Beyond the Gates: All festivals need to evolve. That’s not a particularly profound statement about an industry that has witnessed behemoths stagger, boutiques thrive, and organizers fail at throwing a 50th birthday party for the most celebrated music festival of all time. Any fest with a desire to endure and even a modicum of identity issues should be taking a long, honest look in the mirror, and Lollapalooza is no exception.
However, Lolla’s been asking these existential questions for some time now. As the Grant Park festival has gradually morphed into an annual four-day summer camp for every basketball jersey and body stocking in suburban Chicago, organizers continue to shepherd oldies like myself towards VIP tents while younger attendees run amok. (It’s the circle of life, folks.) And that demographic shift has naturally brought complaints. Some lament that rock at Lolla is dead, even though they had chances this weekend to see Tame Impala, Death Cab for Cutie, and The Strokes. Others can’t quite wrap their heads (or ears) around the bizarro programming leaps of a festival trying to be a little something for everyone.
None of those qualms are new, though. And, frankly, most of us in the media tent were too busy playing Chance the Rapper Bingo, guessing where the beloved Chicago artist would pop up next as a surprise guest, to spend much time regurgitating them. Some of us wandered over to Perry’s to catch that stage’s hottest draw of the weekend: NBA great Shaquille O’Neal holding down the fort for a DJ set. But I think it might have been right around the time Childish Gambino interrupted his show for 15 minutes to talk into a camera and take selfies with fans after having just ordered us to turn our phones off and “go to church” with him that reality really dawned on me. I thought, “Damn, this is gonna be a good Lolla for Instagram.”
It’s come to that.
Here’s where I could go on a long, winding vituperation about a once-great festival slowly being reduced to an opportunity for social media scavengers to find troves of thumbs-up content on the cheap. But while senseless tragedy struck across our country this weekend, taking many lives in both El Paso and Dayton, tens of thousands of young people found a healthy outlet (yes, even the tree idiots) at Grant Park and peacefully coexisted for four days. I danced next to a girl who had been trying to see The Strokes live for a decade, watched J Balvin raise a proud and grateful fist for Latinx artists everywhere, and found myself shedding a tear as Janelle Monáe reminded us why fights for social equality must go on. That said, I’ll take my weekend and this Lollapalooza — selfies, vines, hope and all.
Now, step inside Lollapalooza 2019 with us.
Best Bites: Tourists come from around the world just to window shop on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. Well, as this year’s designated food critic, I came to do more than just look at the glorious bounty of festival food booths staring out at the famed shopping district. Short lines (save for the nightly 30-minute dinner rush) and reasonable rates (most items are under $10) made my work both tastier and more filling. Whether festivalgoers sought out standard burgers, slices, and ice cream cones or something a little more daring (including a good dozen or so vegan options), nobody went hungry at Lolla this weekend.
Sriracha fries from Tank Noodles proved the perfect opening act — ready for a larger stage when adding broasted chicken to complete the meal. The chicken rice bowl from Kamehachi’s (tofu was also delicious) and chicken shawarma and hummus from Naf Naf Middle Eastern Grill made for light and tidy meals between stages. And, if I can only choose one delectable dive into sugar town, I’ll forever be in love with (seriously, I left my heart at Lolla) Xurro’s churro sundae with strawberry sauce. We made such sweet music together, baby. –Matt Melis
Festival Fashionista: Over the years, festival fashion has become a parody of itself. Each new festival cycle, retailers try to gauge what the “must-have” accessory for festival season will be — a choker, perhaps? It’s not that simple anymore, though. Every ridiculous outfit is fully aware of itself (which is part of the fun; let the kids be kids), and although Lolla isn’t exactly the giant Urban Outfitters advertisement that Coachella is — though there were lots of flower crowns and fringe to go around — it seems the hot new item is anything outrageous, probably something showing your ass (like literal cheeks), and, more importantly, anything you can accessorize with a fanny pack and bucket hat. I’ll give them this: I respect how they all managed to look good after a 10-hour day in the sun. –Samantha Lopez
Trying Your Luck: Going into Lollapalooza 2019, The Strokes appeared as total outliers — at least as headliners. For starters, the New York City outfit doesn’t exactly align with Childish Gambino or The Chainsmokers or Ariana Grande. But also, and this is a big, big also. They haven’t released an album since 2013 (see: Comedown Machine), or had a popular hit single since, well, 2011 (see: “Under Cover of Darkness”). That’s no slam on the group — after all, it’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy at this point — but it’s all necessary context to consider when looking back on their Thursday night headlining performance. They came in as underdogs, and they walked out as underdogs, only with a shrug and a smirk.
