When your two headliners either feature the banjo as a main instrument or sedate vocals hovering over neatly arranged electronic beats, it’s a safe bet to say the rest of the day isn’t designed to quicken the pulse.
Which sums up Saturday, the second day of the three-day Lollapalooza weekend in Grant Park. Two sleepy headliners, Mumford & Sons and the Postal Service, put both main stages to rest, capping a day of soft, emotive, but largely dispassionate sets.
The core problem was a daylong serving of weak filler bands that didn’t seem interested in pushing limits or raising the bar — or ruckus. Local Natives, from Los Angeles, encapsulated this problem. The band’s lush indie pop swayed and swooned, but had little grit, largely due to a saturation of sensitivity by singer Taylor Rice, whose sang in a light falsetto. The band’s cover of Talking Heads’ “Warning Sign” was a surprise, mainly because it was largely unrecognizable.
Wimpy male vocalists were indeed legion Saturday, from Matt & Kim to Foals. The latter was especially disappointing: The band reproduces the reggae-pop of Vampire Weekend, which itself is a pale version of Paul Simon’s late solo work, itself heavily informed by Afro-beat masters. Get the point yet? That’s a lot of fading facsimiles.
Even the Heartless Bastards, a tougher, leaner roots-rock band, languished in slow, country honk and ethereal harmonizing. The afternoon headliner on the north side of the park was British synth-pop singer Ellie Goulding, best known for her singing gig at the latest royal wedding. Largely unknown in the U.S., Goulding looked lost on the massive stage, accompanied only by a computer and a drummer. Both did the heavy lifting as she sang bouncy synth-pop songs, particularly “Anything Could Happen.” However, with so much pre-recorded, the title sentiment of that song could not be true.
The Dixie Chicks also played a side stage early in the afternoon — Well, just two out of the three. Sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire played a stealth set under the name Court Yard Hounds. If they wanted to remain low-key, it worked as they only drew about 200 people to their stage. Their band featured Austin, Tex. musical stalwart — and frequent Bob Dylan sideman — Charlie Sexton on guitar. He sang a duet with Robison on “See You in the Spring” and otherwise, their set largely consisted of middle-of-the-road roots-pop. Clearly, Maguire and Robison looked more comfortable outside the star trappings of their day job — Last time they were in Chicago, they played Soldier Field with the Eagles. Even though the music was more downcast — and they had to endure hecklers shouting for “Goodbye Earl” — the reward was watching musicians get back to where they once belonged.
Another standout was the Lumineers, from Denver. Too often compared to headliners Mumford & Sons, and for good reason, this band has a populist touch and a singer, Wesley Schultz, who is comfortable enough in his own skin to push his way through the densely-packed crowd, holding his guitar high above his head, to find a spot to continue a song. Schultz has a similar nervous tick quality of early Bob Dylan, which made his cover of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” such a natural fit, especially because he delivered it with a similar whimsical sneer.
This band is not without some precious touches — suspenders and fedoras appear to be pre-requisite stage fashion, and there was a toy piano — but there’s no denying the joyful flourishes in the music. And, with apologizes to Robin Thicke, but “Stubborn Love” is a better song of summer 2013.
For pure rocking, the only band on Saturday’s bill that appeared interested in providing was The National. Dressed in a slim black suit and dark sunglasses, lead singer Matt Berninger looked the undertaker role, but writhed, dropped to his knees, and jumped into the crowd more than once to get his point across. His sang with complete commitment, creating urgency and wont on songs like “Mr. November” and “England.” Two horn players added to the band’s lush, but driving, sound, which rarely relented for their hour.
The Postal Service is one of the more unusual headlining bookings of Lollapalooza. The band was originally conceived as a bedroom pop side project of Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, and producer Jimmy Tamborello, with vocalist Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley. A single record came out of it in 2003; a recent reissue gave the band an opportunity to reassemble for global victory lap. Saturday’s headliner slot was the second-to-last the band will play until the next reunion. (Sunday at Metro is the finale.)
This set was peppered with finely arranged blips, bloops and beeps, leaving Gibbard and Lewis to the guitars, and occasional live drums. The band expanded its sound, padding it with muscle, but staying committed to the dancefloor. Gibbard and Lewis danced while playing their instruments, often together. A cover of “Our Secret” by the early 1980s punk-pop trio Beat Happening, helped round out the set.
What gave the band even more dexterity than what they recorded ten years ago was the willingness of all involved to push things further, and with far more confidence. Lewis’ vocals were haunting, creating a dreamy quality over Gibbard’s jerky movements and earnest crooning. The duo’s interplay, particularly on “We Will Become Silhouettes” and “Nothing Better,” livened up the set, and, if nothing else, raising the stakes for the inevitable 2023 reunion.