By Thomas Conner
© The Washington Post
Rapper and actor Common is usually cool as a cucumber, but in 2006, he got a little nervous. He was working with Black Eyed Peas member and in-demand music producer Will.I.Am on a song for a movie soundtrack, and Will had assembled the tracks using liberal samples from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“So this was serious, you know? Now I’m collaborating with Dr. King,” Common says. “Ain’t no playing around now. Not only do I have to be good, I can’t let down Martin Luther King.”
The fact that Common speaks of King in the present tense is telling of the personal and conversational flow to the rhymes he applied to the song “A Dream” (from the soundtrack to “Freedom Writers”). “In between the . . . hustle and the schemes / I put together pieces of a dream / I still have one,” he coolly and reverently raps before King’s voice returns to the mix.
Lately, you’d be forgiven for thinking hip-hop has always mentioned King this much — and this reverently. Since Common’s posthumous collaboration with King, MCs have been all over MLK. Sometimes it’s 50 Cent just citing his name, but others have equated King’s dream with the election of the nation’s first black president (rapper Jay-Z: “Now that that’s that, let’s talk about the future / We have just seen the dream as predicted by Martin Luther”).
Even Common was at it again a few months ago. At the White House (an invitation that caused apoplexy among certain pundits over the rapper’s controversial song about a cop killer), he performed a song from his album due in November, “The Dreamer, the Believer,” using more of King’s dream speech between verses.
But it wasn’t always like this.
“King was invisible in the early days” of hip-hop, says Michael Hill, a professor at the University of Iowa who researches racial identity and African American literature. “He wasn’t ‘sampled’ widely, even though his speeches were readily available. . . . He just wasn’t making his way into hip-hop songs. But that changed as agitation for a Martin Luther King holiday began in the 1980s.”
Stevie Wonder cited King in his cheery 1981 R&B song “Happy Birthday” (“There ought to be a law against / anyone who takes offense / at a day in your celebration”). The federal holiday for King’s mid-January birthday was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, and the first holiday was observed in 1986 — but some states hesitated, which prompted Public Enemy’s scathing attack in “By the Time I Get to Arizona” (“The whole state’s racist / Why want a holiday? / [Expletive] it, ’cause I wanna”).
King’s voice was introduced, years before hip-hop, by an iconic DJ, Joe Gibson, known as “Jack the Rapper.” Throughout the late 1980s and the ’90s, though, the most frequent civil rights icon cited by Public Enemy and other rappers was Malcolm X.
“Once they bring out Malcolm X, King goes away again for 15 to 20 years,” Hill says. “That Public Enemy sample [of] Malcolm — ‘Too black, too strong!’ [in ‘Bring the Noise’] — it’s one of the most iconic samples in hip-hop. They patented Malcolm X as the voice that should be associated with this particular hard-edged framework, connecting the music with the notion of militancy.”
• • •
King’s absence makes sense to some. “The philosophy of nonviolent protest or redemptive suffering runs counter to the confrontational tone of so much hip-hop,” says Adam Bradley, co-editor of the groundbreaking Anthology of Rap (Yale University Press). “More than that, the Martin Luther King vision is harder to fit into a slogan than Malcolm’s. For Malcolm, you have ‘by any means necessary,’ catchphrases that capture, albeit imperfectly, his vision. With King, the closest we come is ‘I have a dream.’ It’s not surprising that’s one of the most prominent ways he appears in hip-hop.”
Even Common, for all of his use of King’s iconic speech, agrees. “Malcolm just represents more of the . . . the fire of hip-hop,” he said.
Not that it has to be one or the other. MCs in hip-hop frequently drop both names into the same song, often among a torrent of proper names.
“The main uses for name-dropping in hip-hop are as a simile,” Bradley says. “ ‘I’m like this person.’ Or occasional self-aggrandizement. Lil Wayne has this song [‘Playing With Fire’] where he says, ‘Assassinate me, (expletive) / ’cause I’m doing the same [expletive] that Martin Luther King did.’ That’s arguable,” Bradley says, then chuckles.
How serious are rappers when they link themselves so directly to a potent or polarizing figure?
For someone like Lil Wayne, Bradley says, “King’s name gives him the sound he wants to use. . . . It has little of the reverence,” Bradley says. “It’s delivered with a knowing sense that its audacity may resist the comparison, and through that it will nonetheless achieve the desired effect, which is to cast himself the giant.”
Sometimes the name-dropping, though, is didactic, often from artists who style themselves as socially conscious or political. King’s name is often employed as a means of teaching history to young people. Chuck D once famously referred to hip-hop as “the black CNN,” and even in today’s hyper-informational online culture, some MCs still take that role seriously.
Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco, known for recently calling President Obama, on TV, “the biggest terrorist,” believes names are talismans, that dropping them will create ripples in the pond.
“It’s really a triumph anytime some rapper mentions his name,” Fiasco says of King. “The hope is that you say his name and some street dude in a car at a strip club smoking weed, that something triggers in him to go, ‘Now who is that guy and what did he do?’ ” Fiasco adds, “The names still carry weight in my world. Sneaking them in is very important.”
• • •
For Fiasco, there’s little sneaking going on. He opens his non-album track “BMF (Building Minds Faster)” announcing, “I think I’m Malcolm X, Martin Luther / add a King, add a Junior,” then proceeds through a list of figures he wants you to know about — “I’m Tupac, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Marcus Garvey . . . I’m Rev. Run . . . I’m T-Pain” — between his various critiques of social and foreign policy.