That’s as good a place as The Strokes will ever be, and that’s exactly where we want our Strokes to remain. After all, rock and roll gets intriguing when it’s being marginalized, and Julian Casablancas and the gang have seemingly embraced the fringe in recent years. Lollapalooza felt different, though, like a last stand for the group. Granted, Thursday was so weak, “Weird Al” Yankovic could have headlined, and nobody would have blinked an eye, but even so, to place The Strokes on the creme de la creme T-Mobile stage was a kind and surprising gesture from Lollapalooza. It essentially said, “This is an important act, this is still an event, and this is the best you’re gonna get tonight.”
All were true, and though reports have suggested Casablancas and the team were disassociated from the whole thing, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, Casablancas was passive aggressive, but he’s always fucking passive aggressive. Laced within those subtle barbs of his was genuine satisfaction, an affable demeanor that suggested he was stoked to be headlining, even if he refused to ever say as much. “There is that techno beast again,” he joked, referring either to Perry’s or The Chainsmokers, only to add: “This is a beautiful night guys. Perfect fucking weather. Sister weather shined upon us tonight. I mean … the skyline … the fucking … damn gorgeous, I tell you.”
That’s joy, alright.
Beyond the banter, Casablancas just sounded phenomenal. Deeper diamonds like “Ize of the World”, “Under Control”, “I Can’t Win”, and “Razorblade” found him channeling his denim Sinatra, while obvious fare such as “Reptilia”, “New York City Cops”, “Somebody”, and especially “Last Nite” conjured up his younger sensibilities. He was bouncy. He was living the moment. “I liked the Bulls growing up. Does that count?” he joked. “Ohhh, I think I was more of a Jordan fan. Oh well … honestly, I wanna just sing along to whatever I’m hearing. Singalitus, it’s incurable.” Based on the number of sore throats developing around the stage, it’s also highly contagious. Those afflicted could only shrug. –Michael Roffman
We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Stage: Festival programmers know what they’re doing for the most part. Rare are the times you see an act playing a stage far too large or much too small. And if the powers that be spent as much time as I did this weekend at Lolla’s American Eagle side-stage, they know that several artists are ready for the next bump. On Thursday, the one-man band that is Cautious Clay sweetly coaxed us into the weekend as he crooned and swapped between guitar, flute, and sax. Mixing his solo work and Pivot Gang ties, local stud SABA made the case for brighter lights, and Tierra Whack, between spitting rhymes, worked and charmed the audience like a natural. And while names like Lil Wayne and Meek Mill might’ve drawn more attention, no two rappers whipped up any more frenzy than Gunna and bucket-hatted Denzel Curry, respectively, the latter shutting down the stage with Slowthai joining on a cover of “Bulls on Parade”. As crowds stretched beyond the treeline and into the food area, it became clear that these artists are destined for bigger stages and larger fonts. –Matt Melis
Lollapalooza Q.U.E.E.N. “Life is only made of memories,” Janelle Monáe told her fans on Friday afternoon. “Time is small. Little memories we can access. My hope Chicago is that I can be a memory for you because what I’m seeing right now is a memory I’ll never forget. So, tonight, let’s make memories.” That wasn’t very hard for anyone who stopped by The Electric Lady’s moving power-hour at the T-Mobile Stage. Still in support of last year’s Dirty Computer, Monáe was relentless, refusing to quit even when she was backstage changing into her next MoMa installment.
In the midst of shimmying between jam after jam, Monáe muscled through the evening malaise with contagious energy. She riffed, she danced, she paid homage to her late collaborator Prince, she slammed Trump, she championed her LBTQ+ peers, she welcomed immigrants, she empowered women everywhere. Every second counted in her eyes, so much so that she challenged the camera crew, who struggled to shift between her set to NF’s over at the Lake Shore stage. Sadly, she had to relent, to which Monáe confessed, “I wish I had more time.”
Don’t we all. –Michael Roffman
The Politics of Festivals: Depending on your inclinations, the music festival world has been either blissfully or maddeningly free of meaningful political statements in recent years, even though the world probably ended in 2012 and we’re currently living in a simulation known as “The Bad Ending.” However, there was no room for bothsidesism during the Friday afternoon set from UK punk band IDLES.
