CHICAGO -- Looking at the names of the headliners at this year's Lollapalooza, you could be forgiven for thinking it was 1998 and not 2008. Acts such as Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead and Rage Against the Machine were all big back then. Not that there's anything wrong with any of the bands. The line-up was as solid as any of the previous festivals that have visited Chicago since Lollapalooza became a destination festival. And you wouldn't have found "Green Street" - an area devoted to all things eco and organic - at any festival that existed some 10 years ago.
Given the number of young fans - a kids stage even appealed to the pre-teen set - who populated the crowd of 75,000 that visited Grant Park each of the three days, it didn't seem to hurt attendance one bit that the main acts probably had a demographic above 30 years of age. And for every big name playing one of the main stages, there was something not so commonplace on the side stages. One highlight was seeing Eli "Paperboy" Reed - a guy who's started to draw bigger crowds here in Cleveland since making the Beachland Tavern a regular stop - get a warm welcome in a mid-afternoon time slot. Reed, a white kid out of Boston who's a dead ringer for Wilson Pickett, didn't miss a note, even though he was working on little sleep after making an overnight drive from a Philadelphia tour stop.
The festival, which started on Friday, August 1, and ran through Sunday, August 3, got off to a proper start on Friday afternoon as gypsy punks Gogol Bordello made their Lollapalooza debut. Led by eccentric frontman Eugene Hutz, the ragtag band stormed the stage with its usual manic energy as Hutz, wearing a slingshot around his neck and sporting a particularly ragged-looking handlebar mustache, bounded across the stage with all the energy of someone half his age. With a set of wild-eyed dancers appearing to go through the occasional gymnastic routine, Gogol provided great visuals for the festival crowd.
The Raconteurs were another of Friday's highlights as singer-guitarists Jack White (of White Stripes fame) and Brendan Benson have really refined their stage show and nicely shared lead vocals. But when it comes to playing guitar, White is clearly in charge. He even apologized for showing up Benson during a guitar duel. Indeed, the two appeared to really enjoy playing together, and White led the crowd through an impromptu sing-a-long as the band played its garage-rock anthem "Steady as She Goes."
Friday's lone headliner was Radiohead. Playing on a stage known for spotty sound, the group had everything dialed in so that every nuance of its music was crystal clear. Even if the set list veered toward the group's more ambient material, the soft-spoken Thom Yorke, who said little more than "thank you" to the audience, was animated throughout the performance.
Playing underneath a canopy of shifting lights that seemed to imitate falling electric rain, the band put on a stellar light show that was visible from the far end of the enormous field where the stage was located.Saturday offered an equally eclectic bill as Explosions in the Sky blasted its instrumental noise and Broken Social Scene brought numerous guests onstage as it delivered its unique indie rock that blends a variety of styles and instrumentation. Its set featured a variety of cameos from band members associated with the collective. And yet it never seemed disorderly or cacophonous. Looking and sounding old, the Toadies were one of the day's disappointments. Their by-the-numbers alt-rock sounded out of place, even on a bill that featured many holdovers from the early and mid-'90s.
Saturday's climax came as Rage Against the Machine made a rare appearance on one of the main stages. A good half hour before the band even started to play, fans had pressed so hard up against the stage that many had to be carried out by security personnel for fear of getting crushed. Appearing to the pre-recorded sound of a blaring siren, singer Zack de la Rocha and crew played with an intensity that began from the minute de la Rocha sneered, "We're Rage Against the Machine from Los Angeles, California." Playing with incredible intensity, the band launched into "Testify" and instantly clicked on all cylinders. Things became so out of control that security made the band stop playing numerous times throughout the set as it lost control of the crowd. De la Rocha pleaded with the audience to "save that shit for the streets," but it was to little avail and the constant security breaches meant that the show had trouble sustaining its momentum. That wasn't the case on the other side of the park, where Wilco performed a beautiful set at the same time as Rage to a much tamer audience.
Sunday's two headliners included rapper Kanye West and industrial rockers Nine Inch Nails, each of whom brought an arsenal of lights to their respective performances. Nine Inch Nails was certainly the more refined, as singer Trent Reznor and company really spent some time (and serious cash, I would imagine) perfecting a light show that included a giant LED backdrop and multiple big TV screens. The band sounded terrific too, as Reznor's vocals were razor sharp on standards such as "Terrible Lie."
Though rumors circulating that a certain presidential candidate would introduce Kanye West proved to be false, the rapper was still a big draw. Too bad his theatrics couldn't cover the fact that his microphone skills are limited. As a result, his intricate songs lost much of their luster in their live renditions, even though he had plenty of smoke and blinding lights backing him up.
While crowd control factors were certainly an issue (especially when fans started urinating in the park bushes), this year's installment of Lollapalooza was a generally well-run affair. Hell, when you can get Kanye West to show up on time, you know you must be doing something right.