“I don’t even really break down who those guys were in the ‘BMF’ freestyle,” Fiasco says. “The names carry their own weight. Keeping them alive is all we need to do. It’s all we can do.”
Common understands this default duty of hip-hop — “Rap music in the hood plays the fatherly role,” he raps in “A Dream” — but when he was writing his rhymes to accompany King’s speech, the experience wasn’t so objective. It was personal.
His first verse describes every kind of darkness — gunshots fire from “sounds of blackness,” he’s followed by “dark clouds” and in his struggle to better himself, he says, “I just want some of your sun.” By the second verse, he’s turned introspective, speaking words as a letter to himself, telling “my story” about “tryna make it from a gangsta to a godlier role.” King’s dream becomes his own, though he initially worries he “ain’t using it for the right thing.”
“A lot of the struggle or fight that Dr. Martin Luther King was talking about was more for unity and about the rights of human beings,” Common says. “The character I took on in that song, you know, he says that fight exists in me. . . . I believe the change begins with you. You hear President Barack Obama speak and say, man, our work is just beginning. Well, our work is my work. We’ve got to take responsibility for the work. In the end, Martin’s dream starts with having a dream yourself — and then working to realize it, wherever and whoever you are.”
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
Friday @ Lollapalooza: Good morning, grandma!
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2011 1:13 PM
Lollapalooza 2011 opened with this ringing, backhanded endorsement from Jenn Wasner of the band Wye Oak: "I love Lollapalooza because it's the one festival even my grandparents know what it is."
Such cross-generational branding succeeded in selling out a record capacity this year. Over the weekend, 90,000 fans will attend each day of Lollapalooza. That makes this three-day concert event in Chicago's Grant Park one of the country's biggest, with Coachella's daily attendance around 75,000 and Bonnaroo's more than 100,000.
Thousands were already on hand Friday morning for the festival's opening sets, which included Baltimore duo Wye Oak and their Southern gothic shoegaze. Wasner, however, struggled to get going against a bad guitar pedal that eventually forced her to stop mid-song and apologize.
"There seems to be a ghost in it or something," she said as drummer Andy Stack looked on helplessly. "This is the worst thing that's ever happened to me."
She eventually salvaged her gear and the set, completing the song "Plains" to gracious applause from several hundred devoted early fans.
Friday @ Lollapalooza: Vaccines, Naked & Famous
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2011 2:41 PM
Lollapalooza opened Friday morning with an announcement about more Lollapaloozing to be had worldwide next year — the festival will return to Chile (March 31-April 1) and add a new event in Sao Paulo, Brazil (April 7-8) — and then quickly moved to Britain as the Vaccines christened this year's main stage in the south end of Hutchinson Field.
Supporting their super-hyped debut, "What Did You Expect From the Vaccines," the Vaccines turned over the same well-tilled ground — lots of post-punk revival with tons of reverb and Strokesy confidence — but sounded fresher and cockier than they do on record. Singer Justin Young comes on quickly with a Dylanesque whine over his band's retro Walkmen grind, advocating for emotional destruction in "Blow It Up" and a quickie in "Post-Breakup Sex." The band's heap of influences seeped deeper than expected, too; for "Wetsuit" guitarist Freddie Cowan and the rhythm section chugged along simply like the Crickets, and Young encouraged dancing, saying, "This is one you can dance to. You're at a rock and roll show, remember." Anything to help clear away some of the band's studied self-consciousness.
When the Naked & Famous started playing at the other end of the south field, one fan shouted, and seemed sincere, "Oh, yay, another British accent!" That would be the buoyant Alisa Xayalith, leader of the festival's first '80s-inspired offering. Full of humming synths and buzzing guitars, all propped up by hard drums and loops, this New Zealand quintet took its time whipping up a melodious melodrama. "All of This" and "Punching in a Dream" opened the set establishing the template: Gothy pretension but irresistible tunes, sometimes building up one and tearing down the other. (They, too, suffered some equipment-related pauses on the same stage that dogged Wye Oak's earlier set. "Just fixing some broken sh—," Xayalith assured during a long break.) I'll call them Katrina & the Darkwaves.
Friday @ Lollapalooza: Foster the People
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2011 7:31 PM
Friday afternoon turned out to be fine concert weather, with high clouds dulling the sun's edge and a cool lake breeze occasionally refreshing weary fans. But don't tell Mark Foster, hapless leader of L.A.'s Foster the People, whose crisp white dress shirt was transparent with sweat by the band's third song.
Foster the People are brand new, riding a slick slacker single from last year that landed them on one of Lollapalooza's biggest stage this year. They're still exploring who they are as a band, and they played the day's most eclectic set — evolving from dreamy, keyboard-laden grooves to ill-advised R&B to throwaway love ditties and, near the end, a straight cover of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold." Foster is an odd duck, singing in his pinched nasal voice and occasionally leaping over to mash piano keys or pound the drums (as he did during "Call It What You Want"). Sometimes he was ridiculous, his shoulders jerking up and down as he whined his New Radicals funk-lite; other times he was gloriously unhinged, cackling like a madman near the end of the set when Foster the People suddenly turned into a garage band (or Joe "King" Carrasco). I the end they returned to what they thus far do best, laying down supple, sleepy grooves for that aforementioned single, "Pumped Up Kicks." Most of the crowd was pumped up and sang along.
Friday @ Lollapalooza: A Perfect Circle
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2011 7:33 PM
You've never heard John Lennon's "Imagine" delivered with such quivering earnestness as warped vocalist Maynard James Keenan gives it. In fact, you've likely never heard the song turned on its head in quite this manner, imbued with minor piano chords and a martial rhythm — twisted from its hopeful, thoughtful origins into a surprisingly dystopian sneer.
