Lollapalooza Choice Cuts: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace (Or, At the Very Least, Tolerate) Overlapping Sets
There’s no way around them. They’re an ontological truth of nearly any festival experience: the perpetual thorn in festivalgoers’ sides, the bane of all manner of carefully laid plans, the subverter of tenuous hopes constructed between lineup announcement and schedule release.
Overlapping sets are an impediment I’ve found best endured through a careful assessment of certain key criteria. When debating the merits of seeing one act over others, it’s important to consider the following:
1. Have I heard of the act before?
It sounds obvious, but think about it: Every multi-stage festival is comprised of dozens of overlapping sets. I mention this fact because I always like to reserve some time to check out a few acts I’ve never heard of before that are on the bill. If you’re not as musically adventurous as some, scrolling through the latter half of a festival’s lineup can be an imposing foray into semiotics, but it can also be an opportunity for some good old-fashioned horizon broadening. Festivals are prime real estate for discovering new musical territory. Do yourself a favor: Be adventurous. Take risks. Meander. Consider the unknown when your alternatives aren’t as compelling.
2. Have I seen the act live before?
Slightly less obvious, but significantly more important. If I’ve seen an artist live before and am debating between seeing them for a second (or nth) time or catching a never-before-seen-but-equally-as-attractive artist, I have to give a slight edge to the latter. Unless the former was really, really good live. Like jaw-droppingly, epiphanically good. Then all bets are off.
3. How likely is it to catch the act at a future date?
I’ll admit, I’ve got an irrevocably skewed perspective here. As a resident of New York City, I’m pretty much guaranteed that any artist who’s anybody will be playing in my vicinity at some point in the future, making these decisions a little easier for me to digest. The only qualifier is if it’s a legacy act with uncertain touring prospects (read: Black Sabbath). This is also helpful when considering international artists since they’re less likely than domestic artists to graze your neck of the woods.
4. What are the locations of the stages involved?
Sometimes you can have your cake and eat it, too, albeit in smaller slices. Sets are scheduled to average around 50 minutes in length at Lollapalooza. So, if an alternate stage is within reasonable travel distance, you have plenty of time to catch a few songs from Band A and then traverse the grounds to another stage to catch the remainder of Band B’s set, with plenty of time for any brief experiential detours en route. I constructed a highly scientific timetable of estimated travel times (in minutes) between each stage to inform your decisions:
Now let’s take a look at some of the weekend’s more noodle-scratching decisions. Disclaimer: As a festivalgoer, I am always seeking to maximize the quantity of bands I see. I’m more than willing to split set times in half and strategically bounce around the park. I’ve also placed a premium on most of the larger electronic dances acts because, well, the waves that scene is making are undeniable -- I must witness the EDM spectacle for myself. But everyone has his or her own personal heirarchy of festival needs, so if incisive micromanagement isn’t your thing, by all means, enjoy wherever you end up, however you end up there.
Sharon Van Etten (Playstation, 3:00-4:00) vs. Dry the River (BMI, 3:20-4:00) vs. Tame Impala (Sony, 3:15-4:15)
I’ve seen Sharon Van Etten before and she was breathtaking, a true songsmith with a spellbinding timbre. Dry the River is a band whose name I heard floating around the interweb during the run-up to this year’s SXSW. I enjoy the churning, workmanlike indie folk of their debut record, out earlier this year, so I’m definitely interested to see what the buzz is about. Tame Impala, on the other hand, is a band I know virtually little about other than that they’re psych rockers from Australia. However, I did poke around a few tracks on their 2010 full-length debut, Innerspeaker, while doing research for our Lollapalooza playlist and was pleasantly surprised at what I heard.
Verdict: I love Sharon Van Etten, but I’m a little hesitant as to how her sound will translate outdoors on a Friday afternoon. Instead, 25 minutes of Dry the River should suffice before taking a 10 minute cruise over to the Sony stage to see what the last 20 minutes of Tame Impala have to offer.
