Our Epic Lollapalooza Recap

Bringing you the sights, sounds and smells from Chicago's biggest music fest.

It was hot. There was rain. There were pushy crowds and, um, people in altered states. There were drunk fights. There were lots and lots of weird smells. But Lollapalooza 2009 was awesome.

Anytime a music festival manages to put Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Andrew Bird, the Decembrists and Kings of Leon on one afternoon of activities within 200 yards of one another, it's going to be a good time. And, while this year's lineup might not have had the massive star wattage as last year's (I mean, you're not going to get Radiohead every year), the sub-headliners were probably among the best they've ever had. From Gaslight Anthem to Crystal Castles, and Atmosphere to Los Campesinos!, the lineup cut through a giant swatch of indie-pop (and "normal" pop) music.

It's hard to sum up a three-day extravaganza of music in an article. So I'm not going to try. I mean, I'll add descriptions here and there. But the best way to see what we experienced in the festival is to check out the bits of interactive media sprinkled throughout the story. Check out the slideshows and video clips and then tell us what you think—were you there? What did you think? Who was your favorite? Have you seen any of these bands and did you love/hate them? Are we crazy for loving TV on the Radio and for not giving much (okay, any) space to Asher Roth? We want to hear from you! 

We humbly present RELEVANT's impressions of Lollapalooza, 2009 edition.

Friday, August 7
 I stepped off the plane from sunny Florida ... into rainy Chicago. 

The rain kept up for most of the day, making the long, long walk around Chicago's Grant Park a little more treacherous. And did I mention the walk was long? It's approximately a mile from one end of the part to the other, so if you were planning on seeing a band on the opposite stage, it was best to allow at least twenty minutes to get there.

The rain stayed with us for much of the afternoon, but didn't spoil peoples' enthusiasm for the music. In fact, if you kept your umbrella open during a set, you were roundly ridiculed by the crowd around you for not braving the rain with them. The result was a huge throng of soaking wet people, all happy to be in Chicago in August and listening to music without sweating constantly.
For many people (me included) Bon Iver kicked off Lollapalooza 2009. You might think that lead singer Justin Vernon's strained falsetto would have been ruined by the weather, but that wasn't the case. If anything, his music seemed to fit the rainy mood. Plus, he's been touring behind For Emma, Forever Ago for over a year, so by now, the band is together and lends muscle to Vernon's sad songs. "Skinny Love" was greeted warmly, but it was some of the rockier pieces that ended up being the most exciting, especially "Creature Fears." 

Next was Ben Folds, who managed to bring his profane power pounding to a massive stage. Since I didn't really like his last album, I listened to one song, and immediately got kind of annoyed that, 12 years after Whatever and Ever Amen, Folds still uses the same bad words to "shock" his audience. So it was on to Fleet Foxes.

If you've never seen the Foxes live, you really must check them out next time they come through your city. They're one of those few bands who sound just as great in concert as they do on album, which is really saying something when half of their music depends on tight harmonies. As if to prove the fact, they open their shows with an acapella number, somehow maintaining their soaring vocals in the face of the steady rain. Overall, the reception to the Foxes was overwhelmingly positive—at least, that's what it seemed like since they sold out of their t-shirts that evening.

Another Friday highlight was Chicago's own Andrew Bird. Bird is insanely talented; so much so that it almost makes me angry. It just doesn't seem just that one person could be that good at so many different things. He manages to replicate the immense sound of his studio recordings by looping several violin, voice and percussion tracks over one another and using them periodically throughout his songs. His band fleshes out the skeleton that he creates on his looping machine, and Bird sings/plays guitar/whistles/plays violin in all the right places. The audience was thrilled to see their hometown hero, and greeted tracks from Bird's best album, The Mysterious Production of Eggs, with giant cheers.

The Friday headliners, Kings of Leon and Depeche Mode, were playing on opposite sides of the park. It made sense because of the sound drift, 

but it also made sense because the audiences for the bands are pretty different. The Kings of Leon are riding their "Sex on Fire" fame to giant arena cheers and rockstar posturing. They had a light and video show to match their ambitions, and the gigantic crowd nodded appreciatively to the growly Southern rock.

Depeche Mode, meanwhile, are still riding "Enjoy the Silence" and partying like it's 1988. And so are their fans. The giant video screens and ambitions of Depeche Mode were only matched by this completely uninhibited woman I saw who was dance-twirling as fast as she could. And that's when it was clear it was time to call it a night. 

So on to Saturday ... 

Saturday, August 8
 
Saturday arrived ... with no rain! It also heated up and made the previous day's mud half-solidify into a strange muck only made worse by the sand they used to try to dry it out. Fortunately, the first set of the day I saw was by Los Campesinos!, a 7-person Welsh group practically guaranteed to bring some summer happiness to everyone listening—even if half of their songs are about desperate heartbreak. The crowd danced along with the band's energy, and shouted out lyrics to "It Started with a Mix" and "You Throw Parties, We Throw Knives." 
 
