7:31 AM EDT, August 5, 2013
In many ways it felt like the biggest Lollapalooza ever, and it wasn’t just an illusion. The three-day festival in Grant Park that concluded Sunday not only sold out in advance in its ninth year, attendance topped out at a record 300,000.
With balmy weather providing an unusual respite from Lollapalooza’s typical mix of heat and rain, the fans arrived earlier than usual and stayed late for each 10-hour day, clogging Columbus Drive with foot traffic between the big stages on Hutchinson Field and the always bustling Perry’s DJ stage next door. On Saturday, a huge crowd massed for Ellie Goulding’s late-afternoon set, and Hutchinson was filled front to back for Mumford & Sons’ headlining performance. Long lines were typical at the portable bathrooms near Perry’s (even though there was no waiting for facilities a block north), with some male patrons deciding not to wait and instead concluding their business on a fence walling off the western edge of Hutchinson.
With the larger crowd has come more tax revenue. The city stands to haul in more than $4 million this year, and at least $5.3 million a year by the time the contract between Austin, Texas-based Lollapalooza promoters C3 Presents and the city concludes in 2022.
The festival also had tough luck with the Saturday headliners on its Grove stage, with rapper Azealia Banks canceling two days before because of a throat ailment, and then agit-rappers Death Grips failing to show up for a Lollapalooza after-party Friday at the Bottom Lounge. With no explanation from the band or its management about the no-show, promoters canceled the group’s Saturday appearance at the festival and booked a third headliner for the stage, Los Angeles rock band Bad Things.
C3 took a shotgun approach to genre and demographics when it booked 130 bands and artists to perform on eight stages. Once a festival specializing in “alternative” music during its early '90s incarnation, Lollapalooza not only includes most variations of rock (from indie to metal) but heavy doses of electronic music and children’s music, as well as hip-hop, R&B and even country (represented by Eric Church and the Court Yard Hounds). The performers included legendary children’s entertainer Ella Jenkins (age 88), rising South Side hip-hop star Chance the Rapper (age 20) and a bevy of veteran rock acts, including French hit-makers Phoenix and Goth pioneers The Cure.
After 30 years, the Cure’s sound is as familiar and downcast as a black overcoat, a mix of rounded bass lines, shimmering guitars, wind chimes and wounded vocals. The chill in even a beautiful song like “Pictures of You” was leavened Sunday by singer Robert Smith’s levity — the friskiness not only in his voice but in his interpretive dance steps. And “Just Like Heaven” turned the fans into the Grant Park choir. Yes, even Goth-rockers love singalongs.
Friday offered a primer in electronic music, a compact history of dance-related genres with electro-rock innovators New Order, cultish club favorites Hot Chip, the dubstep new guard in Flux Pavilion and synth-pop cheerleaders Icona Pop. Nine Inch Nails closed the opening night with a ferocious reprisal of once-ominous ’90s singles such as “Closer,” which induced spasms of impressionistic dancing to its explicit chorus and drowned out singer Lana Del Rey on a nearby stage. But there was nothing particularly nostalgic about NIN singer Trent Reznor’s performance, as he orchestrated a still-forward-looking journey into a dystopian future with sound that could’ve been measured on a Richter scale.
Perhaps Reznor was just trying to top Queens of the Stone Age, which delivered stunning shifts in tempo and tone at bone-crushing volume on the same stage a few hours earlier. The staggering power made the moment when burly singer Josh Homme sat behind a piano to lay bare his vulnerabilities on “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” all the more effective.
Sweden’s Ghost B.C. brought a sense of theater; the quintet showed up draped in black robes and hoods, as if presiding over a medieval church service. But their eye-popping garb wasn’t to mask any musical deficiencies: The band played fast, precise, melodic metal.
Dance acts have become as central to the festival’s mainstream appeal as rock, with the rise of electronic dance music as a cultural force. On Sunday, Dog Blood — a side project for EDM kingpin Skrillex — performed, along with Major Lazer.
Skrillex’s collaboration with Boys Noize drew a big crowd to the Perry’s stage, and the duo orchestrated noise into a grid of assaultive beats. Even the video screen beneath the mixing board appeared to wobble with each bass quake. For the finish, Skrillex kicked back to his days in a California hardcore band as he and Boys Noize turned the sound of punk rock guitars and drums into distorted electronnic rhythms. Diplo, wearing a white shirt and tie for the occasion, went in a different direction with Major Lazer, chopping up Caribbean and South American rhythms into a carnival-like dance party.
If crisis management is one of the tests of the get-on-get-off festival experience, especially for young bands, Chicago’s Supreme Cuts gets an A. DJs Austin Keultjes and Mike Perry improvised after their computer broke and morphed into their five-person R&B side project Jody to keep the crowd at the Perry’s stage entertained.
Chance the Rapper also had to deal with a potentially overwhelming situation. A few months ago, when he was booked on the festival’s relatively small BMI stage, he was still something of a local talent. But his recent “Acid Rap” mix tape has made him one of the most talked-about new voices in hip-hop, and a massive crowd cheered his every move Friday. Though he hasn’t beefed up his live performance to match the sudden rise in his national profile, the young MC turned the show into a celebration with his fans.
A sign of where Chance could wind up was delivered Saturday by Kendrick Lamar, a California MC whose set last year at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park was relatively introspective and insular. Now, in the wake of his instant classic 2012 album, “good kid, m.A.A.d. city,” Lamar upped his game with a band, smoke machines and a swaggering stage presence to match the energy from the huge crowd stretched out before him. A sense of humor didn’t hurt, either. After a man in a wheelchair was lifted above the crowd, Lamar commented, “This will be on the Internet.”
Quick success isn’t for everybody, though. Sometimes bands are thrust into headlining roles when they’re not quite ready to deliver headline-worthy sets. In 2010, Mumford & Sons were relative unknowns who made a deep impression with a brisk, hard-hitting, relatively brief Lollapalooza appearance. Now they’ve got two straight multimillion-selling albums, but didn’t have enough quality songs to hold the audience’s attention for the entirety of a nearly two-hour main-stage showcase Saturday. Enthusiasm and energy palpably waned after the U.K. arena-folk quartet performed one of its recent hits, “Lover of the Light,” and with 30 minutes left in the set more than half the audience had filed out. That’s one way to make sure a festival doesn’t bust curfew on a Saturday night.
A pair of British neo-soul singers fared better. Emeli Sande commanded the biggest stage at the south end of the park Friday like a seasoned festival performer. With her mohawk and vibrato-tinged voice, she cut a striking figure as she delivered big songs streaked with poignant, personal touches. Jessie Ware filled the Sade gap with her sultry, subtle approach, then ramped things up with dance tempos that had her wading into the audience. “I’m glad I wore flats,” she said.
A more old-school approach was taken by veteran soul shouter Charles Bradley, who preached, danced and wailed Saturday as if his fate depended on it. Maybe it did. Now in his 60s, the singer performed in obscurity for decades and was once homeless. But here he was leading a crack R&B band, popping dance moves and falling to his knees bearing his microphone stand like a cross while pleading for the strength to carry on. “Do you want to go to church?” Bradley asked. “I’ll take you there.”
Bob Gendron and Andy Downing, special to the Tribune, contributed.
Copyright © 2013 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC