Lollapalooza Day One: On the scene with Anders Smith Lindall

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Hey folks, it’s Anders here alongside DeRo, as always, for the fifth incarnation of Lollapalooza. Thanks to Jim for the opportunity to join him once again as a guest blogger this weekend.

I’m rested and ready for a gluttonous three days at this annual lakeside musical buffet, and I plan to post regular updates here throughout. Follow along–and please chime in with comments–as we take in all the sights and sounds.

11:00 a.m.: It’s now just past 11 o’clock on Friday morning, and the usual Lolla-opening invocation of the “Star Wars” theme is booming through the park. That means the live music’s only minutes away. See you back here frequently as the day unfolds.

12:15 p.m.: With the music only just getting started, I’ve used my first hour on-site to get re-oriented–and I’ve found some significant changes to this year’s layout.

Foremost is an alteration any fan will note and appreciate: Hutchinson Field is much more open and spacious around the southernmost stage (Lolla’s biggest, known this year as the Chicago 2016 stage). That’s because the exclusive viewing tents (the “cabanas”) no longer line the field’s entire west side and the VIP area (the Lolla Lounge) has disappeared from its previous perch along the lakefront on the southeast. As a result, the field should accommodate more fans more comfortably for the headline acts, and prime sightlines on either side of the main stage are now open to the public rather than reserved for VIPs.

There are still about a dozen cabanas in the south end, but they’re much less conspicuous. Is the lesser number of VIP tents a reflection of the recession-ravaged economy? Quite likely, but the upshot for rank-and-file fans is better views and more elbow room.

In other news, stage signage is likewise much less gaudy this time out. You really have to know to look for the Chicago 2016 logo on the main stage, for example–I wouldn’t be surprised if many folks miss it entirely. That will help keep the focus where it should be, on the music.

And to further improve views, there’s a tall camera platform above the sound board, maybe a hundred feet out from the stage. This eye-in-the-sky video position should make for great performance shots on the big screens that sit to either side of the main stage.

Those changes are for the better. But there’s already one aspect of this year’s festival causing security folks some concern: The beer tents are selling suds in aluminum cans, not plastic cups. And those cans come in both 12- and 24-ounce sizes. Clearly even a typical 12-oz. can of beer could be a dangerous projectile; sent flying, a 24-oz. behemoth (like the one below) “would be like a boot to the head,” a security veteran said.

Meanwhile, a light rain is falling. Given the forecast, it’s probably too much to hope that this holds off, so if you’re coming down later, I recommend all appropriate gear for wet conditions and muddy grounds.

One note on the stage entertainment so far: The first invocation of our hometown President of the United States was recorded around 11:45 by the Henry Clay People. “This is a song called ‘The End of the World,'” the singer said. “It was written in the pre-Barack Obama era.”

For the rest of Day One, follow the jump.

2:20 p.m.: The story so far is twofold: The music has started, and so has the rain.

Heading north after posting the previous update, I made my way through an already-muddy Hutchinson Field. This place promises to be a pigpen if the rain keeps coming.

My musical day started with a few songs from the Knux, a New Orleans-to-L.A. hip-hop brother act whose debut disc Remind Me In 3 Days has been deservedly hyped. Fronting a live lineup that boasted a DJ, keys and two guitars; MCs Rah Al Millio and Krispy Kream worked the crowd and pleaded for “a fresh cappuccino with a mocha twist.” Ribald connotations of that line aside, the pair’s energy and knee-buckling beats were a wake-up call as effective as any caffeine.

Next up was Nick Catchdubs, a bona fide member of the bloggerati (blogstraordinaire? Well-loved by the blognoscenti? Sorry, I’ll stop). He battled technical difficulties to deliver a bits-of-hits mix for the attention-deficit set, setting hooks and rhymes from Jay-Z, Lupe Fiasco, Public Enemy and Vanilla Ice to breakbeats and electronic sounds.

All the way north in Butler Field, Zap Mama’s multi-culti sounds were stymied by a power outage at the Petrillo band shell (known to Lolla-goers this year as the Playstation Stage). As the clock ticked a half-hour past her scheduled 1 p.m. start time, frontwoman Marie Daulne had to be frustrated. You wouldn’t know it once the Zaire-born, Belgian-bred singer got going, though–flanked by three smooth-stepping female backup singers and a crack band, Daulne was an effervescent and physical performer. She kicked high and cartwheeled, commanding the stage as her mates melded Afropop’s glistening guitar lines and splashes of trumpet with fast, funky bass runs behind her. It’s a shame the delayed start cost them nearly half their planned set.

Random notes:

*As I bump into recognizable faces in the crowd this weekend, I’ll be gathering tips on their must-see shows. First up, local gig promoter Brian Peterson recommends Langhorne Slim, playing Saturday afternoon on the BMI stage.