Such is the heavy gloom of A Perfect Circle, a supergroup playing Lollapalooza's main stage after being reactivated from a seven-year hiatus.
With no new music to present, this patient, pummeling band — led by Keenan from Tool, and now featuring former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha — drew from the band's brief period of activity, and a lot from 2004's "Emotive." That album was mostly covers and was not widely acclaimed. Their take on Depeche Mode's "People Are People," for instance, is so thundering and morose as to be largely unrecognizable. There's something to be said for making a song your own.
Because where Keenan's Tool goes for the gnarled composition, A Perfect Circle succeeds in creating a somber, dour mood, simmering with restrained fury, which Keenan unleashed perfectly during "Pet," roaring and growling from his isolated perch in the back of the stage (he does like to lurk) and whacking a tambourine on a staff to punctuate his demands: "Go back to sleep!" The song ended with angelic, chiming guitar, smoothing out the scene.
Friday @ Lollapalooza: Chicago's Kids These Days
By Thomas Conner on August 5, 2011 9:45 PM
If you looked around Lollapalooza just after 4 p.m. Friday and wondered where all the teenagers had gone, a large crowd of them were crammed in front of the BMI stage watching fellow Chicago teens Kids These Days.
Easily one of the best shows I saw all Friday, Kids These Days is an eight-piece group comprised of 18- and 19-year-olds, half of them from Whitney Young High School. Mixing up blues, hip-hop, funk, rock, jazz and most other genres except electronic (but give them time), KTD has come up through the ranks during the last two years. They started selling out small clubs, then filled Metro, played a buzzworthy showcase at South by Southwest last March, and now here they are at Lollapalooza. The meteoric local rise, based on the sheer energy of their performances and a pretty potent musical cocktail, should have drawn the attention of any music industry moguls present.
Friday, though, was a hometown celebration.
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
KTD charged on stage with enough energy for the rest of the day's lineup. Rapper Vic Mensa lead the charge, biting off rhymes with a clenched jaw and leaping around the small stage pumping up the crowd, salted as it was with adoring friends, family and classmates. Fans were crowd surfing almost immediately, and Mensa and others tried their hand at stage diving.
Mensa has no fear of Lollapalooza-related injuries. He tried to attend the festival last year — by sneaking in. He jumped a fence near the Metra tracks, but brushed against an electrical transformer. He not only took several thousand volts through his left arm, he fell 30 feet to the pavement and spent three days in the hospital. "I almost f—-in' died trying to sneak in here last year," Mensa told the crowd. "This is way better."
The unfettered mashing up of genres KTD pulls off is truly heady. They mix together everything great about Chicago's musical roots. Guitarist Liam Cunningham will lay down a blues riff, the horns will pop in with some kind of syncopated ska, the rhythm section backs it up with some slinky rock-soul, all the while Mensa is bounding around like Tigger the Creator. With remarkable compositional and performance skill, they blended "Summertime" into James Brown's "Man's World," threaded by Mensa's rhymes ("You're like a blood transplant and you're just my type"). Their repertoire of classics is broad, though: the horn section snuck in the riff from Radiohead's "Creep."
Effervescent, exciting stuff. The results are positively funkadelic. This band could open for Ozomatli as easily as Steely Dan. KTD has an EP out now, "Hard Times," available on iTunes. A full-length is in the works.
Friday @ Lollapalooza: Chatting with OK Go
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2011 12:37 AM
You've seen their viral music videos online, and so apparently has the president.
OK Go, the treadmmills-to-Pilobolus YouTube favorites, performed at Barack Obama's 50th birthday bash this week at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom. Two days later they were playing to Lollapalooza.
We caught a few minutes with OK Go singer Damian Kulash backstage at Grant Park on Friday to talk about his Marilyn Monroe impression:
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
Friday @ Lollapalooza: Muse, Girl Talk
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2011 12:44 AM
Who was the main headliner Friday night? If you're over 30, you probably thought it was Coldplay. But the biggest stage at Lollapalooza with room for the biggest crowd is on Hutchison Field in the south end of the park, and that's not where Coldplay performed. The bigger stage and crowd went to Muse.
That older demographic has been asking me for weeks, "Who the hell is Muse?" But this wailing trio has been around for 17 years, longer than Coldplay — long enough that at festivals later this month in their native Britain they'll be performing one of their "classic" albums in its entirety — and they sold out London's Wembley Stadium before most Yanks had heard of them. Muse has developed a fiercely loyal following around the world of largely younger fans less familiar with the glam- and prog-rock they ape so ably. The band's appearance last year on the latest "Twilight" movie soundtrack put them over the top in the United States.
As if to ingratiate themselves, singer-guitarist Matthew Bellamy slipped in several nods to Americana during the band's nearly two-hour show, threading our National Anthem early in the set and transitioning with "House of the Rising Sun" later. This was between the band's relentless assault of slightly anachronistic, theatrical pomp on the order of everyone from Queen to Def Leppard. This is a band of unrepentant Big Rawk dorks, unafraid to wallow in the hoariest clichés — and they inspire such moments in their fans. Half the people around me were air guitaring throughout the set with wide smiles, reveling in the gift of a summer concert festival moment — a free pass for acting silly and letting loose. Songs such as "Resistance" and "United States of Eurasia," along with all the "1984"-meets-"Tron" visuals on stage, are as shallow as most primetime TV (and by hour two, most Muse sounds the same) but the crowd at Hutchinson Field cheered religiously for every hollow agit-pop couplet ("Rise up and take the power back / It's time that the fat cats had a heart attack") and punishing riff all the way to the encore.