Swaggering across the stage like a degenerate Florida dad in an unbuttoned floral shirt, lead singer Joe Talbot didn’t mince words, saying, “We come from the UK. Nothing to cheer about, trust me,” before leading his band through snarling songs against xenophobia (“Danny Nedelko”), toxic masculinity (“Samaritans”), and “how much we hate the racist right-wing press in our country and yours” (“Rottweiler”). The chaotic good energy spilled over fully during “Exeter”, when the band plucked a few kids from the barrier, handed them instruments, and let them go crazy. Temporarily freed from his duties, guitarist Mark Bowen used his free time to grab a cymbal (stand and all) and leap into the crowd, searching for someone to do a bit of bashing. It was the kind of moment you don’t always expect at 2019’s increasingly managed festivals: spontaneous, anarchic, and more than a little bit cathartic.
Two days and two more mass shootings later, Lollapalooza witnessed a wearier kind of political statement, this time from country crossover star Kacey Musgraves. Still reeling from the terror attack in her home state of Texas (as well as the one in Dayton less than a day later), Musgraves commended the gathered crowd for “still [having] the bravery to show up to big music festivals.” It was a stark reminder that festivals remain targets; before carrying out the 2017 massacre at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, gunman Stephen Paddock booked a room overlooking Grant Park during that year’s Lollapalooza. Seeing defiance in her assembled crowd, Musgraves encouraged audience members to shout “SOMEBODY FUCKING DO SOMETHING” in unison as a means of emotional release. “Maybe somebody will hear us,” she concluded. –Tyler Clark
The Childish Gambino Experience: Make no mistake, Lollapalooza loved Childish Gambino. In the minutes and seconds leading up to his Friday night headlining performance, there was hardly a spot to stand in the whole south section of Grant Park. It was the first Big Moment crowd of the weekend, so congested that a number of hungry spectators even scaled the surrounding scaffolding to get a sight of the Grammy winner. So, when he finally appeared — on time, to his credit — and proudly declared, “Welcome to the Childish Gambino Experience,” the applause was deafening.
But here’s the thing: Those who were really there for the experience were few and far between. Instead, most of the crowd was there to see Gambino himself. You know, the mastermind behind FX’s Atlanta. The man who brought back Lando Calrissean. The MVP of Community. The phenomenon. That’s why it was somewhat ironic, if not a tad naive, that he insisted everyone put their phones down. “If you wanna hear your favorite song, go home and do that,” he stressed. “Tonight, I want to have an experience.” The problem is the experience was his; everyone else just wanted to share it.
And they did. When Gambino first arrived, those phones went up. When he descended into the crowd, those phones went up. When he played “This Is America”, those phones went up. But his extended funk jams? That “church shit” as he joked? Not so much. If anything, those same phones created ghostly patches of discombobulated light, all waiting to lift off for something else they might recognize. Granted, the crowd never diminished — although seeing fans wearing his shirt leave 30 minutes early was disheartening — but it was only rabid in gasps.
Those gasps were enough for Gambino, though. “This is the part of the show where I rate the crowd from one to 10,” he explained. “And I gotta say, Lollapalooza, on a scale of one to 10, you’re on a 16, you fucking broke it. But I can’t grade you on a curve; you gotta get to a 20.” Whether they ever got there is up for debate, but also somewhat irrelevant in the long run. Because those who did plug in left with something far more special and invaluable than shitty proof for Instagram. Without sounding like a Hallmark card, they left with a sense of hope.
“As I look into the crowd, and I see these young happy faces, I’m reminded that my own children are the future,” Gambino proudly exclaimed. “I love doing these shows because it gives me a lot of hope. It’s a hard time right now, and it won’t be forever. I love you and I want you to remember that. Even if you don’t love yourself, know that I do, that shit’s important.” He then added, “Be the visionary we’re waiting for.” At a time when leadership is fucked — and amidst a weekend that produced another American nightmare — those words carry more weight than any Top 40 hit.
If only they were just as popular. –Michael Roffman
The Tamest Impala: Look, we’re fans of Tame Impala. Big fans, in fact. The year they released Currents, we called it “a fantastical vision that cranks up the saturation and weakens the laws of physics” and named it our No. 5 album of the year (“Let It Happen” went even higher, to No. 2 in our song of the year poll). But, and this is crucial: that year was 2015, and Currents remains their most recent record.
