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Lollapalooza 2010: Still the best festival in the States

Boston Examiner went on the road last week, heading out to Chicago to catch Lollapalooza, the music event now in its 14th year, and sixth as a destination festival. Put on by Jane’s Addiction leader Perry Farrell, it remains probably the best multi-day fest in the country.

Sure, Coachella is the best to camp out at and lose yourself in the desert, Sasquatch! undoubtedly presents the most scenic surroundings and Bonnaroo, well, that’s really good if you’re looking to jam out Woodstock-style.

But Lollapalooza, it gets right down to the business of music, and this year, business was good. Acts up and coming to arena headliners from genres as diverse as the crowd it was playing to spread across eight stages throughout the scenic expanse of Grant Park, bordered by Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline.

Friday, under blue skies and a mid-80s breeze, with members straight out of both Philly and New York City, The Walkmen started off Day 1 without any sound on the Adidas Mega Stage.

The growing audience waited patiently as the delay hit the 10-minute mark before frontman Hamilton Leithauser, looking like an extra from Reservoir Dogs in a white button-down shirt and skinny black tie, finally got power and belted out a handful of songs from the band’s upcoming album Lisbon, as well as favorites like “The Rat.”

One of the coolest ideas organizers of Lollapalooza have come up with in recent years is the Kidzapalooza stage. It’s family friendly and has a gated-off area in front of the artists for parents with small children to come in and chill out in. The best part is that big-name acts are constantly stopping by and performing mini-sets.

Ed Kowalczyk played three songs on the Kidz stage, two from his days as the frontman in Live, “Heaven” and “Lightning Crashes,” as well as “Grace,” the first single from his new solo record, Alive.

Afterward, the singer sat down to talk about a number of topics, including the acrimonious dissolution of his former band, which was so nasty that guitarist Chad Taylor said, “I can’t ever see myself working with Ed, let alone ever being in the same room with him.”

“I don’t really want to get into the negativity surrounding that, and for me the door is always open for a reunion,” said Kowalczyk. “But going solo is about challenging myself and embracing growth as an artist.”

The North American leg of his solo tour comes to Royale in Boston October 2, and Kowalczyk couldn’t be more thrilled to be playing there.

“It’s exciting to get back into small places and create a more intimate atmosphere again with the fans. It’ll be a reconnection.”

Lady Gaga was one of the headliners on the first day, but the paparazzi-seeking diva wouldn’t be content without creating a bigger stir. Midday, she jumped on the tiny BMI stage wearing a see-through fishnet ensemble with her “Monster Ball Tour” openers Semi Precious Weapons, pounded the drums for a minute or two, made out with singer Justin Tranter, then leapt from the stage into the crowd, where she was groped by enthusiastic fans.

Devo knows a thing or two about putting on a spectacle, and the reunited pop rockers played the South Side Parkways stage, powering through almost as many costume changes as songs. There were the sleek, new space-age gray and blue suits, and the always-present energy-dome hats - also in blue instead of the traditional red. Mid-set songs like “Girl U Want” and “Whip It” got the biggest reactions from the fans.

Nighttime headliners Lady Gaga and The Strokes squared off at opposite ends of the park, and rock fans for the most part eagerly flocked to see the anticipated return of the latter, who have been on hiatus since 2007 as individual band members pursued solo projects. Despite hipsters burning out on the garage-rock revivalists in recent years, The Strokes can still bring the energy. Leaning heavily on its debut, Is This It, which made up half the setlist, there wasn’t anyone who left the show that wasn’t amped for hearing something fresh from the New York City outfit, likely early next year.

For Day 2 of Lollapalooza, Boston Examiner headed over to Perry’s stage, which is where all the DJs performed. Doing an afternoon set on a crystal-clear summer day had to be hard to pull off, as most of the time spinning is done at night with the help of a good light show and packed house, but it can be done. DJ Steve Porter, who has been garnering a lot of praise for his hilarious “Press Hop” mash-ups, where he takes rants and outbursts from professional athletes and coaches and autotunes them over a beat, magically turned a grass plot into a dance floor complete with smoke machines and nightclub lighting.

The xx, one of the biggest breakout bands over the past year, were slotted on the Sony Playstation stage, which was entirely too small as the crowd overflowed onto walkways and even toward other stages while fans desperately tried to catch a glimpse of the chilled-out indie kids from London.

During the afternoon, it was all about the punk rock; new school, old school and a band trying to balance the two.

Up first was AFI, which, since making the major label jump a few years back, has desperately been trying to find that middle ground to keep fans of the older, more frenetic sound while appeasing those who like the newer, more polished and poppy.

