By Greg Kot
Paul McCartney had a “get off my lawn, kid” moment at Lollapalooza in Grant Park over the weekend.
As he was beginning the acoustic portion of his generous two-hour-plus headlining set, the thumping backbeats from the nearby Perry’s dance-music stage were irritatingly audible. “I planned this,” McCartney said. “It’s like a mashup between me and whatever s— they’re playing.”
McCartney may not be a fan of electronic dance music, but he’s an outlier at Lollapalooza, which has become a festival dominated by millennial fans and the bands — and DJs — they love. For them, McCartney is a legend who belongs to their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. This under-30 audience forms the core of the EDM nation, which has turned dance music from something you’d hear at a club into a huge festival attraction in North America.
The earthquake rhythms and all-conquering bass tones thundered again at the 11th annual Lollapalooza in Chicago, which concluded Sunday and drew a record-tying 300,000 fans.
On Sunday, the festival was briefly evacuated in midafternoon as a storm moved in, but the threat dissipated and music resumed after a 90-minute delay with no acts canceled.
The Perry’s stage that ruffled Sir Paul was consistently packed with revelers for beats-masters such as Kaskade and Alesso. One Perry’s artist, hip-hop MC Travis Scott, had his set cut short Saturday when he urged fans to jump the barricade in front of the stage and was later arrested by police.
The festival, which originated as a home for misfit bands in the early ’90s and became a launching pad for what became known as alternative rock, has veered away from those left-of-center roots in recent years. Under the auspices of promoters C3 Presents, the festival has reinvented itself as a mainstream hodgepodge that mirrors the smartphone playlists of its young audience. In this world, the DJs at Perry’s rub shoulders with myriad artists arrayed across seven other stages, including rockers (Twenty One Pilots, Django Django), rappers (Tyler, the Creator; Young Thug) and R&B singers (the Weeknd, Sam Smith).
Though the festival’s first two nights were headlined by veteran artists McCartney and Metallica, it was the undercard that boasted the best of the up-and-comers. SZA, a St. Louis-born 24-year-old, dressed like the girl next door, but her bountiful hair and feel for steamy R&B suggested Chaka Khan. Her songs aren’t yet up to par, but she’s got presence and vocal chops. Raury, a willowy 19-year-old from Georgia with a wide-brimmed hat, invited fans to “enter my world.” It includes a keytar and wind chimes, relics of an earlier era associated with incense and cheesy arena rock. But he also incorporated folk protest songs, soul and silky R&B choruses, streaked with churchy handclaps and harmonies. “Times are too serious to be making music about (bull),” he said in introducing a commentary on racial violence, “Fly.”
His intensity was matched by Alabama MC Mick Jenkins, who woke up a sleepy late-morning crowd Saturday with a feverish set and left with a mission statement: Songs and words “can change the world.” For a brief moment, he also wanted to be a surrogate dad for all the young festivalgoers chanting along with him. His call-and-response audience participation message was the most useful advice of the day: “Drink more …” “Water!”
Jenkins’ Alabama compatriots had themselves a weekend also. St. Paul and the Broken Bones posed a musical question, “What if Otis Redding fronted a punk band?” Singer Paul Janeway is no Otis, but he’s a zealous disciple who found nuances in the quieter passages and brought songs to frenzied crescendos, all while soaking through his suit coat in the midafternoon heat.
Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard wasn’t quite as theatrical, but she tested the limits of her voice, determined to make the most of her second chance at Lollapalooza. The band’s 2012 set was canceled when the festival was evacuated during a storm, and a brief power outage nearly sabotaged the band’s Friday performance. But when power was restored, Howard and the Shakes dove back in, the gospel fervor inside their soul-rock cocktail underlined by three backing singers.
Perhaps the festival’s unlikeliest success story was Sturgill Simpson, who uttered words not often heard at this festival: “Like to play some bluegrass for you.” Simpson and his band matched the speed and precision that bluegrass requires, and offered more. The Kentucky-born singer channels outlaw country and honky tonk via no-nonsense troubadours such as Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, but his band makes him a formidable presence at a rock festival. Led by Laur Joamets (a guitarist from a place about as far removed from Nashville as you can get, Estonia), the musicians expanded Simpson’s songs and turned them into crowd-pleasers that roared.