REVIEW: Hip-hop heavyweights rule Lollapalooza Saturday

SHARE REVIEW: Hip-hop heavyweights rule Lollapalooza Saturday

BY MARK GUARINO | SUN-TIMES MUSIC WRITER

A sneaky little truth about a mega-festival like Lollapalooza is that, as the day slowly starts to wind up, so do the unexpected surprises.

Like chunks of Benjamin Booker’s white Stratocaster guitar that he flung into the crowd after destroying it in every sense of the word at the end of his early afternoon set Saturday, the second of the three-day weekend in Grant Park. Unlike many of the artists on this weekend’s bill, the New Orleans guitarist-singer is getting hot for all the right things: His music, which is a mixture of boogie blues and raw punk power.

Booker was just in town for another early slot: opening for Jack White at both the Chicago Theatre and the Auditorium Theatre. With his debut album not yet released, and little media exposure, the 22-year-old had little to attract a crowd but his live performance. No problem. The drummer and bassist who rounded out the trio chugged in tandem as their frontman coaxed feedback, fired off riffs, sang with the raspy bite of a old soul three times his age, and squeezed space tightly between notes, no less songs. The set became a sprint where nothing was restrained, yet Booker maintained full control. Look for him next year on a stage closer to sundown.

Spoon, from Austin, Tex., proved they are a band that has not only evolved to fully take ownership of the headliner stage, but they did so on their own terms. The band is releasing a new album Tuesday, and the songs joined nearly 20 others (including “I Turn My Camera On” and “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb”) that brandish mega-pop hooks, but now with a multi-layered sound and a wider arch. Singer-guitarist Britt Daniel appeared less invested in winning over the crowd than he was remaining restrained, almost immobile, except when dropping to his knees on “My Mathematical Mind.” The twinkling piano keys, tambourines, and expertly-timed maraca shaking reflected how much this band is dedicated to the granular details of the craft, but unlike so many others, they were able to shake things loose and make these gestures bold and powerful.

The many female performers on Friday who led sets of mostly programmed tracks with minimal fuss were countered Saturday primarily by Kate Nash, a British singer-songwriter whose all-woman band played noisy pop-rock party anthems like her biggest hit “Foundations,” which were also helped by the appearance of many audience members on the stage who joined in on the revelry. Nash, dressed like a gypsy bird creature, complete with feathery arms, did all she could to keep pushing the crowd — “Come and join the party … what are you waiting for?” On a stage dressed in balloons and streamers, she didn’t give anybody a choice.

Besides Eminem on Friday, Saturday was heavy on hip-hop heavyweights. First up was Nas, who dedicated the first half of his set to his 1994 debut album “Illmatic” from start to finish. Unlike Eminem, and other EDM-based acts this weekend, Nas commandeered the massive stage on his own, accompanied by only a DJ. “All I need is one mic, two turntables and you,” he said. True enough, those songs remain poignant, especially the funk saga “N.Y. State of Mind,” the jazz-fused street scenes of “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” and “One Love,” a universal shout-out to incarcerated friends. The personal imagery in those songs, combined with his solitary presence onstage, summoned the sense of a testimonial before God, his peers, a lover, his family — It was all packed in there ready for unpacking.

During his set, Nas referenced Chicago’s rising homicide count this summer — a reality that also showed up during Outkast’s day-ending set on the south end of the field. “I know there’s been some trouble in Chicago — gotta put those guns down and crunk with some herb,” said Big Boi.

Well, okay. The duo reformed as an oldies act this summer to tour the festival circuit in major markets. Big Boi and Andre 3000 once again slipped into familiar roles as a kind of psychedelic Laurel and Hardy — Andre wearing a blonde wig and black jumpsuit (Lettering: “Across culture darker people suffer most. Why?”) with a price tag dangling down that appropriately read “sold.” They clowned between songs, inviting a bevy of ladies onstage for “Hey Ya!” while later challenging the crowd if they know their earliest material dating back exactly 20 years. “We’re actually rappers here — you actually know that don’t you?” Andre said.

Those early songs — “Crumblin’ Erb,” “Two Dope Boyz (In A Cadillac)” and others — were indeed more traditional, relying strictly on vocals and beats. It wasn’t until “Roses,” and later “So Fresh, So Clean,” that the full band immersion locked into place — including two horn players, two back-up singers. The soul-pumping, high-stepping beats became a perfect way to end the night, with few hundred thousand people adding to the chorus.

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