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updated: 8/3/2011 9:57 AM

Though no longer cutting edge, Lollapalooza still delivers

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  • Big crowds are expected in Grant Park this weekend as Lollapalooza celebrates its 20th anniversary.

      Big crowds are expected in Grant Park this weekend as Lollapalooza celebrates its 20th anniversary.

  • Like gritty grimy rock 'n' roll? The Black Lips will deliver just that at Lollapalooza.

      Like gritty grimy rock 'n' roll? The Black Lips will deliver just that at Lollapalooza.

  • The Mountain Goats are excited to play in front of Lollapalooza's crowd this weekend.

      The Mountain Goats are excited to play in front of Lollapalooza's crowd this weekend.

  • The moody Chicago rock band Disappears will play Lollapalooza on Saturday afternoon.

      The moody Chicago rock band Disappears will play Lollapalooza on Saturday afternoon.

  • Eminem caps off a resurgent year -- his record "Recovery" was the best-selling album of 2010 -- with a headlining spot at Lollapalooza this weekend.

      Eminem caps off a resurgent year -- his record "Recovery" was the best-selling album of 2010 -- with a headlining spot at Lollapalooza this weekend.
    AP Photo/ Interscope/Aftermath/Shady, Karin Catt

  • Contemporary Southern rockers My Morning Jacket are one of this year's headliners.

      Contemporary Southern rockers My Morning Jacket are one of this year's headliners.
    AP Photo/Ed Reinke

  • The massively popular Coldplay is the kind of big mainstream headliner the new version of Lollapalooza seeks out.

      The massively popular Coldplay is the kind of big mainstream headliner the new version of Lollapalooza seeks out.
    Photo courtesy of Tom Sheehan

  • Dave Grohl and his band The Foo Fighters will occupy Sunday's headlining spot at this year's Lollapalooza music festival, which takes place over three days at Chicago's Grant Park.

      Dave Grohl and his band The Foo Fighters will occupy Sunday's headlining spot at this year's Lollapalooza music festival, which takes place over three days at Chicago's Grant Park.
    AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Chris Young

  • Video: 20 years of Lolla in Chicago

 
 

Twenty years ago, Lollapalooza was born as a cross-country rock tour that brought together bands, music and fans from the industry's fringes.

Today, Lollapalooza looks much different. It's not a tour anymore, for starters, but a massive destination festival that sets up camp for one weekend in Chicago's Grant Park each summer.

More importantly, Lolla no longer tries to reflect music's cutting edge. The headlining acts tend to be huge mainstream successes, like this year's Eminem, Coldplay and The Foo Fighters.

Some may grumble about that, and have; countless critics and music fans cranked out tweets and Facebook posts that mocked this year's headliners when they were announced a few months back.

The beauty of such a mammoth event, though, is that the headliners represent just a fraction of the groups that will perform during Lolla's three days in Grant Park.

Dozens of bands specializing in a dizzying array of musical styles await the more adventurous fan at this year's fest. On Friday alone, the lineup includes the dance-rock of Reptar, the retro-glam sounds of Chicago's Smith Westerns and the intricate sample-based collages of Girl Talk. And that just scratches the surface.

With the festival happening this weekend, the Daily Herald is spotlighting three bands that will take the stage before the headliners. Each band, in addition to being worth a look, stands as an example of what keeps Lollapalooza relevant as a musical happening, even 20 years after its debut.

So read on, and then go get your rock on.

Black Lips find new sounds for latest record

If there's any band playing Lollapalooza that could benefit from hot, steamy weather, it's The Black Lips.

The much-buzzed-about Atlanta band delivers a wonderfully dirty brand of garage-punk -- songs that would pack even more punch in the heat of a sweaty evening.

"Well, let's hope it doesn't get too hot out there," singer-bassist Jared Swilley said with a laugh. "Those outdoor summer shows can be pretty brutal."

The Black Lips are playing behind "Arabia Mountain" (Vice), their sixth studio record. The famously raucous band raised some eyebrows when it announced that Mark Ronson, the English producer known for his work with Lily Allen and the late Amy Winehouse, would produce.

"I think some people wondered if this meant we were selling out or going Hollywood or whatever," Swilley said. "The truth is that we knew that Mark was comfortable using more traditional recording tools -- old mikes that give you a really warm sound, like the stuff from the '50s and '60s, which is the sound we wanted. He's also really good with song structures. We had a great experience with him."

"Arabia Mountain" delivers plenty of the straight-ahead rock the Lips have become known for, but it also reveals a band that can move easily (and convincingly) from one style to another.

The album opens with "Family Tree," an infectious, horn-infused rocker that recalls classic Kinks. On "Dumpster Diving," the band channels the country-rock of The Rolling Stones. "Don't Mess Up My Baby" features an irresistible rockabilly riff.

"Again, I think Mark was a good influence on us there, encouraging us to go for new sounds," Swilley said.

