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Lollapalooza 2011 Recap

In the months between the release of Lollapalooza's 2011 lineup, and the festival's 20th anniversary this past weekend, general consensus was that the festival had gone mainstream. The festival's playful title may have felt almost like a smirking misnomer when Living Colour and the Rollins Band were filling out the days. But in recent years it has settled into its name the same way it has settled comfortably in between the skyline and lakefront. So if it's not the cutting edge indie haven on wheels that it once was, chalk it up to the passing of time. Nothing can stay exactly the same and sustain itself for two decades.

The talk of Lollapalooza mainstreaming itself stems from this year's inclusion of superstar acts Coldplay, Eminem and Foo Fighters in the headliners. And it's true that the main stage shows throughout the weekend generally strived to be big and accessible before striving to be good. But the important story of this year's Lollapalooza lies not in those failures, but in the fest's successes elsewhere, which were more numerous.

The better festival this year lived in the Google + and BMI stages. Smaller, shadier, and tucked out of the way of main walkways and the biggest crowds, their initial appeal is obvious. More obvious, even, when the festival revealed that the most exciting and interesting acts would be housed there.

My favorite performance of the weekend, for instance, belonged to fresh faced locals Kids These Days on Friday afternoon at the BMI stage. If your band in high school was as good as you thought it was, it would be this. An infectious and effortless youthful spirit emanated from the stage as the band, not long out of high school, churned out impressive jazz-funk fusion tunes, with frontman Vic Mensa rapping with surprising competence in and around grooves that are more commonly and easily navigated by horns and aimless soul crooning, both of which were also present and in top form. With their refreshing youth came an inevitable air of inexperience, but it was fleeting, most notable in between songs when Mensa would talk through the crowd, almost playing a rapper more than actually being one. This became part of the fun too though, as he gave shout outs to Chicago's surrounding neighborhoods: "Oak Park up in this b***h!" Kids These Days' biggest claim to fame, prior to this weekend, was Jay-Z posting their most popular song, "My Days," on his Life and Times blog. It seems fitting that he would champion this sound, so genuine and organic and cool. A sound more likely than his own to bring about the Death of Auto-tune that he boldly prophesied. I'm getting ahead of myself, yes, but there are big things in their future if this performance is any indicator.

Google + claimed the best shows of Saturday. At times I considered staying there all day. Dom, electronic pop out of New England, won the day early on with a surprising set. Dom's long hair, affinity for synth driven melodies, and pastel attire could lead one to draw comparisons to the veteran dream-popper Ariel Pink, whose live shows are consistently horrific. But Dom's rumored arrogance does not find its way on stage like Pink's does. Instead he was confident with and committed to his songs. And rightfully so. For simple synth-pop, there was something casually profound about the music, similar to the refrain in the chorus of their most popular song, "Living in America," which finds him saying, "It's so sexy to be living in America." You can't help but wonder, is there a hint of genius here, or is he just good at making it up as he goes along? Seeing as this question never entered my mind while he was on stage, the answer doesn't really matter.

Later on the same stage, Beirut ended Saturday night gently and emphatically, bordering on too polite, until heavy brass would bust through frontman Zach Condon's vocals, the best of any male singer throughout the weekend. Dance-poppers Reptar were an early highlight, sounding as though they had put the pieces Animal Collective's sometimes shambled sound together for a party mix. Typhoon started Saturday beautifully with well-crafted and ambitious orchestral pop. The Drums contrasted frontman Jonathan Pierce's Morrissey-esque croon and swagger with unstoppably peppy pop-rock. Tennis breezed in and out on nothing but good vibes and beautiful vocals rivaling Lykke Li's, who appeared later that night on the same stage and commanded a substantial audience with ease.

All major festival highlights, all from its two smallest stages. At the large fields that bookended Lollapalooza, performances were often fickle and uncomfortable.