The next band I saw was Blind Pilot. I've never really heard them before, but I was impressed with their take on folk-y bluegrass. They clearly knew the ropes of playing to a smaller festival crowd, and any band that can pull off an upright bass at an outdoor festival is automatically impressive.
 
I wandered over to watch the Arctic Monkeys, who were enjoyable in their own right. Much like other bands from the whole British garage invasion of the early '00s, Arctic Monkeys put on a competent, fun and ultimately kind of forgettable show. It's fun to dance and sing along to songs that seem tailor-made for both, but the songs don't really have much staying power beyond thinking "I could hold a guitar and sing, but I will never look that cool" every time you look at the lead guitarist and singer.
 
Santigold was after the Monkeys, and was one of the few non-rock artists to perform at one of the main stages. She brought her potent mix of MIA-like rhymes, hip-hop beats and general party-readiness to a festival crowd that was hungry for all of the above. The crowd's beachballs were more active during her set than any others I saw, and Santigold endeared herself to her audience even more by inviting people onstage to dance with her.
 
After Santi came the bands I had anticipated most for this year: TV on the Radio and Animal Collective (to see AC, I had to skip Ben Harper—but I've embedded a Harper video as a bonus below). I hadn't seen either of them before, and was really looking forward to seeing two bands responsible for two of the best albums of the last 12 months. 
 
TV on the Radio certainly didn't disappoint. They came out with the appropriate swagger for a band that released Dear Science, just a few months ago. Frontman Tunde Adebimpe pogoed and bounced all over the stage like a soul singer (think James Brown in Blues Brothers) and Kyp Malone used his crazy bear and hair combo to yelp his lyrics about love, lust, God and war into the microphone while the brass support, guitars, drums and bass blazed away. By the time TVOTR hit "Wolf Like Me," it was obvious that we were watching a band that was hitting a creative stride, and one that's actually a dance group operating under the guise of a "serious" indie-rock project.
 
Animal Collective was (mostly) a different story. AC is a strange group—Merriweather Post Pavilion is the consensus album of the year so far, but the members don't seem to register that people, you know, might want to hear tracks from their new 
favorite album. So instead, AC did what they always do in live settings: noodle around on keyboards, make lots of yelping noises into echoe-y microphones and create extended instrumental soundscapes for the weird videos playing on the side screens. In other words, it's basically a giant set for stoners. The set was pretty disappointing until Animal Collective finally "gave in" and played "Brothersport," one of the best tracks off of Merriweather. And the crowd wasn't disappointed; they'd waited so long that when the familiar opening started, they went nuts, singing along and dancing all over the place.
 
All in all, Saturday was a fairly satisfying day, and instead of seeing Tool I decided to rest up for Sunday ...
Sunday, August 9
Editor's note: We don't yet have video footage of Sunday's performances. Track our Twitter to see when those videos are up.
The day's recap begins under the photos:
 
Sunday brought another sunny day—and intense heat. The heat made all of the smells that had slowly been brewing come to the surface and made a strange (and nasty) cologne that coated the entire festival. I knew that I'd only have time to enjoy a few bands before I had to head back to Orlando, so I wanted to go see a couple of other bands I'd missed in the past.
 
Airborne Toxic Event played through their bouncy set, and for a band I'd never really heard before, it was fun to hear them. They seemed genuinely happy to have been included on the Lollapalooza bill, and their energetic set expressed their enthusiasm.
 
I was really excited to see Dan Deacon, who I missed on his last tour. I wondered how his frenetic, sweaty hipster-dance-pop would translate outside of a dingy club, but he made a heroic effort to make a dance party in a crowd of thousands. During Bromst highlight "Snookered," he had the audience do actions that were supposed to make them feel the freedom of forgiveness, and on another song, he had the entire crowd participate in this crazy dance/tunnel formation that's as complicated as it sounds ... but also miraculously worked.
 
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Finally, my day ended with Vampire Weekend. At this point, it seems like the VW guys produce a reliably tight set ... it's just gotten a little stale to see a band still touring on its album that's been out for over 18 months. This isn't to say they were bad—it's really hard to mess up modern classics like "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" (dedicated to director John Hughes) and "Wolcott"—but it's pretty clear that they need some new material to mix into their sets.
 
All in all, Lollapalooza 2009 lived up to its status as a behemoth in the festival circuit. I returned home hot, sore and exhausted, but overwhelmingly happy that I'd gotten to see so many great bands in such a great setting—having Lake Michigan on one side and the breath-taking Chicago skyline on the other makes tolerating rain and heat pretty easy. If you can take the weird shifts in weather, the crowds and the mile-long trek from one end of the park to the other, Lollapalooza is certainly worth your time and money. It's a terrific place to see some—or all—of your favorite bands in one place.

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