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Concert Review: Lollapalooza Music Festival 2010

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It all seems like a beautiful blur. Lollapalooza 2010 started in fine fashion with Perez Hilton’s pre-bash festivities. And what followed was a three-day tidal wave of rock, pop and hip hop that rushed and surged its way over and through the hearts and minds of 255,000 fans along Chicago’s lakefront in Grant Park.

Over 120 bands played, and of that massive amalgamation of live music, I think I saw about 1/3 of it. And of my daily serving of the Lollapalooza musical buffet, I walked away filled up on memories of Lady Gaga, Green Day, Phoenix, Arcade Fire, MGMT and a few other surprises.

This year was the largest attendance ever with around 85,000 per day compared to last year’s 75,000. And though Lollapalooza might have increased the festival grounds to account for the increased attendance, that didn’t help create any extra room overall as fans crammed together, even more than last year, at the main stage areas to see the headliners. That said, we’ll take a look at why Lollapalooza needs to address their “getting too big” problem and why they need to offer better, more controversial sponsors, services and interactive experiences for the sake of the fans.

But right now, let me tell you what I will never forget about Lollapalooza 2010. The festival’s highlights began when I became an honorary “Little Monster” on Friday night and ended on Sunday night with the sheer force and rapturous brilliance of the Arcade Fire.

Lady Gaga

I haven’t had a chance to do any genealogical research to see if it’s actually true, but, after seeing her live for the first time, I’m now convinced that Lady Gaga is Madonna’s daughter in some way or another.

And as I see it now, there are two sides of Lady Gaga live. One side makes me have an unquestionable respect for her as a gifted and extremely talented performer. And the other side of her performance creates within me a looming doubt about the genuineness and originality of her art and inspiring “Little Monster” message.

Without any doubt Lady Gaga is a stunning performer. As we all witnessed during her ninety minute set, she has unlimited stamina and knows how to put on a show packed with pulsing provocativeness and inspiring spectacle. Like her current Monster Ball tour, her Lollapalooza performance was full-on theatrics, storytelling and operatic rock and pop drama at its finest. And when she wasn’t strutting around the stage in her flamboyant costumes (I counted at least 10 costume changes), and showing off her chops on the piano, she played the role of pop-rock motivational speaker with a nasty chip on her shoulder and a fire in her belly that fueled by her show a few years back on the smaller BMI stage at Lollapalooza when she performed to a crowd who didn’t care about her “train wreck of a set.”

But did I feel sorry for Gaga as I stood surrounded in a sea of screaming fans and adoring Little Monsters (her unofficial fan club of devotees)? Did I have any sympathy for her under-appreciated BMI side-stage show? Sort of. But after awhile the pity party got old and I wanted Gaga to refocus her anger and take her show ever deeper into the freaky and outlandishly rock-stravagant. But she didn’t.

Hands down, Gaga’s show was one of Lollapalooza’s best. She exceeded my expectations, dropped my jaw and got me cheering and clapping. But did her show convince me that she is an original artist with something fresh, creative and new to say or express?

On one hand, yes, Lady Gaga is putting a fresh spin on the her Madonna influences. And, yes, she is developing into a multi-dimensional artist who can thread the needle between several genres and successfully blend rock, pop, dance and the rock opera into one big experience of maximum engagement. And yes, I;m glad that I went to see her instead of the Strokes who were wooing fans on the other side of Grant Park.

But on the other hand, Lady Gaga’s message of unbridled self-expression, sexual liberation and artistic freedom is not that unique. And even after her stellar Lollapalooza set, I’m not convinced that she is doing anything new per se. She is simply the Madonna for a new generation and inspiration for those who connect with her brand of pop-shock and super-spectacle. We only have to look and listen to artists like Peaches and Saul Williams to see that both of these artist are (and have been doing) a much better job of convincing fans that their message is genuine, fresh and unique. Which is something Gaga didn’t do at Lollapalooza.

Yes, Gaga was great and she left me speechless. And I did become a Little Monster — if only by association — as I stood surrounded by thousands of decorated and costumed devotes who screamed and cheered unceasingly throughout the show.

