For its 25th anniversary this year, Lollapalooza expanded by an extra day for a four-day festival with a crowded lineup and a lot of festivalgoers filling Grant Park. It felt big. This festival always does, compared to many of the others in America. Lolla may not have happened every year since its inception, and it may not have the removal of Coachella’s desert setting or Bonnaroo’s rural Tennessee landscape, but it feels like one of the other pillars of America’s festival culture, and one of the roots of how we think about these things in the years where they’ve become so popular. Because of how Lolla is laid out — hordes of people moving en masse up and down the giant rectangle that is Chicago’s Grant Park — the festival can sometimes feel overwhelming to run around and catch everything you want to see. That’s where the smaller stages off to the side come into play, providing a little escape or solace from the huge main field areas, a chance to see artists on smaller stages and delivering more intimate sets. For Lolla 2016, Stereogum (along with SPIN, Vibe, and Brooklyn Vegan) returned to the Toyota Music Den again, and once more we hosted a lineup of artists who took advantage of the setting to deliver stripped-back, direct sets for devoted fans.
On Thursday, New Jersey’s Pinegrove played a mid-afternoon acoustic set. While many artists at the Toyota Music Den opted to bring one or two core members with them, Pinegrove had six people lined up onstage — most playing guitar, some just singing backup vocals. The acoustic set wound up highlighting the group’s alt-country side significantly, further underlining the difficulty in classifying their sound. Some rain came in around this time and fans huddle together underneath the tent, sticking close to the stage. Frontman Evan Stephens Hall made good on his drive to be an artist devoted to connecting with listeners, and offered up stage banter that made it sound like he was just hanging out with dozens of very close friends. (We also spoke with Hall after the set.)
That same afternoon, Brooklyn dream-pop trio Sunflower Bean were the rare addition to the tent’s lineup that decided to do a full-band, electric set. There is often a propulsion, a slight punk energy, underlying all those glistening dream-pop elements in their sound, and that’s heightened live. Frontwoman Julia Cummings’ vocals would drift and glide, then suddenly sharpen into a bark, while her bass throbbed through the tent and gave these songs more muscle than is common in the genre they’re working within. At one point, she jumped into the crowd with her bass for the outro of a song, flanked by a circle of fans like it was a late-night, sweaty club show.
Stereogum had several artists at the tent for Friday. It kicked off with London electronic trio HÆLOS. As they’ve been touring behind their excellent full-length debut Full Circle this year, the group has expanded to a sextet that includes two drummers, bringing the simmering intensity of the album to the fore. On Friday, they slimmed back down to the core trio of Lotti Benardout, Arthur Delaney, and Dom Goldsmith for a set of Full Circle highlights. The music was ideally suited for this particular afternoon: there was a threat of thunderstorms hanging over Friday, and the sort of pressure and humidity in the air that always seems just about to burst. Which means, aside from it being daylight, that the weather felt exactly how HÆLOS’ music feels.
Next was Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit — the subject of our February cover story earlier this year — playing a solo acoustic set. Hutchison is always an endearing and affable presence onstage, often joking back and forth with audience members, whether they’re friends or diehard fans he’s come to know a bit. But you can only do so much of that in a large venue when you’re playing a full set. When Hutchison plays acoustic on his own, though, it’s almost like you’re just chilling with him in his backyard — and given the intense personal investment that many Frightened Rabbit fans carry with them, there seems to be something special about getting to watch him play in that setting. Within a few minutes of being onstage, he basically let everyone know they could determine the setlist; though when some of the ideas were a little too out of left-field, he joked “These are awful suggestions, you guys have a think while I play this one,” and performed fan-favorite “My Backwards Walk.” Someone had the good sense to request “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” — one of the band’s finest songs, but one they aren’t currently playing on tour — and “Old Old Fashioned,” another early Frightened Rabbit favorite that they have been dusting off at some recent shows.
The day closed with the one-two of Modern Baseball and Day Wave. Both were represented by two members onstage (though Day Wave is the project solely of California native Jackson Phillips). For Modern Baseball, that meant the songs turned, essentially, into dramatic singalongs with the gathering of very passionate (and quite young) fans that packed against the front of the stage throughout their set. For Day Wave, that meant the usual airiness of Phillips’ music wound up being a little more grounded; it almost sounded like a different artist. He threw in his cover of New Order’s “Ceremony” — that song remains stunning no matter how many people cover it, so it wasn’t an unwelcome choice.
On Saturday Afternoon, Stereogum had Baio, which is Vampire Weekend bassist Chris Baio’s current solo project. While his 2015 release The Names has plenty of synths and grooves, he took the stage simply backed up by another guitarist, telling the crowd that if they caught them earlier they got all the bangers. “Now we’re going to play some ditties for you,” he said. What followed was a sunny, acoustic set that focused on a different part of Baio’s DNA than his dance-y (and infectious) singles would often suggest.
Stereogum’s final two artists of the weekend were Classixx and MUNA, both on Sunday. Classixx — an LA duo that’s made their name on shiny, effervescent dance music — played a DJ set that was full of infectious, disco-oriented electronic music. Unlike many festivals, Lolla didn’t slow down much by Sunday; a set that could’ve felt like a necessary jolt of energy on a flagging final day instead simply felt like the beginning of the party’s last act. Stereogum Band To Watch MUNA came up next and played an invigorating set of dark pop music. The trio (who also have a drummer and bassist as touring members) are still gearing up and only have a few releases to their name. But their music is catchy and enigmatic at the same time; sometimes dream-y, and other times synth-pop driven and hard-hitting. With such a big lineup at this year’s Lolla, it’s easy for a band of their size to get lost in the shuffle, but if their Sunday set was any indication, this is a group that feels destined to make a mark very soon.
Finally, D.R.A.M. closed the whole weekend with a buoyant set. Anchored by his single “Cha Cha,” he was one of the bigger names at the Toyota Den over the weekend, and felt like an appropriate opening act for those of us who ventured back out into the festival for the night ahead, which offered sets from HAIM, Flatbush Zombies, Vince Staples, and LCD Soundsystem. Festivals are a lot different than when Lolla started as a touring fest a quarter century ago. Many of the artists at the Toyota Music Den, or at the fest in general, sound a lot different than those early day Lollapaloozas, but all that did was show how big and encompassing these things have become. From Classixx, to MUNA, to D.R.A.M., and then onwards to HAIM and LCD, it was a great conclusion to the big anniversary.