Raphael Saadiq + Balkan Beat Box + Javelin at Lollapalooza 2010: Live review
While approaching Grant Park this morning I witnessed hundreds of youngsters congesting the elevated Congress Parkway like a herd of cattle while waiting to enter Lollapalooza. It wasn't the flood of kids that struck me so much as the mere volume of people on the bridge crossing Michigan Ave to Columbus Dr. If it can hold dozens of cars, than a few hundred kids couldn't hurt, right? I'm no structural engineer, but hopefully that logic works out for everyone's sake. Of course this is because the actual festival grounds grew exponentially this year. Still, I hadn’t processed just what a difference that would make in terms of the walking distance between stages. It’s daunting, and somewhat of a slog if you're traveling from one end to the other. That said, there are some obvious benefits to this expansion. For one thing, sound bleed from stage to stage is less of an issue, and the porta potties are now neatly aligned in a row down Columbus Drive, preventing the trampling that previously left the park grounds looking like the aftermath of a riot. Even better is the fact that Columbus now operates as an enormous corridor (and a remarkably efficient one at that), sparing Buckingham Fountain the obscenely congested foot-traffic that previously left anyone traversing the Married...with Children landmark feeling like rat in a maze.
After hauling ass from the south end up to the Petrillo Music Shell, or the PlayStation stage, as it's termed this weekend, I arrived just in time to catch a bit of Javelin’s fest-opening set. The Brooklyn band’s had a prolific run this year with buzzy releases on Luaka Bop and Chicago’s own Thrill Jockey. And while I sincerely enjoy those records, its a shame that this duo doesn’t adapt its live show to its surroundings. Singer Tom Van Buskirk playfully quoted one pop tune after another like an organic pop culture mashup governed by a kitchen sink mentality, from Madonna to Billy Idol and everything in between. Meanwhile, cousin George Langford drums up a storm on a plastic percussion kit that resembles something you’d pick up at a Radio Shack or Toys R Us. It’s a little too gimmicky for my taste, and while it’d work well in someone’s basement or an intimate loft gig, on such an enormous platform I could only wonder why they hadn't taken advantage of the occasion and fleshed out the show with more musicians. It’s a situation they’ll encounter just a few days from now when they play the Department of Cultural Affairs–programmed Edible Audible Picnic series at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion this Monday afternoon.
Balkan Beat Box hit next on the Parkway Foundation stage, making up for a missed Music Without Borders performance at Millennium Park this past June. Vocalist-percussionist Tomer Yosef prowled the stage, inciting the Lolla audience to get loose to their high energy grooves while playing largely from a new album, Blue Eyed Black Boy. It was a banging set colliding Bhangra, Roma and reggae—a multi-culti cure-all that could've easily wowed a much bigger crowd had they been given a later set time. They certainly demonstrated their ability to command a large stage, and if the DCA is smart, they’ll rebook the band to make up its MWB appearance next year.
A crowd-pleasing set followed from the wonderfully old world Walkmen, in a set that veered between breezy and walloping on the nearby Mega stage. However, I'd been most looking forward to what was due next on the Parkway platform: former Tony! Toni! Toné! singer-bassist Raphael Saadiq. The new jack swing vet had a sleeper hit with 2008's The Way I See It—a throwback soul album nodding to Motown, Stax and Philadelphia International that found the talented producer and multi-instrumentalist manning all the instruments. Thankfully he didn’t attempt to pull that off here, instead lining up an ace backup band including a pair of dynamite backup singer-dancers. Playing largely from his latest record, Ray Ray even had me dancing which is the first time I can remember that happening here at Lolla. I was disappointed that fest programmers pitted Saadiq against the other high quality R&B offering of the day, soul-gospel legend Mavis Staples (who apparently roped in the producer of her forthcoming LP, Jeff Tweedy, for a number. Still, I’m confident with my decision, and Saadiq didn’t disappoint turning in a burning set including an energetic, heavy rocking rendition of “Be Here,” his duet with onetime collaborator D’Angelo. We're all waiting for the latter to make a comeback, so I’d hoped that the Voodoo hitmaker might make a cameo, but no such luck. But hey, one surprise star turn in an hour ain’t bad, right?