From August 3 to 5, the 2012 Lollapalooza Festival will return to Chicago's Grant Park, bringing a ridiculous array of performers with them. It doesn't get much more ridiculous than sexagenarian doom-metal legends Black Sabbath, whose 'original line-up' reformation plans have hit a snag. But Bill Ward or no Bill Ward: the show must go on. And, beyond its classic-rock headliners, deep down the line-up, the grandaddy of all alternative outdoor festivals has some interesting acts for the adventurous to check out. Here, then, are ten picks to click from lesser-known Lollapalooza names.
1. The Afghan Whigs
The crazed hysteria that met the Pavement reformation was testament to the power of a musical legacy, with the slacker-rock pin-ups playing to crowds far larger and more enthusiastic than they ever did the first time around. So it goes with The Afghan Whigs, who've ascended up the bills of festivals simply by going away. The soul-flecked vice rockers were, at best, a cult act in the '90s; a band whose identity was tied up in the fact they weren't alternative nation unit shifters. So how will the Whigs' old chip-on-the-shoulder fans feel now that the often-maligned outfit will be returning to a hero's welcome, 13 years after a comparable few cared that they broke up? And how will the Whigs themselves bear the burden of expectation after a whole career as the underdogs?
2. Bear in Heaven
Bear in Heaven's "The Reflection of You" is one of the breakout indie singles of the year, a moody dance anthem built from buzzy synths and overdriven electrics. It sounds huge and epic, and feels ever moreso that way if taken in conjunction with PFFR's hard-zooming, seizure-inducing music video. The band's third LP, I Love You, It's Cool doesn't quite live up to its lead single's glories; although it does, we must note, have one of the best album titles of the year. But there's no doubting the vastness of their gleaming, futurist synthesizer-psychedelia, no denying that their epic sounding shrines to repetition will sound great playing in vast spaces.
I saw Chairlift play the week Something came out. And their live performance completed the narrative you could already here on the album: with co-songwriter/vocalist Aaron Pfenning now gone, the now-duo were now powered by Caroline Polachek's star wattage. And in a setting as vast as Lollapalooza —where the intimacies and subtleties of a regular club show never enter the picture— sometimes merely having someone with bona fide stage presence is more than enough. With old hits from Does You Inspire You matched with a whole new record of super-sharp synth-pop —including the awesome, singalong-worthy "I Belong in Your Arms"— Chairlift also has genuine crowd-pleasin' potential.
"I feel like a cokehead," kicks off "No Waves," the raucous, Germs-ish opening jam on Fidlar's Don't Try EP. With their proud slackerdom, '90s revivalism, and Wipers-by-way-of-Nirvana sound, the super-young, super-drunk Los Angeles quartet are kinda comparable to Wavves; especially when they rhyme "skateboard" and "fucking bored." But where Nathan Williams' stoner bro-ject is a shrine to bad vibes, Fidlar frontmen Zac Carp and Elvis Kuehn kick out joyous jams. The band play fast, furious, fuzzy garage-rock with riotous energy, and, live, they even incite unironic mosh pits and slamdancing. Given Lollapalooza's headlining rockers —Black Keys, Jack White, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Black Sabbath— range from middle-age to senior citizen, those searching for youthful punk abandon can find it here...
5. Little Dragon
Outdoor rock festivals are slow-moving beasts. At times they feel like remnants of another time, when rock dinosaurs walked the Earth, distorted guitars in hand. Especially when it's still those same rock dinosaurs of yore, up on the outdoor stage. Bands, of, oh, say, minimalist synth-poppers from Sweden can seem like alien interlopers in such a savage landscape; but I get the feeling Little Dragon will draw —and entertain— a plenty hefty crowd at Lollapalooza. The Gothenburg quartet's third album, Ritual Union, was one of the best albums of last year, and, when coupled with Yukimi Nagano's vocal presence on SBTRKT's seemingly-everywhere summer single "Wildfire," 2011 felt like a real breakthrough year for Little Dragon.
6. Neon Indian
When making his second Neon Indian LP, Era Extraña, Alan Palomo was already thinking about touring it, about playing big festival gigs like Lollapalooza. "That was something that was undeniably in my mind: ‘what would I want to be playing every night for eight months?'" Palomo confesses. For the first time, the chillwave OG was working on an album that he knew would be played on big stages, songs that would be aired in vast spaces. And so the songs on Era Extraña were built as jam-friendly, trance-ready, and shoegaze-epic; and the Neon Indian live-show uses wired-up synths, ferocious guitar noise, and waves of effects to convey Palomo's otherwise-kinda-twee, sad-eyed electro mood-making.
Ever since Brad Oberhofer arose from the wilds of Tacoma as a 19-year-old home-tapin' indie-popper, it's felt as though his imminent fame wasn't a matter of if, but when. His early tracks all came loaded with the kind of ridiculous catchiness that can't be contrived; the young indie-pop scholar clearly having a magical ear for a winning melody. Rather than knocking out a quick, lo-fi debut LP, Oberhofer took the old-fashioned music-biz path: signing to a cashed-up label (Glassnote, home of Phoenix) and working with a big ticket producer (Steve Lillywhite, who's CV includes work with U2). The resulting LP, Time Capsules II, is a debut that feels born into rock-festival grandeur, every song —thought sung in Avey Tare-ish wail— having big, bright, fist-pumping qualities.
8. Sharon Van Etten
Sharon Van Etten was hardly born to play rock festivals. Her intimate, slow, sad songs —sung in a doleful drawl of tender, gentle beauty— aren't made for open air spaces and congregations of bros by the thousand. Interviewing Van Etten two years ago, you got the feeling that festival gigs were a burden. But as the Jersey girl's albums have grown slowly grander —from 2010's Epic to 2012's Tramp— and as her name has become more well-known and duly revered amongst discerning listeners, Van Etten's music has slowly swelled to meet expectation. Armed, now, with jams like "I'm Wrong" and a four-piece-band format (whose ranks include the awesome Heather Woods Broderick), Van Etten can now command the big stages as she does the small.
9. Twin Shadow
When Twin Shadow took his beloved 2010 LP Forget from tiny Brooklyn dives to outdoor festival stages, the move from sleepy synth-balladry to stadium-sized rock felt forced upon a project conceived on a smaller scale. Now that George Lewis Jr and band have spent the hard yards on the road —growing harder, louder, more bombastic and rockin' with every festival spot— that's translated back to the sound. Confess, the second Twin Shadow LP, takes Lewis's craft to epic new-wave levels, the set —from the swaggering "Five Seconds" to the Richard Marx-sounding(!) power-ballad "Run My Heart"— marshaling epic gate-reverb, billowing dry-ice, and Top Gun soundtrack vibes. Meaning: Twin Shadow now sounds humungous, and built to fill outdoor festival stages.
10. The Walkmen
With the release of their seventh album, Heaven, The Walkmen have achieved the kind of alt-crossover heft of their pals in The National. Touring the album —and, indeed, appearing at Lollapalooza— will be effectively a victory lap for the New Yorkers, a celebration of the culmination of 12 years slowly ascending the indie ladder. Sounding more winsome, twinklingly vintage, and dreamily romantic than any of its predecessors, Heaven isn't, in theory, main-stage material. But its slow-moving, big-cresting, regal-sounding songs have an inbuilt grandeur to them, and there's little doubt that The Walkmen will relish playing them. A decade after Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone, this is their moment, and you can be sure they'll seize it.