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June 1, 2007

Summer preview: Eclectic lineups heat up Chicagoland

Those looking forward to summer in the Windy City have many things to anticipate—sunshine, humidity, lakefront lounging—but among the best occurrences in Chicago this summer are two of the most popular music festivals to hit the Midwest. Pitchfork and Lollapalooza may not have the jam band-–friendly freedom of Bonnaroo or the hip starlets of Coachella, but they have the benefit of flat Chicago fields and lots of sweaty attendees who travel here from across the land.

Pitchfork hits first, on the weekend of July 13–15, in Union Park. The festival has expanded rapidly since its inauguration three summers ago, catching the cultural zeitgeist of a rabid indie community. This allows the festival organizers (tastemakers Pitchfork Media) to go out on a limb when they organize the lineup. It appeals to a wide but somewhat eccentric audience.

One of the gimmicks that Pitchfork is launching this year is an act of early retro-pastiche that is intriguing but also a little depressing. The Friday night portion of the festival is being put on with globe-circling festival organizers All Tomorrow’s Parties and features bands that were very popular in the ’80s and ’90s performing their best albums in their entirety. This includes Slint’s ominous record Spiderland, and GZA from Wu-Tang performing all of Liquid Swords. The highlight, however, should be Sonic Youth playing the entirety of Daydream Nation. Though it’s a little bit of premature nostalgia to glorify the accomplishments of records that were released fewer than twenty years ago, it is a somewhat worthwhile project, and seeing vaguely middle-aged musicians recapture their glory days is always entertaining (see Lollapalooza, below).

The rest of the Pitchfork lineup is standard hipster fare. Yoko Ono headlines on Saturday and the New Pornographers finish off the festival on Sunday. Both the Saturday and Sunday lineups are peppered with strange subgenres of so-called “indie”—Clipse (intensely catchy, notoriously coke-heavy hip-hop) and Mastodon (metal rock) are notably a bit off from standard fare. Other performers to watch include Of Montreal, who will put on a glitter-and-doom–infused spectacle, and Stephen Malkmus (whose backing band, the Jicks, includes many competent indie staples). Newcomers—including Voxtrot, already notorious for their inarticulate angst; Beach House, with their dreamy lightness; and Klaxons, with dance-rock rave potential—will get to show their chops (or lack thereof) next to more established performers. Girl Talk, who are infamous for being an intense crowd-pleaser, will perform in the presence of a weirdly high number of the artists that he regularly remixes, and Cat Power might or might not have a mental breakdown. We’ll see.

Pitchfork highlights usually include horrible sunglasses, bad dance moves, and cheap bottled water. The festival is a deal because tickets are 50 bucks for all three days. The people-watching alone is worth it.

Two weeks later, those who have a little bit more cash to spare can drop it all on Lollapalooza, which will take place August 3–5 on nine stages (seriously) in Grant Park. Lollapalooza is bigger than Pitchfork, and it knows it. The festival’s website has shiny graphics, and they haven’t even bothered to release a schedule of when the bands are playing. Even though Lollapalooza was downsized from a touring show a few years ago, it seems to have landed comfortably in Chicago, where it can thrive. Headliners for this year’s festival include Pearl Jam, Daft Punk, Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals, and, most intriguingly, Iggy and the Stooges. While the organizers of Lollapalooza may be guilty of the same premature nostalgia as Pitchfork in some areas, getting what’s left of Iggy Pop is pretty amazing.

The problems with Lollapalooza last year included inane scheduling (putting bands with similar fan bases on at the same times on different stages), but hopefully this year festival organizers won’t schedule M.I.A. (in a rare stage appearance this summer to begin promoting the follow-up to her amazing Arular) against Cansei de Ser Sexy and their Brazilian dance rock. Lollapalooza actually has something for everyone. If you’re into articulate bar rock, there’s The Hold Steady or Kings of Leon, or if you feel like hearing songs about the bar, you can catch the infectious Amy Winehouse. For music that sounds like it’s in the wrong decade, check out Sean Lennon or My Morning Jacket. And if you’re sad that MAB didn’t book Modest Mouse for Summer Breeze this year, there is hope—you can see them at Lolla, or you can catch the Roots and Spoon. Again.

Both summer festivals get lots of credit for supporting the Chicago music scene by giving Chicago bands an opportunity to perform for lots of out-of-towners. Though we might get to see the Bound Stems or Chin Up Chin Up (Lolla) and The Ponys or Ken Vandermark’s creations (Pitchfork) semi-regularly, exposing them to others helps keep Chicago’s blossoming music scene on the map.

Basically, Lollapalooza should attract you, whether you’re a music snob or somebody who just really, really misses the mid ’90s. It’s the kind of all-encompassing spirit that can make concertgoing a wonderful experience (talk about collective effervescence), but could also be hot and kind of sticky. Lollapalooza is also a little pricey at $195 for the entire fest. (Though there are no service charges and you can print tickets at home for free….um, great?) You might want to start saving now.