Lollapalooza 2009: Sax solos out the wazoo
By lunchtime Sunday, the trampled, unshaded southern field had baked like clay and kitty litter in a kiln. Ra Ra Riot's string-drenched indie pop was lovely, and Bat For Lashes filled the oven air with Natasha Khan's forceful Diet Björk voice. Khan wore a black shirt covered in sequins, prancing across the stage like an animated solar panel. Drummer Sarah Jones pummeled her toms with mallets through Khan's moody, spacious art-pop. But needing to get out of my own personal Hurt Locker, I left the desert stage for shadier groves on the north end.
Portugal. The Man is a tough nut to crack. The guys from Sarah Palin's hometown could be best classified as uncomplicated prog, crying in falsetto and jamming out long guitar solos, a bit like the Mars Volta on sedatives. Brief flashes of British folk melodies or emo thrashing only make the band more befuddling.
Convolution was no such problem for Kaiser Chiefs. The Brits fill soccer stadiums back home, and the arena experience paid off in spades. The early Budweiser stage players thrilled a packed house like few others in their slot, ever. Singer Ricky Wilson gave his all, running into the crowd, hopping through every bouncy Britpop number, hugging the sign language interpreter (major bonus points) and enciting the massive crowd to clap along, wave their arms and sing along. Apparently, nobody told them they weren't headliners. The Chiefs blew away the quirkier Arctic Monkeys with big, bold pop songs. I probably just ignited some hooligan turf war in Yorkshire with that assessment, didn't I? But the crowd doesn't lie. People went apeshit for "I Predict a Riot." Props to Wilson for one of the best lines of day: "Can we get 50,000 cold beers over here? And make sure they're not Bud."
In comparison, the ever-sexy and sulking Raveonettes were anticlimatic, if still runway-model cool. The Danes wove surf guitar licks through girl-group boom, winter chimes and white noise. "Love in a Trashcan," my favorite song about raccoons (it's not really about that), and "Aly Walk With Me" put the recent spate of Jesus and Mary Chain clones to shame, and new tunes from an October album hinted at a poppier sound. But the band belongs indoors, cloaked in dark and smoke.
From then on, the north end took on a decidedly Bonnaroo vibe. Hockey-tonk Canadian chanteuse Neko Case floated her lovely voice into the hazy air, sticking to quieter sit-down material. Two cuts from the back end of her latest, Middle Cyclone, stood out. When she ripped into the chorus of "The Pharoahs"—"You said I was / Your blue, blue baby"—it was hard to not get chills, even in the hell weather. Her cover of Harry Nilsson's gutting "Don't Forget Me" always pushes my buttons, too. What a great fucking song.
Dan Auerbach kept the roots rolling with husky blues numbers. The guy's got a great voice, but I couldn't help but wish I was just watching his thrashier Black Keys. His recent solo record is good, but nobody's going to recognize the stuff. Give the drummer a plane ticket, Perry. "Your Touch" would have killed.
The much-hyped Lou Reed appearance was a total bust. Never one to offer easy pleasures, Reed served up two songs I could even place, a lethargic "Sweet Jane" devoid of its brilliant harmonies and "Dirty Blvd." Yeah, dirty fucking blvd. A saxophonist slathered skronk over each mature jam like McDonald's applies mayonnaise. People couldn't have left the field faster if it were at a 45º slope. Feeling like I was stuck in a perpetual commercial break of Saturday Night Live (Lolla might as well have booked G.E. Smith), I had to go with the flow and seek some real thrills. I stupidly hoped for "Perfect Day," when I should have just dropped it like it was hot.
I like Deerhunter's last two records. I think they're a decent shoegazer band, if certainly not worth the ridiculous amounts of praise. So I hoped to catch one kraut-informed droner. When I arrived at the Citi stage, frontman Bradford Cox was berating the thin crowd for walking away. The guy was a dickhead, sarcastically mocking those who prefer the Killers (it's possible to like both Deerhunter and the Killers, bro) and guessing that Lou Reed was blowing minds (so, so wrong). He then tried to evoke fellow crank Neil Young and sing a bitter song about how awful it is to play to big crowds. Boo hoo. Even the Silversun Pickups thanked the crowd about 50 times.
Speaking of the Pickups, they really, really want to be early Smashing Pumpkins. So much so that they've copied the whole "horrible, shrill live vocals" thing, too. I dig the buzzing, bottom heavy '90s grooves, but that laryngitic Muppet singing is a total dealbreaker.
Finally, on a stage dressed with palm trees, neon and mirrors, the Killers closed the festival with shiny, happy pop songs the size and wattage of the Vegas strip. Brandon Flowers's voice sounds fantastic live, and, like the Kaiser Chiefs, the band proved how a certain kind of rock & roll (direct, polished, melodic, punchy) with arena experience always wins over an audience of 40,000. People might argue the poetic worth of the refrain to "Human," but when everyone is belting out, "OR ARE WE DANCER," tie goes to the songwriter. Who cares if it makes sense, it's fun. Similarly, the big singles—"Spaceman," "Mr. Brightside" and "All These Things That I've Done"—brought up a sea of blue cellphone screens, arms and cheers. The Killers offered the unique experience of hearing thousands and thousands of college kids singing along to a Joy Division song. With a name like Joy Division, it should be happy! (That's a joke, blog-post commenters.)
One-upping Lou Reed's screeching tenor, there was honkin' baritone sax on lost Duran Duran cuts like "Joyride." Drummer Ronnie Vannucci, last seen humping an O on our magazine cover, sported freshly-cropped hair and a cop 'stache. He looked a bit like Freddie Mercury, and it dawned on me that early '80s Queen is a pretty decent comparison point to these unabashed crowd-pleasers. Hot Fuss versus Hot Space—think about it. Call me crazy below. I don't care. I was still singing "Spaceman" on the walk to the train.