*If you’ve read my Lolla blog in years past, you might recall my recurrent fascination with noteworthy baseball hats seen in the crowd. I was ready to tell you that the old Montreal Expos cap I spied earlier was winning best-in-show so far–but that was before Zap Mama’s Daulne stepped out in a headpiece fashioned from a vinyl LP. A hearty tip of the lid to her–and if you’re wondering, mine’s a Sixties-era National League umpire’s cap.

*The first tribute to Michael Jackson came from Zap Mama, too; they dabbled with “Billie Jean” and drew a line between their African roots and the King of Pop’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” by quoting a bit of Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa.”

5:15 p.m.: “It’s going to be a pleasant day,” Justin Vernon promised early in Bon Iver’s set at Petrillo. Presumably he wasn’t talking about the steady rain but the lineup on the north end, slated to include Ben Folds, Fleet Foxes, Decemberists and Andrew Bird. And on paper, “pleasant” was indeed an apt adjective for a group of guys adept at pretty, brainy pop but unlikely to actually, you know, rock.

Bon Iver, for its part, turned in a characteristic set of hazy folk and loping rock burnished with impeccable falsetto harmonies. Vernon’s talent is undeniable; though he offered few hints here, I’m keen to see what paths the Wisconsin songwriter will take on the full-length follow-up to his out of nowhere debut, “For Emma Forever Ago.”

It’s a fan’s blessing and a performer’s curse that the smorgasbord-like festival setting offers so many things happening at once. In the case of Ben Folds, this dynamic meant I could comfortably skip out on a set that opened with an emphasis on his increasingly snide, jokey recent material (the execrable “Bitch Went Nuts” among others) and head for something else.

That “something” turned out to be Eric Church, on this bill a rare creature indeed–he’s a stone-cold country artist–and likely the least-known chart presence at Lolla. (His current disc “Carolina” hit #4 on Billboard’s country list and #17 on the Top 200.) Steve Earle is probably the closest analog most rock fans will find for Church’s sound; he makes no bones about his approach, packing three guitars alongside the banjo and mandolin and crowing, “I like my country rock.” While there has probably never been a more comically un-self-conscious string of tropes than his song “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag,” I had to admire Church’s swagger. Being “pleasant” is probably the last thing in his mind.

9:30 p.m.: Following Lollapalooza’s announcement of a fatality resulting from a heart attack on the grounds today, I stopped by the medical tent to visit Jake Willens, owner of MASE, the festival’s First Aid provider. Willens said his crew treated mostly minor foot and leg injuries today–the blisters, sprains and contusions that inevitably result when people stand or walk for long periods and jostle in large crowds. Of note, Willens added, the prospect of blazing temperatures due Saturday and Sunday led him to take on more staff and bring in added ambulances and cooling buses.

Steps away, at Perry’s stage, A-Trak was putting on a turntable clinic. I’ve always found the term “turntablist” a tad precious–what’s wrong with DJ, after all–but Trak’s lightning-quick cuts, flashy scratches and liquid transitions merited the title. What’s more, the former Kanye West sidekick showed both an inventive and playful sense of pacing, and the restraint to sometimes just step back and let a hot record play. That’s what he did with Pitbull’s “Hotel Room Service,” and it had the dense throng throbbing.

An hour later, the rain had finally stopped by the time Petrillo played host to Andrew Bird. Logging a top support slot at Lolla is just the latest milestone in a busy year that’s seen the local light release an acclaimed new album (“Noble Beast”), headline Carnegie Hall and Radio City as well as the Lyric Opera, land a profile in the New York Times Sunday Magazine and more.

Like any Bird show, this one revealed the songwriter’s mad-scientist side. He raced between microphones, juggled instruments and speedily added violin, voice, guitar and his preternaturally perfect whistle to the whirling sonic mix. The combination of Bird’s guile and his band’s grit–especially the twitchy layered rhythms of percussionist Martin Dosh–helped drive home both killer new tunes like “Fitz & the Dizzy Spells” and other material that on disc may not succeed so viscerally. It was a fine send-off for Bird, whose tour now takes him to Europe.

Last up was Kings of Leon. Clearly a kid brother when compared to their fellow Friday headliners Depeche Mode, the quartet’s straightforward Southern rock filtered through U2-ish arena anthems and its lack of real showmanship didn’t offer much excitement to a big, restless and mud-soaked crowd. Here’s hoping Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a late replacement for the Beastie Boys who will fill the top Butler Field slot on Saturday night, fare better in rising to the occasion.

Anders Smith Lindall is a Chicago-based freelance writer and critic, and since 1997 a regular contributor to the Sun-Times. His music writing has appeared in Salon, the Chicago Reader, Minneapolis City Pages, No Depression, and many other publications, most of them defunct. Anders has also worked for the Pitchfork Music Festival.

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