A couple of hours before the Blisters played Lollapalooza on Saturday, a drum circle broke out a stone's throw from the stage. The drum circle was composed of small children and toddlers who banged incessantly on bongos and whatever was placed before them, sounding surprisingly like an adult drum circle. While rap erupted at other stages around Grant Park and punishing bass lines rearranged fans' DNA, here at the Kidzapalooza stage, a parent walked past carrying his son upside down, the boy giggling, reaching for the grass. A pair of girls in pink fedoras twirled and flopped in a heap at the lip of the stage.
The Blisters, long and thin, side by side, resembling a small forest, watched with bored faces.
Bored and bemused.
Yes, the Blisters were playing Kidzapalooza, the longtime kid-friendly stage at Lollapalooza, just as the Blisters had played Kidzapalooza twice before, though not in many years. In fact, last year the band had sworn that from now on it would play only shows for teenagers and adults — no more toddlers.
And yet, here were the Blisters, at Kidzapalooza — unable to say no — about to play one of their last shows ever.
The day before, Spencer Tweedy, the Blisters' drummer, said: "It's bittersweet. It's not like we're breaking up entirely. I see us getting together down the road or something. But this is definitely the end of something here — the last show of this era of the Blisters, at the least." Indeed, if the Blisters are splitting up, it's not because after a decade as a band they still find themselves playing the Kidzapalooza stage.
It's because, well: When you start a band as a 7-year-old, you're a different person at 17.
The Blisters — started by Tweedy, the oldest son of Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, when he was in grade school, and ever since a mainstay at benefits and local family-entertainment stages — are headed to college. Singer-songwriter Henry Mosher and guitarist Hayden Holbert, both 18, are starting at East Coast universities this month. Tory P-Lopez, 19, the bassist, is already attending Columbia College Chicago. And Tweedy, 17, this fall a senior at Northside College Prep High School, will soon apply to colleges.
And that's not even the truly bittersweet part of this: For the past couple of years the Blisters had been quietly losing their novelty kid-act aura, acting and sounding like any other indie-rock act. In June they self-released a very good first record, "Finally Bored," a mature, accomplished collection of moody songs.
For the past couple of years they've played several all-ages shows at Schubas Tavern and the Beat Kitchen; a few weeks ago, for the first time, they even went on a short East Coast tour, which they booked themselves.
"Up until recently, I booked them places," said Sue Miller Tweedy, Spencer's mother and the co-founder of the legendary Chicago club Lounge Ax. "But now I have nothing to do with it, and I'm glad because they needed to play lousy, crappy shows where no one shows up and it's depressing. Which is part of being in a band."
Backstage at Kidzapalooza, the band climbed into a golf cart and headed for the catering tent. The driver, a festival volunteer named Jenny Schultz, just happened to be a neighbor of the Tweedys. "Jenny here," Sue said, turning in the front seat, "she and Spencer got married when they were 5 years old. Right, Spencer?"
"Right," he said, sort of mock-embarrassed.
The Blisters began with Tweedy and a friend from school (who eventually left the band over creative differences, Tweedy said); they added Mosher, son of Rick Mosher, from the now-inactive Chicago band New Duncan Imperials. Their first show was at The Second City as part of the annual Letters to Santa benefit, often headlined by Tweedy's father. They played Wilco's "Heavy Metal Drummer" twice (with Rick Mosher on guitar, standing behind a curtain). Then they added Holbert, who answered a guitarist-wanted sign Spencer posted in school. P-Lopez joined a year ago.
"We were fairly cute," Henry Mosher said. At the opening of Millennium Park they wanted to play AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" until their moms told them to change it to "Highway to School." (Even last weekend, at Kidzapalooza, they debated playing a song that had a naughty lyric about police.)
Tor Hyams, who co-founded Kidzapalooza nine years ago, recalled: "When I first heard of them, it was because Spencer is Jeff Tweedy's son, sure. But we would have never booked them if they weren't good. They got really good. I would love to see this stage actually become a kind of incubator for the main stages."
After lunch, the Blisters left for the stage. They were on in 45 minutes. Leslie Schwartz, Holbert's mother, waited for a golf-cart ride back. She checked the time: "I'm probably going to stand off to one side and try not to embarrass them and cry during their show."
A moment later, she was backstage at Kidzapalooza, with other Blisters parents, including Martin Lopez, Tory's father, who paced and blew bubbles. The Not Its were playing; its singers wore pink tutus and bounced a lot. Lopez sneaked a glance at the crowd.
"I think the guys are worried some parents out there will be changing diapers right in front of them," he said. Indeed, moments before The Not Its went on, a mother had her toddler upturned on the grass, at the lip of the stage.
Tweedy and Holbert stretched their arms out and grabbed each other's shoulders, as though ready to rumble. Holbert asked playfully: "Spencer, are we going to do anything special for this show, Spencer?"
"Like?" Tweedy asked.
"Don't know," Holbert said.
"Don't know, either," Tweedy said.
When it came time for their performance, the scene was surreal. Hyams, introducing them, told the audience that the last time the Blisters played Kidzapalooza, five years ago, they were much shorter. The audience of maybe 200 was composed of the curious, a smatter of fans and a handful of family and friends from school, mouthing Mosher's lyrics.
Also at the front of the stage were a dozen or so children, cross-legged, staring up at the band with confused expressions. A boy in an AC/DC T-shirt and pink hair yawned and drifted off to sleep. No wonder: The Blisters sounded thoughtful, brooding, not very child-friendly — as much an indie band as any of the indie bands on the larger stages. The big difference being, those other bands didn't have to deal with adults squatting in front of them, trying to wrangle juice into the hands of fidgety toddlers.
After 30 minutes, the Blisters were finished.
"I feel good," Mosher said, coming off the stage.
"I couldn't hear myself, but it was good," agreed P-Lopez. A visitor asked if the children down in the front appreciated them.
"I bet it went over their heads," P-Lopez said.
The Blisters gathered their gear in silence and snapped guitar cases shut and zipped up cymbal bags. They didn't acknowledge that this could be one of their final shows. They talked about who they wanted to see now — Mosher wanted to check out Local Natives, Tweedy wanted to head to Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
Then the band drifted apart.
Tweedy stayed a moment longer. He watched the next act, a group of children's performers named Ralph's World.
"I am really happy with how it went," he said, turning and squinting in the sun. "It was gratifying to see teenagers at the front. But I was kind of smiling to myself: We haven't played to toddlers in a while."
A few feet away, at the narrow space between the chain-link fencing that served as the backstage entrance, his mother lifted her right arm, waved her access bracelet at the security guard and moved toward her son.
"Spencer," she said.
"Mom," he said.
"Spencer, the (gyne)cologist who —"
"Who cut you out of my body —"
"Wants to meet you!"
"OK, mom," he said, deadpan, happily defeated. "OK, I guess I'll say hi."