“Where are my keys?” I cried in much more colorful terms as I got out of a cab in front of downtown Chicago’s Congress Plaza Hotel, hands digging through my pockets.
Before closing the door and possibly sending my only car key (I dropped my other copy in the snow last winter) and several others off into the great unknown, I quickly scoured the backseat. No dice.
Were they on the plane? If so, they’re probably in Zambia by now. Perhaps they fell out when my girlfriend and I sat down to eat after landing? A few days later, the airport police department’s giant tin of misplaced keys suggested otherwise. Wherever they were, I had arrived at Lollapalooza, which rocked the Windy City August 3 to 5.
Seeing eight or nine bands per day with more than 100,000 other music fanatics means I shouldn’t have to worry about such trivial matters like how I’m going to get back into my own car.
So I didn’t. Instead, I began obsessing over real problems, like whether to see Metric or The Afghan Whigs on Friday and if I should leave early from Sigur Ros’ show to catch all of The Gaslight Anthem’s set on Sunday. Such are the dilemmas at the Midwest’s premier rock festival, an annual three-day celebration that brings 130 acts to eight stages in Chicago's picturesque Grant Park. Ben Folds sure was right when he sang, “Y’all don’t know what it’s like being male, middle-class and white.”
On Friday afternoon, still tired from the previous night’s rousing Band of Horses pre-show at Wrigleyville’s intimate Metro venue, I opted for the relaxing tones of Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit, who serenaded early arrivers with the best cuts from their gorgeous new album, The Lion’s Roar. I almost needed a first aid kit of my own when my girlfriend heard me thinking out loud about the sister act’s, errr, charming wardrobe choices.
After exploring the lively festival grounds with the rest of my group, it was on to the north main stage for Canadian indie rockers Metric, making a triumphant return to Grant Park after their packed Lollapalooza set two years ago. I had an incredible time belting out fan favorites like “Empty” and “Help I’m Alive” along with the rest of the energetic crowd, and doubted myself for leaving midway through to catch the last few songs from reunited ‘90s heroes The Afghan Whigs, playing nearly a mile away on the festival’s south main stage.
That is, until I heard frontman Greg Dulli belting out “Gentlemen” as I descended the stairs into Grant Park’s enormous Butler Field. It was still a scorching 91 degrees at 4:45 in the afternoon, a time of day not exactly perfect for the Whigs’ dark, soul-tinged rock, but none of that mattered. Dulli had the small, yet passionate audience captivated for the band’s first Chicago date in well over a decade.
“I can’t wait until I play at night,” laughed Dulli, who also rocked Lollapalooza in 2008 as part of the Gutter Twins, after walking offstage. “Both times I’ve played, it’s been hotter than shit.”
Even though the Afghan Whigs reunion was a dream come true for those who didn’t get a chance to see the band before their 2001 dissolution, it wasn’t even the biggest hatchet buried that day. Heavy metal godfathers Black Sabbath also reunited for their first stateside show in seven years, a nostalgic 95-minute set that was hopefully not their final farewell (guitarist Tony Iommi is currently battling cancer).
While original drummer Bill Ward sat at home because he wasn’t given a “signable contract,” founding members Ozzy Osbourne, Iommi and Geezer Butler rocked the north side with classics like “War Pigs,” “Iron Man” and “Children of the Grave.” The concert was just one of three Black Sabbath gigs in 2012, making it one of the most exclusive appearances in Lollapalooza’s seven-year history as a standalone festival.
On the larger south stage, blues rock duo du jour The Black Keys made their debut as a Lollapalooza headlining act (their fifth time there), mostly playing to those who only knew Osbourne from his MTV show of a decade ago.
Even Ozzy didn’t want the curtains to close. In a move I’ll likely never see at a concert again, the singer led the crowd in a chant of “One more song!” before reappearing onstage for an encore of “Paranoid.”
Here’s to hoping they had more than one song left in them.
Before 6 p.m. Saturday, the second day of Lollapalooza was the worst day I’ve ever had at the festival. By 3 a.m. the next morning, it was, without question, among the best 24 hours I’ve had anywhere.
The day began normally enough - we arrived to the park early to catch the annual celebrity kickball game (featuring Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul and Food Network star Guy Fieri) before heading to an electric set from Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree.
That’s where my day started to unravel (quite literally, in one case). On our way to see the remainder of JEFF the Brotherhood’s early afternoon show, the stitching in my cloth wristband somehow came undone. As with my lost keys debacle, I was determined to let nothing keep me from enjoying the music, so I stuck it out until the end of the Nashville rock duo’s set before venturing around the park to see what could be done about my faulty wristband. (They’re designed to only clasp once to prevent unauthorized entry, so I was worried I would have to purchase a marked-up Sunday wristband from a scalper.)
After my well-intentioned girlfriend and I got into a lovers’ quarrel over where I should go to report my problem, my fears were alleviated by a kind security guard manning the press area. I was able to grab lunch (Connie’s cheese pizza for two meals a day, three days in a row, baby!) and catch the last half of indie rockers Delta Spirit. After my lost keys and a patched-together wristband, I was certain it would be smooth sailing from there on out.
Then, the sky darkened and the festival was evacuated. Yes, evacuated. The same festival that withstood four hours of torrential rainstorms on the final day of its 2011 edition was now clearing out all 100,000 concertgoers, musicians, crew members and volunteers, so you know it had to be some seriously inclement weather.
