This year at Lollapalooza was a big one, with the festival adding an extra day for its 25th anniversary. It wasn’t the 25th Lolla — there were some years off between its inception as a touring festival in the early ’90s and its rebirth and subsequent shift to its current form — but it felt celebratory anyway, with installations throughout Chicago’s Grant Park featuring images from past Lolla performances, everything from the Beastie Boys in the ’90s to Lorde in 2014 and Paul McCartney last year. And while the lineup hosted plenty of the same artists popping up elsewhere this year, those groups touring behind on an album and hitting the festival circuit heavily, there was a sheer expanse to it all that made this fest feel bigger than many other similar events I’ve been to this year — an expanse large enough to include two Chance The Rapper guest appearances and some dancing by Malia Obama:
There are a ton of stages of varying sizes at Lolla, there were a ton of people relative to a smaller fest like Panorama or this year’s undersold Bonnaroo, and it somehow always takes a small eternity to traverse the length of Grant Park and bounce between main stages. Besides all that, any chance to see Radiohead or LCD Soundsystem headline a festival this year is worth going to begin with. Beyond that, there was a ton of other great stuff to check out. Here were some of the most memorable sets at Lolla 2016.
We’re closing in on three years since Danny Brown released his last record, the still-stunning Old. In that time, he’s been a perennial presence at festivals, and the set is always pretty similar, which is to say it’s one of the most exhilarating and straight-up fun sets you can catch at a festival. Live, Brown leans harder into his manic-ball-of-energy side than the darker, husky-voiced chronicles that dominated the first half of Old. He focuses on the party songs, and as the crowds have grown in the last few years, the shows continue to feel wilder. At the Lolla set, he did mix in some of the moodier stuff, like Old standout “25 Bucks.” Overall, it was a reminder of what a dynamic performer he is. Atrocity Exhibition can’t come soon enough.
A lot of people hate the 1975, and a not-insignificant factor seems to be their preening, swaggering frontman Matt Healy. You know how Matt Healy started their set at Lolla on Thursday? He walked out in a blue suit over a T-shirt — which combined with his hair and glasses made him look like an art-school interpretation of Miami Vice — and said, “Here’s your new favorite band.” I couldn’t tell if that was runaway arrogance or self-aware snark in response to their haters. They broke right into the one-two opening of “Love Me” and “UGH,” and Healy’s Michael Hutchence revivalism was in full swing. The dude smoked a cigarette onstage during the synth-pop slow-burner “A Change Of Heart.” His whole vibe is so out of time, a throwback to a different kind of rock star, and that seems to be why he bothers people. I’d argue we could use more rock musicians with this much personality. They don’t always make them like this anymore, and that’s a big reason why it’s so exciting to watch the 1975.
Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey is not built for festivals. Her music belongs in theaters or smoky nightclubs of bygone eras, not blaring out across a field. And that’s part of the issue, too: Her sets actually don’t blare at all. Her Gov Ball set last year was so inaudible that half the crowd left to watch the Black Keys. On some level, though, none of that really matters. She has presence. Even though we know Lizzie Grant is playing a character, there’s still so much mystery and mystique surrounding the whole LDR thing in an era otherwise characterized by over-exposed or obviously manufactured personas more dishonest than her performative one. She has aura beyond many of her contemporaries.
She came out and started very on-brand, with “Cruel World,” the one where she offers smoldering, dramatic readings of lines like “Get a little bourbon in ya/ Get a little bit suburban and go crazy,” before that ending of “You’re fucking crazy/ You’re fucking crazy for me.” And she isn’t wrong at all with that last one. The fans crowded up at the front were possessed. For much of the set, the image of Lana up on the screens, in black and white, literally looked like a video from the ’60s, a surreal transmission from the past disrupted by the occasional glimpse of a more modern-looking band member or the in-ear monitor pack she had on her hip. Then she broke the image herself, walking down in front of the crowd and taking selfies with fans, signing albums for a whole minute or two between songs. They gave her flowers and a book. Whatever your feelings on Lana Del Rey are, there’s no denying the idiosyncratic nature of her stardom in this era. I’m not sure I’d ever seen someone quite like her.
Frightened Rabbit’s Aftershow At Thalia Hall & Scott Hutchison Solo At The Toyota Music Den
Lollapalooza shuts down early compared to some fests. Any city festival is going to have a fairly early curfew based on noise ordinances, etc., as opposed to Bonnaroo and other remote, camping-based festivals going all night long. But even in that context, Lolla’s 10PM end time is unusually restrictive. The festival counters that, however, by offering a significant array of official aftershows spread out all over Chicago, some by small bands and some featuring some of the bigger names on the ticket.
On Thursday, Frightened Rabbit played a weird venue called Thalia Hall. I say it’s weird because it’s hidden in a bar that’s out in an area that mostly feels like you’re in the suburbs. When I walked in, I assumed they’d be playing an intimate venue in the back of the bar, but instead you go up a stairwell and find a fairly large, theatre-esque room tucked somewhere on the third floor. It was a surprisingly majestic space, and Frightened Rabbit’s brand of emotive indie-rock swelled to fill the room. There are classics like “Heads Roll Off” and “The Modern Leper” that never get old, and more recent tracks like “The Woodpile” (from 2013’s Pedestrian Verse) that has already become a major song for the group, holding down a spot in the encore. There was one special addition to the setlist, as well: Frontman Scott Hutchison returned for the encore solo at first and did a stripped-down cover of the National’s “Mistaken For Strangers” — a nice nod to Aaron Dessner, who produced Frightened Rabbit’s new album, as well as Hutchison’s love for the National’s music.
The next day, Hutchison came by the Toyota’s Music Den as one of Stereogum’s artists and played a solo acoustic set. While he’s always a funny guy onstage, cracking jokes and chatting with people in the crowd, this one was much more intimate: just him onstage, taking requests and playing songs from all over his catalog. Huddled within the tent trying to escape the humidity and rain, it felt like a personal little post-script to the show the preceding night.
Two years ago, I saw Future at Austin’s midsize amphitheater Stubb’s during SXSW. There were people there, but it wasn’t exactly packed. He had plenty of hits back then, but his profile outside hip-hop circles was minimal. A lot of us only really recognized “Same Damn Time.” His ascension in the meantime has been, well, significant. Even last summer, he still had afternoon sets at festivals. Now you can have the weird chance to see him directly before Radiohead, and he has so many big songs that sometimes he just tosses out a chorus and keeps rolling right on to the next hit. There is a lot of star power driving his show now, and the section of the crowd pressed up against the barriers going crazy alone far outstretched the one I first saw him play to back in 2014. It’s a gigantic party now, run by a guy who’s aware of the kind of pop power he has and how to wield it.
First, a disclaimer: The sound for Radiohead was very weird on Friday. It was too quiet; it was too distant. It was, altogether, a disservice to what is a great live band and a group that, after a few years absent, is one of the biggest draws at festivals around the world this year.
Aside from those sound issues, Radiohead was one of the artists that delivered the most at Lolla this year. Having seen them at Madison Square Garden last week as well, I knew going in that the mostly slow, melancholic material from their most recent masterpiece A Moon Shaped Pool somehow went over extremely well with large crowds; MSG was filled with screams for “Daydreaming” and “Decks Dark,” and I can’t think of another band that could get away with playing an arena and slotting those songs in second and third on the setlist.
As great as those songs are, and as much as I was surprised by that, I still figured this new album would make for strange content for a festival headlining set, and Radiohead did adapt accordingly — they dropped some of the new songs in favor of crowd-pleasing moments like “My Iron Lung” and “Karma Police.” But even beyond that, there’s a bizarre quality to seeing songs like “Myxamatosis” and “Everything In Its Right Place” and “Idioteque” serve as greatest hits, people dancing and thrashing and singing along. It underlined the fact that there is nobody else quite like this band.
Sometimes you get to Saturday afternoon of a festival, and you just wanna go drown in some very loud guitars. Philly grunge-shoegazers Nothing are ideally suited for that. They played a set on the BMI stage, which doesn’t have a back, so that you can see sailboats drifting on Lake Michigan just off into the distance. That’s a weird one, seeing Nothing with that sort of placid scene in the backdrop. Anyway, there’s a good chance this band’s newest album is going to remain underrated, but if you have a chance to see them, you should.
Even after the recent welcoming of “real country” guys like Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton into the indie sphere, it’s still a bit of a novelty to see a country act booked at a mainstream fest like Lolla. That being said: Stapleton drew a crowd far too big for the concrete wedge spreading out from Lolla’s bandshell stage, and it seemed like everyone knew every single word of every single song. I guess there’s always the chance that a few hundred people bought tickets just to see Chris Stapleton, but the more realistic thing here seems to be that people take this stuff seriously and want more of it.
One thing was slightly odd about this being Lolla’s 25th anniversary was that there weren’t as many artists as you’d expect representing those initial years and Lolla’s role in the whole Alt Nation era. It was basically Jane’s Addiction and Red Hot Chili Peppers calling back to that time. Of course, there’s a lot of resonance with Jane’s in particular: The first Lolla was their “farewell” tour (marking the first in an increasingly ludicrous series of break-ups and reunions and hiatuses), and it’s always been Perry Farrell’s festival. Oddly enough, he didn’t really say much alluding to all that, even when he got a bit sentimental about other things. (Earlier in the day, however, Nothing had quipped, “Thank you! We’re Jane’s Addiction. Thanks for coming to my festival for 25 years.”)
What Farrell did do, however, was come onstage in a three-piece pink suit with a half-open pinstriped shirt and a grey hat, all of which made him look like some kind of New Orleans jazz mafioso wearing makeup. They also marked the 25th anniversary of Ritual De Lo Habitual by playing it in full, complete with burlesque dancers and women swinging in the air suspended by hooks under their skin. “Nothing’s shocking,” etc., etc. Another highlight: Farrell introducing Chicago to a “native son,” and bringing Tom Morello out to play “Mountain Song.” The ’90s were alive and well during that set.
