Playbook takes field trip to Lollapalooza

August, 9, 2012
8/09/12
11:00
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Jack White Gary Miller/Getty ImagesJack White may have rocked Lollapalooza, but he was nothing compared to Usain Bolt in London.
Although we prefer to ignore any outside distractions during the Olympics, we figured that sometimes it's a good idea to get out of the house for some fresh air. So we sent Steve Etheridge to Lollapalooza to give us a glimpse of what is happening beyond London. Here's what went down.

Day 1

Lollapalooza was hot -- an unrelentingly brutal medley of sun and mugginess that may have compelled me to check WebMD for symptoms of heat stroke. It immediately parched my body of fluids. My armpits were left wheezing, and my extremities assumed a raisin-like texture. I'm pretty sure I saw a redheaded kid spontaneously combust within 30 minutes of the gates opening.

Compounding the heat was the constant awareness that I was missing some good 'Lympics. This was the day that Michael Phelps would cap off his individual Olympic career with a win in the 100-meter butterfly, using his muscular ears to power down the backstretch and nab his 19th gold -- glory be to the Subway turkey and bacon avocado. Lady Michael Phelps -- or Missy Franklin, as her parents call her -- would dominate the 200-meter backstroke, ending the U.S.'s 40-year drought in the event and earning a big-grinned, standing O from LeBron James in the stands.

But there was music to be watched, so our native Olympians would have to endure a day without my condescending viewership.

Leading off my festival lineup was First Aid Kit, a band of two Swedish women in traditional European garb who sound more like two Tennessee sweethearts picking weeds in a tobacco field, singing harmonies to pass the time. Hair whipping and clogs stomping, they threw their bodies into their songs to compensate for the minimal instrumentation. It was as gritty as it was pretty, and the combined effect mitigated how much of a jerk the sun was being.

From there I moved on to The War on Drugs, a Philly four-piece whose locomotive indie anthems have garnered comparisons to many a rock 'n' roll iconoclast. Either the sound was too voluptuous or the stage was poorly constructed, but the monitors were noticeably shifting across the stage in response to the vibrations. It was a huge and spirited performance, though -- punctuated by a band member spiking a trumpet triumphantly.

I'd remembered a SportsNation chat the band did a while back and decided to talk to them about Olympic basketball. This was the day after the U.S. had eviscerated Nigeria with 156 points of straight-up "Space Jam" hoops, and everyone was accusing our boys of being lousy sports.

[+] EnlargeWar on Drugs
Scott Legato/Getty ImagesAdam Granduciel of The War on Drugs doesn't mind Team USA basketball running up the score.
Bassist Dave Hartley disagreed.

"They're team players, and if you want them to play well together, then you let them play," Hartley said. "I don't think it's running up the score. They just have too deep of an offense. They can't help it."

Added singer-guitarist Adam Granduciel: "If they didn't try hard enough, they might get thrown out like those badminton players."

The boys talked about how sad it must be to be Shawn Kemp these days, which is probably just a little too sad to dwell on. I shifted the conversation and asked if they thought Pearl Jam would have become as big as they did if they had kept their original name, Mookie Blaylock.

"Pearl Jam's not exactly the greatest band name either," said drummer Steven Urgo, "so I'll say yes."

"That was a bizarre thing, though, naming yourself after an active player," said Hartley. "Maybe we should change our band name to Chris Andersen."

Eh, something tells me ticket sales would go down.

***

The rest of the day was a blur. Die Antwoord happened, then Band of Skulls and M83. Then the thundering doom of Black Sabbath. Even though Ozzy Osbourne isn’t eating bats anymore and kind of looks like someone's New Age aunt, his voice is still straight out of hell. He brought us darkness, mercifully banishing the sun, and for that we were grateful.

Being one of the only U.K. bands at the fest, I had to talk to someone in Black Sabbath about the Olympics. I asked Adam Wakeman, the band's keyboardist and the main brain behind prog rock group Headspace, what he thought about the opening ceremonies.

"I thought it was very impressive and wonderfully British," Wakeman said. "Plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor and grandiose spectacle. I loved it. Unashamedly British. Sometimes we're guilty of lacking self-celebration, so it was great to see an event where that was not the case."

Britons lacking self-celebration? Poppycock.

Day 2

On Saturday morning, there was a celebrity kickball game featuring Aaron Paul from "Breaking Bad," Kaylee DeFer from "Gossip Girl," and Guy Fieri from that one nightmare you always have. Paul was smaller than you would imagine -- roughly the size of a fire hydrant -- and as far as I could tell he was either not smoking meth at all or was doing so discreetly. He seemed like the nicest person in the world. DeFer was a woman who was attractive and who was standing there. Fieri, despite the melting heat, was astonishingly unmoist. You would think his pores would be slobbering something fierce, but perhaps his frosted tips assisted with body temperature regulation. Here he is standing with a reporter who isn’t me. Cool kicks, right? He is a human exclamation mark.

[+] EnlargeGuy Fieri
Steve EtheridgeGuy Fieri is never one to blend into a crowd, even an eclectic one like Lollapalooza's.
All of the celebrities were OK at kickball.

