In the summer of ninety-one it was ninety-one degrees in the shade, or it would have been, had there been any shade. Sandstone Amphitheater, nominally in Kansas City but technically in Bonner Springs, Kansas, played host to a traveling cavalcade of all kinds of “alternative music,” a newly nascent genre borne of college radio, the “We Jam Econo” ethos of early eighties hardcore punk and nurtured by those willing and able to stay up late Sunday nights to watch “120 Minutes” on MTV.
I missed Ice-T’s performance while waiting in line for water (although his muscled mass and posse had taken a pass through the crowd), but Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails alleviated the heat a tad by tossing a table’s worth of cups of water into the audience, one cup at a time. Between that and the sweat spinning from Reznor’s dyed-black locks, those in the front were provided with a nice shower. Henry Rollins was even more red than normal, although he had the privilege of shouting from a shadier stage. His burning-sun back tattoo glistened and seemed to send sunspots, mirage-like, around his simmering visage as Rollins’ rollicking roar and Andrew Weiss’ pummeling bass thundered into a mostly disinterested crowd. Gibby Haynes and Butthole Surfers provided a typically psychedelic and incomprehensible set. Of course the highlight of the evening was the mighty Jane’s Addiction, whose Perry Farrell was, and is now again, the auteur of the tour that was Lollapalooza, now an annual tradition in Chicago’s Grant Park.
Flash-forward to 2008 and there was Trent Reznor again, now singing “I want to fuck you like an animal” as the dad in front of me held his six-year-old daughter on his shoulders. On a small stage under the park’s trees, Oxford England’s Foals played an incendiary set with their novel mix of post-punk intonations and busy rhythmic intricacy. Both return to a Lollapalooza stage this August; indeed, Nine Inch Nails have become a recurrent staple just as Yo La Tengo have been a frequent guest of the Pitchfork Music Festival stable in Chicago’s Union Park.
But this year there’s an even bigger gamut, if not a glut, of music to hear—eight stages worth, running for more than ten hours a day for three days. Here’s who I want to hear:
Friday should start by dotting your “I”s with IO Echo and Icona Pop. The former’s nexus is the lovely female lead vocals of Ioanna Gika and bassist and programmer Leopold Ross who formed in Los Angeles around a mutual love of The Velvet Underground. Their excellent album, “Ministry Of Love,” features Japanese koto harps and Chinese violins to add unique textures but their songs sound like a sublime meeting between Blondie and New Order. The latter act is also a duo, but Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo are a pair of DJs hailing from Stockholm, Sweden and are guaranteed to get the concrete vibrating with the female empowerment anthems “Girlfriend” and “I Love It.” Expect a hot, sweaty good time, so drink lots of water.
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Today’s Chicago highlight comes courtesy of the quartet of Northside College prep boys, long since graduated but still fighting their image of precocious teens that got too big too fast. Their second album, “Dye It Blonde,” was an instant classic of drowsy glam rock and their recently released “Soft Will” finds them attaining a new maturity, minus some of their youthful exuberance. Notoriously hit-or-miss live, this set will still be something to see—hopefully their seemingly innate gift for crafting pop songs will translate to the masses here.
Father John Misty
Joshua Tillman began as a solo artist before becoming the drummer for Fleet Foxes in 2008, but that association provides a good idea of the folksy roots rock to expect. His “I’m Writing A Novel” showcases his dark yet funny sense of humor and Dylanesque aspirations.
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Sure, this darkly goth dance duo’s show might get lost in translation before the sun has set, but they never fail to disappoint live. If you’re up front, be sure to pack earplugs and expect to get soaked with sweat spiraling from the stage like a sprinkler.
The band’s name sums up their sonic plundering as they create a miasma of exotic “world” music thefts amidst pounding dance beats, alternating between reggae beats with dancehall raps and sitar-laced Crystal Method-style rhythms.
Chance The Rapper
Being of the school that it’s not New Order sans Peter Hook, and having seen them years ago avec Hook (with PIL & Sugarcubes, to provide an idea of how long ago that was), skip the hollow body of the hollow bodies and check out Chance The Rapper instead. Born Chancelor Bennett and a product of Chicago’s Jones College Prep, Chance dropped his second free mixture, Acid Rap, in April and again bowled a lot of listeners over with his innovative combination of raps, samples, beats and well-placed cameos from the likes of hip-hop luminaries Twista, Ab-Soul, Childish Gambino and many, many others.
Perhaps their latest outing wasn’t as solid and dance-worthy as their earlier material, but this will be the group to see if you still have enough energy to shake your booty off. Their energetic electronic-dance-music-inspired beats and winning melodies will be a great way to exercise all of your muscles, from tapping toe tips to the widest smiles.
Nine Inch Nails
End night one by wiping that smile off your face and as darkness finally arrives, visit the darkest recesses of Trent Reznor’s brain, punctuated by lush ambient orchestration and punishing industrial-inspired beats.
These appropriately named Michigan obscurities kick things off on Saturday with their highly literate version of rootsy folk rock, and they’ve already played with John Oates and made a fan of Ryan Adams. The quartet’s name got more buzz last year in the geekier corners of the internet when a video surfaced of two of their members performing a medley from the videogame “Legend of Zelda” on Casio keyboard, melodica, banjo and musical saw.
Today’s Chicago highlight comes from a man who was inspired to sing by seeing James Brown in 1962 and later performed as a tribute to Brown under the name Black Velvet, but didn’t release his first album until 2011, the ironically titled “No Time For Dreaming.” On the heels of his equally stellar sophomore record, “Victim Of Love” (both on the soul-revival label Daptone), released this April, expect Bradley to charm the crowds and raise the humidity with his sultry and passionate baritone. When most folks his age would be pondering retirement, Bradley’s musical journey has just begun. He’s been sampled by Jay-Z and Asher Roth, recorded a Nirvana cover for a SPIN compilation and was the subject of documentary film, “Soul Of America” which debuted at South By Southwest in 2012.
