By Kyle Anderson & Nolan Feeney
On the opening day of Lollapalooza 2012 in Chicago, people could only talk about two things: The oppressive heat (which isn’t really news for anyone who has ever spent three days repeatedly crossing Grant Park in August), and whether or not Black Sabbath was going to make everybody sad.
Obviously, the idea of the legendary metal band playing a nearly two-hour set of heavy classics was titillating, and frontman Ozzy Osbourne remains one of the most unpredictable characters in rock. But health problems for both Osbourne and Tony Iommi have called into question whether or not this particular Sabbath reunion was a good idea, and suggested that the band might be better served staying at home (which is exactly what drummer Bill Ward ended up doing anyway).
By the time they left the stage on Friday night, they delivered no definitive answers. The set list was unimpeachable — hitting on everything you could possibly want to hear from them, including “Iron Man,” “War Pigs,” “Sweet Leaf,” “N.I.B.,” and “Paranoid” (which they wisely saved for the encore). Ozzy still has the will of a manic frontman, but neither his body nor his voice seem to be able to match his intent, and he seemed vaguely off for the better part of the evening.
Iommi’s steady riffing carried the night, though the set ground to an unfortunate halt during an overlong drum solo (though honestly, there’s no such thing as an “appropriate length drum solo”) that saw a lot of people trying to beat the traffic home.
Still, for those who stuck around, the rest provided by the rhythmic interlude might have been just what the other members of the band needed, as the band’s finishing run (which included the awesome and deeply underrated Technical Ecstasy gem “Dirty Women”) was as strong as any modern metal act. Were they good? Sure. Should they keep going? The jury is still out.
On the other end of the park, the Black Keys were offering up no such existential quandaries. They play by one golden rule: Keep it simple. Not too far into the band’s set, guitarist and frontman Dan Auerbach announced that the backing band were taking a breather and the next few songs were going to be just him drummer Patrick Carney.
Thanks for the head’s up, Dan, but the truth is, you could barely tell the difference. And that’s because the trick to the Ohio duo’s bluesy garage rock isn’t how many dudes are on stage making music, it’s about distilling rock down to the bare essentials. Take the scrappy “Howlin’ For You,” with its simple guitar riff and a rhythm section so tight you could do just about anything to it: clap your hands, shake your shoulders, jump up and down—however the boys get you moving.
For newcomers, the accessibility comes at a price; all those riffs can start to sound the same after a while. But until a giant disco ball made a cameo toward the end of their set, the flashiest things about the Black Keys’ showing were the lakeside fireworks and a brief introduction from Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, who was already off the stage by the time you realized you’d just seen Rahmbo.
Earlier in the afternoon, there was a notable moment of a different sort, when Haley Reinhart became the first American Idol alumna to ever play Lollapalooza. The girl-next-door charm that won the hearts of America was on full display when she turned her stage into a family affair: Her mother and sister joined on back-up vocals, and her father helped out on guitar. The way Reinhart moves on stage still suggest she’s a girl whose recording and performance career was groomed on national television, but her spunky high-energy soul suggest she won’t have too a hard time leaving Idol behind as her defining descriptor.
It might seem like an odd move for Canadian indie darlings Metric to begin a set in the middle of a Friday afternoon with a song called “Artificial Nocturne,” a lush six-minute anthem that opens with the line, “I’m just as a f—-ed up as they say.” But the quartet’s performance was an exercise in taking their music out of shadowy clubs and into the light—and doing it well.
Some tracks off their latest effort, Synthetica, didn’t stick their landings, but frontwoman Emily Haines is great at turning her downbeat lyrics into fist-pumping triumph, and with the way she slyly turns her sex kitten slinkiness on and off, you could call her the Selina Kyle of indie rock.
South African rap act Die Antwoord and their brand of bizarre “zef” electro-rap are not exactly a study in subtlety. But group ringleader Ninja’s affinity for air-humping while nearly nude and high-pitched co-emcee Yo-Landi’s predilection for zipping around stage like a manic flying squirrel doesn’t make their set any less entertaining.
Techno party starters like “I Fink U Freeky” pleased the crowd better than their attempts at gangsta rap, and sometimes the butt-smacking, bra-flashing antics of Yo-Landi distracted from both. In the time that audiences learned to expect the unexpected from the group, Die Antwoord managed to hijack rap’s cultural currency and give it the zef treatment: On a new track, Ninja rapped about sipping Dom Perignon and name-checked Lady Gaga.
As for California songstress Dev, a lot has changed since she was popping bottles in the ice: She now rocks a blown-out bleach ed blond ‘do, she’s a new mom, and she’s touring an album that turned out to be way more pop than anyone expected. But the “Like a G6″ guest singer knows the teenage girls in the crowd didn’t come for a piano ballad about leaving home—thanks, Dev, for getting that one out of the way early—they come to booty bounce to some 808-bumping electro hop, and booty-bounce they did. Being a half-singer, half-rapper can be career purgatory when you don’t quite have the chops to go full out on either, but Dev is
obviously having her fun with just about every genre she samples, so there’s no reason to rush her while she tries out what fits.
Indie icons the Afghan Whigs delivered a stout set of tunes from the darkest corners of their catalog. Though for all their brooding and betrayal, the sure know how to have fun: Frontman Greg Dulli did something close to frolicking on stage, clearly enamored of his group’s sound and ecstatic that several thousand people were singing along to bouncy blasts like “66″ and “Somethin’ Hot.” Surprisingly, Dulli scored the most points with the crowd when he slowed things down for the soulful cover “See and Don’t See,” which let the sun-scorched revelers recover from all the propulsive rock, dance, and hip-hop thrown at them for hours. Consider “See and Don’t See” the official boot and rally moment of Friday.
The Shins offered a similar brand of juxtaposition a few hours later. Frontman James Mercer has slowly been shifting the groups sound from singer-songwriter obsessiveness to something more raw and dynamic, and the songs from the recently released Port of Morrow (especially the single “Simple Song”) added quite a bit of rock and roll chug to his dreamy vocals and frothy melodies.
So that’s our Lolla Friday, Music Mixers — how was yours?