But as I headed home the exhilarating rush subsided. And doubts about Gaga rose up in my mind. All her amazing talent considered, if she wants to leave a lasting mark on pop music, she’ll need to find a way to take that chip on her shoulder and transfer her brand of hyper-sexualized shock into something that is less about herself and more about celebrating the true liberation of her fans. And, most of all, if Lady Gaga is to convince me or any other skeptics that her message isn’t just some sort of shallow narcissism masquerading as artistic genius, she needs to make up her mind. Does she want to really empower her audience and set them free, or continue to confuse and alienate them with the vicious bite and venom of the fame monster.

Jimmy Cliff

Now, I spilled all that just to explain Gaga, but in just a few songs into his set, earlier on Friday, troubadour and reggae legend Jimmy Cliff showed why he’s the real deal. He sent shivers racing up my spine and conjured comfort, confidence, hope via the timeless ballad “Sitting in Limbo,” his classic cover of Cat Steven’s “It’s A Wild World,” and tracks from his forth-coming album Existence.

Social Distortion

Following in Cliff’s footsteps, another welcomed and sanctifying Lolla pick-me-up came via Social Distortion’s cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” It was good to see the group on stage again doing what they do best. And that song growled and purred so strong and pure in a way that all life-saving punk rock songs do.

Black Keys

Lollapalooza is all about catching lighting in short bursts by jumping from stage to stage as you walk around the grounds. And I’m still trying to figure out how The Black Keys, with just two guys playing drums and guitar, can sound like an entire army of righteous blues-rock charging through my soul.

Green Day

On Saturday night, Green Day demonstrated why they are the current champs of the pop-punk rock opera. They ruled the south end of Grant Park with a set that saw them bring young fans on the stage, shoot off multiple rounds of fireworks and pyrotechnics that would put KISS to shame as they charged through American Idiot with a fierce passion, as if they were playing the album for the first time for a fresh flock of fans.

And I even realized that tiny bugs loved the Green Day set too. Because during the show a mosquito landed on my arm, sucked my blood and threw up devil horns before I squished him. Now that’s what live rock and roll is all about!

Moving on from Green Day, I wiped the mosquito remains off my arm and headed over to the opposite side of the Grant Park to take flight with French rock quartet Phoenix. Despite sound issues that made the set seem distant at times, the group soldiered on triumphantly, lifting fans higher into the stratosphere via “1901” and other gems form their breakthrough album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. And you know what? While you read this, there are probably fans that never came down and because they are still floating high above us somewhere in outer space after Phoenix’s set.

Arcade Fire

There were moments where Lollapalooza was at full-throttle, but for the most part, many of the performances and the crowd vibe during the weekend seemed oddly foreign and strangely stuck in neutral. But when Arcade Fire took the stage on Sunday to close out the festival, the band somehow knew exactly what we needed to shake us from our sonic Twilight Zone and truly come alive. From the first moments as front man Win Butler led his army through tracks off of 2005’s Funeral, the crowd became electrified and communed as one together at the table of Arcade Fire’s feast of melodic splendor and rhythmic ecstasy. Organs hummed. Drums were beaten with inspired gusto. Voices belted out lyrics like a unified chorus coming from the core of a thousand souls. This was the type of connection between me, the band and the crowd that I was waiting for all weekend. The new songs from The Suburbs sounded gorgeous, righteous and filled with emotive wonder. For ninety minutes Lollapalooza was sonically and emotionally set ablaze inside and out.

And on the opposite side of the Grant Park Sunday’s other headliner grunge-rockers Soundgarden stormed through their set playing, as one fan told me after the show, “like it was more than just a money reunion.” And I was glad to hear that because I was a bit worried. But it appears that Soundgarden does still have something to say and are feeling inspired to take fans, not back into the faded memory and flanneled past of grunge, but into the promising future of rock.

All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end this year’s festival.

What Can Lollapalooza Do Better For Next Year?

Each time I’ve covered Lollapalooza the last four years, I always have a few things that I think can make the festival better. So here’s what’s been rolling around in my brain since Sunday.

I had my doubts about the increased capacity and acreage of Lollapalooza. And as it turned out, increasing the overall capacity to let more people attend didn’t make the festival experience any better for fans or the music experience. For next year Lolla shouldn’t expand the capacity. If anything, they should limit the amount fans and decrease the amount of bands on the bill. Why? Well, the live music experience is inherently communal. And in a space and setting like Grant Park, the larger the group of fans gets the less communal the experience becomes. Like I said, earlier, for most of the festival, I felt disconnected from my fellow fans and I think that part of the reason why I felt like that is because of Dunbar’s “150 Rule” — that states when a group of people exceeds 150 that group begins to become disconnected and the quality of the relationships and personal connections begins to deteriorate.

