' ' Cinema Romantico: A Digression: Out Lollapaloozaed

Monday, July 28, 2008

A Digression: Out Lollapaloozaed

This weekend Grant Park in downtown Chicago will host its 4th Lollapalooza Music Festival since it went defunct and returned as a one weekend event in the Windy City back in 2005. But, as far as I'm concerned, the real Lollapalooza took place this past weekend at decidedly smaller Wicker Park for its 2008 summerfest. Yes, I've been-to-Lollapalooza been-to-Lollapalooza (two of them, in fact) and so I know of what I speak. It's not simply that at Wicker Park's festival my ticket cost $5 as opposed to $614 (only a slight exaggeration) and I was able to imbibe Berghoff Summer Solstice as opposed to rank Bud Light and have a blue cheese burger at a neighborhood dining establishment post-show rather than a $14, completely charred, flavorless hot dog but that I saw back-to-back shows that, I assure you, were far and away better than any two back-to-back shows you're going to get next week at Perry Farrell's gala.

My friend Dave and I turned out specifically for Syracuse band Ra Ra Riot, who I'd seen already earlier this year, but I'll come back to them. Prior to that show, however, a band with whom I was unfamiliar called Bishop Allen (a search today on the web tells me they are from Brooklyn by way of Boston) took the stage. Perhaps it was inevitable that I would love this quintet from the moment they sound-checked a glockenspiel. Why? If you don't know the man truly responsible for bringing the glockenspiel into the rock and roll arena let's just say he hails from New Jersey. Their first tune was more than a little Springsteen-esque, what with the vast, epic, cinematic lyrics and the la-la's in the chorus.

A lot of times when you see an unknown band you find yourself loving them at the start and then your fondness waning as each following song seems intent on repeating the formula of the initial one. Bishop Allen was the exact opposite. Their songs changed, but not wildly so. The one about the "click click click of the camera" would have hit #1 on the charts and stayed there for weeks if it had been released back when the Top 40 wasn't all crap. And as they closed their set with a song called, I think, "Dance With Me", I swear to God a cold breath of fresh air blew through right in front of the stage. It was a perfect, real-life moment of Hollywood symbolism.

But the best was yet to come. I first saw Ra Ra Riot at Schuba's in February and it was the best show I've seen so far this year. Comprised of a drummer, a bassist, guitarist, a violinist, a cellist, and the lead singer these guys are phenomenal. In reading about them afterwards I saw they don't like being compared to a certain band (up north of the border) I really want to compare them to and so I won't make the comparison. Anyway, they're a bit more punk than that band but they still have a desire for a unified orchestral sound rather than solos. They are a bit bombastic and quite earnest but in my world that's a significant compliment.

Their six minute anthem "Dying is Fine" (found on their EP and on their first full-length album set for release next month) is maybe the song most seminal of their style. It's a driving, luminous assault divided into three acts. The last act puts Rebecca Zellar's violin on full display and, to this point, it is the single most beautiful thing (music or otherwise) I've encountered this year. Seriously, listen to it and just focus on the violin, even when the entire band dives back in to rock out at the end. Concentrate on nothing else and you will be stirred to your core.

But what I really enjoyed the most about those two sets was the genuine affection each band seemed to have for one another. There was true joy in these performances, and that sometimes seems too rare an event. Bishop Allen's bassist grinning the whole time, the keyboardist/glockenspielist smiling after the frontman's amp blew out and he was forced to play another band member's guitar even as the guitar strap broke mid-song. A Ra Ra Riot show meanwhile is filled with band members exchanging constant smiles as they play, and singing along even if they don't have a microphone, and approximately 300 near collisions. Seriously, they all bound happily about the stage, swaying, grooving, the bassist gliding backwards with his eyes closed and about to run right into violinist who suddenly dips forward at the last second and the collision is averted. The guitarist lowers his head and sashays forward about to run right into the lead singer who abruptly leans to the right and they miss each other. This happens over and over and over and not a single accident ever occurs. They seem to know one another so well they run on loving instinct. It's a thrill to behold. And that quality, more than any other, brings to my mind The E Street Band and The Arcade Fire (damn it! I mentioned them!).

After Ra Ra Riot's set concluded I staggered to the metal fence off to the side and leaned up against it, sipping at my beer, trying to recover from the onslaught of awesomeness I just witnessed when who should come strolling past, carrying her purse and chatting on her cellphone, but Ms. Zellar, the aforementioned lovely, incredibly talented violinist. She paused for a split-second in front of me as I opened my mouth in a desperate attempt to say something witty like, "Great show." Instead I drooled a little bit. And then she continued past me.

I hope one day no members of Ra Ra Riot will be able to amble through the audience that's just seen their show unless accompanied swarms of security because, if there's justice in this world, they'll be huuuuuge. They deserve that sort of success, even if I lament it as I cough up $614 to see them at Lollapalooza '10.

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