Like a girlfriend or boyfriend you can’t quit but keep returning to despite being treated like a doormat, Lollapalooza once again commandeers Chicago’s downtown lakefront for three days, delivering dozens of bands, mud, and good times, but ultimately treating its faithful followers like dupes in the process.
The festival entered its ninth year Friday, promising 130 bands across eight stages. Yet it is obvious that this festival is designed strictly for VIP ticket holders who pay premium prices for the premium views, which means the majority of the 270,000 festival goers — those who deign only to spend only $95 for a single-day pass — are stuck in the mud in foot traffic gridlock, or watching all the action on faraway video screens. Add to problems this year: sound bleeds between nearby stages, human bottlenecks caused by artists booked on stages far too small for their escalating popularity, and programming decisions that pitted the most popular artists against one another, forcing festival goers to miss half the advertised headliners.
Tough luck, suckers. These are not new complaints, yet they keep happening, suggesting festival producers are deaf, and not just because of the super-jacked sound system at each end of Grant Park.
The sound bleed happening in different pockets of the park was caused partly by artists booked on stages they’ve long outgrown. Chance the Rapper is Chicago’s rising star this summer, yet he was booked on a small stage that forced crowds to expand far beyond his stage area, overlapping with Queens of the Stone Age, creating an impromptu mash-up neither artists likely intended.
The same problem happened later when pop chanteuse Lana Del Ray appeared onstage just after, and not far from, a blistering set by a reunited Nine Inch Nails. The crowd for Del Ray was so large, some people climbed trees to listen while others couldn’t get near, which meant all they heard was a mash-up of punishing electro-rock from the near distance mixed with Del Ray’s distant, reedy voice. (This wasn’t a good thing.)
While the day was heavy on electronic rock acts, Queens of the Stone Age represented one of the only guitar rock powerhouses. The band, on the heels of an album released last spring, was an engine of heavy riffs, playing new songs that stopped, started, restarted, stopped again, combined with furious guitar soloing between. The band surges forward like a heavily compressed jam band, squeezing all its spastic tendencies into a quarter the time.
One block away was a study in contrasts: Scotland’s Frightened Rabbit. The band emerged seven ago as a fresh-sounding folk-pop band that didn’t take itself too seriously. On Friday, the band sounded like it was taking a cue from mega-folkies Mumford and Sons, playing some songs that could double as urbane sea chanteys, a precious subgenre that, by now, might be best put to rest.
The veteran titan of Friday’s lineup was New Order, the British synth-pop romantics that dominated the alternative dance-floors of the 1980s. This reunited incarnation features founder Bernard Sumner who reminded festivalgoers of Chicago’s relationship with his hometown: “I always thought Chicago was a bit like Manchester, but with better weather — Until today,” he said. While the name of his band was printed on his black T-shirt, and appearing quite often on the video screens behind him, no branding was needed to flag the band’s defining sound: thick sheets of guitars, dark, swooning synthesizer flourishes, and Sumner’s youthful vocals of love almost lost. There wasn’t a band that day or night that sounded so majestic and assured.
Sumner reappeared later that night, summoned to the stage by Brandon Flowers of the Killers to duet on “Shadowplay” by Joy Division, the pioneering band Sumner co-founded in the mid-1970s. The Killers played on the far south end of Grant Park, face-to-face with Nine Inch Nails, reunited on the far north end a short four years after a ballyhooed retirement.
The return of NIN auteur Trent Reznor did not necessarily mean a reboot of the band’s sound. If anything, the new songs from the band’s forthcoming album, particularly “Came Back Haunted,” sounded like a throwback to the band’s harsher industrial roots. Reznor himself remained in the shadows, choosing to appear only cubed and in silhouette on the backing screen. Taking an obvious cue from the Talking Heads film “Stop Making Sense,” Reznor first appeared alone onstage at the beginning, as the band gradually formed around him. By the end, the stage became a blast of white light and crunchy, metallic hooks from the hit machine.
The Killers didn’t strike as hot. Instead, the Las Vegas dance-pop band reached back to their early breakthrough hits (“Somebody Told Me,” “Mr. Brightside”), but also made it clear that their ultimate end goal is claiming U2’s brand of epic rock sincerity. True to form, the band even struck a “Rattle and Hum” moment, with Flowers declaring, “Tiffany stole this songs from Tommy James and the Shondells and tonight, we’re taking it back,” before launching into the 1967 chestnut, “I Think We’re Alone Now.”
Flowers is gifted with a commanding croon, but as a frontman, he lacks the warmth and natural outreach of Bono, or populist wit of Bruce Springsteen, another obvious touchstone. Despite some clunky attempts at workingman guitar rock, Flowers and band hit their stride on the song “Human” that asked that age-old question: “Are we human, or are we dancer?”
Indeed, are we? I’m not sure if anyone got an answer Friday, but while trapped under the spell of shooting lasers, I’m not sure if anyone cared.