Lollapalooza tickets tends to sell out well in advance, but this year only Saturday general-admission tickets were spoken for months ago. Before the day was done, one act attracted one of the largest crowds the Chicago mega-festival has ever seen — but it wasn't headliners Twenty One Pilots or J. Balvin.
When Twenty One Pilots played an afternoon Lolla slot four years ago, they had a crowd that rivaled Paul McCartney's, and there were so many fans jumping at one point in the set you could feel the actual earth move underneath your feet.
Four years later, they were back to headline — shockingly, in front of a smaller crowd. It wasn’t an empty field by any means, but you could easily walk up and grab a spot close to the stage at any point, which was impossible back in 2015.
Pilots played with their patented energy and showcased their distinct, genre-hopping style. Tyler Joseph rapped on top of a flaming car for “Levitate,” introduced “Heathens” with a little Beethoven on piano (and ended the song with screamed vocals), and strummed a ukulele for the peppy “We Don’t Believe What’s On TV.” But the crowd reaction was also significantly tamer compared to the response four years ago, when Pilots had just broken into the mainstream and was cutting edge. The novelty has worn off.
Lil Wayne, the unofficial headliner
So if Pilots didn't draw the day's biggest crowd, who did?
None other than rap legend Lil Wayne.
It was a great turn of events following a bumpy month. On July 11, he suggested he might pull out of his co-headlining tour with Blink-182 — in the middle of a tour-stop performance that he cut short. Then on July 26, just a couple of hours before he was set to take the stage in Tampa, he tweeted that he was feeling under the weather and wouldn't be part of the Blink bill that night, which drew a lot of skepticism.
But Wayne seemingly was in great health Saturday, his spirit no doubt buoyed by the massive crowd laid out before him — larger even than for Childish Gambino Friday, or Twenty One Pilots and McCartney back in 2015.
With a DJ and rock band putting gas on his fire, Weezy roared through choice cuts of high-energy greatest hits — and did his very own version of “Old Town Road.” Expect Lil Nas X to call Wayne's people about making yet another remix — that is, if negotiations haven’t started already.
J. Balvin makes history
J. Balvin didn't have a Lil Wayne-level turnout, but the Latin pop star's headlining appearance Saturday was definitely more significant: It was the first time in Lollapalooza's 28-year history that an artist who sings entirely in Spanish was headlining the festival.
Balvin showed he was up for the occasion, the ringmaster for the most festive and infectious Lolla headlining set of the year so far. An inflated, 20-foot-tall troll clutching a smiling cloud bounced to “Que Pretendes,” while life-size bobblehead versions of Cardi B and Bad Bunny appeared for “I Like It,” surrounded by Balvin’s nimble, colorful backing dancers.
Maybe Lolla can continue giving Latin music a big platform in 2020 and book Bad Bunny to actually headline — and Cardi B, while they’re at it. But Balvin was already one step ahead: During his historic set Saturday, he brought out one of the biggest reggaeton acts in the world, the seminal duo Wisin y Yandel, who performed their first single, 2005's "Rakata," on the Lolla stage.
j balvin bringing wisin y yandel out during his homage to old school reggaetón at lollapalooza as the first latino headliner... simply ICONICpic.twitter.com/ccRZ0RxLQf— monica. (@SARAMAMBlCHE) August 4, 2019
Back in Black
Comedy is hard to pull off in a setting like Lollapalooza, even comedy set to music. Fortunately, Tenacious D benefited from having a beloved movie star in the band in Jack Black — and from having a pretty sparse crowd by Lolla Saturday-evening standards, minimizing audience intrusion on any of the punchlines.
Black and Kyle Gass’ goofy, delusional, metal gods in dad bods shtick hasn’t changed in the slightest since their HBO series first aired in 1997. But they still delivered chuckles with “Roadie," with an “emotional” roadie wiping away tears from the side of the stage over the tribute. They also completed a “rockxorcism,” successfully commanding Satan to leave the body of their guitarist. Only four other people have beaten the Devil in a rock-off, Black informed us: Robert Johnson, Jimmy Page, Charlie Daniels and Ralph Macchio.
Give it up for guitar
There have been some notable guitar moments during Lolla 2019, during sets from Childish Gambino, Janelle Monáe, H.E.R. But electric guitar isn't the central instrument in mainstream music anymore, or Lolla for that matter; Twenty One Pilots is considered a rock band, but guitar isn't even part of the mix.
But guitar is what Gary Clark Jr. is all about — specifically the kind of bluesy guitar style epitomized by fellow Texans the Vaughan brothers, the late Stevie Ray and Jimmie, one of Clark's early mentors.