Since then, the Aussie psych-rockers have appeared at the following festivals on what is essentially the same extended tour: Levitation, Governors Ball, Outside Lands, Austin City Limits, Lollapalooza Berlin, Lollapalooza Chile, Lollapalooza Argentina, Lollapalooza Brazil, Bonnaroo, Firefly, Rock Werchter, Roskilde, Bumbershoot, Sasquatch! (RIP), Panorama (also RIP), FYF (ALSO RIP), Mad Cool, Pitchfork, Desert Daze, Coachella (twice), Shaky Knees (twice), Boston Calling (twice), Primavera Sound (twice), Glastonbury (twice), Splendour in the Grass (twice), Lollapalooza (twice), Osheaga, and like 38 more we don’t have room to list.
That’s more than 70 festivals! The point is: If you’ve been aching to see Kevin Parker’s woozy, record-perfect renditions of “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” and “The Less I Know the Better”, you’ve probably done it by now and possibly multiple times over. Maybe you did it again this weekend, and maybe you kinda wish you’d checked out Childish Gambino instead. We’ll be first in line for Parker’s next big statement, but until then: weep, Kevin, for there are no fests left to conquer. –Tyler Clark
The Hardest Working Man at Lollapalooza: For the first time in his career, Chance the Rapper is facing a touch of critical skepticism; his new album, The Big Day, currently sports a 72 average on Metacritic, down significantly from the stratospheric heights reached by 2016’s Coloring Book (89) and 2013’s Acid Rap (86). That relatively cool reception hasn’t stopped Chicago’s favorite son from treating his hometown’s biggest festival as an extension of his release party. Despite appearing nowhere on Lollapalooza’s lineup poster, Chance had one of the busiest weekends of any festival performer, appearing twice on Friday (first with fellow Chicago rapper Calboy and later with Death Cab for Cutie) and continuing the fun on Saturday with a drop-in performance of “Eternal” with Chicago-by-way-of-St.-Louis rapper Smino.
Chance improved every set he touched, especially Death Cab’s. Though the veteran indie rockers were in fine form during a set that drew evenly from the band’s 2003-2015 material, “Do You Remember” is easily the high mark of their last few years, and better than anything on last year’s lackluster Thank You For Today (an album which, other than lead single “Gold Rush,” the band entirely avoided here). Smino’s set needed less help; featuring everything from a squad armed with squirt guns to a Pepto-pink Pontiac to an honest-to-God marriage proposal (as well as some killer cuts drawn from from 2018’s NØIR), his mid-afternoon appearance was one of the few to coax serious life out of the notoriously fickle Tito’s Stage at Grant Park’s Petrillo Music Shell. –Tyler Clark
#LatinoGang: J Balvin headlining Saturday night was just another indication of how the world of major music festivals is evolving. The Colombian reggaeton singer is the first Latino headliner in the festival’s long history — a title the superstar didn’t take lightly — and he graced the stage with an authentic appreciation and excited energy that was felt throughout the crowd. As he’s wont to do, Balvin brought the most colorful stage setup of the weekend: a Saturday morning’s worth of projected cartoons and a toy store full of giant ducks and bobbleheads.
He also paid homage to “the ones who paved the way” by bringing out esteemed guest Wisin & Yandel, pioneers in the reggaeton genre and the first and only to win a Grammy. By the end, he capped off the night with an emotional rendition of his song “Mi Gente”, peppering words of gratitude in Spanish and English and demanding Lollapalooza coordinators to realize that not only is there a large US audience for reggaeton music, but for Spanish-language music in general. “Follow your dreams,” Balvin said. “We deserve to be here just as much as anyone else.” –Samantha Lopez
This Festival Runs on Diesel: Shaquille O’Neal is many things. He’s a four-time NBA champion, a member of Papa John’s board of directors, and the star of the greatest .gif of all time. To that long resume, he can now add a new line: Lollapalooza performer. What initially looked like a schedule misprint turned out to be very real and very loud, as Shaq presided over the decks at Perry’s Stage with the hulking gravitas of an EDM warlord for an hour of pyro-filled spectacle.
Was Shaq’s playlist (which featured snippets of everything from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” to “Old Town Road”) musically daring? No. Were his demands of “LET ME SEE YOUR JUMP SHOT!” met by thousands of sunburned teenagers? They were. Was this set, against all odds, the perfect way to give in to the sun-baked festival psychosis that always starts to set in by the last day of these things? You bet your throwback jersey it was. –Tyler Clark
Standout Sad Girl Sets: Women are now at the forefront of indie music. They’re injecting the lo-fi DIY sound of the past with fresh perspectives and more tenacity, perhaps reflecting the fight it took to get there. Japanese Breakfast, Sharon Van Etten, and Mitski are no exception and are all rare combinations of different “sad girls” who shined at this year’s Lolla.
— Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner is funny, contemplative, and snarky as hell, setting her biggest hits like “Road Head” and “Driving Woman” to bubbling beats, bubblegum pop melodies, and wistful electric guitar. She even threw in a cover of Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.” as a shout-out to Chicago.
— Veteran Sharon Van Etten is the more introspective, vulnerable type. Through heart-wrenching squawks, particularly on her presentation of Remind Me Tomorrow power singles “Comeback Kid” and “Seventeen”, Van Etten delivers a more punk-flecked approach to sad songs.
— And Mitski is the charismatic, sad artsy girl who sings distinctly pretty songs about heartbreak and sex that play out like a piece of conceptual art on stage (in this case, around a white table and chair) as she gestures and moves with each lyric she sings.
Whatever the combination, though, what the three have in common is the ability to make a set in the afternoon in a major city at a major festival feel extremely personal and intimate, even while indiscernible dubsteps or police sirens carry on in the background.
The Best of the Tiny Fonts: One of Lollapaolloza’s best sets was also one of its first. While most festival goers were still navigating the El or putting the finishing touches on their body glitter, Chicago’s Beach Bunny was dropping an impeccable set of dreamy surf pop complete with the kind of shoegaze-adjacent guitar work that you might’ve expected at one of Lolla’s ’90s tour stops. The crowds who did make their way to the shade of the American Eagle stage just after noon on Thursday were with frontwoman (and recent DePaul grad) Lili Trifilio from the beginning, dropping Breakfast Club-approved dance moves during “February,” chanting “Cry! Cry! Cry!” during the cathartic chorus of “Boys,” and starting a singalong loud enough to hear from the back on “Prom Queen.”
For her part, Trifilio still seemed as appreciative of (and surprised by) all the attention as she did during an Empty Bottle set in 2018, at one point pausing to say “This might be the coolest thing we’ve ever done!” If that’s true, consider this: all of Beach Bunny’s well-earned hype comes from just four EPs since 2015, including 2017’s breakout Crybaby and 2018’s even better follow-up Prom Queen. Assuming Beach Bunny can turn out a full-length debut whose charms meet or exceed those of their existing material, we think it’s safe to say that the band has even cooler days ahead. –Tyler Clark
A Grande Ending: Ariana Grande is no stranger to making a grand statement with her performances. The pop superstar plays major festivals around the world and sells out arenas every tour. There’s no shortage of color, pop, fun, and excitement when seeing an Ariana performance. However, having her close out the festival Sunday night was the exact energy Lolla needed to end on — for a different reason.
As mentioned before with J Balvin, Janelle Monáe, and Childish Gambino, Lollapalooza has evolved into something more than white guys on guitars. And, just as importantly, it’s also not a festival aiming to be inclusive just to be inclusive with a one-off or token performances. Women and minorities are here and always have been; however, they’re just now starting to refuse to be in the background.
And no one upstages Ariana Grande.
The feathered 26-year-old performed all her greatest hits, anthems that teeter on the unapologetic theme of knowing your worth and demanding that everyone else knows it, too. Grande has earned the title Princess of Pop and isn’t shy about wearing the crown. Lollapalooza could not have ended on a more fitting note than a set with Ariana Grande singing, “I want it, I got it.” A major mood for women in 2019 and a step forward for Lollapalooza. –Samantha Lopez
What Have We Learned, Perry Farrell? Last year, we called upon Lollapalooza to “complete its transformation into being the definitive Top 40 festival.” One look at the massive crowds drawn by Ariana Grande, Twenty One Pilots, and The Chainsmokers seems to indicate that they’ve taken our advice (or something like it) to heart, at least when it comes to the festival’s toplines. Lower down the schedule, things took a step back; just a year after sporting an undercard featuring future chart toppers including Lizzo, Lewis Capaldi, and Billie Eilish, this year’s edition of Lollapalooza often felt like it was booked by a wonky Spotify algorithm rather than a human being with an ear for the next big thing.
Every festival has an off year now and then, and we’re reasonably confident that’s what’s going on here (for proof, just look at ticket sales; as of the beginning of last week, Lollapalooza still had 4-day passes available after years of same-day sellouts). Thus, since we’re in the advice business, we’d offer this: pair those Top 40 headliners with a more daring undercard, preferably one that makes better use of Chicago’s deep bench of musical talent. No single festival will ever please every music fan, but with its pedigree, location, and willingness to get a little crazy, Lollapalooza has the chance to come the closest. –Tyler Clark