In the afternoon, I caught sets from Delta Spirit and Moon Taxi. Both delivered ruthlessly impeccable performances. Moon Taxi succeeded in resuscitating a sleepy, hung over early afternoon crowd with an exhilarating sonic immersion, making the festival feel, for the first time all weekend, intensely alive. Afterward, I caught up with bassist Tom Putnam to talk sports, and it turns out he grew up with U.S. decathlete Trey Hardee, who is a front-runner to win the most arduous competition of the Games.

Hardee, who just might be the best pure athlete representing the United States, apparently has been leagues ahead of his peers ever since he had baby teeth.

"We had the Presidential Fitness Test every year, and you had to run the mile, and Trey would always finish it way ahead of everybody else. I mean like way ahead of everyone else," Putnam said. "He was just naturally better at it, and this was when we were 9 years old."

Our conversation came to an abrupt conclusion when festival security demanded that everyone vacate the press area.

The grounds were evacuated in anticipation of a storm that, if given the chance, would have saturated dreadlocks to their core and turned petite hipster chicks into deadly projectiles (watch an insane time lapse of it all). I could have used some decathlon skills to navigate the frenzied cattle rush toward the exit, but alas, I was helpless.

Amid the chaos, I met a Canadian who, with no cellphone or working knowledge of the city, had been separated from his pals. I took him to my apartment so he could use my computer to find them, and while we waited for a response, we watched video of his country winning its first gold of the Olympics, an individual medal in women's trampoline.

The young waif's eyes were awash with pride as his fellow countryperson stood atop the podium, their bomb-and-warfare-free national anthem bellowing from London and across the Atlantic, into the log cabins of Her Majesty’s westernmost colony. Even though America is the best country in the world at all things, we have an ugly habit of taking our successes for granted. This Canadian helped me realize that. I made a silent pledge, right then and there, to pause and be thankful for every 12th gold medal we win from now on.

The Canadian's friends eventually came and picked him up -- they were all moose versions of centaurs -- and word was sent out that everyone could return to the festival. As we funneled back into the grounds, inexplicably a hundred or so people started chanting "USA! USA!" which was kind of goofy but also somehow revitalizing to a day that had seemed utterly washed out.

That night, I took a pass on the Red Hot Chili Peppers and went to see Frank Ocean at a more intimate stage that was sequestered by a stretch of droopy elms and shrouded in gossamer moonlight. The singer's electric tenor punctured the evening haze and floated just above us, his songs, like confessions, crackling with emotional clarity. It was, and would continue to be, the finest and most exquisite performance of the weekend -- a transcendent hour to redeem a turbulent day.

Day 3

In hindsight, it's nice to know that the Olympics I missed Sunday were, jingoistically speaking, all sorts of mediocre. The American crew didn't make much happen, with the exception of McKayla Maroney’s round-off double twist front flip butt bomb, a maneuver that will go down as the greatest wrestling finishing move of all time.

Also, the weather was excellent, so I had few reasons to complain.

[+] Enlarge Jonsi Birgisson
Daniel Boczarski/Redferns/Getty ImagesThe half-distracted crowd of Lollapalooza didn't quite appreciate Sigur Ros' orchestral grandeur.
The first two bands I caught, Polica and White Rabbits, could have benefited from a club setting to complement the intricacies of their songs. The performances lacked nothing -- in fact, each gave me head rushes at times -- but the downfall of outdoor festivals is that the myriad distractions make it tough to appreciate the music beyond its most obvious qualities. Can't really tune into subtle polyrhythms when a 16-year-old in a glittery tutu is whipping a neon hula-hoop perilously close to your face.

Another band not suited for the outdoor festival crowd was Sigur Ros. Though their music is among the most resplendent and heartrending of this generation, singer Jonsi’s ethereal mewling gave the bros in '90s Pistons jerseys plenty to snicker about. I've always likened Sigur Ros to funeral pyre-lighting music -- which, ironically enough, is exactly what happened at Lolla. Perry Farrell lit a raft with a couple of the LMFAO guys on it and pushed it out to Lake Michigan while the rest of us waved candles on the shoreline. We all cried.

Seriously, though, how has no one booked Sigur Ros to play at the Olympic opening ceremonies? Their lyrics are composed in a fabricated language, so the music is truly universal, and its orchestral grandeur could make even the most ridiculous Danny Boyle children's polio ward tap-dance routine seem moving. Rio, let's make it happen.

***

Truth be told, I bailed on the remainder of Lolla. There wasn't much left except for the headliners, and I had recently watched "Edward Scissorhands," so I felt like I'd had my fill of Jack White. My priority was Usain Bolt.

It was to be the greatest footrace in recorded human history, something you just can't flake on. Literally every single millisecond was worth savoring. My friend at another news organization said its photographers shot more than 3,000 photos in the 10 seconds it took for the 100 meters to transpire.

I made the right choice. I'll see Lollapalooza again next year, and probably also the next year and the next year and the next year. But who knows if I'll ever again see what Bolt did in 41 strides. He is my kind of rock star.

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