During his Saturday afternoon set, Clark's hand flickered over the strings faster than the human eye could process during "I Got My Eyes On You (Locked and Loaded)," and he looked like a man possessed, mouth unnaturally agape, his eyes rolling back into his skull, during a smoking guitar section for "Low Down Rolling Stone."
But guitar isn't the only thing Clark is about. That "Stone" guitar work killed, but so did John Deas' wicked keys section that preceded it, sounding like something from a spirited church service on a distant, funky planet.
And the title track to this year's "This Land" is the greatest thing Clark has made, and was powerfully performed Saturday, with Clark angrily reliving the racism he experienced growing up in the South, and livid about the racism that still exists in America.
"I remember when they used to tell me .... Go back where you came from," Clark Jr. sang Saturday. "(Expletive) you, I'm America's son. This is where I come from."
Forget for a bit about the debate over guitar's place in music. Clark's "This Land" is one of the most relevant, and crucial, songs of 2019.
Day 2 highlights
Childish Gambino (you also know him as actor, writer and director Donald Glover) drew one of the largest crowd's Lolla has had for a headliner Friday night.
Despite stalling his start, Glover paid off fans' patience with slick spins, belly dancing, rapid-fire rapping for "II. Worldstar" and soulful, raspy wailing for "Have Some Love." And "This Is America" live was riveting, with angelic choirs and child-like dancing drastically contrasted with abrasive trap beats and Glover's huge, unshakable, unsettling smile.
Chicago superstar Chance the Rapper, who isn't on the Lolla bill, showed up to perform with Death Cab for Cutie. Yeah, it seemed odd, but the two acts work really well together on the sweetly soulful and nostalgic track "Do You Remember," and it sounded splendid.
Chance wasn't the only one to drop by an afternoon set. So did Childish Gambino, who joined 21 Savage for a fierce performance of their collaborative track "Monster." (Glover actually came out in a sling, which he wasn't wearing for his own set later. Perhaps he was trolling the crowd?)
Regardless of the guest appearance, this was indisputably the 21 Savage show, and the rapper had a massive crowd — at least three times the size of the Strokes' turnout Thursday — and people were clearly there for him.
Janelle Monáe celebrated black power on empowering opener "Crazy, Classic, Life." She preached sex positivity and playfully tore down violence on "Screwed." Wearing a kufi and an Afrofuturistic, militaristic ensemble, she sat on a throne to rap "Django Jane" and praise the power of women.
Monáe later said she was trying to create a lasting memory (mission accomplished), and dedicated her set to the weirdos, calling on them to support immigrants, the LGBTQ community and the disabled. And she called for Donald Trump to be impeached and voted out of office.
Day 1 highlights
Drew Taggart and Alex Pall of the Chainsmokers walked onstage Thursday with flares in hand, and the fireworks blew up pretty good. But nothing about their set was revolutionary, or remotely remarkable. Not the predictable and boring buildups and bass drops. Not the insipid repetition of their songwriting formula. And certainly not the way milquetoast vocalist Taggart turned a snippet of Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge" into soulless EDM murk.
Buzz is a double-edged sword. In the case of R&B artist H.E.R., winner of the best-new artist Grammy in January, that meant a large crowd for her afternoon set. It also meant greater pressure to live up to the hype.
At first, H.E.R. couldn’t do it. She threw down some breezy funk grooves at the start of the set that didn’t really light up the crowd. But when H.E.R. covered Lauryn Hill's "Ex-Factor" and sang her own Daniel Caesar collaboration “Best Part,” her pretty voice started to shine. It was enough to explain how the R&B artist won that Grammy, although as a live performer, but she might not be the best new artist at Lolla this weekend.
Christian contemporary music artist Lauren Daigle has crossed over into the mainstream with soaring breakout single “You Say,” and her voice was majestic Thursday. But Daigle also had a large and festive backing band that touched on Kool & the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” and Aretha Franklin’s “Think” during Daigle’s “Still Rolling Stones,” and delivered a swinging cover of “Sir Duke” that would make Stevie Wonder smile.
On the opposite end of the park, animated up-and-coming pop artist Hayley Kiyoko offered her own inspiration ahead of her celebratory track “Let It Be.” "It's really hard to allow yourself to grow,”Kiyoko said. "I just want to encourage you all, whatever you're going through in life, you are brave, you are (expletive) stronger than you think. … You deserve all of it. You (expletive) deserve it."
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Lollapalooza: Lil Wayne, J. Balvin, 21 Savage, Janelle Monae impress