Matt and Kim
In the classic post-“Airplane” comedy “Top Secret,” the East Germans have imprisoned Val Kilmer’s character, Nick Rivers and bring him the news that they have found his manager impaled on a motorized sexual device called The Anal Intruder. They tried to save him, his captor claims, in a heavy German accent, “But it took us four hours just to get the smile off his face.” That’s the same effect as seeing Matt and Kim in concert. Their energetic dance pop rocks in such a giddy and straightforward way, you can’t help but have a good time.
Foals create some tough competition in this slot, but their most recent record wasn’t that strong, and I have seen them before. For a stark contrast, see Cincinnati’s Heartless Bastards, centered around the sultry, soulful alto of Erika Wennerstrom and backed by a muscular blues-rock ensemble—both 2009’s “The Mountain” (produced by Spoon producer Mike McCarthy) and 2012’s “Arrow” (produced by Spoon drummer Jim Eno) are solid classics.
The platinum-selling “good kid, m.A.A.d city” was without question one of the hip-hop highlights of 2012, and Lamar raised a lot of eyebrows with innovative sampling (like Beach House on “Money Trees”), pounding but leisurely bass beats, laidback SoCal delivery and a who’s who of collaborations, including some of his heroes like Dr. Dre, Jay Rock and Drake.
Sure there’s some overlap here, but maybe Lamar’s leisurely delivery will wear on you and you’ll want to see something with a tad more energy. And if you catch the last half an hour of Death Grips’ set, you’ll probably see them destroy everything on stage, and that will be the best part. Imagine Bad Brains meet Crystal Castles and you’ll have some clue as to the sonic abuse to expect.
The Postal Service
While on the surface a curious headliner, it makes perfect sense that they go head to head with Mumford & Sons as they are unlikely to share the same fanbase. “Give Up” was a record that no one bought or cared about when it came out, but the few who did hear it told their friends, and now, ten years on, it’s achieved legendary status. At the time, calling them a “supergroup” was laughable, but now the trio of Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard (vocals), producer Jimmy Tamborello of Dntel and Headset and background vocalist Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley have reformed and resurrected this mellow (and at times dour) electronic pop symphony of separation and twenty-first-century anxiety, somehow finding a beautiful silver lining behind what once seemed to be an infinitely grey sky.
This Lambeth, London foursome, formed by Samuel Fryer and Chilli Jesson, just released their full-length debut, “180,” this February, but already their rocking live shows have attracted legions of loyal fans in the UK. Their first single, the Rory Attwell-produced “Best Friends,” won NME’s “Track of the Year 2012,” deservedly so.
Today’s Chicago highlight is the brother-sister duo of Elliott Bergman, a founder of Afro-jazz outfit NOMO and his younger sister Natalie, who started singing with his band when she was sixteen. Wild Belle was born from a collaboration inspired by work that the older brother did for bandmate Shawn Lee, after the sister half added her own vocals to the brother’s percussion parts, and the end result is a lovely electronic tour of the Caribbean isles.
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Taking a walk on the other wild side is the smooth, washed out electropop treatment of Jack Tatum’s Wild Nothing. Tatum has a gift for crafting immersive sonic soundscapes, a gift for melody and dramatic dynamic structures.
Just when you think there haven’t been enough duos yet this weekend, 2010 Vassar College graduates vocalist Lizzy Plapinger and producer Max Hershenow produce lavishly orchestrated yet delicate, echo-laden rock anthems worthy of the Lady Gaga-level.
Their self-released album, Finally Bored, just came out, yet they are already leaders of a “21st Century Gang” and some of the band members have been playing together for ten years. Since they were seven. True, lead singer, guitarist and writer Henry Mosher is the son of Rick Mosher from New Duncan Imperials and their drummer is Spencer Tweedy, son of Jeff Tweedy from Wilco. But the quartet, rounded out by Hayden Holbert and Tony P-Lopez, display a world weariness that belies their age, and the record is strong enough to stand on its own. Maybe by next year they’ll graduate to an adult stage, if not here, perhaps at Pitchfork. If this won’t work for you, check Saturday’s schedule—they play earlier that afternoon.
How about some claustrophobic art punk, built on top of a rusted out industrial iron slab? Like the most discordant and bare-bones Dinosaur Jr. b-side or lost Pavement tape, there are some great songs in there somewhere so the most patient ears will be rewarded. Another band that’s more mature than their longevity might suggest.
This band alone might be worth the price of Sunday admission if not a three-day pass. What can you expect from The Vaccines? A great British rock group, their most contemporary comparisons might be Kaiser Chiefs and the Arctic Monkeys, but stretching backwards further, perhaps The Mighty Lemon Drops, with a more buoyant sense of humor.
The Baltimore duo (that’s right, another duo) of contralto singer and keyboardist Victoria Legrand and guitarist Alex Scally, these dream-poppers are better suited for a set in a gothic cave, but they’ll be the perfect opener for The Cure, and will be on the other side of the same field (physically as well as sonically).
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The Cure may not be at their original strength, either artistically or numerically, but it’s always been focused on the dark, Gothic angst and unrequited love of the pale-faced mope with the big black hair, Robert Smith. While they haven’t been relevant to anyone but the most hardcore fans for years, their live shows are legendary, and Smith, if he’s still capable, should pull out all the proverbial stops for the set that will end this year’s fest.