The biggest disappointment of the weekend was Cee Lo Green at the Music Unlimited main stage on Saturday evening. A talented singer with an impressive pedigree, not to mention a very likable guy, Green's performance mirrored Lady Gaga's disastrous turn at headlining last year. Clad in spiked shoulder pads he slightly resembled a Power Rangers villain, which was probably my favorite thing about the performance. But his most striking and unfortunate Gaga similarity was not wardrobe, but an incomprehensible unwillingness to perform his own songs. Extended remixes and mashups of generic rock classics including "Seven Nation Army" and "Thunder" sounded fine enough, but were bereft of Green's actual voice, and completely baffling for someone with as rich a musical career to draw from as Green. Gaga at least had the excuse of having to fill two hours on one album's worth of material. Green's choice to use up a considerable portion of his hour with these "crowd-pleasers" as I'm sure he thought they would be, felt lazy and condescending.

Even Local Natives, Los Angeles band with an outstanding 2010 debut to their name, were a disappointment at the large Sony stage across the field. Despite seeming excited by their sizable crowd, their set lacked bite or energy, sounding clean but complacent until the very end when they kicked it up a notch for their most popular songs. It is the job of a poor audience member to only perk up for the ones they recognize, not the band itself.

Other unfortunate main stage performances included Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, who are essentially the musical equivalent of those AC/DC t-shirts you can buy at Kohl's, and Muse, the poor man's Radiohead on their best day.

There were exceptions to this rule, no doubt. Delta Spirit played a tremendous afternoon set on Friday, filling their large main stage with simple, energetic, southern tinged rock. As the Vaccines amped up their British rude boy act, nostalgic melodies and clever-ish lyrics wafted successfully in the Friday early afternoon air. Damian Marley & Nas compiled equal parts musical integrity, hardworking stage presence, and star power, making for a very satisfying Sunday evening show. My Morning Jacket more than met the challenge of 8 pm at a main stage, despite their t-shirts residing in the "Non-Headliners" tent. Titus Andronicus could claim Sunday's best, though, their literary punk serving as the starter's pistol for the last day. "U-S-A!" chants were consistent from the rowdy crowd, and seemed to fit right in, despite their probably ironic conception. There is something indefinably American about the brand of frustration that Patrick Stickles, half hokey showman, half insufferable sadsack, screeches out loudly and sincerely. Probably their New Jersey background and Bruce Springsteen obsession are to thank for this. Their show really took off after the crowd chimed in on the hopeless but powerful Springsteen revision, "Tramps like us, baby we were born to die!"

Perry's tent, the dance/house music headquarters of the weekend is an entirely separate entity. My trips to it were few and far between, since most of its acts stand in front of a computer, and there are dozens of great bands and artists to be seen elsewhere. Spending any more than ten minutes at a time there seems, to me, unreasonable. My disdain was only heightened when stalwarts of song structure, the Mountain Goats attracted a relatively tiny audience for their time slot, despite a long and debatably legendary career, while the sounds of the more heavily attended Skrillex creeped into their set from Perry's, all the way across the festival.

Do I sound like a bitter old man? I don't doubt it. Hip young people, or young people who think they're hip, are so abundant at Lollapalooza that after a day or so, the sight of a sensibly dressed person of forty years or older becomes a welcome relief.

A combination of fatigue, poor scheduling, and inclement weather caused the festival to tucker out before it actually ended on Sunday night, but this was not a signifier for the weekend as a whole. For that you must go back to Friday.

Coldplay, may be the band that drew the most patrons this weekend, landed somewhere in between the two main stage possibilities. Not a disappointment, nor can it really be considered a highlight. Obviously they know how to play a huge main stage crowd. Maybe they know too well though. They churned out the hits efficiently, as expected, the only surprise coming with an abridged "Rehab" cover in the encore in memory of Amy Winehouse, which was surprisingly affecting.

Still, it was kind of good and kind of boring. Watching Chris Martin lead however-many-thousand people in a crowd-wide singalong that was a foregone conclusion for every song was a yawn compared to watching the thrilled Kids These Days, earlier that day, as they realized a few people in the audience knew the words to a song or two. The genuine emotion of that moment was exciting, even touching. Lollapalooza would do well to realize that those small, organic epiphanies of performances are truly its most special asset, and being able to deliver it several times a day is what makes it great.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun