I can remember marveling, amidst the mud and sweat and shitgrinning faces all around me as Lollapalooza 2011 came to a close last year, at the staggering number of music lovers flowing through Grant Park in Chicago. The daily attendance had capped at 90,000, a record number to that point. All of that was met with a condescending chuckle yesterday by the 2012 incarnation of the long-running music festival, where on day one of Lolla's sold-out return – which featured tremendous sets from The Black Keys, Metric, Die Antwoord, The Shins, Black Sabbath and more – exceeded 100,000 faces streaming through the gates.
French imports M83 delivered a celebrated and captivating performance, heavy on material from their brilliant 2011 release, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming – much to the delight of the pre-headliner masses in attendance. The Sony stage left a great deal to be desired in terms of sound design, but M83's evolved stage presence (the lights!) and newfound fan fever in America secured their set as among the best of the day.
Regular breaks from the heat proved mandatory throughout the day, despite this year's temperatures being considerably lower than the heat stroke parties of 2011. This was particularly necessary in the Perry's stage area, where the focus was entirely on electronic music for the duration of the day. The stage's off-the-path positioning provided a great compromise for those not eager to hear the bleed-in dub-wobble sound of Optimus Prime pleasuring himself while listening to bands that actually play instruments and create live music.
It did nothing to diminish the hysteria of the neon-clad youth leaping with both feet into the "press play and dance" atmosphere, though it was particularly odd to still see, in 2012, grown-ass men & women sucking on pacifiers with pupils the size of softballs in the blazing sunshine.
Another excellent performance arrived by way of the mercifully shaded BMI stage, where The New no. 2 – led by Dhani Harrison (son of Beatle George) – delivered a strong set that mingled pedal-fest sound samples mixed with live instrumentation and intensely passionate dedication to the performance.
The Black Angels are a criminally underappreciated band that always seems on the cusp of breaking through to larger things, but as a fan it's hard not to feel a certain satisfaction that the Austin psychedelic rockers haven't been co-opted by the disposable-culture hordes. Good placement for their set provided some of the best moments of the early portion of the day, particularly when the band launched into a tense new song that resonated strongly in the crowd. "It's hard to kill when you don't know what side you're on," frontman Alex Maas sang with a foreboding tone on the new track, sparking intense curiosity on the direction the band is leading on their newer material.
Metric was an entirely unexpected experience of pure musical bliss. Commanding an impenetrable crowd at least 400 yards deep, the band delivered a hugely energizing set that finally convinced me that I've been missing the boat on these cats. Sometimes it just takes a live experience for a band to click.
South African freakrap party act Die Antwoord brought an unstoppable, mindblowingly fun electro-rap spazfest to the Playstation stage soon after, with ringleader Ninja prowling the stage with a menacing scowl as high-pitched squeakfreak Yo-Landi’s creeptastic stage presence was amplified by her all-black contact lenses. All my notes say about this performance are "Nightmare razors of flawless tripping glory." That about sums it up, truly.
Yes, it's musical theater. Yes, it appeals to the lower end of rap culture's oddity. Yes, it's as absurd overall as the DJ's thug-gimp mask. But goddamn if it wasn't some of the most fun we had all day.
The Shins are great & all, but sometimes there's just no avoiding the fact that they can come off like a dandelion water enema. Not always the most fitting flow for the moment. This time around, I skipped them in favor of some free goodness in the media tents, and for this I have no regrets – particularly because their sound came through crystal clear from where I was sitting.
Then came the battle of the Blacks. “Black Friday” got a little too literal in Grant Park as the night claimed the corners of the festival grounds, and the hordes flocked in one of two directions: North for a once-in-a-lifetime performance by the legendary metal pioneers Black Sabbath, or South to the Red Bull stage for a victory-lap set from The Black Keys.
Despite the bloggy bloviations and nostalgic excitement by seemingly everyone within earshot for Sabbath's only U.S. concert appearance, legacy took a hard and sobering backseat to the Black Keys. Sabbath's crowd was roughly 5% of the Keys', which proved positively impenetrable once the Akron blues duo took the stage.
El Camino and Brothers were the two features albums throughout The Keys' set, with loose and altered versions of some of their biggest hits, including "Howlin' For You," a reworked vocal approach to "Next Girl," "Tighten Up" and more. They could've danced like monkeys across the stage to a CD track for all these kids were concerned, by the looks of it, because the fun seemed entirely self-sustaining by now. So long as the music was playing, the energy was on ten and the party was fully raging. Sure, the band has sold out Madison Square Garden twice, headlined Coachella and now Lollapalooza and every festival in between, but their paper accomplishments paled in comparison to the pure positive energy crackling through the crowd as tens of thousands as far as the eye could see danced their asses off.
Across the field was an entirely different kind of experience. As we made our way to the Bud Light stage on the field's North end, exhilaration turned to "Wait, why are they playing a recorded medley of all their biggest songs before they even take the stage?" Truly, it was strange to hear old recordings of the songs we were about to see in the flesh, but we suspended judgement for the sake of what was about to unfold. This was SABBATH!!! We were finally about to see the godfathers of metal!
One word defines this experience: Sad. It is wonderful to hear these songs in a live setting, don't get me wrong. But to see a barrel-chested, thin-haired and rampantly sweating Ozzy huff his way through the performance was to know, finally, what it would look like for Grandpa to live out his rock n' roll fantasies onstage.
The crowd was sparse in comparison to the Keys, and getting relatively close to the stage was no trouble at all. All the hype, all the excitement, for this?
"I can't hear you mother f*ckers!" Osbourne screamed on several occasions, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who repeatedly thought "Well, that's not our fault, old man."
As far as setlists go, there was very little room for griping. After running through “Black Sabbath,” “War Pigs,” “Ironman,” and “Paranoid,” Sabbath then went deep into their catalogue and played “The Wizard,” “Snow Blind, “Dirty Woman,” “Children of the Grave,” and “Sweet Leaf,” appeasing the die-hards.
Health problems for both Osbourne and guitarist Tony Iommi have called into question whether or not this Sabbath reunion was a good idea to begin with, and the execution onstage likely didn't help sway matters in one direction or another. The deliveries were solid, and there was little to gripe about by way of sound, aside from a few moments where it was clear that we were watching old men pretending to be young. Bassist Geezer Butler was entirely in the moment, and of course Tony Iommi's guitar work was tremendous, his healthy appearing steady, while their "I'm not Bill Ward" drummer delivered a pummeling blizzard of beats with all the fervor of a guy who knows he's playing with fucking Black Sabbath. But on the third and final show of their 2012 reunion and their only U.S. appearance, the iconic Birmingham outfit seemed to be exactly what they were: old men caught in the trappings of their own success.
On to Day Two!