Press photo courtesy of Murray Chalmers PR

Lollapalooza Berlin: Kings of Leon Bring Sound, Radiohead Bring Fury

A-list rockers headline Germany's second Lolla installment

“Lollapalooza”, alternatively spelled “lalapaloosa”, “lollapalootza”, and “lallapaloosa”, says Merriam-Webster, is a word of an unknown origin, first used in 1986, signifying “one that is extraordinarily impressive”. Today, a quarter of a century after Perry Farrell decided to embark on a journey of event production, it is known worldwide as the name of the iconic Chicagoan festival, and, for the past six years, an international festival franchise. After the expansion to Chile, Brazil and Argentina, 2015 marked the year Lollapalooza chiefs figured that the optimal place to bring their rock, alternative and EDM feast would be Europe. More precisely, and completely predictably, they decided to bring it to the frolicsome German capital.

The first edition of Lollapalooza Berlin took place in September 2015 at the beautiful, now-defunct Tempelhof airport. The vast concrete landscape in the middle of the city proved a fruitful playground for tens of thousands of locals and foreigners who found the festival’s brief, two-day duration, a solid excuse for a city break. With a properly balanced melting pot of acts, including Muse, the Libertines, Fatboy Slim, and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, along with tireless visages of Berlin’s culturally subversive youth, the satellite festival was an instant success, having picked up the 2016 European Festival Award for best new festival. The 2016 edition was sure to follow, with greater appetites. Festival capacity was expanded from 45,000 to 70,000, and headlining acts such as Radiohead, Kings of Leon, New Order, Major Lazer, James Blake, Paul Kalkbrenner and Roisin Murphy, were booked. Under firm command from Fruzsina Szép, the crown princess of festival organization, affordable prices of between 119-139 EUR for both days, and hordes of eager juvenescence, this edition was supposed to be a gentle breeze of excitement and ace performances. However, with several ironic Indian burns of fate, it turned out to be a whole lot more.

Early this year, it had become clear that the Tempelhof airport would host people with an entirely different purpose — thousands of Middle Eastern refugees sought shelter there. The festival, in comparison a trivial affair, had to be moved, and the decision was to transfer it to Treptower Park, a colossal green surface deep in East Berlin, somewhat inconveniently removed from what may be perceived as the center of the city. Alas, it had been but weeks before some 6,500 neighbors signed the petition to remove the festival from the park, which had recently been beautified, using tax payers’ money. The protests continued for months, but the organizers were extremely cooperative, willing to cover any necessary expense and take all relevant precautions against damaging the park.

Finally, the Treptow-Koepenick district mayor, Oliver Igel, caved, realizing names like Bob Dylan held concerts in the park way back in 1987. Nevertheless, this was a one-time deal and the organizers still don’t know where the festival will be held next year. Just when the struggle to hold the event at Treptower Park had ended, none other than Russia submitted a formal complaint about a festival being held in the park with a large Soviet memorial, commemorating the Soviet soldiers who fell in the Battle of Berlin in April and May 1945. Saying they “didn’t want for people to dance on Soviet graves”, it was now the iron bureaucrats who expected German officials to put a stop to the event. Eventually not the ones to build a wall between the folk and their music, local officials gave the festival a green light, with the organizers promising the festival grounds wouldn’t even be in the vicinity of the memorial. Furthermore, Szép’s diligent crew was forced to make amends with the neighbors by establishing a curfew for 11pm on Saturday and 10pm on Sunday, thus shuffling around some of the performers.

Finally, on September 10 and 11, the party could commence, but not without further foreseeable challenges, this time due to inconveniences caused by gigantic logistical alterations. Treptower Park isn’t as readily accessible as Tempelhof and Ostkreuz — the busiest interchange station in Berlin and the place through which the S-Bahn would take you to the park was partially closed, parking was impossible to find in the vicinity of the park, and the other nearest S-Bahn station, Plänterwald, was more difficult to reach. While guests with two-day passes could enter through the more easily reachable west entrance, patrons with a single-day pass, press, guests and VIP had to walk around the entire gated park to reach the so-called east entrance. This wouldn’t be an issue if the park wasn’t over a mile long and more than half a mile wide, requiring visitors who weren’t able to reach Plänterwald to walk more than two miles (I counted!) in order to reach the east entrance.

