Friday, August 20, 2010

Favorite Friday: Alan Cohen Lollapalooza Experience

From August 6 - 8, Lollapalooza took place in Chicago and it was, as Alan Cohen of Alan Cohen Experience will tell us, completely insanely packed with performances. He saw countless bands and for this Favorite Friday, Alan gives you his intense and completely full review of all of the bands he saw. There were a lot. The breakdown of Green Day's so-called punk set is pretty awesome. From Devo to Blues Traveler, Spoon and Grizzly Bear, we'll let Alan tell us the story of Lollapalooza 2010. P.S. Glad he wore a tie-dyed shirt to a music festival, and what's with the guy covering his face? Is he crying because of how bad Green Day was?

Alan Cohen Experience's 7 Favorite Lollapalooza 2010 Experiences (And More)

Many have been asking of my "experience" (get it? Alan Cohen Experience?) over at Lollapalooza 2010, so here I am, always ready to oblige. This "review" will be done in two sections. The first will be my top seven shows of the festival, and the second will be the rest of what I saw.

I will not talk about time travel or theoretical physics in this post, except to say that at any given point, there were two bands playing at the same time at opposite sides of the park, which was about a mile away. This was true even for the big headliners. Since quantum physics has not advanced to the point yet where I could have physically been in two places at once, I did not see everybody. I will also say that Transformers 3 was being filmed in Chicago at the same time. Oh, and iPhone 4's take amazing quality audio/video.

1. Soundgarden
Let me set the stage here.. Soundgarden, Godfathers of Grunge, Sub Pop, Seattle, 1997, Lollapalooza. Yes, Soundgarden. To PLAY A SHOW at Lollapalooza 2010. Who BROKE UP in 1997. Who have NO LAME NEW ALBUM to promote. Will REUNITE for Lollapalooza. For ME to watch. Hello? People? ARE YOU READING THIS??? Do you understand the magnitude of this? Soundgarden REUNITING AFTER 13 YEARS!!! ...Do you now understand how exciting this was for me? I mean, yeah, so Arcade Fire keeps getting described as "explosive" and "amazing" and whatnot, but there was no way jose in HELL I would miss the Soundgarden reunion (they played at the same time).

Musically, there is almost nothing to say. They played and sounded like Soundgarden. Gigantic, heavy rock riffs, weird time signatures, Chris Cornell's vocals were 100% on, no multimedia screens behind them, just awesome '90s rock and some huge winking skull. Did I mention how I personally consider the '90s rock scene one of the most under appreciated rock movements ever? We all know it was a "great" time for music, but I will go ahead and say it was a G-R-E-A-T time for music. I am gushing now, so I will move on and just say that they sounded amazing, played amazingly, and I air-guitared for two hours straight (seriously).

2. Devo
Devo are the kings of conceptual music. If you know me, you know that I attempt to write a concept album just about every other year. After seeing Devo, I now bow down to the kings. Unlike Soundgarden, Devo is promoting a new album (which is great, btw). They were born in the '50s. Not even the mid or late '50s, but in like, 1950. So, what does a band of 60 year olds sound like? F*@%ing incredible. Again, unlike Soundgarden, Devo is all about multimedia presentation. Many of their songs were accompanied by videos which were synced to the songs, and actually had a lot of plot and story in them... The videos for their new songs were especially excellent, and my favorite involved a rotating line of dancing silhouettes, where humans gradually de-evolved into monkeys. Then a space ship went around selecting its favorites with a giant finger, re-evolved them to humans, then took them aboard for a big party. How cool is THAT?!

The visuals are reinforced by the band themselves. The first half of the set was their more synthy-pop stuff, with a drums, guitar, keys, vocals setup and their new, grey military-ish uniforms. Devo songs in general are relatively "sparsely" arranged, and the band members did not move unless they were playing notes or a riff, giving a very robotic feel to their stage presence. Halfway through, they put on a video about the de-evolution of man (ya'll know that this is the concept and namesake behind Devo, right?), and changed into their classic yellow plastic baggy costumes. Then they came back in a rock setup (guitar, bass, drums, vocals) and CHANGED HOW THEY MOVE! Seriously, they actually changed how they physically interacted with the music with the change in styles. Devo, a bunch of senior citizens, absolutely schooled every other band at the festival on stage presence. Bravo!

