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The 800-pound gorilla of Chicago's crowded festival season takes over Grant Park this weekend. Lollapalooza ranks among the biggest pop-music events ever to play the city, encompassing 130 bands, 69 acres, 8 stages and 3 days. It will also mark another historic occasion: the first major hip-hop concert on the most celebrated slice of public lakefront property in the Midwest. With South Side natives Kanye West and Common headlining the main stage on Saturday night, Lollapalooza will provide an unprecedented showcase for two of the city's brightest musical lights.
The hip-hop infusion marks a major upgrade in the festival's bookings compared with its inaugural year last summer in Grant Park, when Lollapalooza focused primarily on mainstream rock. The promoters, Texas-based Capital Sports and Entertainment and Charles Attal Presents, were hindered by time last year; once an agreement was reached with the Chicago Park District to bring Lollapalooza to Grant
Park, Attal had only three months to book the event. Even the festival's co-founder and designated cheerleader, former Jane's Addiction singer Perry Farrell, acknowledges that last year, "We didn't hit it out of the park" with the narrowly focused lineup.
This year, Attal had a year to start putting together a wish list of bands, and he's given the festival greater breadth, and even pulled off a few coups. Besides West and Common, he's brought Hispanic pop star Manu Chao to town for a rare visit; booked the Chicago debut of the Raconteurs, a new band co-helmed by the White Stripes' Jack White; and locked in the first local dates by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Gnarls Barkley, the Flaming Lips, Sonic Youth and Built to Spill after releasing new albums. The fest will also mark one of the last dates by indie-rock icons Sleater-Kinney, who, a few weeks ago, announced their impending breakup.
In general, this is a more varied festival than Lollapalooza 2005, and a clearer indicator of its new direction. In its initial incarnation in the '90s, Lollapalooza positioned itself as an alternative-rock traveling festival, the first of its kind and the progenitor of a batch of specialty fests: Ozzfest (metal), Warped (punk), H.O.R.D.E. (jam bands), Lilith Fair (female singer-songwriters), Smokin' Grooves (funk). By 2004, alternative rock was on life-support as a marketing category, and the plug was pulled on a Lollapalooza tour that included Morrissey, Sonic Youth and the Flaming Lips as headliners.
"In a lot of ways, the lineup this year is similar to the one we canceled in 2004," says Marc Geiger, a Lollapalooza founder who continues to consult the festival. The difference, he says, is that Lollapalooza has shifted its emphasis; rather than representing a single subculture or musical niche and taking it on the road, the festival is now about finding an ideal location for an annual gathering of once-incompatible tribes: jam-band hippies hanging with hip-hop heads, punks mingling with families pushing strollers, indie-rock back-packers rubbing shoulders with rave kids.
"It's about presenting a broad palette of artists and letting everyone find their favorite channel," Geiger says. "The focus now is on all-encompassing destination festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza, modeled after the big, all-weekend European festivals that have been going on for decades. Based on the lineups this year, Europe has nothing on America anymore."
In a sense, it's back to the model built by the original Woodstock and Monterey festivals in the '60s, when the worlds of rock, soul and pop merged for a weekend.
Back then, the city's experience with big outdoor rock events was not favorable. An MC5 show in Lincoln Park at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 ended in a riot, and rampaging fans derailed Sly and the Family Stone's Grant Park concert in 1970 before it could even begin.
But last year's Lollapalooza persuaded city officials that a large-scale rock festival in Grant Park was not only feasible, but beneficial as a financial boon and a tourist attraction. The 2005 event poured $400,000 into park coffers and $15.6 million into the city's economy; this year's festival is expected to bring in at least $600,000 to the parks, and with attendance expected to triple over last year's two-day total of 65,000, the boost for city restaurants, bars and hotels is expected to be considerable.
The promoters "showed me last year they can step up to the plate to make sure it would be a positive experience," says Chicago Park District Supt. Tim Mitchell. "The mayor's in favor of expanding it this year. He sees it as a positive thing for the city. We're looking for this to be a major annual event, the kind of event where people plan their vacations to Chicago around it."
Charlie Jones, the event's executive producer, says he's determined to make that happen. He's addressed some of the problems that arose at least year's festival, notably the sound bleed that plagued stages that were positioned too close together in Hutchinson Field. With the fest spreading out this year to include Butler Field north of Buckingham Fountain, Jones says the sound should improve.
"Diversity of music, the layout, the sound, the food--we got the deal done late last year, and we did everything as fast we could," he says. "This year, we've been planning since we loaded out and we've made some adjustments in all those areas. People will notice the difference."
130 bands, 69 acres, 8 stages, 3 days, full coverage PAGES 10-13; www.chicagotribune.com/lollapalooza
When: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Sunday
Where: Grant Park (from Hutchinson Field to Petrillo Music Shell)
Price: $65 (one-day pass), $150 (three-day pass); 888-512-7469 or www.lollapalooza.com
Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 7 p.m. Saturdays on WBEZ-FM 91.5.
THE KOT BLOG: tune in to www.chicagotribune.com/kotblog