This entrance, located inside the park, was concealed by the trees and bushes, but even more so by pitch-black darkness after sunset. Many lost journalists unfamiliar with this part of Berlin and puzzled by scattered posters suggesting “this way” inquired with the security staff about how to find this unmarked entrance, to no avail – most of the staff working near the east entrance were immigrants who spoke no English and very little German, people doing the odd jobs to survive, who couldn’t really explain exactly where the entrance was. As my partner pointed out, how ironic it was to have immigrants guard your borders from unwanted visitors, even if it’s just the innocuous, festival ground. In organizers’ defense, everyone was confident this conundrum was caused by the festival’s abrupt relocation and it was difficult to set the event up anew without hassle. It was certainly a lesson learned for next time, wherever the festival might be.

And as for the festival? Well, it was as exciting and eclectic as a two-day event can be. Conveniently priced, conveniently timed so as not to compete with other European majors, no wonder the expanded capacity sold out. The vast park proved a potent playground and what it lacked in infrastructure (benches, chairs, stands, the proximity of stages), it made up for in charm. Saturday’s program kicked off as early as noon, and Kaiser Chiefs were the first act to really get the crowd’s juices going in the afternoon, but it wasn’t until German Ableton live prodigy, Paul Kalkbrenner, took the main stage after dusk that the crowd really got together. The brilliant electro producer and a German electro music legend needed a space this big to show off his full live-mixing potential, with about 50,000 people dancing leisurely to his hits, most notably “Feed Your Head” and “Sky and Sand”. Interestingly, the crowd remained fairly tame both visually and behaviorally throughout the weekend, a welcome change in the famously unhinged Berlin masses. Glitter was everywhere and one could spot an odd Superman costume or a wig here and there, but the peculiarly mature visitors really added to the overall feelings of ease and weekend relaxation.

While New Order mesmerized the electro-pop fans at the remote alternative stage, the ever-growing crown in a massive field found their inner dixie with Kings of Leon at the main stage. Caleb Followill’s family has finally fully grown into their stadium-size shoes, effortlessly delivering both their pop-leaning tunes and their older, more viscerally southern material. With their seventh album, WALLS (We Are Like Love Songs), scheduled for release on October 14, and only a handful of live dates prior to its release, it was expected of the band to present several songs from the album. Still, the contemporary rock giants opted for just one new song, the album’s first single, “Waste a Moment”, a tune reminiscent of their older material, and it was greeted with a thunderous applause. The brothers/cousins have changed so much over the years, it’s hard to not immediately notice just how much better they have become at handling performances as big as Lollapalooza’s. Everyone’s musical prowess, especially on the guitars, has increased exponentially, and Caleb especially feels more comfortable than ever with jumping in the quicksand that is the mixture of their older and newer material. One would expect the band such as Kings Of Leon to focus on stadium rock, now that they have spent years working toward it, but the Followills now finally seem relaxed enough to dive back deep in their bluesy Southern roots, to devastatingly astonishing effect. More than third of the setlist was comprised of songs from their first three albums, and each of them, especially “Molly’s Chambers”, was met with screams and delight as great as that which followed their more recent singles. “Arizona”, “Knocked Up” and “Milk” seemed to cause earthquakes of joy in East Berlin.

Still, the undisputed, shivering highlight of the evening was “Closer”, a non-single from 2008 which ended up being a stellar fan favorite. Caleb’s confident vocal delivery became improved through vulnerability and his recognizable drawl succeeds in making each throbbing verse of their arguably saddest song all the more powerful for lasting one second longer. The rapturous joy was restored toward the end of the show, with hits such as “Use Somebody” and “Radioactive” paving the singalong way for the grand finale, “Sex on Fire”. With this show, Kings of Leon have once again proved they are a band often overlooked by critics, but greatly loved by the knowing audiences and they are never to be underestimated.

Once the Kings were done, not much was left for the first day but to sulk about the fact that someone, somehow, thought it was a good idea to put New Order on at the same time as them. That, or to sprint toward the alternative stage (nearly one mile away, I kid you not) and catch the last verses of “Temptation”, followed by the orogenic, tsk-tsk TSK-TSK-TSK-TSK-TSK-TSK-TSK-TSK tsk-tsk-tsk-tsk. As “Blue Monday” soared, what remained of the main stage crowd transfered the ecstasy to the Peter-Hook-less electro pop giants, who delivered a knockout with the impeccably paced “Temptation”, before wrapping their set up with Joy Division covers. “Decades” was a sombre homage to the late Ian Curtis, and even if Bernard Summer cannot mimic Curtis’ vocals, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is impossible not to be moved by.

