The last two weekends have been exhausting, sweaty, music-filled marathons that have brought to my attention exactly how out of shape I really am. I don't usually see too much of the sun or get a whole lot of exercise, but between Dfest and Lollapalooza, I'm a few shades darker and a few pounds lighter. Someone should be proud of me.
Seriously, though. It's Sunday night and I'm in Chicago, holed up in a downtown fleabag motel, still aching from the weekend's activities, and I'm realizing just how masochistic music obsessives can be. The misery of it all varies from festival to festival (for example: temperature-wise, Dfest felt like a descent into hell, even well into the night, while Lollapalooza was slightly cooler and hosted a constant breeze. On the other hand, Dfest had ample breathing room and friendly crowds to counter Lollapalooza's edgier tens of thousands all packed like sardines in a crushed tin box), but, at the end of the day, it all boils down to an endurance contest: how many full sets were you able to witness? Did you get your money's worth? You can always get your friends together to hang out at a bar or a park, but when you pay anywhere from $40 to $200, I would hope that you wouldn't succumb to the paralyzing apathy that can sometimes accompany the harsh conditions and endless choices.
For that much money, you should plan ahead. Find out where your bands are playing, take it easy on alcohol, drink lots of water, don't accept the strange liquid being offered to you from an ear-dropper by some creepy guy in a Tool t-shirt. Rules to live by.
But alas, festival season is just about over, and you've probably already made your rookie mistakes. For now, here's a brief summation of my own experiences at two important festivals. One is close to heart and home, the other far away, in a strange city I've never set foot in. One is young and small, with room for growth; the other is the holy grail of contemporary music festivals. Both were experiences to remember.
Friday night I show up around 9pm, just off of work, wander over to the Blank Slate and accidentally stay for Admiral Twin's entire set. I haven't seen them play in, literally, 10 years, and what starts as a mild curiosity preceding the Uglysuit soon ends in me watching, completely fascinated, as one of Tulsa's longest-running would-be hitmakers continues to pay its dues, faithfully, after so many near-brushes with the big time. They've remained in Tulsa after all these years, they're hard workers, and they're polished performers. Their music feels radio-ready to me, and I'm not quite sure why it hasn't happened...
After Admiral Twin, the newly-signed Uglysuit takes over the stage to deliver a set of its southern-fried space rock majesty, and Blank Slate begins to fill with hopeful indie kids. Unfortunately, I'm hell-bent on seeing Ghostland Observatory, so I know I can't stay for long, although their set quickly proves good on everything the studio recordings promised. I almost don't leave, but a friend drags me out...
In my Dfest preview, I surmised that Ghostland Observatory would be the party of the festival. As predicted, the RUR stage quickly converts to dance-party central as everyone gives the 100 degree after-dark weather a collective middle finger by shaking their drunk asses off. The Austin electro-rockers seem completely un-phased by the heat (and rightfully so--if you think Tulsa summers are bad, drive eight hours south), and their high-energy, low-fidelity, all-smiles blend of Mercury-esque vocals and minimalist synth-beats is exactly what the crowd needs to stave off the creeping exhaustion.
After Ghostland, I run back over to Blank Slate (so much for thorough coverage. What can I say, I'm a creature of habit) to catch the last half of Apples in Stereo, and while it's not life-changing in the least, the weirdo-elders of quirk provide an enjoyable diversion as I wait for what will become the highlight of my night: Recorder.
At midnight, I cross from Slate to Exit 6C just as the trio of love-lorn robots begin to play their soothing, new-wave electronica to a crowd of very receptive listeners. Between the elaborate robot costumes, the performers' emphasis on stage presence and body language, the emotive melodies hidden under all the beeps and warbles and beats, the female robot's vocoded but somehow still affecting vocals... I could listen to it all night.
After exiting Recorder, I'm riding a wave of aural euphoria that sadly ends when I make my way over to the Oklahoma Stage for Vangough. This band is goofy, deadpan '80s epic metal to a tee, and I'm desperately trying to convince anyone I know to accompany me. One friend ditches me for Jesse Aycock, another to simply "wander around." I finally go for it alone, but as they rock their way through the set, I realize that the sound guy must be high, because the background vocals are louder than the lead, the bass is drowning out the synth, and the guitar is nowhere to be found. I yell at the sound guy: "Where the hell's the guitar?!" He looks at me blankly, I scream it more emphatically, then he looks down, turns a knob, and suddenly I hear what I've been missing: a flurry of angry hammering, crunchy power-chords, and overwrought solos. Fun stuff, but it doesn't match my Recorder high.
