August 26, 2009

Sweat, Beats and Playboy Bunnies: Lollapalooza 2009

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Flying high over Tupelo, Mississippi, with America’s hottest band … and we’re all about to die.
No, that isn’t how it happened, but, like ESPN columnist Bill Simmons, I’ve always wanted to start an article that way.
The part about being in a plane was true. And the thunderstorm visible from my window seat was eerily reminiscent of Almost Famous, blasts of electricity continuously ripping through the sky outside, off past the starboard flank of the aircraft. I wasn’t, however, touring the country with a bunch of up-and-coming rock stars, though I had been in the midst of some just a few hours earlier.
As it happened, I was barreling through storm clouds in a screaming Boeing 757, eastbound from Chicago to New York at the end of a long, music-filled weekend. While it was no great comfort — the thought of myself inside a giant, metal fuselage tens-of-thousands of feet above sea level, in the middle of an electrical storm — I was able to distract myself with the accumulated memories of the past weekend’s sights, sounds and shenanigans. Rustling through a skinny black knapsack with the letters “BMI” (“Broadcast Music, Inc.,” one of the big dogs in the music business) emblazoned on the side, I pulled out my souvenirs: A BMI mix-CD, BMI hand-sanitizer, a BMI pocket calendar and BMI bottle-opener; also, three free copies of Spin Magazine, a Southern Comfort recipe booklet and drink coasters, a pile of business cards from band management and magazine editors to add to my (non-existent) rolodex and, last and most bizarre: a condom with a pop star’s insignia stamped on its black wrapper.
Allow me to explain. Lollapalooza, Chicago’s annual late-summer music festival, is an experience worth enjoying at least once. Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the festival, in Chicago’s Grant Park, for the second time. Working at The Cornell Daily Sun has produced some notable benefits for me in the past, but none has been so uniquely thrilling as Lollapalooza. In the following paragraphs are listed some of my personal highlights from the festival.

I approached Grant Park through a torrent of rain — two hours after touching down at O’Hare International, a half-hour after disembarking from the Chicago metro Blue Line train, and after no less than three instances of getting wildly lost — backpack and suitcase in tow, trying in vain to stay relatively dry under a shoddy three dollar umbrella from Rite Aid.
Arriving at the north end of the park, I retrieved my press bracelets for the weekend and headed down towards Grant’s southern extreme, where the media area was situated, cordoned off by two separate security checkpoints. Once there, I stowed my bags and made my way out to the festival grounds to meet up with former Sports Editor Cory Bennett ’09, a native Chicagoan who had agreed to let me crash in his North Side apartment for the weekend in exchange for my second set of media bracelets.
We headed over to the Playstation stage where Fleet Foxes were regaling a crowd of around 5,000 with their distinct brand of textured indie folk-rock. The performance, despite lacking the dynamism and bravado that often distinguishes great performers from mediocre ones, was still a largely enjoyable experience: the Foxes’ catalogue is strong enough to carry a concert lacking even an iota of spectacle.
In the middle of the set, right around the time “Blue Ridge Mountains” was bursting into a potent Appalachian crescendo, we met a notable group of south-of-the-border college students who had travelled up from Mexico City to attend the festival. The children of wealthy Mexican industrialists, they had smuggled top-shelf tequila into the festival, poorly concealed in Poland Spring water bottles; after exhausting themselves by rigorously dancing to even the Foxes’ more low-tempo numbers, the friendly Mexican students began to insist we funnel their high-quality firewater.
After Fleet Foxes finished their set, we headed across the field to the Budweiser stage to catch The Decemberists, a group I’ve admired for years on account of their literate brand of catchy indie rock. Even if their new album, The Hazards of Love, was a pretentious, convoluted mess, I was still looking forward to seeing them perform one of their many excellent pop songs. Maybe “O Valencia!” or the similarly punctuated, similarly wonderful “July! July!” Instead, the only thing exclamatory about The Decemberists’ set was female vocalist Becky Starks’ peculiar decision to don a flowing white wedding dress and red Converse Allstars. (The exclamation in mind, by the way, was “STOP IT!”)
Beyond Starks’ dress, the only other point of note about The Decemberists’ set was how truly awful it was. Rather than please the crowd with a selection of songs concertgoers might actually, you know, enjoy, the band instead chose to perform The Hazards of Love — and only The Hazards of Love — in its entirety, from start to finish.
Other acts of note were Andrew Bird (charming and quirky), Depeche Mode (surprisingly solid), Kings of Leon (who might as well just have performed “Use Somebody”) and Kid Cudi, who spent 10 minutes performing his mediocre breakout hit, “Day N Nite,” first a capella, then with its signature spare electro beat, and finally in its “Crookers Remix” iteration.