Meanwhile, the real action Friday night was in the newly expanded Perry's tent. The festival's annual DJ stage expanded this year to house 15,000 ravers (that's one big tent, lemme tell ya), and Girl Talk overflowed the capacity.
A Chicago favorite, Girl Talk, a k a 29-year-old Pittsburgh biologist Gregg Gillis, returned to Lollapalooza after three years with a much bigger show featuring his wild, live mix of pop music samples. Gillis makes music out of splicing others' together into new creations, and watching him trigger his samples in real time is like seeing a truly mad scientist at work. Dozens of fans from the crowd joined him on stage, throwing streamers, toilet paper and confetti around Gillis as he folded rap into '80s pop and '90s R&B into indie-rock. He snips the "hey ho" out of the Ramones and the "ay ay ay ay" out of Vampire Weekend for use as rhythmic props for Big Boi and General Public. His catholic tastes make for some of the best cross-generational jamming ever, and it certainly got every one of nearly 20,000 people hopping.
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: Grouplove, Ximena Sarinana, more
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2011 2:21 PM
It's cool and lovely at Lollapalooza — but that's because a fair amount of rain fell overnight. The clouds remain, which is great, but there's a 50-50 chance of more precip. Hutchinson Field is muddy, oddly everywhere except the perpetually dusty baseball diamonds. Some hay has been spread around in the worst areas, but the coverage is pretty poor. If you're packing up now, include a cheap poncho and don't wear the good shoes.
"I can't believe I wore flip-flops," lamented Carrie Berenstein, 22, of Aurora, as she tip-toed her way across the muddy grass. "I'm going to be a disaster. I'm already a disaster."
Saturday opened with a worldly vibe on many stages. "We're from Los Angeles," said a member of Grouplove by way of introduction — noteworthy only because of his thick British accent. Grouplove came together at an artists retreat on the island of Crete and reconvened back in America, fusing a worldly sensibility with otherwise rootsy Americana. The quintet delighted through "Don't Say Oh Well," strumming guitars and one ukulele (for pure sound, not gimmick!).
All Mexico's Ximena Sarinana had to say during her set was "This song is all in Spanish" or "Viva Mexico!" and the small crowd gathered for her noon Saturday set at the BMI side stage cheered and whooped. Several waved Mexican flags. Sarinana, 25, a popular telenovela actress south of the border, is going for a breakout with her self-titled sophomore album, which is really great. For her early afternoon set at Lollapalooza, silhouetted against the lake with flying geese as an occasional backdrop, Sarinana performed a handful of new songs as well as a few from her 2008 debut, the misleadingly titled "Mediocre."
Playing electric piano at center stage, she eased into the big drums and cinematic refrain of "Normal" before electronically layering her vocals, and later bopped through her bouncy new pop single, "Different," and the seductive groove of "Echo Park." "This is the first festival I've played in America," she said. As impressed as I am with the album, I have to say her set suffered from a sense of unease and occasionally shrill vocals, as if she hasn't quite mastered the challenges of moving and singing at the same time. The crowd, however, demanded an encore, and she obliged by finally knocking us out with her fine voice — singing the sad, bluesy title track to "Mediocre" alone at her keyboard, working every dynamic smoothly and powerfully. Every nationality was cheering then.
On the main south stage, Cincinnati's Walk the Moon leapt joyously through its set of world music dance-rock, heavy on the beats and smeared with very Bow Wow Wow warpaint. Mixing beard-rock harmonies and spirited, switched-up beats, they worked through their own "Lisa Baby," about a "dancing queen," and by the end of the set were covering Bowie's "Let's Dance."
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: Big Audio Dynamite
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2011 4:02 PM
In our interview before the band's Lollapalooza debut, former Clash guitarist Mick Jones said the world had not, indeed, been clamoring for a reunion of his post-Clash band, Big Audio Dynamite — but they haven't minded it, either.
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
This unlikely but potent collaboration between Jones and filmmaker Don Letts started in 1984 and took the world grooves the Clash had begun to explore, pushing them further while also working open-mindedly with sound samples and video visuals. If that sounds pioneering, go figure - from yesterday's MTV to today's YouTube — it might have been. Because B.A.D. sounded very fresh, and very good, during their Saturday afternoon concert here.
What sounded a wee bit gimmicky in the mid-'80s — the film dialogue samples, the sound effects (ricocheting bullets and wailing sirens), the synthesized beats — are now perfectly natural to contemporary ears. I'd forgotten what a Wild West fixation these Brits had, still on display: They opened with whistling western movie music, and shouted "Rawhide!" after Jones' ADD guitar solo in "B.A.D."
The other reason people might not mind the return of B.A.D. is because the band's socially conscious songs, written during the Reagan and Bush administrations, alas, still speak to economic inequality and class conflict. Saturday they sounded positively prescient, singing, "Nation's economy's on a downward slide / On the best course of action no one can decide." That's from 1985. But they also debuted a new song, "Rob Peter, Pay Paul," which Jones introduced this way: "Our current global financial meltdown is explained in three and a half minutes." Sample lyric: "Where is the justice? What happened to the law?"
It was a surprisingly jangly song for this, the band that finds a groove and works it - usually for much longer than three and a half minutes. The opening "Medicine Show" (on which drummer Greg Roberts wasted no time attacking his cowbell), "A Party" (featuring Letts breaking out from behind the keys and deliver some fiery toasting), the closing "Rush" - these are songs with eternal grooves, lasting five minutes or more. They milked the signature riff of "The Bottom Line," teasing it like they were making a live 12-inch mix.