That said, however they do it, I think Lollapalooza needs to go back to and examine its roots when they had 33,000 fans attend in 2005. They need to find a way to manage crowd capacity for future festivals without compromising the communal experience of Lollapalooza by overfilling Grant Park like they did this year. I know this is a long shot since less people means less money for Lollapalooza. But, come on, is it worth it to stuff as much people and music you can in three days, if it’s only going to cheapen the overall festival experience and make fans feel disconnected and overwhelmed?

If Lollapalooza isn’t going to get any smaller, then they at least need to have more engaging side-experiences from the sponsors. I went to many of the booths sponsored by Adidas, Sony, Toyota and others, and I ended up walking out disappointed and thinking how they could do so much more.

There is a great opportunity for Lollapalooza and its sponsors to revolutionize the musical festival experience beyond just the music. Yes, I know the sponsors are there to sell and promote their products, but that doesn’t mean the experience has to be lame or trite for fans.

I think Lollapalooza and their sponsors should step up their game and take time to think of ways to educate, entertain and enlighten music fans during the festival. How could they do this?

Well, for starters, they should find creative ways to use their products to explore the sensory, emotional and psychological aspects of the live music experience. There are many ways sponsors like Sony could create a sound or visual experience that takes fans deeper into the details of why live music is so amazing. They should team up with neurologists, scientists, psychologists, sociologists and writers like Oliver Sacks, Daniel Levitin and Matthew Fox, to name a few, to create truly engaging and memorable interactive experiences that are more than just a cliche spin of a wheel to win a free bandanna, button or a commemorative towel.

If Lollapalooza and its sponsors found a why to create live on-site concert “experiment booths” that go beyond the usual “here, take your picture in our car,”or “hey, sign up to win this cool pair of shoes” gimmicks, I know the relationship between the fans, Lollapalooza and the sponsors would be much stronger and more genuine. And I if sponsors did cool things like that, I know I wouldn’t be so bothered by the corporate naming of the stages.

The last thing I’d like to see at Lollapalooza 2011 is the presence of substance abuse and addiction non-profits and sponsors. Back when it first started out, Lollapalooza prided itself on being the cutting edge of music. And it still does today. But it’s time festival originator Perry Farrell and his team take a step forward for the fan’s sake. They should see that our culture, especially rock concert culture, is in great need of the presence of on-site counselors and drug addiction organizations at music festivals.

Yes, having folks like that at music festivals may seem very un-rock and roll, but really, I saw many of my fellow concert fans who could have used the help and knowledge of trained counselors who care about the well-being and health of festivalgoers. And with the increased popularity and brilliance of shows like A&E’s Intervention, the continued success and interest in radio shows like Love Line and knowing that an increasing number of people are entering drug rehab centers to get sober and stay alive, it’s time to see Lollapalooza lead the way in concert culture, and make those services and knowledge available for fans, just like Rock The Vote does to get fans involved in the voting process.

Yes, integrating addiction and substance abuse awareness into the live concert experience is challenging and controversial. But if Lollapalooza can dedicate an entire area on the festival grounds to teaching fans how to live green and recycle (which are also very important to the future of our world), then they can also think of ways to serve concert fans by educating and enlightening them about how addictions and emotions play a vital role at music festivals. And I know this can be done without alienating or taking the fun out of the concert experience. We just have to find a way to do it and start thinking now.

Well, live music fans, that wraps up our coverage of Lollapalooza 2010. From Gaga to The Arcade Fire, I had a blast sharing my experiences with you. And I hope you enjoyed it too! If you were there in Chicago this year, or have been to other Lollapaloozas, I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.

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About Chris Catania

  • Jordan Richardson

    Gaga needs more time. She’s just got the one record under her belt (okay, maybe one and a half) and she’s already nearly mastered the live performance. Slap a few years on her and I bet she’ll be something remarkable.

  • El Bicho

    “Over 120 bands played, and of that massive amalgamation of live music, I think I saw about 1/3 of it.”

    No one would know it from this review. I wanted to read about the bands not your grand schemes to fix Lollapalooza

  • JanE Adam

    Oh dear why do all the Big names get so much underserved attention. Madonna has always been right about Ga Ga!!

  • Sara King

    Too much fuss made about Ga Ga!She’s an egomaniac who now thinks she can change the world uum yeah hello?