The set at Lollapalooza was a good mix, opening with a solid new single, “Medicate,” while mixing in classics like “The Days of The Phoenix,” and the more recent “Kill Caustic,” a track that expertly bridges the gap.

Social Distortion pulled out a greatest hits set, one that included covers of both The Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” and “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash, whom band co-founder Mike Ness dubbed his personal hero for, “breaking down the barriers between black and white music.” Catching up with the frontman before taking the stage, he was his typically laid-back with a storm brewing underneath when talking about the new Social Distortion record that is scheduled to drop this fall, coinciding with a tour that comes to the House of Blues November 1.

The band has had some unreleased tracks floating around on various bootlegs over the years, and Ness said, “there’s gonna be some of that old stuff on there.”

The highlight of the night, and arguably the whole festival, was an incredibly inspired and energetic set by Green Day. That’s right, the band that your annoying kid sister erroneously called “punk rock” when you were in college and she was in high school has not only graduated to top-billing status, it put on a better show than anyone else at Lollapalooza.

Frontman Billy Joe Armstrong, who looked like he dunked his head into a bottle of peroxide earlier that afternoon, sprinted around the stage to the point of collapse. Then he would recover and do it all over again.

Defying the 10 p.m. curfew set by the city, the group played a half-hour over, dishing out 30 songs that included medleys with songs by The Beatles (“Hey Jude”), AC/DC (“Highway to Hell”) and Black Sabbath (“Iron Man”). And it’s not like the Green Day catalog isn’t expansive enough to draw on either. Hits like “21st Century Breakdown,” “She” and “American Idiot” kept the attention of even the most jaded.

One of the most talked about moments happened when Armstrong pulled up a fan to take a stab at the vocals for “Longview,” a nightly routine which more often than not ends up in a major fail by a hopeful but underqualified fan. Not on this night. In front of some 80,000 people, this young kid killed it as he ran the length of the stage, interacted with the band and hit every lyric spot-on. It was one of those unbelievable rock ’n’ roll moments that people will be talking about for years to come - especially since the footage has already blown up on YouTube.

Sunday was the day Chicago decided to show its true summer-weather colors in all forms. The morning started off a rainy, windy, chilly mess - what a way to usher in what was supposed to be the hardest-rocking day.

Switchfoot, who on paper looked almost out of place on the bill, battled through the clouds and wetness as the air literally heated up during its set. Hello Hurricane, the band’s latest record, is a surprisingly rocking affair, and it’s turned a lot of people suspect of the band into straight-up fans.

The live performance was much the same, as frontman Jon Foreman did whatever he needed to get the crowd going, climbing the speakers and the scaffolding next to the stage and even pulling out a cover of the Beastie Boys’ classic, “Sabotage.” “It started out drenching the pedal boards upfront and they had to pull them back,” said Foreman after the set. “They moved all our gear back, and by the end, we were like, ‘No, let’s bring it forward!’”

“For me, I just like to get in there and mix it up with the crowd even if it’s muddy - I’ll get muddy, I don’t care!” Look for a full-length interview later this month with the guys from Switchfoot.

Back over on the Kidzapalooza stage, the sun had come out in full force and brought the humidity as Thenewno2, featuring Dhani Harrison, did a quick set that included a cover of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.”

“Dhani is just great,” gushed Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell backstage.

Farrell then jumped up with Thenewno2 and did a song from one of his many bands, the Porno For Pyros chestnut, “Pets,” before leading into Velvet Underground territory and the classic “Sweet Jane.”

The Parkways stage featured a late-day appearance by Wolfmother, drawing a crowd that may or may not have been lining up early for the 8 p.m. arrival of Soundgarden, but put on a hard-rock show that if it didn’t convert skeptics, at least kept them entertained for a 10-song set.

And as the sun set on the final night, it was time for the reunion that was the talk of the festival all weekend. Soundgarden came out to the strains of “Searching with My Good Eye Closed,” and if the band accomplished anything with its official public unveiling, after playing two small club gigs in recent weeks, it was creating a time warp. Chris Cornell looked like he pulled his clothes out of a trunk marked “1992,” and his hair was back to that signature early ’90s length. Of course, there had to be something more than just dressing up the part...but there kind of wasn’t. Things started off strong, and all the group’s hits were there, “Spoonman,” “Outshined,” “Rusty Cage,” but something was blatantly off.

The energy level wasn’t always up, there seemed to be a disconnect between Cornell and the rest of the band, and at points, it was downright listless. Chalk it up to too much too soon, the pressure of a massive audience, the remnants of 13 years of rust needing to be shaken off or just plain going through the motions, but Soundgarden closing out Lollapalooza 2010 wasn’t as explosive as so many people wanted and expected it to be.

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