“You know it, I know it, they know it”

The second day of the festival was even more vibrant and full of diverse performances. Carried away by Berlin’s endless horizons and pleasures, we missed Years & Years (witnesses stated the show was great), but managed to get to the park by the time Milky Chance started. The German electro-folk duo pulled in a large-ish crowd and provided a decent performance, but their music is too lackluster to elicit a proper reaction on any side of the emotional spectrum. James Blake, however, is an entirely different story. The 27-year-old Briton gave a minimalistic, intimate performance, which played to his strength — his otherworldly, exceptional voice. His tenor, at once lavish and supple, augments the borderline-hollow effect of his skeletal tunes, creating an ambiance of quiet, profound anguish. His 60-minute set was attended by some 30,000 people, an unusually large crowd for his ambient work, but the jittery rhythms and skillful use of synthesizer effects made for a compelling listen. Expectedly, “Retrograde” was the marvelous culmination of the set, with Blake’s gentle humming resembling sounds that a ghost whisperer would make. Not that we actually know what that would sound like, but it was all the better for it.

Minutes after Blake, Major Lazer injected a wildly different atmosphere into the unusually warm air for this time of year in Berlin. The musically flippant, playful trio succeed in making the large crowd a coherent, albeit boisterous, whole. As the mashups of world’s biggest hits of the past decade came to life, the audience danced in a frenzy, keen for a more powerful injection of adrenaline. The moment came when a band member told the crowd that they should, “run left, and then right, and then repeat”. That was enough to cause mayhem. The Lollapalooza Effect kicked in immediately and the mob commenced with staccato charging in both directions, an uproarious scene, which would go on for several minutes and raise a gargantuan cloud of dust. After all, what would the point be if the event wasn’t even a little hectic or dirty? The trio provided some much-needed pop-dance relief and the audience was thankful.

And then there were Radiohead to cap off a superb weekend with something intangibly… eerie. The band was back in Berlin on the 15th anniversary of September 11, which was also the 15th anniversary of their concert in Berlin. Nobody even mentioned the anniversary, nor was there any tongue-in-cheek discourse about the state of the modern world, but the chill during their last concert in Europe this year was more present than usual (this coming from a person who has seen them multiple times this year). A sense of loss and mourning was pervasive, creeping in from behind throughout the show.

Thom Yorke was his snarky, kinetic self throughout the show, but the emotional vulnerability of the band’s latest album, A Moon Shaped Pool, crept in and his vocals, on a starry, solemn night, appeared to rip the sky apart. The overall impression of the concert was augmented with what I can only describe as the best sound quality I have ever heard, every single instrument tapping the eardrums with indescribable clarity, and Yorke’s vocals loud enough not to be drowned out by Johnny Greenwood’s drapery of sound. Given that this wasn’t the case during their previous shows, many of which saw Yorke struggle to be heard over a wall of opulent melodies, it is logical to presume that this engineering was a German doing. One cannot thank them enough for this treat.

After a three-week break from touring, Yorke was even more energized and kinetic than usual, his trademark “Single Ladies” moves making him look like a possessed rag doll at times. He was both adorable and intimidating, but never dull. The show kicked off with the first five songs off the latest record, a standard for this tour. “Burn the Witch” appears to have become a classic, while “Daydreaming” bites hard and holds tight through Yorke’s disenchanted vocals — “dreamers, they never learn,” on this occasion, sees Yorke not as his cynical self, but as a middle-aged man who has learned a stinging lesson. Or hasn’t.

“Reckoner” was a particular delight to hear with this sound, Yorke’s falsetto in command. Typically, the crowd reacts best to their older songs (is Kid A stuff really considered their “older” material now?), especially the snide “No Surprises”, and the manic “Everything In Its Right Place” and “Idioteque”. The encore, though, really brought the tears, with a rare rendition of “Let Down” and Yorke’s deadpan delivery of lines such as, “and when it comes, it’s so, so disappointing.” The bossa nova of “Present Tense” didn’t cease to amaze, but it was “Paranoid Android” that really got everyone going with its disdainful complaints about the millennial life. How adequate. The first encore ended with a powerful performance of “Nude” and “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”. Maybe it was just that the sound was right, but Yorke’s vocal delivery seemed particularly potent that night.

Since Radiohead were the only headliners of the night, a rare privilege they have exploited during this festival season, the show lasted some 135 minutes, meaning a second encore was likely. By the time the Oxford quintet came back onstage and Yorke said, “You know it, I know it, they know it,“ inarticulate cries of joy rocketed toward the skies – yes, “Creep” was about to make everyone 13 years old again. A typically brilliant performance ended with “Karma Police”, the earnest singalong devoid of Yorke’s stamp irony, and clear piano chords reverberating all the way to the discontented neighbors. Surely, it was the moment their hearts melted.

As for Lollapalooza, all logistical problems are forgiven. Just don’t make people angry again and keep bringing us weekends to be excited about months in advance.