Diversity Takes Center Stage at This Year’s Lollapalooza


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Reggaeton star J Balvin. - SAMANTHA FRYBERGER
  • Samantha Fryberger
  • Reggaeton star J Balvin.

Compared to some of the acts who have headlined Lollapalooza in the past decade, the artists that received top billing at this year’s incarnation of the annual four-day festival that just concluded at Chicago’s Grant Park yesterday, didn’t stack up.

In the recent past, Rock Hall inductees such as Metallica, Green Day, Radiohead, the Cure and Paul McCartney have played the festival.

Flume, Ariana Grande, Tame Impala, Childish Gambino, J Balvin, the Strokes, Twenty One Pilots and Chainsmokers — some of the major performers at this year’s event — don’t compare.

And yet, with more than a 100 bands playing on multiple stages, the festival still had plenty going for it and featured one of the most culturally diverse lineups in recent years.

You can see a slideshow of photos from the festival here.

Clearly excited to be performing in one of the headlining slots on the festival's first night, the Chainsmokers pulled out all the stops with their 90-minute set in front of an enthusiastic audience. They arrived on stage carrying flares and then launched into a dissonant instrumental before inviting Lennon Stella onto the stage to join them for a rendition of “Takeaway.” Stella traversed the multi-tiered stage wearing a luxurious ensemble that resembled pink satin pajamas. Other surprise guests included Bebe Rexha, who joined the duo for the hit single “Call You Mine,” Kelsea Ballerini, who was on hand for “This Feeling” and Daya, who joined the band for “Don’t Let Me Down.” Bursts of fireworks amplified the light show and high-energy performance.

In another highlight from Day One, half-alive offered its distinctive take on indie pop during a short mid-afternoon set on a side stage. Bleached blonde singer Josh Taylor capably slipped into falsetto during the performance that featured both a string and horn section and some pretty cleverly choreographed dance routines. Spunky tunes such as “ok ok?” and “Runaway” sounded tailor-made for iPhone ads.

Cleveland native Cautious Clay showed off his multi-instrumentalist abilities as he switched from keyboards to saxophone, bass and flute during a set that featured songs from his three EPs. His husky voice made him sound a bit like Sting, and the mellow songs had a jazzy feel to them even as the jagged guitar riffs often made them border on indie rock.

During their respective late afternoon sets, Fitz and the Tantrums and Hozier showed why they’re festival favorites. Wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and skinny jeans with holes in the knees, Fitz and the Tantrums’ singer Michael Fitzpatrick looked more like a scruffy indie rocker than a neo-soul singer, but he capably engaged the crowd and had fans singing along to catchy numbers such as “123456,” “Moneygrabber” and “Handclap.” Best known for his hit tune “Take Me to Church,” which he played at the very end of his set, Hozier had a large band on hand for his set and brought up guest singer Maggie Rogers for a rousing rendition of “Work Song.”

King Princess, the stage name of singer-songwriter Mikaela Straus, also deserves mention for delivering a theatrical set. Led by Straus, who was decked out in old-school 1992 Lolla garb, King Princess expertly delivered the poppy songs from its debut album, Cheap Queen, which will come out later this year on Mark Ronson’s Zelig Records.

Aussie rockers Tame Impala have played Lollapalooza in the past but not with the kind of light show they brought them with to the festival this year. Giant video screens showed polarized images of the band while it delivered droning tracks such “Let It Happen” and “Patience.” Much like Pink Floyd did in the '70s, Tame Impala creates an immersive atmosphere with its psychedelic rock. Their Day Two performance really mesmerized even though the set came off as if it were one long, trippy song.

Though she didn’t play in one of the headlining slots, singer, songwriter, rapper, actress, and producer Janelle Monáe, who arrived on stage while Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” played over the PA system, delivered one of the festival’s best performances. Monáe’s set included a variety of costume changes, and several dancers joined her for choreographed routines. She adroitly veered from rapping to singing, and her band played an intoxicating mix of rock, pop, soul and funk.

Other highlights from Day Two included the British post-punk band IDLES and rapper and singer Tierra Whack, who played in front of a large crowd that was clearly very excited to see the up-and-coming artist perform. There was a raw energy to her set even if too many of the songs came to abrupt ends, creating a stop-and-go effect, which is consistent with the structure of her 2018 debut Whack World, but not something that translates as well to the stage.