He added that "Arabia Mountain" featured some of the most collaborative songwriting the band has done.

"I liked how it went down this time," he said. "On our last record (2009's "200 Million Thousand"), we went through everything really fast and didn't really work together much on the songs. With this one, we took some more time, and really learned about some of these songs together in the studio. We're all very happy with the record."

The Black Lips take the Lollapalooza stage at 3 p.m. Saturday. It will be the band's second appearance at the festival.

"It's a great atmosphere, and we get to see a bunch of friends perform, so it's a good time," Swilley said. "Although playing in the afternoon isn't my favorite thing. Rock music should be played at night, you know? But we're looking forward to it."

Less is more for Chicago's Disappears

Listen to Chicago band Disappears, and you enter a shimmery, shadowy world that's both exhilarating and frightening.

The band plays a stripped-down brand of rock 'n' roll, combining repetitive but propulsive rhythms with reverb-drenched guitar. The music recalls such moody post-punk bands as The Fall and Joy Division, but without sounding derivative or "retro."

Disappears' second full-length record, "Guider" (Kranky), came out earlier this year to strong reviews. Five of the record's six songs are concise blasts of pounding, jagged rock. The remaining song, "Revisiting," is a bracing epic that clocks in at nearly 16 minutes. The band will perform at Lollapalooza at 12:45 p.m. Saturday.

In an interview conducted via email, singer-guitarist Brian Case said he was searching for a minimalist sound when he founded Disappears with drummer Graeme Gibson, who has since amicably left the band. Case said he struggled at first to create repetitive rhythms that didn't become monotonous or boring.

"It's hard to get yourself to do one thing for any period of time," he said. "I always tell people to try and play one chord for five minutes -- it's tough but once you get into it, it becomes much easier to write from that perspective or place."

Gibson played drums on "Guider," but the band is now touring and recording with Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. Shelley's presence has helped boost the band's profile, and it has forced Case and the other band members to view Disappears' songs in new ways, Case said.

The band will stay on the road after its Lollapalooza show (and an "aftershow" at the House of Blues on Saturday), playing a number of dates along the West Coast in August.

Case said the band is excited about performing on the Lolla stage, but he admits to being a bit nervous about it.

"It's tough to do for sure, especially when it's (noon) and it's a million degrees in the sun!" he said. "It's cool to do those things but a lot harder to break through to people -- it's a lot easier to connect in a club with someone. You can be really overwhelming in a good way in a small space with a PA and the right energy. In a huge open field, things can just float away or meld into something else."

Mountain Goats bring literary touches to folk-rock

What's a good way for the leader of an indie folk-rock band to scare the heck out of his audience? Hire a death-metal musician to produce songs for a new record.

That's what John Darnielle, singer, guitarist and driving force behind North Carolina's The Mountain Goats, did while recording the band's stellar new record, "All Eternals Deck" (Merge).

"I called Erik Rutan, who's this death-metal guy, and he was totally into it," Darnielle said. "He was happy because all anyone else had asked him to produce was metal stuff. Some fans were freaked out, wondering just what we were up to. But it was great. We got to take this 'dude road trip' down to his studio in Central Florida and everything."

The Mountain Goats have existed in one form or another since the early 1990s. The earliest incarnation of the band consisted primarily of Darnielle recording primitive, angry, low-fi songs and distributing them on homemade cassette tapes. As the decade wore on, Darnielle worked with a number of collaborators, honed his songwriting skills and released proper albums, building a devoted fan base in the process.

Today, he's one of rock's most respected songwriters, known for his dark lyrics and his writerly sense of narrative. He often builds albums around a single issue or story, like in 2005's "The Sunset Tree," which documented Darnielle's time with an abusive stepfather.

"All Eternals Deck" is more impressionistic than that. Darnielle's lyrics suggest moments of dread and despair without pointing to any specific horror. When he sings about "these bite marks deep in my arteries" (on the opening song "Damn These Vampires"), you flinch without realizing why.

"With this record, I tried to write more spontaneously, about whatever happened to pop into my head," he said. "It was harder, because I never knew where it was going."

That's one reason why no less than four producers, including Rutan, were asked to work on the record. Darnielle said he wanted to record the songs in a variety of settings.

Despite all that, "All Eternals Deck" sounds like a coherent musical statement. The mostly midtempo songs are built on piano, acoustic guitar and a chugging rhythm section, with some offbeat touches, like the barbershop-quartet harmonies on "High Hawk Season," thrown in here and there.

The Mountain Goats will play Lollapalooza at 5:30 p.m. Friday. Darnielle said fans can expect to see him accompanied by Peter Hughes on bass and Jon Wurster, who also plays in Superchunk, on drums.

"We've never played Lollapalooza, and we're excited about it," he said. "It's a different kind of thing because our set will be shorter than usual and we'll be playing in front of people who don't necessarily know our stuff. But to be on stage in front of a big festival audience will be so cool."

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