I returned to my original hometown of Chicago last week for the sole purpose of seeing Lady Gaga and a few other bands play at Lollapalooza. Started initially as a touring show by Jane’s Addiction singer Perry Farrell, this event has been a weekend destination festival since 2005 when it found a permanent home in Chicago’s “front lawn” of Grant Park.
My only previous festival experience was at Bonnaroo in 2006, when Radiohead was the headliner. Spending three days baking under the June sun among hundreds of thousands of tents, cars, and people on a Tennessee farm was certainly a memorable adventure, and I had the third degree sunburns to show for it. Because it was in rural Manchester TN, many Bonnaroo attendees who had traveled from across the country had no choice but to stay for the entire long weekend, including me and my convoy of eager college undergrads who had never heard of the festival until meeting all the heady kids at their first year of college. Four years later, I’m still wistful for the experience but have since developed an unabashed love for pop music and its reigning matriarch, Lady Gaga. I’ve also become wary of spending an entire weekend living out of a tent surrounded by cars, making the urban location and single day ticketing scheme of Lollapalooza music to my ears.
After arriving in Chicago and staying with my family for a night, I was excited to head into the city and meet up with my friends Megan Rose and Sarah Sweet. Megan had only been to Chicago once before, last Christmas break during the absolute worst weather that Chicago offers. She was excited to return to the city during the summertime and I shared in her enthusiasm, especially since I hadn’t spent any warm weather time in the city since 2006. Sarah Sweet is a Chicago native, by way of prep school and college in New England. She graciously hosted us in her mom’s West Loop loft, located in a former printing press building with all the typical loft trappings: high ceilings, exposed wood beams and ductwork, and a beautiful rooftop patio with views towards the Chicago skyline.
After donning our concert outfits we headed to the festival first by foot and then CTA, Chicago’s subway system. Arriving in Grant Park around 2:30, we caught the tail end of Mavis Staples’ performance before moving onto the Semi-Precious Weapons show. This band has been opening for Lady Gaga all summer, which explains why she appeared on the stage halfway through their set and incited a frenzy in the sweaty, camera equipped crowd. The picture at left shows her right after making out with SPW lead singer and Chicago native Justin Tranter, and just before she leaped off stage and into the ecstatic throngs below. I was close enough to the stage that I managed to get a hold of her fishnet-wrapped wrist for a few seconds, which made me unashamedly giddy. The video below captures the moment quite nicely, from a few different angles:
After this Lady Gaga primer Megan and Sarah were in dire need of sustenance, so we proceeded to the beverage and food tents where they were able to get a burrito while I went to catch the second half of the Dirty Projectors show nearby. From the back of the crowd I heard Useful Chamber and Stillness is the Move, and even made it up to the front line for their encore performance. I was close enough to recognize the two ladies at right from their Bitte Orca album cover.
After Dirty Projectors were done it was mid-afternoon and time to head towards the Parkways stage where Hot Chip and Lady Gaga were performing. Arriving in the crowd midway through Hot Chip’s set, we danced around to this British electropop band’s hits like Ready for the Floor and One Life Stand as the sun went down over the city. By 8 o’clock the crowds were standing shoulder to shoulder as far as the eye could see, and people were ready for Gaga to take the stage and for the “Monster Ball” to begin.
Launching into her set with my latest favorite Dance in the Dark, Gaga then proceeded through her best known tracks off The Fame and Fame Monster, pausing inbetween for theatrical vignettes and outlandish costume changes. She related to us several times her upbringing as a freak, wearing her role as gay activist on her sleeve (literally screaming “for gay equality!” at one point), trying to endear herself to the crowd. The more I learn about her Upper West Side childhood and swift rise to stardom, the less I buy this “outsider freak” persona, for she’s definitely been a popular attention magnet for a good while now.
Throughout the concert I was standing near a braces-clad fourteen year old girl who had already seen the Monster Ball and therefore knew how the entire set would play out. Not only did she clue me in to the next song during every theatrical break, but her pure teenaged excitement was absolutely infectious. Needless to say I was dancing around like a pre-pubescent girl the whole time. As the show wound down and 10 o’clock approached, I was still waiting to hear my favorite Gaga song, Paparazzi. Sure enough, she ended her show with that sweet confectionary treat followed by the powerhouse finale of Bad Romance.
After the show ended and the massive crowds filtered out of the park and into the loop, overtaking Michigan Avenue by sheer numbers, we were exhausted, thirsty, and riding a Gaga high. She may be overexposed and exhaustively radio played, but you can’t say that she doesn’t know how to belt inescapably catchy pop tunes and put on a fun show for tens of thousands of people. The whole day was a string of memorable moments, from the Gaga wrist touch to seeing Dirty Projectors to dancing among throngs of screaming monsters. Well worth the price of admission.