Lollapalooza Diary

Saturday, 1:45 p.m.: My first official action of Lollapalooza 2006, day 2 is to decide to miss The Go! Team. It was a late night, the train was slow and I want to see a band at 2:30 clear on the other side of the park. Sources say they were pretty good. As I walk in, Feist is on the stage. Leslie Feist is park of that giant, awesome Canadian musical collective that includes Broken Social Scene, Stars and Metric, and her acoustic-guitar-driven music wavers between Billie Holiday vocal jazz and etherial Bjork wierdness. Feist ad-libs the line "Chicago is just like Canada" into one of her songs, much to the chilled-out crowd's delight. Many people are sitting on the ground, preparing themselves for 8 more hours of rock. At one point in the show, Feist calls Built to Spill a "death-metal band." I suppose, compared to her, they are.

2:30: Built to Spill are the elder statesmen of spaced-out indie rock. And I do mean elder. Guitarist Jim Roth is grey-haired and balding, and the other band members are showing the effects of 15 years of rock and roll. But it's an enthusiastic—and surprisingly young—crowd, especially considering emo fave Coheed and Cambria is playing on the other side of the park. You wouldn't expect to hear teenage girls screaming for Built to Spill, but here they are. The show is unpretentious but studied, with stage banter kept to a minimum and guitar solos and long jams that seem over-rehearsed. Huge props, though, go to bassist Brett Nelson for wearing a Strong Bad t-shirt on stage.

3:30: A mostly-instrumental band out of Tucson, Ariz., Calexico takes the stage next. With their mariachi horns, steel guitar and a Spanish-language backup singer, they sound like Cake if that band were given a Valium and covered in guacamole. And that's a good thing. Their mellow, atmospheric sound is relaxing, but the band's many members are happy to be here, and their performances reflect it. I see a guy who I think is Ric Ocasek doing a crazy dance off to the side of the stage, but I find out later he's minor music-world celebrity Beatle Bob. Unfortunately, I have to cut Calexico short to walk across Grant Park for the most anticipated show of the day.

4:05: It's 25 minutes before Gnarls Barkley is scheduled to begin, and the entire southern half of the park is filled with people—almost none of them facing Wolfmother performing on the other southern stage. Expectations are high.

4:30: Gnarls Barkley delivers on those expectations. Since it's hot outside, I guess they chose less-elaborate costumes—tennis outfits and white sweatbands for everyone—but that doesn't matter once they begin. The band—guitar, bass, drums, three backup singers and a string section—plays out Dangermouse and Cee-Lo to 'We Are the Champions,' which segues into 'Go Go Gadget Gospel,' the first track off their album St. Elsewhere. Cee-Lo's infectious smile and powerful voice, and the band's unbelievable rhythmic energy make this show easily the best so far. The crowd is even bigger than the one last night for the Raconteurs. Gnarls plays a Greenhornes cover, returning the favor after the Racoteurs played 'Crazy' last night. They also play 'Who Scared You,' an obscure Doors cover that has Cee-Lo claiming his mother had an affair with Jim Morrison. Before 'Crazy,' Cee-Lo asks the crowd to give the string section 'sprit fingers,' and even the people way in the back actually do it. An all-around great show. The genre-defying Gnarls Barkley is the future of music.

5:30: Q101 DJ James VanOsdol introduces the Smoking Popes. Ironic, since the station hardly ever plays their music. They perform highly adequate versions of familiar songs, sounding very similar to their recently released At Metro [Live] album. They offer no stage banter at all, and even the front-row crowd just doesn't seem into it—maybe because the Gnarls Barkley show deflated them, or maybe because the performance just isn't that great. Apparently, though, there's a new Popes record in the works, as they play a new song from it called 'If You Don't Care.' It sounds like, well, a Smoking Popes song.

6:30: I'd heard the Flaming Lips had a crazy live show, but nothing prepared me for this. Fifteen minutes before the show, roadies send a giant orange balloon into the crowd. Then singer Wayne Coyne steps inside a giant inflatable ball which stagehands dressed as superheroes throw into the audience. Coyne rolls around on everyone's heads for a while, then returns to the stage and starts shooting confetti cannons while the band begins to play. They've got groups of dancers dressed as Santa Claus and as aliens, with giant inflatables behind them. Then the roadies begin throwing out giant blue balloons for the crowd to play with—not four or five, but easily 100. At one point Coyne puts a nun puppet on his hand and sings with it. It's really something when the most normal thing onstage is a double-necked guitar. Undistracted by all the balloons, the crowd goes absolutely nuts when the band launches into 'Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots pt. 1,' and are rewarded with a high-energy extended version. Between songs, Coyne reminisces about playing at Lollapalooza 1994 alongside the Beastie Boys and Guided by Voices, but the crowd gives its loudest response when he mentions the Breeders.

7:30: The New Pornographers take the stage without famous members Dan Bejar of Destroyer or Neko Case, but they are enthusiastic for the trappings of rockstardom at Lollapalooza. His face projected on the giant screen next to the stage, singer Carl Newman says, 'I'm gonna lose my shit if we didn't get a Jumbotron.' They're playing for a huge audience, many of whom just saw Common and are waiting for Kanye West. Lord knows why the New Pornographers are playing between the only two hip-hop acts, but they love it. Of all the indie-rock bands I've seen, they're the most into-it and seem happiest to be here.

8:30: A few minutes before Kanye West comes on, some kids standing at the very front of the crowd tell me they've been there up against the barricade the entire day, with no bathroom breaks. That's dedication. And insanity. West finally takes the stage five minutes late, the only performer to do so, to my knowledge. It's a high energy show, with West hopping from one side of the stage to the other, but the first few songs are plagued by sound problems. West leaves the stage after the first few songs, and his backup singers cover Gnarls Barkley's 'Crazy,' the third cover of the festival (Mates of State and the Raconteurs did it yesterday). West trots out several members of his Chicago hip-hop posse, including GLC, Common, Lupe Fiasco and Twista, who joins him for 'Slow Jamz.' Then West leaves the stage ten minutes early, so he can play an 'encore.' He sure lives up to his arrogant reputation with this stunt, but when he returns with 'Jesus Walks,' all the fans who haven't yet started walking out go crazy. It's the most electrifying of all his songs, and a good reason he's achieved mainstream success. West brings out all his guests again for 'Touch the Sky,' an odd end to a day otherwise filled with alternative rock bands.