Bud Light stage. The nostalgia factor is high since the band broke up five years ago and hasnt recorded since. Yet, they play at one of the most massive stages. A big backdrop with the signature elephant trunk illustration reads: DFA 2001-2006 on a tombstone. Bassist Jesse Keeler and drummer/lead vocalist Sebastien Granger are lightness and darkness. Granger is banging at his drums with a completely white outfit and bleach blond hair. Keeler looks much the same as he did during the bands heyday, wearing black and shaking his mop of dark hair.
The crowd is pretty huge, especially for their only having one album, Youre a Woman Im a Machine. Not that the performance is overly rehearsed; there is a lot of energy for sure. But the setting seems off. The band asks the crowd, remember a few years back when we played at the Empty Bottle? Anyone know that place? Seems like they assume a Lolla crowd wouldnt attend a show there. There are two chicks who seem pretty into it all as they dance off to the side of us in utility sandals. Although Taleen seems skeptical, do they even know DFA?, the two know all the lyrics. Perhaps they were whipped into a frenzy by the oddly-present daytime light show bouncing off the stage. Its a reminder of the lack of reckless enthusiasm I have for the music. We are just ready for the free happy hour in the media tent.
RANSACKING THE MEDIA TENT
To get to the press area, we file all the way to the south end of the festival past Balbo Drive. A chain-link fence blocks an area of the street filled with tour buses. We dutifully display our wristbands to the afro-bearing security man and he lets us pass. As we walk into the area, Im unsure as to how fancy this is going to be. Will I be shunned by the credential-bearing media bourgeiose? Mostly, once I get inside, my first impulse is to look for free snacks.
We are greeted by buckets of free sour cream and onion, cheddar and original Pringles as well as macaroons, bagged nuts and tiny parcels of white cheddar Pirates Booty. But we know why everyone is there. Parched writers, photographers and important editors are waiting in line with us to procure some free faux Long Island Iced Teas and complementary Budweiser. The lounge area sits behind the free bar with a slew of strange modern white couches and a photography area. Around this hot spot is a collection of other tents where media types are hanging out, including the Fuse cable music network with their done-up, clubwear clad interview hostess.
Taleen and I sit down in one of the lounge chairs that happen to resemble my parents poolside chairs. It is one of the few areas in the festival where one can actually sit down. We notice that Dave from Maps & Atlases is walking by with some of his bandmates. I go up and compliment their set and start discussing Chicago and their neighborhood residences. Eventually, they are shuffled off for photos.
It isnt long after that we see Kamtim, the lead singer from the Chain Gang of 1974. Taleen says hi to him and they start discussing LA where he lives. Very down to Earth, personable fella. As an outsider, it is a positive experience to chat with the performers and see that, despite what one might expect, they are approachable. Much more approachable than any of the journalists present who clack away on laptops and seem to act like their shit dont stink.
Even the Black Lips, with their hordes of female fans and masculine Vice branded notoriety, turn out to be nice guys. Tal has to go photograph some big name like Cee-Lo or something so I spend the next half hour chatting with Ian Saint Pe and friends. My introduction came when Ian chows down on some snacks and I ask him, hows the booty? He assumes I am referring to the chicks or the ass. I respond, oh no, I meant the Pirates Booty. Do you work for the company? he asks. Nope, I reply, just wondering.
They quickly get hustled off to do something else and I begin to chat with Jonah, one of the Black Lips boys brothers. He sports a bleached pompadour haircut and a purple tank top. Evidently, hes in another band in Atlanta. After a few snappy snaps at the photo booth, Ian and Cole come back and we shoot the shit. Ian is the nicest of all, with his shark tooth necklace and an easy Southern cadence. A bit of a philanderer, it seems, especially once the Sailor Jerrys rum promotional ladies come over to mingle. At some point, someone asks me if Im with the Black Lips, and I bashfully reply, uh no. Just along with the ride.
I dont refuse when I get put on the list for a rooftop midnight Black Lips concert. But, wait, I say. Dont forget my friend. A flustered manager enters our surnames into his iPhone and we are set to go to a late night set at the W Hotel. The handler makes sure all of this is straightened away.
Once we leave the media tent we bounce over to Lykke Li and check her out. She has her typically shtick with her robes and that whole ethereal woman vibe. Its this typical melodramatic thing that she does, a witchy woman Stevie Nicks thing. The night is winding down. Taleen went to photograph Eminem and all that but I wander around, saw Beirut a bit. Then we head back.
