Lana Del Rey
It's amazing to think that an artist whose first national live performance was a pitchy disaster (remember her lambasted Saturday Night Live appearance in 2012?) has become one of the most vocally reliable and visually compelling live acts on the festival circuit. Lana has mastered the art of her stage show -- every backdrop and movement subtly conveys the coquettish '50s/early '60s Americana her music is drenched in.
With ruffled red drapes framing her video backdrop, Lana stood between two decorative trees on stage, frequently flanked by supporting dancers in white whose moves matched her own -- it almost gave the impression you were watching her in a Rat Pack-approved hotel lobby instead of downtown Chicago. The fluorescent lights beaming her surname, rendered in kitschy diner cursive, to her fans gave the stage an additional flavor of Googie architecture, emphasizing the old Hollywood/early Vegas imagery that's become her go-to. (Naturally, while 99 percent of festival artists use color video screens to reach the crowds in the back, Lana's were presented in elegant black & white.)
After an exhilarating "Born to Die" early in her set, Lana disappeared from the stage for a moment. Costume change? Nope. She was down in the front row, posing for selfies with fans, signing copies of her album and flashing that rare, but warm, LDR smile.
Del Rey has mastered the tricky art of making slow music captivating in a live setting -- an especially difficult feat at a festival, where the crowds can flee to another artist at any moment. A hot desert sun smoldered on the screen behind her as she sang "Honeymoon," backup dancers joined her for some synchronized moves on "High By the Beach," she executed a booty drop on "Lolita" (the crowd went bonkers) and even busted out a guitar for "Yayo," which was originally released when she was Lizzy Grant back in 2008.
After closing with "Video Games" and "Off to the Races," Lana once again descended into the crowd for more selfies and signings. Lana del Rey might be icy and detached, but Lizzy Grant -- who plugged away for years before finally breaking through as Lana del Rey -- revels in the fans who make her what she is.
"The weather was fucked up -- I almost didn't make it," J. Cole told Lolla as he looked out on what seemed to be the biggest audience for Day 1. Wearing a Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls jersey, he was playing to the crowd in attire, but not necessarily with his setlist. Early in the night, he launched into his relatively obscure "Back to the Topic" freestyle -- clearly not a crowd favorite, even if it was an impressive display. "I don't care if two or three of you know this freestyle, I'm gonna do it," Cole said before the track. But he was warmer throughout the rest of the night, sharing memories of playing a Lollpalaooza side stage years ago and joking about his most recent release, 2014 Forest Hills Drive. "It was aight," Cole said of the album, which topped the Billboard 200 and became one of the year's biggest-selling rap albums despite dropping in the last month of 2014. "It was decent."
5 Things We're Looking Forward to at Lollapalooza 2016
That led into one of his set's best moments, a lengthy run through "Wet Dreamz" that included a callback section with the crowd that actually sounded pleasing to the ear (unlike most concerts where the artist invites the crowd to help them out on the hook). While most men in music brag about their sexual prowess and exploits, Cole is confident enough to recall back to the days when he was a virgin, lying about it and worrying he wasn't big enough to please a woman. Cole's roots aren't in the Windy City, but considering Chicago has spawned one of the few other vulnerable males in hip-hop this decade, Chance the Rapper, it was no surprise that Chi-town sang along to his ode to teenage anxiety with gusto on Thursday night.
Speaking of Chance the Rapper, Chicago's hometown hero made a surprise appearance during Flosstradamus' set. Okay, surprise might be too strong of a word: Chance reps Chicago from morning 'til night, he has a new album out this year, and Floss hail from Chicago, too. Still, even if his appearance wasn't a shock, the crowd was no less appreciative when the Coloring Book maestro hit the stage to perform "Summer Friends" -- and that was after Flosstradamus brought out new Bulls player (but Chicago native) Dwayne Wade, who introduced Michelle Williams before she dove into Destiny's Child's "Survivor" with vengeance. Yep, that's how you do a hometown set at Lollapalooza. [The moment was a part of Bud Light Music’s 'Stage Moments' program.]
Danny Brown -- with his sonically adventurous palette and nasally timbre -- may never be a main stage festival performer like J. Cole. And that's okay -- some people master the sound of hip-hop at the moment, and others try to push it kicking and screaming into the future. The Detroit MC is the latter. Browsing Twitter after his set, I caught a few tweets from uninitiated listeners who wandered into earshot and were baffled by what they heard. But that's great -- you don't change music without making sounds that challenge and alienate some ears. Regardless, Brown's set was a midday crowd favorite -- those who do dig him went wild for his wacky stage presence (he ran about the stage like a floppy cartoon character and treated everyone to his inimitable laugh) and his eclectic collection of songs. "Grown Up" had the most hands in the air, but he had the crowd moving the whole time despite the muggy, post-rain afternoon heat.
After playing festivals ad infinitum with the Black Keys, Dan Auerbach can be forgiven for wanting to bust out of his celebrated garage rock duo to do something slightly different. Sure, the Arcs are also throwback rock n' roll, but their sound is more expansive than the Keys' narrow, but effective, vision of rock. Fortunately, the Arcs -- like any legit rock band -- are getting better as they play more. Their Coachella set was great, no doubt, but their performance at Lolla 2016 was fire. A late set favorite was their cover of the Kinks' classic "Big Sky," a fitting enough soundtrack as fest-goers looked out on the city's iconic skyline lighting up as night fell. Watch some of their Lolla set below.
The British electronic duo had a busy 24 hours. After performing at Interscope's pre-Lolla party at Soho House Chicago on Wednesday night (which also boasted a set from Aussie newcomer Cloves, whose masterful voice could very well take her indie singer-songwriter sound to a much wider audience), AlunaGeorge owned the stage with a set of icy-yet-danceable electronica. Shortly thereafter, they debuted their "Mean What I Mean" video at Chicago's Lincoln Hall. And you thought attending a festival was exhausting.
Fast-becoming festival favorites, the 1975 don't bring any tricks to their set -- no guest appearances, unexpected covers or banter with the audience -- but they do satisfy with their mixture of rock, soul, electronica and ambient every time. The playful "She's American" sounded beautiful echoing throughout the park as post-rain clouds clung to Chicago's skyscrapers at dusk.
The most relaxing place to watch music at Lolla is the Pepsi stage, a smaller one positioned so the majority of the audience is situated under a canopy of trees. Wavves' afternoon set, alternately laid back and balls out, was a perfect performance to soak in from the shade, with the crunchy "Demon to Lean On" being a standout.
Props to Lollapalooza for offering $2 festival water that's also environmentally friendly. Instead of plastic bottles (which do have some environmental benefits, admittedly), Lolla offers water in aluminum cans, which are much easier to recycle, and much more likely to be recycled, than plastic (plus they're not made with petroleum).
Between sets, Lolla screens offered up fake horoscopes for fest-goers. Sample: "Scorpio -- You suddenly realize horoscopes are written to be general and universally appealing."