As a band, Devo is made up of the caliber musicians you just don't see anymore. Go listen to recordings of The Band, Janis Joplin, Cat Stevens, etc etc. I think that every professional rock and roller in the '60s and '70s were classically trained musicians, and Devo (who formed in the '70s) are no exception to this. If you are in a band, go watch a Devo show: you will go away with a list of a dozen things to work on for your next concert.

Is the story true? Did MGMT's label push them into working with a specific producer to generate a specific sounding album? Did the MGMT dudes really use their debut success to strong-arm the suits into letting them record and release the album they always wanted to do? Or, did MGMT go down to the crossroads, where the devil tuned their guitars/synthesizers? If that makes no sense to you, please read about Robert Johnson and listen to his recordings.

Whatever the case, I have never done such a dramatic 180 in my opinion of a band as I did with MGMT. To be brutally honest, I hated their first album. I hated the songs, I hated the production, and I especially hated the "tonal palate." Why did they use THOSE types of synths? Well, let me tell you people, their second album is awesome. It's Bowie, it's space rock, it's just great all around. Needless to say, I was very excited for their set. And... wow! MGMT is now a five-piece band: 2 guitars, bass, drums, keys. At the show, they pretty much played half their first album, and half of the second one. And you know what? Everything they played sounded f-in' wonderful. Even the old songs, which are definitely weaker then the new ones, sounded good. Sooooooooooo much better as rock songs then as hipster techno crap. They were well rehearsed, hit all the notes and transitions perfectly, and the vocals were right on. The sound at festivals is never great, for the simple reason that there is one setup for all the bands, and the sound guy/gal sets the levels during the first song. A good band chooses their tones carefully, and plays consciously with each other to set their own levels. MGMT did this, and they transcended the notoriously bad sound at that stage because they are just a great band now.

The single weak point of the set was their rendition of "Kids," which was done karaoke style with the main dudes singing over a pre-recorded instrumental version of the song. Why did they do this? Why was this the moment when the crowd went the most wild? Did they miss the rest of the set? Were we at the same show? And a BIG F-U to the stupid teenage h@%ster girl who crowd surfed and landed on my fiance's neck, then refused to apologize.

4. The Strokes
Usually when I write "people have been asking me...", I am exaggerating. But many people have actually asked me, "did you see Lady Gaga?" Noooooooo!!! And by the way, she has a really obnoxious fan base, which I had the opportunity to come in contact with on a mass scale at Lollapalooza.

I went to go see the Strokes instead. They were great, played well, sounded relaxed, Julian's voice was right on, and they really know how to play to a huge field of tens of thousands of people. I'm a casual listener of theirs, but I really enjoyed their set. Their songs are short, so they pretty much played everything. Julian also had a nice, humble demeanor during the set and his banter.

5. Grizzly Bear
I love this band. I'll admit that I don't listen to their recordings too much, but this was the second time I saw them live this summer. When I listen to Grizzly Bear, I get the feeling that I am missing something about their music. By that, I mean I feel a need to sit down with a music theory textbook, and really give an academic analysis to their songs and arrangements. Their music is both pleasing to listen to on an immediate level, and both gives me the desire to study it. That, my friends, is the mark of a great band.

They are a bit on the low key side in some ways, so their late-afternoon placement was perfect. People say I look like their guitarist, so maybe that has something to do with it as well. Better then being told I look like Ray Romano.

6. Spoon
These guys are a class act. Have you seen them yet? You really should. Another band that I don't listen to much on disc, but really enjoy live. They really do dominate the mid-tempo, groove rock market, and manage to stay far far away from the musical stylings of bands that give mid-tempo groove rock a bad name. They are dark, they have edge, but yet still manage to sound cool, hip, and danceable. How do they do this??? This is a band that is impossible to understand unless you see them live. And I don't mean this in the sense that they run around like idiots on stage, and that makes them "Unbelievable!!!! Explosive!!!". I just mean that recording technology is just not good enough to capture the power in their arrangements.