THE SUPPOSED AWESOME PARTY
We have a really hard time finding a cab at first even though it was at a major intersection, Chicago and Western Avenue. Once we do, we are both overly anxious because we had drank way too much coffee to combat the sleepiness. We get to the W Hotel downtown. There are a ton of people in line but we shuffle in rather quickly. We are on the Black Lips list. All this is sponsored by Belvedere Vodka. Another sponsor.
Inside, its packed with posh, important people. Opulent light fixtures are hanging from the wall. We ascend the double staircase to get into the actual party. Its taking place in a sprawling ballroom but somehow its still packed with flaxen women in heels. Pounding, intense music is shaking the walls. Teensy free pomengrante-something-or-another drinks are being poured but they run out in no time.
We finally find someone who looks in the know and ask them about the rooftop, midnight concert. I dont even know if the Black Lips are coming, they reply. My guess is of course no. Do bands even know where they get shuffled off to before they walk into an event? Probably not. Its time to give up and get the hell out of Dodge.
Walking down the street, we seek respite in the common mans form of transportation, the subway. It has been a bit too much being around all these rhinestone-studded party people so we are taking the Blue Line to Wicker Park. We arrive at Six Corners, the major thoroughfare, but not without first being offered drugs by creeps and seeing a crusty punk traveler vomiting in front of Starbucks. Its been a mildly upsetting night.
The whole atmosphere of Wicker Park is out of control. Clubs are packed and drunk patrons are wallowing among one another on the fringes of the sidewalk. Cabs are honking angrily at lackadaisical pedestrians. Sinister and doom-filled vibes fill the air. Taleen and I both notice this as we stand outside of Flatiron waiting to go inside. I am on the brink of leaving altogether. The acid of the coffee and the proximity to so many human beasts has diminished my enthusiasm for nightlife.
Just as I am about to throw in the towel and scuttle off home, a man smoking a cigarette starts talking to us as we all wait. He tells us hes in from out of town and asks us, is it always like this here? We assure him no, it is not, albeit Chicago at Six Corners is crazy on the weekend during summertime. Lollapalooza causes this. Oh, he says. My band played there today. Turns out he is the drummer for the Chain Gang of 1974. This is just the serendipitous event to motivate us. We spend the rest of the night hanging out with the band before we call it a night.
We are able to take our time the next morning as Taleen does not need to cover as many sets for the Sunday show. The weather is looking lovely early in the day but Im aware of foul predictions for the evening. Should I bring an umbrella? Taleen asks me. I give her the rundown of my typical umbrella logic: if you bring an umbrella it could rain or it could not rain. But if you dont bring the umbrella surely the rain gods will smite our imprudence. So, the umbrella comes along.
Tal hypothesizes that the Sunday show will be emptier than days past. Her rationale? The predictions of poor weather, travel plans or exhaustion from nighttime partying will keep the hordes away. The reality? Just as many people are pacing around the innards of Grant Park. Now instead of dealing with massive amounts of concertgoers who are hot, drunk, high, tired or hungry, were dealing with a swarm of people who are all these things in addition to hungover. We proceed with caution.
Our first set for the day is one I am looking forward to, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. This is the first show I attend at the Sony Stage. It is the stage at the far south end of the grounds. What surrounds the platform is nothing but two football fields worth of a dirt pit. And the rain that came during the evening and morning has made the dirt pit into a mud put. Some gravel and hay are brought into the mix to soak up the liquid. This ends up making the whole area, with its huddled sweaty human mass, smell like a barn full of elderly horses. Most people seek refuge on the only non-muddy surface, a nearby hill.
For the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, most of the crowd is forced to arrange themselves around the crevasses of puddled water. The set is comprised mainly of songs from their newer album that I know less about. All in all, they are a cute group. They boast a very cute female Asian keyboardist, a typical mainstay of the twee/shoegaze/power pop band. How this band, a collection of talented yet shy twenty-somethings, ends up on a Jumbotron is a bit baffling. But their jangly enthusiasm combats my cynicism and Im dancing and bouncing a bit.
Next up is the Cars at the massive stage caddy corner to us. Its getting pretty hot and Im feeling relieved as the clouds start to roll in and intermittently block the sun. Ric Ocasek and his 80s synth cohorts take the stage for a fairly large gathering of old rock types, kids and general bystanders. The Cars seems like a bit of an off band for Lollapalooza but then again the whole lineup is pretty all over the place. What proceeds is a Reagan era teen comedy soundtrack revival. All of the hits are there: Good Times Roll, Shake It Up, and what not. One may mistake the musicians for robots since they play so mechanically and never once acknowledge the swelling audience before them. Mildly boring. Oh, and Ric Ocasek is just as ugly in person. We caught a glimpse of him up close at the media tent later.
