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Concert Review: An Open Letter to Lollapalooza 2011

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Lollapalooza 2011 has come and gone but I won’t soon forget what happened as the festival celebrated its 20th birthday along Chicago’s lakefront in Grant Park in true spectacle and ultimate glory. Like it always is, my Lolla experience was a complete and utter mind-blower. Once again I was sucked in by the sheer magnitude of it all and forever changed, whether I wanted to be or not. And this year, the massive party was bigger than it’s ever been with a record-setting 275,000 fans (90,000 per day) who all got their rock on to the tune of 130 bands over three days.

But before I tell you about the music, I’ll be completely honest and tell you that as a fan and a concert reviewer my relationship with Lollapalooza is very complicated and super complex. It’s a love/hate sort of thing. Part of me loves going to the festival to immerse myself in the endless river of intoxicating sonic pleasure. And I love the fact that so many people have gathered to embark on a life-altering and communal adventure like no other. But another part of me feels that the whole thing is just too damn big, and way too overwhelming at times. Because of this, much of the intimacy, uniqueness and sacredness of the live music experience is compromised and forsaken.

And as I struggled to make sense of my relationship with Lollapalooza, I decided to go back to Lolla’s etymological roots in hopes of writing you a different kind of concert review.

My curiosity led me to Webster’s dictionary, where I was reminded that “lollapalooza” is defined as “…an extraordinary or unusual thing, a person, or event, an exceptional example or instance.”

So instead of writing about Lollapalooza as just an event or just “an unusual thing” – which it certainly is – I’m going to share with you a concert review experiment in the form of an open letter/review to Lollapalooza as “a person.”

Dear Lollapalooza 2011,

There’s no easy way to say what I’m about to tell you, so I’ll just be completely honest and tell you that you make me crazy. Crazy good and crazy bad. You have a special way of making me want to cry, laugh, smile and go nuts all at the same time when I go to your festival. I don’t know how you do it, but somehow you know how to manipulate all my emotional buttons, and still I come back to you each year acting as if nothing happened. Am I addicted to you? Or do I just love being psychologically abused and manipulated by you because I love the way it feels?

As you know, we’ve been close friends for the last five years and I have to say that you really put one hell of a show this year in Chicago. Like the other 274,999 fans, I especially enjoyed the two torrential downpours on Sunday. Those heavenly showers from above really added something special to the festival. When I saw dark clouds rolling in across the Chicago skyline and as the rain started to fall and soak us all, I knew deep down that no rainstorm could put out the candles on your birthday celebration. And I was right because when things got sloppy, wet and super swampy, fans took full advantage of the situation and transformed a possibly depressing scene into place where hilarious mud-people ruled. And the funny thing is that most fans didn’t even bat an eye but continued to rock their brains out in the rain.

I just hope that the injury report wasn’t too bad because I saw a steady stream of battered and bruised fans going in and out of the medical tents hobbling about, lying unconscious on tables and being carried out on stretchers as ambulances hurried them to local hospitals.

Sure, your festival is one of the most unique festivals around with a legendary and inspiring backstory. But the truth is that us concert fans can pay a hefty price for the rush and pleasure. And I’m not just talking about the $215 three-day pass it cost to attend your Big Party. I’m talking about the physical price: the bumps, bruises, busted ankles, puss-filled calluses on our feet, and the exhaustion of walking back and forth across your 115 acres to see our favorite bands that played on opposite sides of the park at the same time.

Yes, I know you and your hired security folks didn’t like them. But I did have fun watching the swarms of Gate Jumpers trying to crash your birthday party. Fan culture sure has evolved since your first festival in 1991. And I have to say witnessing the sociological evolution of The Gate Jumpers and how they used Twitter to assemble their overpowering flash mobs to crash the gates was one of the most interesting non-musical parts of the festival. I’ll never forget watching a throng of crashers trolling back and forth along the gate while I interviewed an artist. I felt like I was watching a scene from Jurassic Park where the velociraptors systematically tested the perimeter gate searching for weak points to plan their attack.

And when you think about it, this behavioral and technological development in Gate Jumpers shows that a new breed of concert fans is evolving. Does this mean that our love for live music contributed to the molecular evolution of our species? I remember seeing the type of Lolla fans or “weirdoes,” as Perry Farrell affectionately called them, attend in 1991. So who knows what the next 20 years will look like?

Okay, now it’s time to talk about the music you served up this year. I was pulled in so many different directions that it was yet again so hard to tell myself that I’m not going to see it all. But for you, I imagine it’s gotta be pretty hard to curate a festival for fans who’s iPods span the entire gamut of music genres. And you have to figure out a way to get as many people there so you can make the most money possible while simultaneously satisfying the masses. But still, I always think it’s sort of sneaky how you scheme and schedule the sets with just enough time to walk from end to end, tempting fans to see if they can really see and hear it all.

No, I’m not trying to be a drag. I’m just having a little fun with you. Yes, most of the music I heard this year did move me and I’ve told my friends all about you.

No, not all the bands were as great as you made them out to be; some were actually pretty bad and quite disappointing actually. For starters, Eminem and Cee-Lo left me wanting more (more on those two dudes in a bit). I wanted a bit more rock on Friday night but Chris Martin and his buddies just weren’t doing it for me and Muse lost my interest after the first song and my favorite track “Uprising.”

But thank God for Ratatat! It was fantastic and won the award for Best Use of Video Screen during Lollapalooza 2011. I’ll always remember how they synced up their electronic blips and unfurled their hypnotic instrumental melee of edgy guitars and synthy riffs with a trippy video screen backdrop that flashed exploding scenes from classic ’80s action movies. Arnold Schwarzenegger never looked so psychedelic, reanimated and re-contextualized as he was running through the jungle getting chased by an angry alien predator.