What will come of it? Jones and Letts said they don't know yet. Maybe a new album - they did play the new song, which is one more than most reunited bands manage (ahem, the Police) - but certainly more reissues.
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: Cee Lo Green, Local Natives
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2011 7:43 PM
I had tweeted earlier in the day Saturday that I'd like to hear less "thank you" and more "f—- you" at Lollapalooza. So many bands had been taking to the stages and voicing their unbounded gratitude — thanking everyone for being there and thanking Lollapalooza for having them, profusely — that it started to feel like rock was really dead, after all. Where's the sneer, the challenge, the middle finger?
Cee Lo Green tried to say something about that, and literally. Appearing on stage wearing football shoulder pads bearing long chrome spikes and hanging chains, Green juiced the crowd by demanding that we shout "f—- yeah!" It was an opening salvo in a long tease leading up to the one song the massive crowd in Hutchinson Field wanted to hear. In the meantime, however, we listened to Green shout and growl — for most songs, his trademark smooth husk was gone, even intentionally distorted (and he's a judge on "The Voice," no less) — through a speedy set of his rock-soul songs and a few unexpected covers, from the Violent Femmes to Billy Idol. Green seemed to suffer from technical issues, as well, stopping and starting songs, such as his "Crazy" hit with Gnarls Barkley, haphazardly.
One of his early records was "Cee Lo Green Is a Soul Machine," but Saturday night's hard riffs and black leather meant to portray a rock machine. And nothing says rock and roll like "F—- You," which Green finally got around to at the end of his cumbersome, mostly uninspired hourlong set.
Preceding Mr. Green was one of those fawning, thankful bands. Orange County's Local Natives were clearly thrilled to have graduated from last year's Pitchfork Music Festival to this year's Lollapalooza. "This is the biggest crowd we've played to by far," said singer Kelcey Ayer. "This is insane!" It was a joyous, not fearful, exclamation, fitting with the band's sweet temperament. All tight SoCal harmonies and heaving, unaffected guitars, Local Natives moved through a set of rhythmic charmers from their own "Shape Shifter," built on piano chord crescendos, and a cover of the Talking Heads' "Warning Sign." The Sony stage seemed like it might be too big for them, but they held it. Fleet and foxy.
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: Ximena Sarinana
By Thomas Conner on August 6, 2011 8:00 PM
After her Saturday afternoon set at Lollapalooza, we got to chat with Mexican actress-singer Ximena Sarinana, whose self-titled sophomore album I adore ...
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
Saturday @ Lollapalooza: Eminem, Skylar Grey
By Thomas Conner on August 7, 2011 1:28 AM
Arcade Fire beat Eminem to Lollapalooza (they headlined here last year) and snatched the top Grammy from him in February. But it's still been Mr. Mathers' year. Taylor Swift, after all, isn't covering Arcade Fire in concert this summer, and if Facebook is any arbiter of cultural presence, it was announced this week that Eminem has overtaken Lady Gaga as the most "liked" living person on the social media site.
For fans new and old, Eminem took to Lollapalooza's main stage Saturday night and encapsulated his entire career into one sizzling 90-minute set. Featuring two noteworthy guests — and assisted midway by an old partner, Ryan "Royce da 5'9" " Montgomery — the Detroit rapper launched a consistent barrage of recognizable tunes and furious rhymes into the largest crowd ever assembled at the annual concert festival in Chicago's Grant Park.
Performing nearly the exact set he delivered in June at the Bonnaroo festival, Eminem — who so rarely tours these days — dished hits one after another, sometimes in abbreviated form, reaching all the way back to "The Slim Shady LP." Prowling the stage in a hoodie, Em proved deft as ever with his famously furious rhymes (misogynistic and homophobic as they sometimes are), spitting out "No Love" and "The Way I Am" with such tenacity and urgency you wouldn't think there was a decade between them.
Midway through the set, though, it was easy to forget Eminem is a rapper as we entered the hot chorus portion of the evening, signaled by the guest appearance of Bruno Mars. The omnipresent tunesmith sang a trademark melody for the chorus of "Lighters," a new single from Bad Meets Evil, a revived collaboration between Eminem and Royce that delivered a new EP in June. This continued through "Airplanes II," "Space Bound" and several other tracks more song than rap. By the time we reached "Love the Way You Lie," we expected Skylar Grey — who co-wrote the song and who performed on Lollapalooza's BMI stage earlier in the day — to take the Rihanna part. No dice. She did, however, appear to sing her part in "I Need a Doctor."
"Lighters" was the song that softened the immensity of the audience in Hutchinson Field. This was a crowd one could officially refer to as ginormous. With a record sell-out this year of 90,000 each day, it looked as if at least 80,000 of them were waving hands and jumping up and down in the mud for Eminem. Even he seemed impressed, guffawing, "Holy sh—, there's a lot of people here." But in between Em's fuzzy-wuzzy raps in that song, Mars sang about "a sky full of lighters" at the same time he witnessed one. Tens of thousands of people in a field holding lighters — real lighters, much more than cell phones for a change — was a breathtaking sight.