7. The Food (not a band, but actual edibles)
We all know that comparing food to music is like comparing apples to... you know where this is going. When making my top 7 list, I used the mindset of, "What was memorably good? What was standard good?" The "standard good" stuff continues below, but the food definitely fell into "memorably good."

Bravo Top Chef Superstar Graham Elliot Bowles was given the task this year to curate the "Chow Town." Yes, he actually curated the food selection. For a foodie like me, that is a wonderful thing. Everything there was "walk-around and eat" friendly, and everything was under $10 - groovy! Some highlights were Graham's lobster corn dogs, the Asian pork belly sliders, and the Lou Malnati's pizza. My festival fave was the Franks 'N' Dawgs sausage sandwiches. Holy crap were they good.

They also had free water bottle filling stations all over. Big applause to the organizers for providing this, and not charging $4 a pop (ala Woodstock '94).

And now the rest of the bands.

Green Day
Chose Green Day over Phoenix for the Saturday headliner. Actually, we hit up the first part of Green Day (which was pretty bad), went back to Phoenix, couldn't get a close enough spot to hear well, and went back to the musically superior stage that housed Green Day. They played their hits, and Billie Joe (Armstrong) kept insisting that, "f@$k the man, we will PLAY ALL NIGHT!" This obviously wasn't true, because outdoor venues in the middle of cities have strict curfews, which they honored even though he said they wouldn't.

"Lame" is a good word to describe their show. Most of their hits were more of a sing-a-long then an actual performance, "Let's hear it from YOU!" The "punk attitude" was so awkwardly forced. At one point, Billie Joe was ROLLING AROUND ON THE STAGE, being "punk," yet the whole shebang was carefully choreographed. You had horn players on stage Billie! They weren't following your antics, it was all planned! I didn't have huge expectations for Green Day, beyond thinking that it would be pretty cool to hear them play songs off of Dookie. But man, too much mascara or something: Green Day is no longer a band, and now more reminiscent of a Broadway show... wait a minute....

Wavves was pretty cool, the first band I saw at the festival. Nathan Williams is a hipster hero, but he has enough talent to back it up. Taking on the bass and drummer from Jay Reatard's old band was a good idea, and they provided a nice rock edge to his beach boys-y (Boise?) melodies.

The Walkmen
Forget Spoon, these guys are the real deal class act. OK, don't forget Spoon at all. The Walkmen formed at a prep school in DC, and it shows. Despite the heat, the lead singer still wears most of a suit. Their music is very... good. To be honest, 45 minutes is a good amount of time to see them, and anymore would probably start to get a bit boring. By the way, don't even bother with their albums, which are REALLY boring. They are much much better live. They do well with sparse-ish low-key arrangements, and they're not afraid to be at the slow side of mid-tempo. I give them a solid B. Would see them anytime, but wouldn't regret missing a show.

The Big Pink
Did not like this group at all. They were a good enough band playing mediocre new wave songs, with one dude whose sole role is to abuse a sampler machine. WTF was with all the industrial NIN-ish sounds that were REALLY FREAKING TOO F-IN LOUD AND DROWNING OUT THE REST OF THE BAND?! This is one example where if they just got rid of that one guy and all his musical contributions, they would be much better for it. Also, is their name supposed to be ironic? Do they even know what "The Big Pink" was? That should represent music in the style of Bob Dylan and the Band, not some industrial techno-rock hybrid. British people are so weird sometimes.

Hot Chip
Another band I just can't get into, despite many of my friends and loved ones considering them "a favorite." The caveat is that their keyboard player was off with his birthing-wife, so a big hole was left in their music. They seem like nice, sincere, and fun people, but their songs... eh. Again, another British band that insists on jacking up the sampler machine, except Hot Chip instead used it to play the same freaking techno/disco beat for every song. My fiance loves this band, so I will stop trashing them and say, "OK, OK, I'll give them another shot."

