Lollapalooza Day One by Jim DeRogatis; final wrap-up

SHARE Lollapalooza Day One by Jim DeRogatis; final wrap-up
SHARE Lollapalooza Day One by Jim DeRogatis; final wrap-up

It’s shortly before 11:30 a.m., and the main acts have yet to start in the southern end of Grant Park at Hutchinson Field. But technicians already have tested the sound system with the theme from “Star Wars,” the infrastructure is all in place for the fifth year of Lollapalooza as a reinvented destination festival–complete with much less of an obnoxious corporate presence in terms of signage on the big stages, a definite aesthetic improvement to be sure–and the first rumor surprise of the weekend is buzzing around.

Young mainstream country chanteuse LeAnn Rimes is said to be performing on the Kids’ Stage with the festival’s corporate figurehead and Jane’s Addiction front man Perry Farrell at 3:30 this afternoon.

Oh, and it’s starting to rain a bit.

Hang on, folks. Here we go.

She’s not crying. It’s just the rain, dampening the first day of Lollapalooza 2009 in Grant Park. (John J. Kim/Sun-Times)

12:20 p.m.: The music gets underway in Hutchinson Field with the Henry Clay People , a twangy alternative-country-leaning pop quintet from Glendale, Calif., inexplicably named after the 19th century politician known as “the great compromiser” (or, alternately, “the great pacifier,” though he was an ardent hawk who advocated the War of 1812).

The group is almost painfully earnest as it performs its upbeat but largely unmemorable sounds in front of an early, umbrella-carrying and poncho-wearing crowd of about 500 hearty souls. It covers Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” (the song that musician sued the Republican Party over for using in an unauthorized campaign ad for Sen. John McCain; hmm, do you think these guys were poly-sci majors in college?), pays homage to a deceased friend named Randy by bringing his ashes on stage (“He wanted to travel the world, and now he’s here with us playing Lollapalooza!”) and tries to get a reaction from the soggy minions by referencing the last big event that happened in this field.

“This is a song about the end of the world. It was written pre-Barack Obama.”

(Silence.)

“This is Grant Park, where he gave his acceptance speech, right?”

(Nothing.)

“Um, O.K….”

Still, the group does provide a fitting opening for the festival, perfectly nailing–perhaps unconsciously–the vibe of the new Lollapalooza with a tune it introduces as “a song about why rock ‘n’ roll scenes are so important.” The key lyric: “This ain’t a scene, it’s just a generation caught in between… This ain’t a scene, it’s just a place to be.”

The rest of day one continues after the jump.

12:50 p.m.: The second act in Hutchinson Field, taking the main stage under the discreet “Chicago 2016” signage, is the Rockford combo Hey Champ, which actually sounds as if it’s from Brooklyn, given its mix of lightweight power-pop and ’80s New Wave disco sounds. (Think: The Rapture and bands of that ilk.)

If director John Hughes hadn’t had such good taste in choosing his soundtrack music, I’d say this band was made for that kind of thing. But really, they’re not nearly that distinctive.

2:30 p.m.: The first (qualified) highlight of the day comes courtesy of the Knux, a hip-hop due that was forced to relocate from New Orleans to Los Angeles in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The group’s debut album, last year’s “Remind Me in 3 Days,” was one of the most tuneful and psychedelically twisted efforts that the genre has produced since the heyday of De La Soul and the Beastie Boys of “Paul’s Boutique.” And brothers Kintrell “Krispy Kream” and Alvin “Rah Almillio” Lindsey, augmented by a DJ and a guitarist, delivered onstage–at least when they were actually making music.

In the tired tradition of too much live hip-hop, the crew spent an inordinate amount of time giving shout-outs to Chicago, asking the ladies and the fellas in the house to shout “ho!,” suggesting that concertgoers give them weed and so on, which was disappointing, considering how much great music they’ve already made in their still-young career. But when they did stop fooling around long enough to deliver an entire track, such as the underground hits “Cappuccino” and “Bang! Bang!,” the dense crowd in front of the smaller stage at the foot of Balbo was transformed into an instant house party.

The brothers eventually pulled a dozen fans onstage to dance as they closed their set, showing their roots in old-school hip-hop with a track paying homage to that infamous rap muse Roxanne, and ending the short set–rather anticlimactically, since they just sort of wandered off the stage–with the ’90s classic “Jump.”

In the crowd: Coolest T-shirts I’ve seen so far:

“I survived the Bush Administration, 2000-2008”

“Kill All Hippies”

“Make Awkward Sexual Advances, Not War”

Back to the music: Returning to the southern end of the park, I caught the last two songs by Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, a Texas funk group that’s the sort of generic bar band you could catch any Thursday night in Wrigleyville. (Why, one might ask, are they on the Lollapalooza bill, on a main stage, no less, and for the second time? They’re managed by festival promoters C3 Presents, of course.)

Onstage now: the Gaslight Anthem from New Brunswick, N.J., churning out a modestly tuneful but ultimately undistinguished brand of emo-flavored arena-punk.

Time to start heading north.

