Lollapalooza 2008 Day 3: Black Kids, Gnarls Barkley and Kanye West
For more Gnarls Barkley and Kanye photos, and more from Lollapalooza Day 3, see our Flickr stream.
After watching Slash casually peel off solo after finger-lickin’ solo, I walk a bit down the path to the opposite end of the guitar-playing spectrum—The Black Kids. Somehow this band has hoodwinked critics and the British public into buying its schoolyard take on the Cure’s bubbliest moments. Pitchfork controversially issued a sarcastic apology in place of a review of the Jacksonville band’s debut, and our own John Dugan didn’t care for it either. But even considering how shrill, strained and twee Reggie Youngblood’s voice sounds on record, it's positively torturous live. All the cute ba-ba-ba’s in the background can’t cover the fact this group can’t play their instruments. They’re coasting on cheery charm, but as soon as the next flavor of the month comes along…
Brian Burton and Cee-Lo take the stage in mustard-colored blazers, backed by a band of geeks dressed as prep-schoolers. The multi-instrumentalist girl is a dead ringer for Molly Shannon’s Mary Catherine Gallagher character from SNL. Gnarls Barkley might seem like a studio project on record, but live they’re a psychedelic bubblegum riot. The white dweebs bashing out ‘60s-influenced funk shtick is pure Beck, but Cee-Lo’s voice cuts through air like an air raid siren. As a soul singer, he might not have the most technical skill, but what he lacks in nuance, he makes up for in sheer emotional force. “Crazy” comes in the middle of the set, which seems like a odd choice of set sequencing, until Gnarls kicks into a cover of Radiohead’s “Reckoner.” It’s stunning. Cee-Lo belts out the mournful falsetto like he’s playing for the people in Milwaukee too. Finally, the moving hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck moment arrives. Two days after the seemingly unbeatable Radiohead stole the spotlight, a quirky soul band beats the Brits at their own game.
Kanye, don’t get your Italian boxer-briefs in a bunch and blog a steaming retort, but the opening of your set was underwhelming. The spectacle of the recently-wrapped “Glow in the Dark” tour has been left packed in a warehouse for a streamlined, workmanlike opening. Thick clouds of smoke pour forth, shot through with colored lights. There are no holograms of gold strippers or conversations with robots. The rapper’s slick backing band veiled in the fog and black uniforms, wears flip-down welders shields. Stage right, two percussionists stand behind an array of mammoth drums—from timpani to Japanese barrel-shaped taiko.
But the outspoken superstar runs out, puts his head down, and plows through songs. He says little to nothing between numbers, merely clutching the microphone with two fists, hunched over like a hardcore singer in silver high-tops.
Perhaps as a response to his problematic Bonnaroo Festival performance, Kanye seems on a mission to prove himself as a deeply focused artist. Problem is, I like him a lot better as the overdramatic, ranting pop perfectionist. Part of his charm is his unfiltered talk, gushing fandom of cutting edge culture and unpredictability. Of course, that’s why many grumps hate him.
After a performance of “Diamonds Are Forever” that uses a clever Jumbotron shot of the illuminated roof of the iconic Smurfit-Stone building, Kanye pulls the theme of this performance into focus with “Put On,” a fresh single from Young Jeezy dominated by Auto-Tune verse from Mr. West.
“I put on for my city, I put on for my city,” Kanye sings with building intensity. He takes an informal demographic survey, asking the crowd (which he overestimates as “100,000”) to shout out whether they’re from the North Side, South Side West Side or out of town. He then dedicates this performance to his deceased mother, and asks the crowd to give a shout out for her. And thus begins the incredible, stream-of-consciousness portion of show, when Kayne just keeps giving and giving. My fingers can’t type fast enough to record his incredible banter:
“I want people to say, ‘I’m the shit,' like I say 'I’m the shit,'” he cries out. After a thrilling performance of “Touch the Sky,” he takes a breather because he’s “tired as shit.” He explains to the crowd how they will one day tell their grandchildren about Kayne West. He compares himself to a “computer scientist in the ‘70s, with a computer the size of a room” who has the vision to see a future with a computer in his phone. He calls himself the greatest who ever lived, before admitting he’s not quite there yet. “But I’m hitting the studio after the show,” he says, “that may change by morning.”
By the time Kanye closes his set with a curveball cover of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” the trajectory and mission of this concert becomes clear. In his hometown, he was intent on delivering and inspiring, on proving himself a musician on the level of Radiohead or whatever other headliner one can name. If the overall effect suffered at first due to the bullish intensity, by the climax the sweat, hooks, flashing lights and, most importantly, the banter had added up to reminder of Kanye’s brilliance as an entertainer.
Gnarls Barkley photo: Martha Williams; Kanye crowd shot: Jeremy Bolen