Lolla 2011: Eminem rocks Grant Park, avoids getting rocked

Tonight, we watched a recovering addict stand in front of 50,000 people and tempt himself to take a drink. He even asked the crowd if he should, and they responded with an affirmative cheer. I’m no substance abuse expert, but I think it’s safe to say this is probably not a good idea.

This is Marshall Mathers, a man who has made his private life extremely public. From squabbles with his wife, raising his kid, a rough childhood with his mother, an absent father - the guy has lived life on the edge, and has taken it to tremendous heights.

My first ever Eminem live experience came in Cancun, Mexico  - Spring Break of 2000. A friend and I watched the pre-Recovery rapper work an energetic set, flying around the small stage at a now defunct club called La Boom. He ate up every second on the stage, and after the show, he looked like he was ready to collapse. Was he high? Maybe.

11 years later, things have changed. Eminem was standing in front of Grant Park, still putting on the same show. A guy, a microphone, and a litany of recognizable songs. There is so much energy in his voice that spills onto the stage. He clearly approaches a concert like it’s his first time hitting one of those underground rap spots in “8 Mile.” He comes off like he’s got something to prove – and this time he’s sober.

That’s what made tonight’s show so infectious for me. I will say that as I get older, there are more and more Eminem tracks I skip over when digging through the library. It’s the same “I’m getting old” that made me cringe when he led the crowd in a “F--- you Mom!” before getting into “Cleaning Out My Closet.”

These days, I prefer the Eminem that attempted to tell the crowd about the negative effects alcohol has on him. I root for the Marshall Mathers who is not afraid and will take a stand – against the Slim Shady who tempts him to tie his woman to the bed and burn the house down.

Eminem had something for every bit of his fan base tonight. For the casuals, he zipped through American Idol-sized versions of his hits (“Without Me,” “My Name Is,” “The Real Slim Shady”). For the new, he brought out some surprise talent to help with his current radio plays (Bruno Mars, Skylar Grey). And for the devoted, he acknowledged their relationship with his work. It was a perfect set.

I guess I have a "Slim Shady" as well – it’s a cynical part of me that thinks this whole relapse/recovery thing is just more shtick, a way to keep the Eminem faithful interested in his hard-edge storyline.   

Then there’s the better part of me that’s really pulling for Marshall, a guy who spends his day job in a venue full of people filling themselves with the very toxin he’s trying to kick. It’s like being an alcoholic bartender.

I hope he succeeds for selfish reasons. I want to know what kind of music he’ll be making when he’s 60 and beyond.

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