Don’t look now, Mr. Farrell, but that’s country star LeAnn Rimes on stage behind you at Kidzapalooza. (Tom Cruze/Sun-Times)

Surrealism at Lollapalooza, Part One: One of my enduring memories of Lollapalooza in its original incarnation as a touring day-long festival was standing in front of the stage in 1994 as the Japanese noise band the Boredoms took the stage for the first time in the Chicago area. It was the first set of the day, and hardly anyone else was in the vast expanses of what was then the World Music Theatre. But one by one, as the cascading waves of chaos washed over me, I was joined first by all four of the Flaming Lips, and then a tall, dark and menacing Australian who happened to be Nick Cave and finally by the freakiest man on the bill that or any year: the legendary George Clinton.

That was a moment of surrealism as Lollapalooza used to deliver it.

This year, I’m sitting in a moderate but persistent rain at the Kidzapalooza Stage, surrounded by adults and maybe a dozen kids total, waiting for the first surprise musical pairing of the festival: founder turned corporate figurehead Perry Farrell with country-pop singer LeAnn Rimes.

Yeah, it’s weird, alright. But not in the good way like that experience 15 years ago.

Backed by members of the Paul Green School of Rock who’ve traveled here from around the country, Farrell and Rimes stumble through a stilted but spirited version of “Stop Dragging My Heart Around,” the old Tom Petty/Stevie Nicks duet, followed by a lumpy rendition of “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles, which is wishful thinking.

“I’m Perry Farrell, the founder of Lollapalooza, and I say the rain will stop!” Farrell shouts. “Tomorrow.” And then he and Rimes are gone.

Yeah, that was one to remember.

Farrell and Rimes were preceded on the kids’ stage by Zack Gill, a member of ALO, who covered “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” on accordion, reworking it as “The Devil Went Down to Bavaria.” Hard to say how that went over with the toddlers; the handful in attendance mostly seemed to be cranky about being out in the rain.

5 p.m.: STS9 (Sound Tribe Sector 9)has just wrapped up its set on the big stage at the southern end of Hutchinson Field. The Northern California band’s jammy electronic grooves were a pleasant late-afternoon diversion, entrancing a sizable crowd that did the loose-limbed hippie wiggle dance ubiquitous at Bonnaroo. The crowd’s spirits are high, despite the rain. But then a lot of that particular slice of the crowd seemed high in general, if you know what I mean.

Sad note: As reported earlier, a 39-year-old man did indeed die after suffering cardiac arrest at the festival this afternoon. More details here. Lollapalooza promoters C3 Presents released the following statement:

The producers of Lollapalooza are deeply saddedned to learn of the death of a patron who collapsed at the festival today at approximately 1:00 p.m. Festival paramedics responded immediately and the gentleman was then transported by Chicago Fire Department to Northwestern Hospital. Local media are reporting the fan died at approximately 2:30 p.m. Due to privacy issues, further details are not available.

7:45 p.m.: Heading north again–and glad to be leaving Canadian electro-pop poseurs Crystal Castles behind as I hiked away–I make it to Butler Field in time to catch the last half of the set by Fleet Foxes in the Petrillo Bandshell.

Fleet Foxes performing Friday at Lollapalooza in Grant Park. (Tom Cruze/Sun-Times)

The Seattle folk-rockers from Seattle lovingly unfurl their “baroque harmonic pop jams,” captivating listeners with the quiet a cappella passages as they always do. But while the set is hardly a let-down, it has nowhere near the magic the group displayed when it took the stage during the red glow of early evening at last year’s Pitchfork Music Festival.

No doubt the rain–which by this point has truly grown annoying, turning the park into a shallow sea of slimy mud and slowly but steadily drenching everyone in that “there isn’t a dry spot on me” way–helped contribute to the slight malaise.

Colin Meloy of the Decemberists wails away on Friday in Grant Park. (Tom Cruze/Sun-Times)

Thankfully, the next act at the opposite end of Butler Field is potent enough to make everyone forget the minor miseries. Colin Meloy and the Decemberists are taking a chance by daring to play the entirety of their recent rock opera, “The Hazards of Love,” instead of a crowd-pleasing greatest hits set. But the gamble pays off.

In the tradition of the best British progressive-rock epics of the ’70s–“Passion Play” by Jethro Tull, say, or “Selling England by the Pound” from Genesis–the songs ebb and flow, with quiet, beautiful and delicately orchestrated introductions yielding to much more dramatic and bombastic passages. It is by far the band’s most hard-rocking album, as well as its most complicated, but songs such as “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid” and “The Rake’s Song” are stunning in the festival setting, even if the crowd was much less enthusiastic than the one that saw the band perform at Millennium Park a few years back.

And so Day One draws to a close: In comparison to the Decemberists, the theatrics of the penultimate act in Hutchinson Field, Of Montreal, fall flat, just as they did at the Pitchfork Music Festival a while back, because they just aren’t justified by the group’s weak disco-pop. But even that was preferable to the headliner in the south.

Depeche Mode tries to prove it was more than a “heritage act,” leaning heavily on material from the recent “Sounds of the Universe” through the first half of its set. Yet while the massive crowd politely cheers the new material, it seems as if they really want to party like it’s 1984, and they’re just biding their time until the group dusts off its classic electronic mope-rock/synth-pop greatest hits–which sounded better back in the day, trust me, kids.

Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode takes a stand Friday night at Lollapalooza. (Tom Cruze/Sun-Times)

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