The festival’s second day wasn’t particularly notable for its music. Faced with the prospect of sweltering 90-degree heat, I opted to spend most of my time in the shaded press tents, enjoying free drinks from the Spin Magazine-sponsored open bar and trying to scrounge interviews with performers who had wandered into the media area. The day did produce one story of particular note, however:
Thanks to former Arts & Entertainment Editor Julie Block ’10, we managed to secure V.I.P. passes to the Playboy Magazine Rock Star Brunch in the Chicago Hilton across from Grant Park. After waiting in line for about 15 minutes in an elevator well off of the hotel lobby, we were whisked up to the executive suite, where we signed in and were given free reign to explore the party, enjoy the free drinks and grab whatever free swag happened to be lying around.
Everyone in attendance seemed to have some hidden reservoir of knowledge, some skill set you might not necessarily have expected. The members of the media, many of them schlubby and ill-kempt, wearing Tevas and cargo pants and stained, tie-dyed t-shirts, were now sporting V.I.P. bracelets and sipping on martinis while they flirted with Bunnies; Danny Masterson — a.k.a. Hyde from That ’70s Show — was working the turntables under the stage name “DJ Momjeans”; and the gorgeous models in skimpy outfits, who had been hired as hostesses the by party organizers, showed remarkable depth of music knowledge and enthusiasm. (One was overheard commenting that, “If I miss Bassnectar, shit’s totes hitting the fan.”) At the Rockstar Brunch, nothing was ever as it initially seemed.

The final day of the festival, though still stiflingly hot, provided some more good music and gave me the opportunity to actually sit down with some of the performers I had seen on stage over the course of the weekend.
Sam Roberts, an accomplished rock singer from Canada, was humble and articulate as he rhapsodized about Bob Dylan and the influence the legendary songwriter had on his own development as a musician.
Ezra Furman, wearing a hand-written lyric by The Smith’s on a white t-shirt, delivered this bit of sage advice: “Hang onto your heart so it doesn’t blow away in the wind like a hat might.”
If Ke$ha — the raunchy pop starlet who was featured on Flo Rida’s “Right Round” earlier this year — could be any superhero in the world, she would be a flying narwhal. Wait … a what? “You know, like a magical unicorn-whale animal. A narwhal.”
Later on, when I caught her late-afternoon performance, whatever nagging suspicions I had of her being totally crazy were confirmed by the following theatrics: Before her first song she marched on the stage wearing an American Flag cape; after the song, her backup band — including DJ Skeetskeet and a female vocalist / guitarist she affectionately called “Shittypants” — doused her in beer and glitter; and, finally, at the end of her set, she launched hundreds of condoms, with her insignia imprinted on the wrapping, into the crowd with a t-shirt gun. Holy crap.
Harvey from The Builders and the Butchers told me that the puzzle-piece tattoo design that wrapped around his right arm was something he had wanted since he was a kid in high school, drawing the design on himself with a black-ink Bic pen. We then discussed the philosophical significance of the flying dog from The Neverending Story.
KASKADE, an electronic-genre musician and Chicago native, was dismayed by hot-dog dressing etiquette of the West Coast. “They don’t know how to do it. They’re putting ketchup on it and stuff … and they don’t even cook it right, so whatever.”
In the end, though, even while it was cool pretending to be an actual professional journalist, interviewing musicians and enjoying the perks that come with a media bracelet, what I had really come to Chicago for was the music. And so, after the last of several interviews, I headed back over to the festival grounds to catch Passion Pit’s late-afternoon hour-long set. It was pressed up against the front of the crowd — sweat-soaked and trying to survive what might charitably have been called a mild mosh pit — that the strongest and fondest memories of Lollapalooza were forged. Put simply, it was all about the music, man.