Eminem has made much of his recovery, even making it the title of last year's "comeback" album. A video intro to the concert plays up the post-addiction story, and Saturday night — after asking fans, "How many people here get f—-ed up to the "Recovery" album? ... What kinda crazy backwards-ass sh—is that?" — he even managed to turn it into sketch comedy. In what he played as a personal moment, Eminem asked the crowd if we minded him relapsing tonight, taking a drink. He produced a bottle. Veteran hype man Kon Artis played the other side, "You sure you wanna do this? You know you get crazy when you drink." Eminem slowly put the bottle to his lips and drank. Liquid then began streaming from various holes in the special shirt he was wearing, as if he were a Warner Bros. cartoon character enjoying a beverage after a gun fight. What is this, "Hip-Hop With Benny Hill"?
He also used the shtick to validate — or explain away — the quirky, juvenile sound of his early hits. A medley of "My Name Is"/"The Real Slim Shady"/"Without Me" sounds potentially hilarious cast against Em's grave current image as a newly sober but still angry young man, but he introduced it by framing it in context with his addiction: "This is the stuff I was making when I was drunk."
Skylar Grey's own midafternoon performance on a side stage established that she belongs on the sidelines. Sassing around the stage in a flailing shirt and bikini top, Grey tried to play the tough, bad girl but hit the mark closer to Alannah Myles than, say, Gwen Stefani. Backed by too many meathead rap-rock grooves and peppered with too many clumsy exhortations for the sizable crowd to either dance or fight each other, most of the songs from Grey's forthcoming album, "Invinsible" (sic) seemed a dime a dozen despite her obvious vocal talent. She opened "Weirdo" with the refrain from Radiohead's "Creep" and sermonized about celebrating the world's oddballs, and it just sounded like a cheap grab at Lady Gaga's limelight. Here's to more "featuring Skylar Grey" and less solo Skylar Grey.
Sunday @ Lollapalooza: Titus Andronicus, Imelda May
By Thomas Conner on August 7, 2011 3:37 PM
Lollapalooza opened to a humid, rain-soaked Sunday with the defiant punk-Celtic squalls of New Jersey's Titus Andronicus.
As Big Audio Dynamite was the day before, Titus Andronicus proved to be the day's most socially relevant voice, crowing its resigned and occasionally paranoid lyrics about a U.S. of A. that's a shell of its former self. Their influences may be British punk and Irish pub rock, but their outlook is very American — even in the fans, who shouted "U-S-A!" several times, especially when singer-guitarist Patrick Stickles soloed so hard the U.S. flag tied to the end of his guitar actually waved in the light afternoon breeze. Lamenting in his choking yawps how "after 10,000 years it's still us against them" and that we continually squander "the value our forefathers gave you," Stickles' nervously darting eyes eventually always bring it back home to the harder, more personal questions: "Is there a soul on this earth who isn't too frightened to move?"
Titus Andronicus is still supporting the album, last year's phenomenal "The Monitor," that they were at last year's Pitchfork Music Festival, and the set hasn't changed much. Still, it's great to hear Stickles shouting a hundred times during "No Future, Pt. 3," ringing over Grant Park, "You will always be a loser!" — changing it up just once to "You will always Lollapalooza!" The band goes for Springsteen bombast (even name-checking him during "The Battle of Hampton Road") but balances its uber-American influences — "Forever" is '50s rock so classic all it lacks is a Chuck Berry duckwalk — with those from Emerald Isle pubs. "Four Score and Seven" may allude to Lincoln, but the music is pure craic. It even had young guys with their arms around one another's shoulders, swaying and singing along.
The flip side of that came immediately after, when Dublin's Imelda May started her set across Hutchinson Field with a forceful thwack of her bassist's upright. Speaking between songs in a brogue so thick it was difficult to understand, this Irish lass served up a set of pure retro rockabilly. She gave props to a song she's "dreamed of playing here because it was recorded right here in Chicago at the wonderful Chess studios," Howlin' Wolf's "Poor Boy." Ultimately, though, this was music too slick, and with too much shtick, to leave a deep impression in Sunday's mud. Then again, she did continue the festival's emergent '80s theme by covering "Tainted Love." Whatever.
Sunday @ Lollapalooza: The Cars
By Thomas Conner on August 7, 2011 7:56 PM
Capping a noticeable 1980s vibe running throughout this year's festival, the Cars played a typically solid but staid set Sunday afternoon — much like their May set at the Riviera, just outdoors. Opening with their classic "Let the Good Times Roll," the most sedate party anthem ever, the reunited quartet (sans original singer-bassist Ben Orr, who died in 2000) see-sawed between MTV-era hits — "My Best Friend's Girl," "You Might Think," "Magic," "Let's Go," etc. — and tracks from their new album, "Move Like This." As usual, Ric Ocasek hardly moved, and the set glided along with great songs but zero showmanship. "I like the nightlife, baby," Ocasek sang as he squinted into the late afternoon sun.
Before their set, we sat down with guitarist Elliott Easton and drummer David Robinson to discuss how the band got back together ...
MY VIDEO INTERVIEW
Sunday @ Lollapalooza: The rain, Foo Fighters, Arctic Monkeys
By Thomas Conner on August 8, 2011 1:29 AM
Lollapalooza ended Sunday in the mud and muck from two short but powerful rain storms that drenched Chicago's Grant Park — and the record 90,000 fans assembled there for the final day of the annual music festival — and gave many fans a night of rock and roll they won't soon forget.
Hannah Frudden was at the Perry's rave tent when the first wave of rain came Sunday evening. "It was the best 30 minutes of my life!" said the 19-year-old Northwestern student, exuberant despite being covered head to toe in mud. As she stood along a sidewalk near the main Lollapalooza stages, every other passer-by noticed her condition and gave her high-fives and hugs.
