It may be in Chicago, but there's something distinctly Austin about Lollapalooza 2005.
Chicago. America's Second City. Gem of the Prairie. The Windy City. The Indie City. Tweedytown. At one time or another, the musical proving grounds of Kanye West, Steve Albini, Muddy Waters, Billy Corgan, the Chi-Lites, and, um, Richard Marx. Ranked by online encyclopedia Wikipedia as one of 10 "alpha world cities," and last weekend, site of Lollapalooza, the Festival That Wouldn't Die.
Anything You Want
Grant Park, named for the former president, Union Army general, and Illinois native, is known as "Chicago's front yard." Hundreds of acres of prime lakefront real estate, set aside for public use in 1835, it contains the internationally lauded Art Institute, Bears den Soldier Field, and Hutchinson Fields. Normally, the latter is where sports-mad Chicagoans play softball, but Saturday and Sunday they hosted the onetime generation-defining gathering's latest reincarnation as, more or less, a dress rehearsal for our own not-so-little September festival in Zilker Park. The resemblance was uncanny, just like it should have been.
Lolla reappeared on the cultural radar in 2003 as Jane's Addiction's comeback tour plus a few friends, and never even got out of the hangar last year due to a lack of distinct headliners and, subsequently, ticket sales. But Capital Sports & Entertainment, the Austin management and marketing empire behind Lance Armstrong and the Austin City Limits octopus, saw an opportunity and acquired controlling interest, keeping founder Perry Farrell on as adviser and spokesman. Stocking the five stages scattered over 14 acres (one-fourth the size of the ACL matrix) fell to native son turned Pollstar award-winner Charles Attal, who drew on elements of Coachella, Bonnaroo, and SXSW. Sound familiar? The chief question was how well, under whatever name, the ACL business model would travel, and the results, while not quite spectacular, were encouraging.
Two strategies exist for musical events of this scale. One is trying to see everything, settling for vague impressions over lasting memories. This way leads to stumbling across previously unknown pockets of brilliance, but constant frustration at human beings' continuing inability to be in several places at once. The other is to only see a few things and sacrifice the thrill of discovery for the comfort of the familiar. Predictably, most of the crowd chose the second option, as the festival's best-attended portions were for alt-rock warhorses like the Pixies, Weezer, and a surprisingly spry Billy Idol, who's really short and must lift weights like he used to lift bottles of Jack Daniel's. In turn, the bands obliged with sets that glossed over new material if, unlike the Pixies, they even had any in favor of sing-along-inducing standards. When that means a menu of "Where Is My Mind," "Gigantic," "Say It Ain't So," "White Wedding," and "Rebel Yell," among many, many others, it's hard to turn down especially if you're too old to understand how text-messaging works.
The other biggest crowds belonged to the Killers and Arcade Fire, bands with a different Lollapalooza purpose: proving they belonged in such elite company while stealing as many fans and headlines as possible from their elders. Live, months of radio overexposure haven't diminished the Killers' unabashedly retro, contagiously catchy repertoire at all, and Brandon Flowers worked the stage like the Vegas showman he is. Although cartoonishly overdressed, the Arcade Fire conquered the Sunday-afternoon temperature (topping out at 102, Chicago's hottest day in a decade) and any lingering it-band skepticism with a set that built a cathedral of transcendence from a foundation of sadness and bass lines that wouldn't quit; the closing melody of rousing climax "Rebellion (Lies)" is the closest thing to Brahms to hit indie rock in, well, maybe ever. The Montreal ensemble started by transplanted Texans Win and William Butler has no further use for the "Next Big Thing" mantle. They are big. Perhaps it will come to rest on the Kaiser Chiefs, M83, or Kasabian, all excellent. Same goes for Dinosaur Jr. and the Drive-by Truckers, who gave up trend-chasing long ago to rock as hard and loud as possible; Sunday, the payoff was tremendous.
Austin's Lolla representatives, Spoon and ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, are the city's reigning ambassadors to this particular sphere, and with good reason. A decade in the trenches here have honed their live skills to a razor's edge, and they've hit creative high-water marks just as the rest of the rock world has begun to come around, as shown by the healthy crowds for both. Trail of Dead did their best to ignite the somewhat listless (at first) audience with their familiar barrage of intricately arranged noise, but really won them over with quiet passages as hypnotizing and expressive as their hardcore-indebted meltdowns. It ended with Jason Reece first heaving his drums and then himself over the barricade, Conrad Keely doing huge guitar windmills, bassist Danny Wood's face shiny with sweat, Doni Schroader a flurry of hair and arms on drums, and guitarist Kevin Allen modestly slipping off his instrument and walking offstage. A perfect snapshot of the band if there ever was one. "That was fucking awesome," said one nearby witness. It truly was.
Spoon's performance mirrored their sizable crowd: haggard but hanging in there. It was late Sunday afternoon, the heat had exacted its toll, and Britt Daniel, in his trademark fitted shirt, acknowledged as much: "Thanks for coming to our corner. It's a shady corner, but that's not why you're here." No, it was for songs that reveal hidden layers even after countless listens, the amount of musical ground the band can cover in just a few notes, and the emotional crises Daniel's nonchalant mannerisms could never hope to cover up. His subjects may elude him, but between Daniel and the audience, the connections he longs for so ardently in "Someone Something" and "Anything You Want," just to name two, were there in abundance. Like the sun setting behind the dazzling skyscrapers of Michigan Avenue's Magnificent Mile, it was heartwarming and melancholy at the same time. A bit like Lollapalooza itself, actually: familiar in all the right ways, and surprising in all the good ones. Don't worry if you missed it. It'll be here come September.