Black Sabbath (Bud Light, 8:05-10:00) vs. Wale (Google Play, 8:45-9:45) vs. Bassnectar (Perry’s, 8:45-10:00) vs. The Black Keys (Red Bull Soundstage, 8:30-10:00)
Black Sabbath, the forefathers of heavy metal, is the scarcest commodity available Friday night whether or not you subscribe to my ideas on historical imperatives in music. Wale affects the personality of Lil Wayne with the cunning phraseology; neither element has ever totally wowed me, though I did find his Seinfeld-referencing 2008 mixtape, The Mixtape About Nothing, enjoyably kitschy. Bassnectar, the stage name of Californian DJ/producer Lorin Ashton, is a stalwart of the electronic dance scene, crafting dynamic sets with varied sounds that run the gamut from ambient to dubstep and everything in between. Akron’s The Black Keys are recent ascendants to rock’s elite class, riding the wave of last year’s critically acclaimed El Camino and playing seemingly larger and larger audiences. I have seen exactly none of these acts.
Verdict: Catch the first half-hour of Black Sabbath before traveling 15 minutes for a 30 minute dance party with Bassnectar and then walking another few minutes to the Red Bull Soundstage to finish the night out with The Black Keys.
Delta Spirit (Bud Light, 2:15-3:15) vs. GIVERS (Google Play, 2:15-3:00)
Personally, this is the toughest call of the weekend for me. I saw Delta Spirit blow the doors off the Hype Hotel at SXSW a few months back, an absolutely riveting show from a band I knew nothing about at the time. Their eponymous third album, released in March, stretches the seams of the alternative indie/country genre with enthralling aplomb. GIVERS were my favorite discovery of 2011 thanks in large part to a debut album that sports progessive song structures, hopeful lyrics, and killer production. I’ve seen them twice.
Verdict: Despite having seen GIVERS twice before and the undeniable ferocity of Delta Spirit’s live show, compromise is the only route here. Watch 15 minutes of GIVERS before heading north to catch a healthy dose of Delta Spirit.
Washed Out (Google Play, 6:00-6:45) vs. The Weeknd (Red Bull Soundstage, 6:00-7:00)
Another sour pickle. Washed Out gave the Most Redemptive Chillwave Experience in my mind at SXSW and permanently altered my conception of how good these acts can sound given the proper mix of organic and manufactured noise. Canadian R&B artist/producer Abel Tesfaye, monikered as The Weeknd, released three strong full-lengths last year that imbued melancholy tones and rhythms with soulful vocals and haunting lyrics. I’ve never seen him before since he’s only been in the limelight for a little over a year.
Verdict: I have to stay for at least 10 minutes of Washed Out, if only to see if they’re capable of consistenly producing the sound and energy of that SXSW performance, but I’ll be hightailing it to The Weeknd before long to see how the live Abel Tesfaye stacks up to the recorded Abel Tesfaye.
Twin Shadow (Google Play, 7:15-8:15) vs. Calvin Harris (Perry’s, 7:00-8:15)
Compared to some of the rest of Lollapalooza’s more high profile billings, I know relatively little about Twin Shadow and Calvin Harris. Sure, Twin Shadow’s latest shimmering electro new wave album, Confess, has garnered its fair share of buzz, and upon a first listen last week, it seems deservedly so. Scottish artist/producer Calvin Harris is perhaps best known for having his name attached to Rihanna’s monster hit “We Found Love.” That’s certainly the only thing I know about him.
Verdict: Since I’m not married to any one act in particular, I’m going to let time sort this one out for me. Calvin Harris goes on 15 minutes earlier than Twin Shadow, so I’ve decided to see how the former goes before making my way over to the latter. Nothing too strict here: Just going to go with the flow.
Avicii (Bud Light, 8:30-10:00) vs. Frank Ocean (Google Play, 8:45-9:45) vs. Santigold (Perry’s, 8:45-10:00) vs. Red Hot Chili Peppers (Red Bull Soundstage, 8:00-10:00)
Sweden’s Tim Berg, the DJ/producer known as Avicii, strays toward the house side of electronic music and is coming off a premiere headlining gig at this year’s Ultra Music Festival. You’ve probably heard Frank Ocean’s name thrown around, too, since the rapper/singer-songwriter recently confronted issues of his sexuality on the eve of releasing a pretty much universally-acclaimed record on July 17, Channel Orange. World pop/hip-hop/reggae fusion star Santigold also released an album this year, Master of My Make-Believe, that continues her reputation as M.I.A.’s heir apparent. The Red Hot Chili Peppers need no introduction, though it does bear mentioning that the last time I attended Lollapalooza, in 2006, the Chili Peppers were also headlining. However, that show was disappointingly underwhelming, mainly due to Anthony Keidis’ obstreperous stage antics.