I run over to PDA, catch half his set in a to-capacity Blank Slate, quickly realize what all the fuss is about, jump up and down, drink a beer, smile a lot, then...
I make my way to RUR, where Helmet proceeds to bore the shit out of me.
I thought I would really dig it. I'm curious and appreciative of their place in hardcore history, but good lord... The guy's outdated and irrelevant, and he seems to know it: he plays song after song with all the enthusiasm of an assimilated pod person. Songs like "Unsung" are rushed and joyless, with absolutely no attempt to engage with the audience. Sadly for the band, the small crowd is right there with me, and a collective head-scratching pretty much sums it up. I bolt early to grab a good spot for Ryan Lindsey at the Blue Dome Roadhouse.
Apparently, Vangough's sound guy is now in charge of the Blue Dome's PA. It's breaking my heart--Lindsey's playing with a full band, and the PA sounds like shit. The music is great, but the mix is all wrong, and everyone in the building is keenly aware, including the band. Lindsey keeps high spirits, despite the sound problems, and he almost overcomes the issues when he plays "Let's Go Out", the triumphant, energetic rock song he penned specifically for the film American Teen. The audience is rooting for him, and he ends on a high note.
For the last leg of Saturday, I watch half of that spectacular spectacle that is The Roots (who I've seen before), and since I have to work the next morning, I call it a night.
Palooza Your Pants Off
Lollapalooza is a music lover's wet dream come true, and a casual listener's most hellish three-day torture session. I feel sorry for anyone who didn't feel passionately about at least one band performing, because the conditions were treacherous, relentless, and all-encompassing. There was no safe haven. It was hot, there was a suburb's worth of disaffected youth (we're talking tens of thousands) crammed into a relatively small park, and once you were in, you weren't getting out without a fight.
Personally, I experienced a two-mile walk everyday to and from the festival, sun burns, pushing and shoving and screaming and frequent almost-fights, $5 beer and $6 hot dogs, dehydration, headaches, blisters and more.
But it was all worth it. For three days, I binged on music that, in some cases, I thought I'd never see. It was communal, cathartic, even uplifting.
I saw the requisite indie-acts of the moment. Yeasayer, The Kills and Gogol Bordello formed a trifecta of polished underground professionalism, the perfect warm-up to Bloc Party's lead-in to the main event of Friday evening (and, for me, the festival in general): Radiohead.
I'm a biased fan boy, but whatever. I've bought tickets for these guys twice, and twice I was prevented from seeing them. I got it right the third time, and despite the festival setting (not always conducive to the best shows, technically or atmospherically), they proved to be worth every bit of hype and anticipation. Two hours and 24 songs later (including two encores), I can die a happy person.
Saturday was a day for veterans. The supergroup that is the Gutter Twins (Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees and Greg Dulli of Afghan Whigs) started the day off with some spooky gothic blues that was noticeably at odds with the shining sun, but, as a newbie to their music, I still enjoyed it immensely.
The next show was one of the most enjoyable surprises of the fest (and the one exception to the Saturday veterans rule). I had a passing familiarity with MGMT's Oracular Spectacular before their afternoon performance, now I'm a soon-to-be obsessed fan. Their Bowie-does-disco shtick stays in the brain long after the songs are over. I dare you to listen to "Electric Feel" only once.
Sunday was a sleep-in day, and I saw just three bands: Love and Rockets, The National, and Nine Inch Nails. Regretfully, I missed the Octopus Project, Brazilian Girls, Iron & Wine and Gnarls Barkley, but I gotta sleep at some point...
Nine Inch Nails ended the festival in top form, with a flawlessly executed set of classics and new material, and it was easily the most enthusiastic crowd of the weekend. They were rowdy, annoying, invasive and violent, but dammit, they loved their Nails. Trent Reznor was apparently so moved by the show that he actually spoke to the audience about how grateful he was to be alive and playing to a packed house, 17 years after his first 'Palooza performance.
As a side note, this show also provided the single best image from the entire weekend: two shirtless, Bud Light-swilling frat-boys, angrily punching each other in the chest, screaming "I want to fuck you like an ANIMAL!" at the top of their lungs, while staring hatefully into each other's eyes. Priceless.
It's been an eventful two weeks--two very different festivals, both sweaty, exhausting, daunting, frustrating, and both of which I would attend again in a heartbeat.
Now pardon me while I pass out.
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