But what the heck was Cee-Lo thinking on Saturday? What convinced him that coming out in a metal-clad and outrageously spiked football shoulder pad costume would make up for playing a set of half-assed and scattered songs? Did he really think such a sorry performance was good enough for Lolla fans? I would expect a lot more from the host of The Voice. I think he would have voted himself of if he showed up in that costume and played like he did.

Yes, Cee-Lo did eventually get to the song we all were waiting to hear in the flippant love-pop ballad “F#ck You.” But come on! Why did he waste our time and not unleash the golden voice and let us enjoy his golden croon and gift for great showmanship that we all know he has.

And what about Eminem’s set? I had high expectations for this show. I’ve seen many amazing shows on that same Lollapalooza stage over the years. Kanye West was off the charts with his brilliant emotionally moving show before the hometown crowd in 2008. Then in 2010, I went in a skeptic and came out a newly converted Little Monster after Lady Gaga won me over with her dazzling and intimate spectacle of a performance.

But it kills me to say that Mr. Mathers’ performance was too rushed, contrived, and distant to get anywhere near inspiring. I don’t think it was a wise move to fill the set with a litany of hooks and snippets of his hits like “Without Me” or “Cleaning Out My Closet.” Those are great songs and I would have liked to see him reinvent them more with fresh takes or freestyles. But that didn’t happen. Sure, it was a nice surprise to see Bruno Mars and Skylar Gray join the show for “Love the Way You Lie” and “Lighters.” But again, it was too much medley and not enough of what Eminem is best at: being the freestyle master and battle-rapping hero that won us over in 8 Mile. The new recently recovered and reborn Slim Shady I was hoping for surely did not stand up.

Watching the set I wondered: Is Eminem still getting his bearings back? Is he still not comfortable in his own skin as he gets used to playing live without the crutch of drugs or alcohol? Without a doubt I applaud him doing what he’s done so far in his recovery. And I’m glad he didn’t’ suffer the fate of his peers that couldn’t overcome their addictions.

But why didn’t Eminem give us a great show? He had us all in the palm of his hand and I feel like he sold us all short. Since he’s not touring a whole lot these days, I expected him to go deeper and truly make it a special moment at least for a couple minutes. I wanted him to go beyond the expected jesterish and wrote humor. I wanted him to take us to a new place that we haven’t been before, again, if only for a moment. Instead he made a few corny jokes about being sober. And those cheesy and awkward jokes climaxed and fizzled when he faked like he was going to guzzle down a bottle of vodka and throw his sobriety away. And his punch line was a ridiculous trick jacket he had on that squirted out spouts of water like a water-filled cartoon character shot through with bullet holes. It was a pretty lame move that still confuses and frustrates me when I think about it.

But ya know what Lollapalooza? The bad parts of your birthday party did not trump the best moments.

For starters, Atmosphere’s righteous mix of beats and rhymes was magical and off the charts. I still can’t wipe the smile off my face after witnessing emcee Sean Daley (aka Slug) riling up fans — new converts and faithful followers — into a feverish frenzy as he yelled “Let me see you bang your fists like you’re trying to build something.” Those words and the way the crowd was so beautifully synchronized in their fist-pumping during the seismic “Should’ve Known” was one of the most memorable Lollapalooza moments I’ve ever had. I swear if it would have gone on for much longer I think the ground would’ve split beneath our feet.

Lollapalooza, my dear friend, it kills me to say this, but in the end Atmosphere’s show turned out to be far more significant and evocative than Eminem’s. I didn’t want it to be that way but that’s the way it turned out after Saturday night was over.

Sunday was all about the bands and fans either battling or embracing the rain. I don’t know what it is about the psycho-molecular combination of rain, dirt, grass and live music that turns fans into crazy and possessed mud-people. But nonetheless I loved watching fans joyously stomp around in the giant muddle puddles at the Google + Stage while Georgia-based rockers Manchester Orchestra provided the perfect raw, grinding and gloriously emotive anthemic soundtrack to your righteous mudfest.

The day went by so fast and by the time Foo Fighters roared its way towards the festival’s finale on one side of the Grant Park while Deadmou5 entranced fans with his electronic DJ wizardy on the other, I was caught in smack dab between at the Perry Stage watching Kid Cudi woo his way into the hearts of Lollalites with a fan-led version of “Pursuit Of Happiness,” a fitting anthem to the close out the festivities.

I’ll wrap up this letter by saying that I do fear that you might’ve invited too many people this year, and I’m still not convinced that bigger is better. But I know that we won’t always agree on this, so I’m cool to agree to disagree with you. I wanted to tell you that I’m not crazy about that prohibitive radius clause that you’ve asked bands to sign off on in order to play at your Big Party. It seems kind of selfish to have bands agree to such a deal because it takes away from the local music scene and forces Chicago and Midwest fans to see their favorite bands under the hot sun when most of the bands that play your party are better suited for a smaller venue with a more intimate crowd.

Speaking of contracts, I saw how trashed Grant Park got and I hope that the possible $80,000 bill for cleaning up Grant Park doesn’t break your bank – I don’ t think it will considering how much you’ll end up making when you’re done counting your ticket sales. And it’s good to know that the cleanup bill won’t be costing Chicago taxpayers a dime, and that your promise to make Grant Park look better than it did before your party. I just hope you and your fellow concert promoters C3 Presents do keep your promises to make this cleanup a reality.

There’s a lot more I could say to you Lollapalooza but I’ll save that for another letter. In the end, your 2011 Birthday Party was certainly an “extraordinary and unusual” experience that I’ll continue to think about for a long, long time. And I’m excited to see what 2012 in Chicago will bring and how things will go for you next year during your big debut in Brazil.

Sincerely Addicted and Loyal Concert Fan,

Chris

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