Verdict: Since the Chili Peppers are the only ones I have a live history with, I’m forgoing them for a Avicii/Frank Ocean combo to close out my Saturday night. Santigold falls by the wayside as well since the tremendous buzz surrounding Frank Ocean absolutely screams for an extended engagement. So: 30 minutes of Avicii before arriving for the last 40 or so minutes of Frank Ocean.
Gary Clark Jr. (Playstation, 3:15-4:15) vs. Dum Dum Girls (Google Play, 3:30-4:15) vs. Little Dragon (Perry’s, 3:15-4:15) vs. The Walkmen (Sony, 3:00-4:00)
This is the toughest non-headlinining matchup: a quartet of choice cuts for late Sunday afternoon. Gary Clark Jr. is an Austin-based blues rock guitarist in the vein of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, seemingly omnipresent on the 2012 festival circuit after generating some pretty significant buzz over the last year. I saw the Dum Dum Girls play a recent free concert in Brooklyn and their brand of classic, lo fi guitar pop made for a playful and energetic set built largely on uptempo hooks. The silky electro pop of Sweden’s Little Dragon sounds as if it couldn’t have come from any place but Sweden: tight hooks and brisk beats buttressing new wave collages and a Swedish-Japanese female vocalist; I’m intrigued. The Walkmen, elder statesmen of the indie rock scene for over a decade now, are touring behind their seventh album, Heaven. Live, they exude a kind of crisp confidence, effortlessly searing through numbers while dressed like GQ models. (They like to wear suits.)
Verdict: Nixing the Dum Dum Girls and The Walkmen for Clark, whom I failed to catch at SXSW, followed by Little Dragon, whose Ritual Union is a gem I missed in 2011 that I’m now just getting into. I’m hitting Little Dragon last because it puts me in a better position for the 4:00 Sigur Rós set at the Red Bull Soundstage.
Of Monsters & Men (Google Play, 6:00-6:45) vs. Big Gigantic (Perry’s, 5:45-6:45)
Billed conveniently as Iceland’s answer to the Arcade Fire, Of Monsters & Men and their booming acoustic champer pop caused quite the head of steam en route to a spring 2012 U.S. tour and subsequent debut album release. I’ve never listened to the instrumental electronic band Big Gigantic before, but I’ve heard plenty of awe-inspiring things about their show, which traffics in jam band-level improv using live instrumentation and electronic beats.
Verdict: Both again. I’m planning on checking out Toro y Moi at the Sony stage until about 5:40, then will walk over to Perry’s stage for the start of Big Gigantic. 25 minutes of that should suffice, enough time to head over to the Google Play stage and catch the last 25 minutes of Of Monsters & Men, considering a travel time of 8-10 minutes. This also puts me in a better position for Florence + The Machine, who are playing nearby at the Bud Light stage until 7:30.
Justice (Bud Light, 8:30-10:00) vs. Childish Gambino (Google Play, 8:45-9:45) vs. Kaskade (Perry’s, 8:45-10:00) vs. Jack White (Red Bull Soundstage, 8:15-10:00)
French production duo Justice have been at it since 2003, building a healthy following with their club-ready electronic dance pop and often frenetic pace. While known to many as Community’s Troy Barnes, Donald Glover is also the alternative rapper known as Childish Gambino, whose new school breed of literate indie hip hop and affective live swagger has garnered sizeable praise. Chicago’s very own Kaskade, the stage name for DJ/producer/A&R director Ryan Raddon, is sure to draw a heavy hometown crowd eager for the flow of his signature house beats and the aural envelopment of his earthshaking sound. Arguably the most integral rock and roll figure from the last decade, Jack White’s dissolved The White Stripes and is touring behind April’s Blunderbuss, a loyally steady roots rock record, his first solo effort.
Verdict: I’m pleading the Fifth on this one. It’s going to be the tail end of a rigorous three days, so I’m just going to see how I feel at the time. I might be in the mood to dance myself clean at Kaskade or Justice, or groove to Childish Gambino’s cerebral lyrical turns, or dig the reliable rock of Jack White.