Jesse Warmling, 39, in from Dallas, surrendered gladly to the downpour, which lasted about half an hour and only slightly delayed Sunday's concert schedule on the final evening of this three-day music festival in Chicago's Grant Park. "We haven't seen rain for months in Texas," Warmling said. "I'll take it any way and anywhere."
When British band Arctic Monkeys took the main stage at 6:30 p.m., a half hour delay, the rain had nearly stopped — and a rainbow framed the stage. "We're gonna push through this," singer Alex Turner said. The band rushed through an abbreviated set, but at least included the song "She's Thunderstorms," from their newest album, dedicating it "to Mother Nature."
The rain returned a couple of hours later, early in the Foo Fighters headlining set, but Dave Grohl scared it away.
Always eager to play, the Foo Fighters — the band started 16 years ago by former Nirvana member Grohl — started their set promptly at 8 p.m., their first notes crescendoing as the final notes from Explosions in the Sky faded out across the field. They slammed into "Bridges Burning," from the band's acclaimed new album "Wasting Light," and hurried into "Rope" as dark clouds amassed again in the northwest. By the time they launched into "My Hero," their fourth song, the floodgates had opened once again. Torrents drowned the throng and produced a perfect rock and roll moment. That feeling when the rain starts falling, and you're getting drenched, and you decide, "F—- it, we're not running for cover" — that's a rock and roll moment.
"I don't give a f—- if it's raining," Grohl declared after the band had noodled cautiously through the song's ending, backing away from the rain that came at them from an sharp angle. If they had the slightest notion of cutting off the performance, the crowd had no intention of letting them. When you and tens of thousands of others are in the middle of Hutchinson Field, ankle-deep in mud and no hope of escape, you've made your rock and roll decision. The crowd kept the song going, singing loudly even as Grohl and the band dropped out momentarily. Soon he was singing "Arlandria," in which the line, "Shame, shame, go away / come again some other day," easily sounded like a chant against the weather.
Grohl started and ended the set sounding a little hoarse — perhaps because of the three-hour special show the Foo Fighters had played Saturday night for a thousand fans at Chicago's Metro. His energy, however, was not dampened. Always bug-eyed and ferocious onstage, Grohl on Sunday was whipping his wet hair around wildly as he ground away at his guitar, leaping and growling and shouting. He caressed the softer dynamics, too, stitching "Skin and Bones" together so lightly the song barely held together but benefited from accordion backing. He thanked the crowd for sticking with him and sang "Times Like These" by himself, celebrating the special moment.
Of course, Grohl related once again his tale of seeing his first rock show at the Cubby Bear (the band was Naked Raygun) — his age tends to change when he tells this story, Sunday night he was younger, 13 — and how it "changed my life." He then added that the first Lollapalooza 20 years ago had a similar impact. He beckoned Lolla founder Perry Farrell to come on stage, which he did — quickly, running on and off like a mischievous imp.
Chicago police: 'We don't work as bouncers' at Lollapalooza
By Thomas Conner on August 8, 2011 2:28 PM
Has everyone dried out and washed up?
The day after a rainy, muddy conclusion to Lollapalooza 2011 — read our full report — the Chicago Police Dept. has released a range of arrests during the three-day weekend concert festival in Grant Park.
As we've reported, last year's individual fence jumpers turned into this year's online-organized flash mobs — large groups of fans who gather and overwhelm a section of fence, using strength in numbers to insure better penetration and unpaid admission. Some groups were as large as 200-300 people.
But Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy on Monday told the Sun-Times' Rummana Hussain that only a total of 20 to 30 people were arrested during the three-day Lollapalooza festivities.
While McCarthy said gate crashing at Lollapalooza is not "acceptable," he said officers assigned to the private event are not "bouncers."
"We're there to provide for the public safety," he said. "We don't work as bouncers for admission purposes."
The actual bouncers are the folks employed by Safety Service Systems (S3). They're the blue T-shirts seen here apprehending some other gate-crashers.
In the YouTube video below — one of several posted during the weekend, purportedly showing various groups of young people storming fences at the festival —one such mob coalesces near a vulnerable section of fence, rushes it (as you can see in the slo-mo, they had a plank to help them ramp up the chain-link) and streams inside the festival's perimeter. Near the end, two police paddy wagons arrive, but as the poster of the video writes: "Two paddy wagons came, but no one was actually taken away. It seemed like if you were under 17 years old they let you go , after searching you. 18 years old and up seemed to get tickets."
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Sade debuted in 1984 — its first CD, "Diamond Life," featured a helpful parenthetical on the spine: "(pronounced Shar-day)" — and has sounded largely the same ever since. That's a compliment.
A Sade song sounds like ... a Sade song. Slow, sultry, deeply emotional and frosted with the iconic singer's cool, foggy, deliberately aloof voice. No evident trends, no guest rappers, no samples. The singles from the ’80s ("Smooth Operator," "The Sweetest Taboo," "Stronger Than Pride") are distinguishable from last year's "Soldier of Love," chiefly in the technical nuances of the production. The music, though, is stubbornly identifiable.
"To me, we're the punkest of punks within our own world, because we do what we do," said Sade — a k a singer Helen Folasade Adu, whose moniker is also the band name — during our interview. "We're not belonging to any particular genre, and we're always brave enough to do what we do whether it's understood or not. That fact that it's received well, we're endlessly grateful for. But our music is always approached in a way that's 'this is what we do, take it or leave it.' We don't have aspirations to change."
