Wet Hot American Festival: Lollapalooza 2009

Certain things in Chicago are predictable: The Cubs are gonna lose, there’s a Happy Hour somewhere, and if it’s Lollapalooza weekend, the weather is gonna stink. This year, fans were greeted with a Day One torrential downpour, followed by two long stretches of sticky heat and humidity, the hottest two days of the 2009 summer. That didn’t stop the intrepid from swarming Grant Park early Friday afternoon for the start of Perry’s three-day capitalism carnival. Marking its fifth year in Chicago, contracted to run through 2018, the festival is a huge cash cow for the city, guaranteeing the economy $13 million in revenue. As such, there is very little surprise or danger anymore, with tight security and high prices guarding Perry’s venture for years to come. However, I always get a tingle of excitement, as I make my way to the El tracks for the first of many trips to Grant Park over the three day weekend. This year, for the first time since 2005, I ditched the sunscreen and opted for a trash bag poncho, which the good people at CVS were happy to supply for free.

Emerging from the underground after a long train ride, the rain had only gotten worse and I trudged along to the Press Tent, my makeshift poncho not working out so well, and I was drenched by the time I checked in. With a full schedule of video interviews all weekend, the Tent became my second home, with free water and booze providing a temporary escape from the rain and accumulating muck underfoot. My first stop was the Vitamin Water stage for Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, whose merry band of noisemakers and feel good stomp reminded me of a James Brown revival. The crowd gave it a go, some attempting half-hearted dances, but it was still too early for much activity. I caught the tail end of Zap Mama, the ladies decked out onstage in neon dresses, complete with brass band kicking out their revisionist brand of Motown soul party. It was easily the funkiest hour of the fest, despite some great DJ dance sets later in the weekend. Off to a high note, I was feeling groovy, and smiled as the distinction between headliners Depeche Mode and Kings of Leon fans became more obvious. The pseudo Goths, still committed to wearing dark jeans in the summer tried in vain to light cigarettes in the rain, while the Kings of Leon folk fueled up on overpriced beer and smuggled hooch.

The Heartless Bastards played a decent set, despite a rain slicked stage. I couldn’t help thinking of Spinal Tap on The Simpsons, lamenting their drenched stage, “This is a rock show, not the bleedin’ splish-splash show!” Thievery Corporation packed the Chicago 2016 main stage area for their 6:00pm set, bringing back the world party vibe of the Honeybears and Zap Mama. After some typical Of Montreal craziness, their shtick wearing a bit thin, it was time for the big decision, Kings of Leon or Depeche? Beer or cigarettes? I opted for Depeche, who began their set with little fanfare or Perry introduction. Despite playing the hits, “Personal Jesus” and “Policy of Truth,” the set was lackluster for me, all the stage smoke and dated visuals failing to make up for a poorly selected first night closer. I’ll always be a Cure man I suppose. My camerawoman Andrea and I sprinted to Kings of Leon just in time for “The Bucket.” It’s strange to see Kings of Leon as mainstage, marquee icons, but none of the charm was lost. Before “Sex on Fire” front man Caleb Followill announced, “The last time we played Lolla was for about ten people. Thanks for making us feel like a much bigger band than we are.” It was no false modesty, and a perfect way to close out a waterlogged first day.

Day 2 dawned sunny and hot, and I arrived early, ready to catch budding hometown favorites Ezra Furman and the Harpoons 11:45 set. Sporting a bright yellow slicker, Ezra made the most of the early start time, complete with goofy, stream of consciousness banter about the power of rock and roll, while kicking out his bizarre concoction of artsy roots rock. After closing the set with my favorite summer jam, “Take Off Your Sunglasses,” I strode happily back to the Press Tent to stock up on free supplies. Miike Snow played arguably the best set of the weekend. Stuck with an unpleasant 1:30 set time, the heat didn’t slow down the crowd or the band, who sexed up the afternoon with their blend of IDM and post-punk. I don’t even know if that’s the best way to describe them. Whatever it was, it worked. The set was pounding bass and synths, lithe and fun, something like New Order meets Kraftwerk on ecstasy. Even the name is confounding. The name is pronounced “Mike,” not phonetically like “MEE-kay” as we assumed, and Andrea and I almost blundered into several conversations with them in the Press Tent, proclaiming “Hey MEE-kay Snow, you guys were awesome!” The rest of the day failed to live up to the high water mark of Snow, until Santigold’s crazed 5:30 set. The PlayStation area was packed, with kids hanging from the soundboard and lighting rigs, and for a band that I had almost no interest in seeing, I was pleasantly surprised. Punk rock Santigold!

I chose Animal Collective over Ben Harper and the Relentless 7, trying to see what so many of my friends and fellow journalists love about this band. After the set, I still didn’t get Animal Collective. There, I said it. They’ve always sounded like a shapeless mess to me, and weird for the sake of weird. Let’s move on. Once the Beastie Boys dropped out, it seemed like a hasty decision to select Yeah Yeah Yeahs to fill in as headliners. The opportunity to bring back a hard to book, seldom touring band was squandered, and Tool didn’t do much to brighten my outlook on the night. Again, I have never gotten them, and probably never will. Even in my youth, the music seemed so dour and the videos totally nightmarish that I have pretty much avoided them my whole life. The set, however, was actually pretty cool. I still don’t get off on the music, but the energy was pretty wild, the drumming machine gun crazy, with the slithery stage presence of Maynard Keenen menacing and theatrical, and anything but safe. Bravo!

Day 3. My notes read like a page from Capt. Willard’s diary. Ok, that’s a bit much, but here’s an excerpt: Dead tired, slept like shit last night, bandanna sweaty, why did I wear a black shirt? Feeling dehydrated, where’s my Gold Bond? Missed our press contact. Too many interviews today…ready to go home. Day 3 is always an endurance trial, but after a second wind, I remembered to have fun. The Airborne Toxic Event put on an amazing show, complete with a great cover of Q. Lazzurus’ “Goodbye Horses,” the song made famous in The Silence of the Lambs. Several other nerdy journalists and I did impromptu renditions of Buffalo Bill’s camera dance for this one, minus the genital tuck-back. From there, it was all upbeat to the finish line. Dan Deacon put on one hell of a spectacle, the big stage detracting nothing from his manic bells and whistles electronic freakout. New York’s Passion Pit made for a fun dance party, and Vampire Weekend’s 4:30 show was the perfect soundtrack for late afternoon beer drinking. After a tough debate between Lou Reed or Snoop Dogg, The Doggfather won out and played a great throwback set, even bringing The Lady of Rage on for “Afro Puffs.”

The big thrill for most was Jane’s Addiction’s closing set, but after catching a few songs, the whole thing felt forced and more of a novelty performance. Even the crowd seemed listless, despite Perry’s theatrics. The real party was at Perry’s electro stage for DeadMau5. Crammed tight with sweaty bodies, it was a balls out party, and for the first time all weekend, I felt the celebratory unity of the crowd and the spirit of what a great festival can be. Joints were passed, strangers hugged and grooved together, and with Monday a distant nuisance, all was right with the world.