Singer-songwriter Bishop Briggs also gave a solid performance from a side stage. She began her performance with an a cappella rendition of “Lay My Heart Down” and then segued into “Wild Horses,” a tune that found the audience singing along with the song that featured percolating synths. The entire set had a distinctive trip-hop feel and recalled the music of acts such as Tricky and Portishead. Good-natured singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers opened her well-received set with a rousing rendition of “Give a Little.” Wearing tie-dyed pants and a matching shirt, she regularly ran the length of the stage but never missed a beat while channeling singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon.

Early during his headlining set on Day Three, Colombian reggaeton star José Álvaro Osorio Balvin, better known by his stage name J Balvin, talked about the significance of being the first Latino to headline the festival. “I’m proud to be Latino,” he said. “This is our time to make our dreams come true.” His concert had a celebratory vibe — horns sounded throughout the set — and Balvin made his way up and down the multi-tiered stage as he interacted with various dancers (some of whom wore puffy white cloud outfits that made them look like the Michelin Man). Balvin, who has been playing festivals all summer long, opened with “Reggaeton,” a tune that benefited from pounding percussion, and kept the party going with “Machika” before paying homage to the OG reggaeton artists that inspired him.

Prior to Balvin, Tenacious D brought a good dose of humor to the day with a set that found singer-guitarists Jack Black and Kyle Gass backed by a three-piece band that capably kicked out the jams on songs such as “Rize of the Fenix” and “Low Hangin’ Fruit.” Black encouraged fans to dance during “Sax-A-Boom,” a song that found him playing a toy saxophone and then having to take a mid-song breather after grooving a little too vigorously. The set concluded with the one-two punch of “Tribute” and “Fuck Her Gently,” a song that Black dedicated to the “ladies.”

AJR, another highlight from Day Three, delivered a high-energy performance that found the band’s three frontmen Adam, Jack and Ryan Met, running onto the stage to deliver “Next Up Forever.” The three Met brothers all wore skinny shorts and “danced” (well, enthusiastically skipped, spun and hopped) to their synth-driven indie pop tunes. “Burn the House Down,” a song that featured rapping and woozy horns, came off particularly well as the audience exuberantly sang the refrain along with the band. Their frivolous set included a cover of The Office theme song.

Playing for the first time ever at Lollapalooza, Yaegi, a Korean-American electronic music artist based in Brooklyn, performed to a backing track during her set that commenced with “Feel It Out,” a song that found her nonchalantly rapping lines like “Shit is Crazy/Shit is Yaegi.” Watching her walk back to her laptop to start each track and then return to the front of the stage to rap and sing made for a rather awkward presentation. Jittery songs such as “Guap” often had great hooks, and she would’ve benefited from a more sophisticated presentation.

At the end of Day Four, headliners Flume and Ariana Grande attracted huge crowds to their stages that were at the opposite ends of Grant Park. Performing at the same time, Perry Farrell’s Kind Heaven Orchestra struggled to attract much of a crowd at all. There might even have been more members of media at the show than fans. While Farrell, who chugged a bottle wine as he sang with his wife dancing and singing next to him, performed with the same intensity he brought to Jane’s Addiction, the Lollapalooza founder’s band just didn’t have songs that stuck. Still, the large ensemble that included a string section positioned on a multi-tiered stage sounded sharp, and Farrell was extremely animated. Early in the set, he even jumped into the pit to mingle with the fans.

Other highlights from the day included an appearance by Guns N Roses guitarist Slash, who brought his solo act, dubbed Slash feat. Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators, to the festival. With singer Kennedy assuming the role of front man, they tore it up, ripping through songs from Slash’s solo albums and playing a mean cover of the GNR tune “Nightrain.”

Country pop star Kacey Musgraves performed in front of a huge crowd during a late afternoon set that included songs from her Grammy-winning 2018 album Golden Hour as well as a rousing cover of the Gloria Gaynor song “I Will Survive.” She came across much better than indie singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten, who preceded her on a side stage. Dressed in black from head to toe, Van Etten simply seemed too detached during her performance, though she perked up a bit at the set’s end for a rendition of her spunky hit “Seventeen.”

As the Revivalists came out onto the stage, the video screen behind the band displayed the message “End Gun Violence.” Given that the band was performing in the wake of mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso, it was a poignant moment. The group sounded particularly inspired on tunes such as “All My Friends” and “Catching Fireflies,” the latter of which featured a woozy mid-song saxophone solo and a vigorous, “Freebird”-like jam at its conclusion. “We gotta do better,” said singer David Shaw mid-set as he addressed the mass shootings. “It’s come to that point. It’s actually past that point.” The band concluded its set with the infectious “Wish I Knew You.” The set was truly inspirational, particularly so when Shaw lambasted the “decrepits in Washington” who haven’t responded in any way to stop the violence afflicting our country.

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