Like a butterfly headed for shelter hours before a hurricane, my girlfriend had gone back to our hotel to grab some ponchos 10 minutes or so before news of the festival’s suspension was flashed on giant screens throughout the park. Left to our own devices and suddenly without any sage female advice, her two cousins, my brother and I made like real men and headed for the closest burger joint. We weren’t the only ones who chose to ride out the storm at the downtown Epic Burger, as the place was packed with dozens more hungry and disappointed festivalgoers.
Watching the sky turn black as the downtown Chicago streets were flooded with rain (and a heavy influx of people), I concluded this was the apocalyptic event the Mayans predicted would hit Earth in 2012. At least my world would end if Lollapalooza was ever cancelled.
“I hadn't really seen how many people there were until the evacuation this year,” recalled thenewno2 frontman Dhani Harrison, whose band played Lollapalooza Friday evening, a week after the festival. “It's such a large festival and you have to get up high to see the full scale ... Epic.”
Word soon arrived that the festival would reopen at 6 p.m., albeit with an amended schedule. Unfortunately, the storm left no time for up-and-coming southern rockers Alabama Shakes and Australian U2 disciples The Temper Trap to play their much-anticipated sets, while it also meant that British post-punk revivalists Bloc Party would have to cut 15 minutes from their scheduled hour-long appearance.
Prior to the evacuation, my Saturday-night schedule consisted of Bloc Party and Red Hot Chili Peppers. I was certainly excited, but after all, Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke admitted onstage that his band’s 2008 Lollapalooza gig was a “dud” and Red Hot Chili Peppers no longer count legendary guitarist John Frusciante as a member.
After being faced with a rain-out just hours earlier, now it was more like Bloc Party and Red Hot Chili Peppers. I’d never been so appreciative as when festival organizers let everybody back in, and I wasn’t alone. Grant Park was in full-on celebration mode. Frusciante or not.
I headed to Bloc Party’s south side sub-stage immediately after the gates reopened, braving the giant mud pit in the middle of the crowd and thankfully not entering the sightline of the several large men throwing others into said pit. The band, gloriously returning in 2012 after a three-year hiatus, tore through a set of old favorites like “Banquet” and “Flux,” while also mixing in extraordinary new cuts “3x3” and “Kettling.”
Bloc Party was one giant dance party. Or rather, a big mud party. It was also the best show I’ve seen in seven Lollapaloozas, hands down.
My night was already complete and the Chili Peppers hadn’t even taken the stage. Their 100-minute show may have featured one too many I’m With You cuts, but I’d had one too many adult beverages to care. The rain even forced them to pull “Scar Tissue” from the setlist, but no worries - they still closed the main set with the one-two punch of “Californication” and “By the Way.” I couldn’t have been more ecstatic that Kiedis, Flea and Chad Smith were still up there, jamming out to the songs I stayed up late to hear on the radio back in middle school.
I definitely overdid it Saturday night, jumping and moshing around to Bloc Party and dancing in the mud for Red Hot Chili Peppers. Add in the Afghan Whigs aftershow I hit that night and the fact that it took my brother and I three tries to find the correct venue, thanks to two dead cell phones, and I was shot for Sunday.
Good thing my Sunday afternoon consisted of Bombay Bicycle Club, Polica, Trampled by Turtles, The Walkmen and Sigur Ros, five great acts well-suited for standing relatively still or lounging in the shade. I needed to make it through rowdy crowds for The Gaslight Anthem and Jack White later on.
After witnessing the lion’s share of Sigur Rós’ sleepy but gorgeous set, I sprinted almost a mile to get the best spot possible for The Gaslight Anthem’s 45-minute show. The New Jersey punks, who turned heads with an early afternoon set at Lollapalooza 2009, graduated to a later time slot for 2012, packing an intimate, shaded side stage this time. The band, riding high on the release of last month’s Handwritten, woke me up with spirited, Springsteen-reared tunes like new single “45” and fan-favorite closer “The Backseat.”
Considering how much singer Brian Fallon’s wearily confessional lyrics resonated with the young punks in the crowd and the fact that he sounds like Eddie Vedder fronting an E Street Band cover group, I wouldn’t be surprised to see The Gaslight Anthem headlining an entire day of Lollapalooza in a few years’ time (given they’re not fundamentally opposed to electrical lighting for a nighttime gig).
In 2012, however, the indie hero in the spotlight was White Stripes/Raconteurs co-founder Jack White, whose headlining solo set confirmed that rock is still alive at Lollapalooza, where the dubstep stage was the most consistently-packed all weekend. Over the course of his 105-minute show, White seamlessly weaved between recent solo hits like “Love Interruption” and “Sixteen Saltines” and classics from his other bands, such as “Seven Nation Army” and “Steady, As She Goes.” The blues rocker even switched between an all-male backing band and an all-female group midway through his set, reinforcing that Jack White is anything but vanilla as a solo artist.
Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea said it best Saturday night. The band’s 50,000-strong crowd got a friendly lecture from the blue-haired, shirtless musician before he headed offstage.
“Support live music whenever you can!” Flea preached to the choir. “Little kids playing music, old men playing violins, electronic music, punk rock, jazz, African reggae music, underground weird-ass music. Support it - it’s the voice of the people. It’s the best thing we’ve got!”
If Lollapalooza 2012 proved anything for me, it’s that we don’t need much else. Just thinking of Flea’s perfectly-worded rock & roll sermon still puts a smile on my face.
Oh, and my keys? I simply had new ones made. Too bad my car permanently died two days later. That is why you don’t let real-life worries cloud a three-day weekend in the sun.
Alex Rice blogs and interviews artists for guitarworld.com.
Photos: Alex Rice