It’s always been a little surprising that Grimes plays festivals as frequently as she does, and that she seems to legitimately enjoy doing them. Her artistic vision is exacting, and it strikes me as the kind of disposition that’d leave you less than enthusiastic about all the nonsense that comes along with festivals. But Grimes has also become a great festival act. The material from last year’s Art Angels goes over so well you might not even notice that she didn’t play “Oblivion.” She opened with “Realiti” and people reacted like it was the most famous song of 2015. Also, “Go” is still in the setlist, and that song is absolutely massive live. This is one benefit of the 21st century: the fact that we have an artist as idiosyncratic as Grimes, and the fact that she can still reach the level of becoming a legitimate pop star.
Red Hot Chili Peppers
RHCP were the other main ’90s act holding down the old Lolla corner alongside Jane’s Addiction, but it didn’t feel nostalgic in the same way, considering they have a new album (and the guts to slot one of their new songs alongside “Give It Away” in a two-song encore that took them 15 minutes over their time limit) and that it sorta feels as if RHCP are always headlining Lollapalooza even when that’s clearly not the case. While the set included several new songs, otherwise it was reliably lined with the hits: “Can’t Stop” and “By The Way” were excellent openers and closers, respectively, and “Dani California” and “Californication” resulted in big sing-alongs. Sure, RHCP are always going to be a little doofy, and there’s something hollow in seeing them without John Frusciante, but it was hard to deny their skill at being a straightforwardly entertaining headline act.
Haim just cancelled a bunch of shows in Europe in favor of finishing their long-gestating sophomore album. In the meantime, they still had a few American fest dates on the books, and their Lolla set was consistent with Gov Ball and Bonnaroo. Like, to the point where you can predict when one of them will yell “I fucking love you, [insert city and/or festival name]!,” and to the point that you know the Prince cover is coming, and that the “new songs” are beginning to become so familiar that they blend in with stuff from the old album. But the other part that’s predictable is that Haim are uniquely gifted at delivering a big, crowd-pleasing festival set in a near-headlining slot. They always serve as great openers for whoever that night’s big headliners are. Once they finally get around to releasing that damn second album, chances are they’ll be the big headliners next time.
Late on Sunday, Flatbush Zombies played the same stage Nothing had played the previous afternoon. So that means there was also the weird opportunity to see them play in front of sailboats, and that’s a much more violent contrast. Flatbush Zombies have accrued steady buzz, partially on the reputation of their raucous and intense live sets, and they live up to that entirely. There was a surprisingly giant crowd crammed into the narrow corridor leading to the BMI stage, flanked by scattered trees. So there was also the experience of seeing a sweaty crowd churn and thrash in what otherwise looked like a quiet woodland corner. That was weird, too.
One thing that was lacking at Lolla 2016 vs. some previous years, or other fests, was a marquee rap name. J. Cole is huge, but in terms of cultural importance he’s not on that Kanye/Drake/Kendrick level. Future is big, but not Lollapalooza-headliner big. So like at Bonnaroo, Vince Staples provided a necessary injection: First, because he’s a great rapper. Second, because radiates the aura of a quickly rising star. Already, the set was bigger and better than what I saw him pull off in a tent at Bonnaroo. He’s another one on the festival circuit this year where it’s just as exciting to see him perform from an acclaimed and beloved album as it is to wonder what will happen next, and what he’ll be able to pull off in another year or two.
LCD continued their summer festival takeover with three nights in Chicago during Lolla: two aftershows crammed into the Metro, plus their big main-stage headlining set on Sunday. I was at the second aftershow and the headlining set; they were my fourth and fifth times seeing the band this year, and it doesn’t get old. The setlist is mostly the same — though they did bring out “Time To Get Away” and “Yr City’s A Sucker” at the Metro, the latter of which is amusing to hear in a city that isn’t New York, and may or may not give a New Yorker some sense of snarky pride when said occurrence comes around.
The two experiences are, obviously, on opposite ends of the spectrum. They may also both be fleeting chances to see LCD in these contexts. Will they really be main headliners in the future without the buzz of their unexpected reunion? We’ll see. They already feel much bigger than when they temporarily retired, so what does seem increasingly unlikely is the chance to see them in clubs like the Metro, with capacities around 1,000 people. James Murphy acknowledged the difference early in the set: “Thanks, you guys. We just played two very small shows and it was very intimate and now there’s a lot of you,” he quipped before adding, “I think we have enough sound to go around.”
That much they’ve already proven over and over this year. On one hand, songs like “Get Innocuous!” and “Dance Yrself Clean” and “Tributlations” and “Yeah” feel as if they belong in those small, dark clubs late at night. But what this LCD reunion fest circuit is proving is the power of those songs, and of “Someone Great” and “All My Friends” and “Home” when thousands are singing along as LCD’s music blasts across the field. (Sidenote: Maybe Radiohead should’ve talked to LCD’s sound people.) “All My Friends,” in particular, is a revelation every time. If you go to a lot of festivals and see the same artists repeatedly, certain things become predictable. Certain things don’t leave as much of a mark. But every time, “All My Friends” seems to gain more power, its lifeline as a song mirroring the runaway momentum of its instrumentation. There couldn’t have been a more triumphant conclusion to Lolla this year.