Jimmy Cliff
How could I not go see Jimmy Cliff? The man is a legend, and I have been listening to his classic album, The Harder They Come all summer. He's 62, with plenty of energy, and still apparently partakes in the Rasta rituals showcased in his movie from the '70s. His band was all young, musicians-for-hire, so they sounded great, and all had big smiles (and Jimmy T-Shirts). At what point as a musician do you start to be your own cover act? I can't answer this, but Jimmy Cliff probably can. It was good and fun, worth seeing for the historical value.

Morning Benders
These guys are great! They played the small stage first thing in the morning (noon). Their sound translates REALLY well to the stage, and they sound huge, melodic, all with a very mature sense of tempo (young bands tend to rush). Probably the Berkley, CA in them or something.

Quite the opposite of the Morning Benders (though they played almost back-to-back on the same stage), they are a young band with a ton of nervous energy, that rushed through their songs so much that they ended early! They must be the only band at Lollapalooza to have done this. Whatever. They are garage rock, and it worked for them. The drummer and guitarist switched instruments halfway through. Their songs are short and punky rock, almost Replacements-ish.

Blues Traveler
Yikes, what a mess they were. I went to their set hoping to catch of glimpse of the mid-'90s jam/blues/rock scene that originated from Princeton and landed in NY. I've heard plenty of great Blues Traveler shows, and I found myself saying to people, "They are SO much more then 'Run-Around'." Well, the truth is, in 2010 they are not just "Run-Around," they are bad at it! They started with that song, then went into Sublime's "What I Got" (lame), then into a jam... where the bass player attempted to do a cool, funky "slap" bass groove, but was WAY ahead of the drummer, and the organ player was holding whole notes, John Popper wasn't even playing, and the whole thing was a big, sloppy mess. Big thumbs down to this one, and I used to love this band!

The XX

More Brits with a sampler, although they do it pretty well. Their "drummer" is really a guy with an Akai (that rhymes), but instead of hitting "play" for a big, ol' rock-a-long, he actually plays the sounds with his hands. This band is weird, gothy, loves their quarter notes and eighth notes, and has a VERY sparse, empty sound. Apparently their keys player quit, and they didn't bother replacing him. Also, their music is s-l-o-w. Not my personal taste, but a cool band - respeck, respeck. The guitar player needs to practice, though.

Deer Tick
I was mostly catching up with an old friend during this set, so I wasn't paying too much attention. They are alt-country from Rhode Island. At their best, they are like... I can't place my finger on it. Wilco? Maybe. Tom Petty? His more bluesy stuff, I suppose. At their worst they are bad singer-songwriter music (not that all singer-songwriter music is bad, but bad singer-songwriter music is bad).

Blitzen Trapper
Hmmmm, I just have no motivation to write much of these guys. They're pretty cool, and so are their music videos. Go watch and enjoy them.

Mumford & Sons
Another caveat - it was really super hot for their set, and they played on a stage on a field of pavement (not the band). It got physically uncomfortable because of this, and I was having bad flashbacks of being at an Indigo Girls concert (which I have never gone to). Maybe it was the overwhelmingly female-dominated sing-a-long, or the humidity, or the harmonies, or the "take themselves too seriously Americana, but from England" shtick of theirs. But, my friend RRS will kill me, so they were pretty cool, you should go watch them, and they are a lot like Gaelic Storm.

Saw them for about 10 minutes at the small stage. Sounded fun, wore cool '80s costumes. Did not see enough to judge, because I was hungry for a Franks & Dawgs.

Victim of bad sound? Think so. Also, we were standing way to close to the subwoofers, which meant I could only hear the kick drum for the first half of the show. When I went further back, I heard what the rest of the band was playing and my opinion changed for the better. Cool stuff, you will either like them or not. I don't know think they are good enough to "love", nor bad enough to "hate". Somewhere in the happy middle. The lyrics are cheesy, "raise me up/walk to the river" sort of thing, but cheesy in a good way. Like how pizza is "cheesy" and nachos are "cheesy." You dig?

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