Received well, indeed. Over the same dates this weekend as Lollalaplooza in Chicago's Grant Park, Sade has nearly sold out three consecutive concerts at the United Center. "Soldier of Love" debuted at No. 1 when it was released in February 2010, possibly because fans were so eager to hear the first new material from Sade in a decade. In the last 18 years, Sade has released three albums. Like the pace of her songs, Sade is in no hurry.
Sade herself is as reticent as she is patient. In a rare interview, she talked to the Sun-Times about musical consistency, Justin Bieber and taking her own sweet time ...
Q: What does tour preparation involve for you and the band?
We're just talking about it now with the people working on the visual side of it. We're taking a long look at the songs to see how they really are in a way, how to represent them visually. In some ways, by looking at them in that way you learn something new, you see the songs a little from the outside. Once they're done, they're sent off somewhere. They're out there, and we have to rein them back in.
Q: Your first album in 10 years was out in February (2010), yet you're not touring until the following summer. Why the delay?
I couldn't sort of see myself going out there. I had to come up for air in a way. When we make an album, it's quite intense, very all-encompassing and consuming. I couldn't consider it, couldn't do it. I know it would have been the practical, sensical thing to do, to support the album and help it on its way. But I think if you're going to do something right you have to be 100-percent sure it's the best thing to do at that moment. I couldn't honestly feel that way, so I'm glad we took the breather before going back into it.
Q: You're never in any hurry, are you?
[Laughs] Having said that, I'm always late. The anxiety I feel when I'm late is nothing like the anxiety I feel when I'm on time. [Laughs] The few times in my life I've been early, it's all gone wrong. I'm in constant fear of being early. That's why I'm always late. Plus, obviously, I'm Nigerian. You can take the girl out of Nigeria ...
Q: Has Sony ever breathed down your neck, pressuring you for a new album next year instead of next decade?
They've lost all ambition with me. ... This is the only way I can go. You've got to be yourself. I'm much better at being myself. My life dominates me, and its circumstances come first. That actually enriches the music. I don't have that blind ambition just to do it. It has to feel right, otherwise I get sort of confused and wonder what I'm doing.
Q: Describe for me what happens — you release an album and tour in 2000-2001, then nearly eight years go by before the call goes out to reconvene the band. What has to happen for you to reach a creative boil?
It's hard to say. In some way, I feel the pressure boiling from the band. I suppose that kicks me into a more conscious state — more aware of the real practical side of it, the reality of what it takes. Also, I think I'll commit at the beginning. I have to get involved, get the train in motion, downhill picking up steam, then suddenly I find I'm doing it. I'm one of those people, if I stop and think it holds me back.
Q: You don't start writing until you're in the studio, right?
That's why making records is so expensive for us. I have collections of bits on paper, written little scraps of ideas from when I'm really excited by a thought or a feeling that's managed to make it to a bit of paper. We have that to start with, and that's it, really. Whenever we make an album, we have to go somewhere we can cut ourselves off from reality. That speeds up the process.
Q: Your music has evolved yet remained remarkably consistent and identifiable. You haven't flown off on stylistic tangents. How do you manage that?
To me, we're the punkest of punks within our own world, because we do what we do. We're not belonging to any particular genre, and we're always brave enough to do what we do whether it's understood or not. That fact that it's received well, we're endlessly grateful for. But our music is always approached in a way that's 'this is what we do, take it or leave it.' We don't have aspirations to change, only to develop within.
Q: Which means you must have an ESP with the band by now, right?
We've created our own language, so to speak, yes. We keep speaking and expressing ourselves with our own kind of language. If anything over the years, we've broken things down, become more abstract and more raw than it used to be, less polished. In a way it's more truthful, but that's subtle. Only a real lover of our music or someone who turns us up loud would really understand what I mean by that.
Q: Have you ever considered collaborations or side projects?
No, I feel safe in our little group.
Q: The only extracurricular project of yours I'm aware of is that bit part in "Absolute Beginners."
Well, yeah, talk about not being yourself. That was me sort of being someone else. It was very easy, like putting on a cloak, that becoming somebody for a little while. If I had to do that for a long while it would be grating. I didn't do other film work after that. I've tended to avoid becoming more famous than I already am, and I don't feel that's a very good way of expressing myself.
Q: Has fame been a challenge for you?
People generally let me be me. People are aware that I'm not someone particularly begging for attention. They hold back a bit with me.
Q: What music do you listen to?
I live in a house with an 18-year-old and a 14-year-old, so it's full of music. Just anything. My daughter and stepson are really broad-minded. When I was young, people were almost identified solely by the kind of music they liked. People fell into categories of who liked what. It's lovely about young kids now — they love music for the sake of it. It's so accessible, and it's all right to love Muse and Justin Bieber at the same time. That's infectious. There's no snobbery attached to their feeling for music.
Q: So Bieber's even gotten to you?
Justin Bieber singing "Cry Me a River" — that made me cry. We're sitting on the sofa at home, and my daughter showed it to me on YouTube. There's a kind of loveliness about him, an innocence. He's so maligned. I like Janelle Monae. I think she's sweet. We listen to a lot of rap and hip-hop. I love Raekwon. It's very heavy, I know, but I love the beats. I think he's genius.
Q: So many artists left the saxophone behind in the '80s. Not you. Why?
It's back there with the hats and the lampposts. [Laughs] We did leave the sax behind a little bit ourselves, but this album has a resurgence of sax. I think saxophone on a lot of '80s music is there like the synthesizer is there. It's fashionable. Leg warmers came along, and sax did, too. But if you love it, you hold onto it. The sax for Stuart [Matthewman] is like an additional limb. He loves it, and it's really infected our music. It's used for a reason, not just because it's the thing at that time.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.