Triumph of Mediocrity

Photo by Jeanne RiceLOLLAPALOOZA

The best band at Saturday's Lollapalooza was all hot Indian/Middle Eastern percussion rhythms and hypnotic, transcendent singing. A fluid fiddle player bowed the strings of her instrument magnificently, adding colorful new elements to a combo whose music had become predictable over the years. The band's flowing, orange-tinted wardrobe and shorn locks added wondrous visual stimuli to the sonic presentation.

Yeah, when the Hare Krishnas are Lollapalooza's best band, you know the day's mostly been a bust. So much a bust that we opted to leave early, just before A Perfect Circle started their twilight set. For there was nothing in our imagination that any of the four headlining bands could've done that would have challenged us, excited us, fed our intellect or revived our faith in the holy spirit of rock N roll.

During the traveling fest's first four years, Lollapalooza gave us such gifts many times over. But that was all pre-“alternative,” before the word became just another marketing device, and certainly before Lolla's death-spiral years of 1995-1997, when the fest's producers tried to pass off Metallica as hip and cool, neatly repackaged for KROQ airplay.

So when we first heard Lollapalooza was being resurrected this summer, we were hopeful. We wanted to believe the bands would be diverse enough to include quirky jazz and country acts like the Charlie Hunter Trio and Palace Songs, as it once did, as well as a wild mix of “rock” in all its variants. We wanted the potential to discover new favorite bands—bands we'd never heard of before Saturday. We wanted musicians of different colors, genders, cultures and styles to weld themselves to each other and explore the possibilities of what new, weird, wonderful things they could sculpt. We wanted art and poetry and beauty. We wanted to free political prisoners in countries whose names we couldn't pronounce. We wanted to free our minds. We wanted our asses to follow.

Instead, we got a triumph of mediocrity. A broken promise. Sterility. Blandness. A touring Exploit-O-Fest that's now the aural equivalent of name-brand margarine. A slick sea of product placement that rivals the Warped Tour for crass commercialization.

Evidence, you want? Gladly. Though the show was sold out, people could still buy tickets through the Ticketmaster website—but only with an American Express gold card. There were text-messaging games Lolla-goers could play throughout the day, but only if you owned the right brand of cell phone. In the gaming tent, kids—potential recruits, really—could blast away at big, bad Iraqis on the U.S. Army's official video game, an unseemly bit of propaganda more apropos for Ozzfest than what Lollapalooza once was. Women were marginalized, from the print ads that depicted nubile young things thumbing their way to the show, to the Paint Your Tits booth (staffed by two creepy-looking guys, of course) we encountered in the amphitheater's vendor area. Where once there had been political and social activism tables of all viewpoints—right-to-lifers and pro-choicers coexisting!—we now counted just two, stuffed away near the beer hut, which charged $10 for a single brew.

As for the music: once there was an eclectic clashing of genres; now it's mostly just rock-band-rock-band-rock-band. And that's why we cut out with the setting sun rather than suffer through A Perfect Circle; the self-centeredness of singer Maynard James Keenan we can barely tolerate even when he's with his other, better band, Tool. Or Audioslave, the poorer, tamer parts of two much-missed bands (let the Rage Against the Machine reunion countdown start any day—please!). Or the not-half-bad-but-not-half-great-either ordinariness of Incubus. Or Jane's Addiction—fronted by the guy who helped start Lollapalooza—now desperately, depressingly making a go at the sort of fame they ruined with heroin the first time 'round. On their new record, they sound old and used—how can we miss you, indeed, when you won't go away?

And yet, we still found music we liked. Old friends the Killingtons, with JK Thompson helming an all-new lineup, were like aural comfort food after years of fad dieting—they're more melodic, graceful and hooky than ever, and the new songs we heard were terrific. Banyan, side-project brainchild of Jane's drummer Stephen Perkins, were also superb, a four-piece punky jam-band with Nels Cline on guitar, the iconic Mike Watt on bass, and a guy who twiddles around with paint as the music goes off—Dead-ish prog-rock meets the Minutemen's old esoteric outbursts. There was this trio—we're pretty sure the name was Golden Buddha—who blasted a sort of punk-meets-raga cacophony of rhythms. Jurassic 5 were fantastic, throwing out smart, witty rhymes and going off on kazoos while DJs Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark took over mid-set for some mind-melting turntable gymnastics.

But nothing topped the Krishnas—and we can see them for free at Venice or Laguna Beach almost any weekend.

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