Im ready to head to one of the Camelbak (or whatever brand) water stations. This is yet another example of Lolla patrons being treated like farm animals. Aside from the general hay and sweat stench combo, were all corralled into a line about twenty thick to go up to a water fountain. Its all about waiting in lines, for water, for bathrooms. Plus the only place you have to sit is on a dirty hill. We are officially chattle. Once you get up to the front of the line, men work the spigots, pouring suspicious H20 into our water bottles. The water helps but I am pretty much done with Lollapalooza by now.
What do you do when youve had it and you dont want to leave yet? You go back to the media tent for more free swag and short Port-a-Potty lines. The storms are really starting to brew at this point. Still, we are content to act slap-happy and giddy as we sit in our lawn chairs for about an hour. Were keenly aware of the bands standing up in front of the blue and orange backdrop, getting photographed and preened. Once the inevitable rain starts pouring, we run for cover underneath the snack and equipment tent. Portgual, the Man and Arctic Monkeys are playing on the stages behind us during the rain so we are fine with staying where we are.
The rest of the evening is comprised of a few more sprinklings of sets between rain storms. Explosions in the Sky play their sprawling, instrumental tunes as the skies start to clear. They are truly the film soundtrack band. Every song seems to sound like an impending physical climax. What does one do when listening to this live? You listen to the pretty, larger than life, epic orchestral melodies than you get bored and move on. Besides us, everyone is wading and coated in mud, mostly up the front of their calves. I dont know the geological specifics about the Lake Michigan silt, sand or soil combination but girls were sporting these beautiful patterns of mud. A mottled, marbled swath of black, gray and brown decorates the limbs of many.
The Foo Fighters are the last main headliner and the last show Taleen needs to photograph. This seems like a good point to head to the themed Chow Town area and pick up a snack. And snack I did. I snag a bland but healthy burrito from some place called Crescent City Foods. Just as Im unwrapping the foil, a torrential downpour commences. I look around and see that the best place for me to hide is underneath a giant white tent in front of me.
Inside this promotional tent is a slew of exhibits, media clips and artifacts of Lollapaloozas past. The rain has brought a teeming mass inside this normally vacant area. Splatters and hard thunks erupt overhead. I know I am stuck in this thing for a while. It doesnt seem to be letting up. Unfortunately, this creates a great opportunity for a lone teenaged nerd who decides to become my new best friend.
Why dont you have any mud on you? he asks in a lisp. Oh, I did, I lie, it just washed off in the rain. Why dont you just go crazy and roll around in it like everyone else? His youthful elation is starting to annoy me. Well, you know most of that probably isnt really even mud like dirt youd find in the woods. There are tons of people making all types of waste here. It seems that every deflection I send his way is quickly absorbed. He volleys me with a relentless line of questioning. I look woefully out at the storm. I am trapped.
Luckily, Taleens call makes it to me despite the obvious cell grid overload and I leave the lispy boy behind. I tell her where I have found sanctuary and she assures me shell be by in no time. 45 minutes later, after mastering the backstage labyrinth and snagging some cocktails, Tal meets me and we make our grand exit from the festival. We exit through a less traveled street, get ourselves a taxi and get home and collapse.
Despite being jaded about Lollapalooza 2011s ceaseless commercial and promotional ploys, it was a great experience in being an outsider. I was out of my element. I got a perspective I never expected, weaseling my way into the behind the scenes world. But its all a bit sinister. All of these people are selling shit but so many kids want to be there. In the end, this event trashed the park. How many people could be corralled into this place and charge them hundreds of dollars? Well, plenty.
We can admire these bands as performers but its hard to appreciate it in this context of billboard-style advertising, money and adoration. Theres the juxtaposition of what a band like the Black Lips stands for: rebellion, punk, ornery antics. When held up against the backdrop of bubbly Sailor Jerrys girls or salivating editors with cameras, it appears silly. The Belvedere Vodka party showed this well. As individuals these musicians are apart from it but within it too.
This festival requires an endurance that should be acknowledged. You pay so much for the food, you have to wait in line for basic necessities like restrooms and water. Standing is the primary bodily mode, and on asphalt nonetheless. The combination of sensory deprivation, the marathon of hedonism and self-renunciation in heat makes it seem more important. They elbow through people just to catch a glimpse. Some bands bring that visceral love. But when you see if all from the back looking at it all it seems smaller and you realize elbows dont need to be thrown to meet cool bands. You just need a very special sparkly wristband.