Lollapalooza 2008 wrapped up Sunday night not with an appearance by the junior senator from the great state of Illinois (as had been rumored all weekend), but rather, with a much-hyped showdown between homecoming king Kanye and Reznor's rejuvenated Nine Inch Nails, both of whom came equipped with big-budget stage shows, booming soundscapes and more than a few blinding lights.
But that's where the similarities ended. Just about any way you slice it, West and NIN are about as diametrically opposed as, say, Obama and John McCain, and that held true in Grant Park. West's set was a reflection of the man himself — bombastic and cocky one moment (lots of crowd-pleasing, cell-phone-in-the-air moments and big, big, big production), disarmingly earnest and emotional the next (he dedicated the set to his late mother, Donda, and made several mentions of her throughout). Reznor and company chose the opposite approach, bringing out both the power tools and the ProTools, delivering a performance that veered wildly between bludgeoning guitars and jazzy bleep-bloop, and basically scrambling everything you thought you knew about the dark prince of industrial rock.
So who won? Depends on whom you ask. While we're at it, what about the 40-or-so other acts on the bill? (Don't worry, we'll get to them in due time.)
West's fans would probably tell you it was the Louis Vuitton Don in a landslide; after all, he packed the most everything into his 90 minutes. The show was a slightly stripped-down version of his current Glow in the Dark Tour, and while there were no holograms or lunar landscapes on hand, there were still a whole lot of seizure-inducing strobes, moody lighting and rolling fog, not to mention a space-age backing band, complete with robo-suited guitar players and 23rd century female singers in foot-high shoulder pads.
Taking the stage accompanied by a wall of pulsing synths and chimes, and bathed in an eerie white light, West started things off with a dreamy take on "Good Morning," waving to the tens of thousands staring up at him (tens of thousands of hands waved back). At song's end, he paused at center stage, stroked his beard and cracked a sly smile. And then he took things up several hundred notches, plowing through hits like "Heard 'Em Say" and "Through the Wire" (the latter of which he introduced by asking, "Yo, can I take it back to where it all started?") while the Lolla crowd went certifiably bananas.
Next, West got theatrical. "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" started off with ominous synthesizers and tinkling keys, then built to a sensory overload thanks to layers of drums and tympani (oh yeah, he had two drummers), wailing backing vocals and popping lights. He started off "Can't Tell Me Nothing" by rhetorically asking the crowd, "Is this what you waited all weekend for?" and ended it crouched on one knee, eyes heavenward. "Put On" boomed and stuttered like a fireworks show, as West showed Chi-town some love and took Young Jeezy's song to unheard heights, before directing his band to strip it all back to "just the keyboards" so he could proclaim for all to hear, "I put this city on my back."
But it wasn't all just posturing and preening. West clearly realized the significance of his hometown headlining set, and it wasn't simply a matter of civic pride. There was real emotion on the stage, and after "Put On," he slowed things down and finally let some of that boil over. His voice slightly hoarse, he began talking about his mother, who passed away late last year. And you could've heard a pin drop.
"It was hard for me to perform the first song because when I see 100,000 [people] singing along, there's only one person I could think of who's missing tonight," he said, pausing for a minute. "This performance is for my mama, the woman who drove me to Chicago at the age of 3 and said, 'Baby, this is where we're gonna start our life.' "
West then tore into a lengthy and emotional version of "Hey Mama," during which he repeatedly shouted the address of his boyhood home ("7915 South Shore Drive") before collapsing to his knees once again.
He then quickly zipped his guard back up and ripped through another block of hits, including "Flashing Lights," "Homecoming" and "Gold Digger." As 10 p.m. loomed, the stage lights dimmed and the roboto refrain of "Stronger" — which had been teased three times during West's set — finally kicked in, growing faster with each beat until — boom! — every light erupted, West leapt in the air and thousands of tired Lolla fans lost their minds. The song rattled to a false close — complete with West sprawling out on the stage — before kicking in once again and sending the place into the stratosphere. Then, with arms stretched high above his head and tympani drums crashing around him, West strode off the stage very much the conquering hero. Phew.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Grant Park, fans of a hardier breed were digging in for what promised to be a fairly epic set from Nine Inch Nails. After all, this was to be the first time most NIN fanatics would get to see Reznor on his high-cost, high-concept Lights in the Sky Tour, a multimedia extravaganza featuring millimeter-thin video screens, serious special effects and no shortage of visual mind-f---ery. And what Nine Inch Nails lacked in, well, Kanye-ness, they no doubt made up for in overall sonic wallop, right?
Well, sort of. Those who opted for NIN got a show that dazzled the ears and eyes but hit a strange, almost lullabye-like slow spot in the middle that caused a not insignificant portion of the crowd to wander off, possibly to see what the spotlights in the sky from the other side of the park were about.
That's not to say that Reznor and company didn't deliver exactly what fans were expecting. With the bodybuilder-buff frontman scowling, the lean, mean band ripped through "Discipline" and "Closer," which still has as stunning an effect today as it did nearly 15 years ago as fans shouted along to the R-rated chorus of "I want to f--- you like an animal." After that, things got a bit spotty. Hidden behind a layer of those razor-thin screens — which descended from the rafters and displayed undulating red, green and yellow spots of digital dust — the group went into a nearly 35-minute mini-suite of hushed industrial jazz that featured vibraphones, upright bass and images of cornstalks on one screen, all of which seemed to confuse the crowd that came for the hard attack.
Reznor brought it all back home, though, and sent the sweaty, hulking masses spilling out into the Chicago streets happy, thanks to a raucous string of set-closing numbers, including a truly brutal "Terrible Lie," a panicked "Survivalism" and the still-destructive first taste of sin, "Head Like a Hole." Kanye it most certainly wasn't (it was barely Nine Inch Nails at times), but it was 90 minutes that hit harder at the gut and the brain than anything else this weekend (and yeah, that includes Rage Against the Machine).
And while the headliners were the big draws — after all, this was the first time in Lollapalooza's four-year tenure in Chicago that all three days have sold out — there were no shortage of other highlights throughout Sunday. Kid Sister's bleepy party-hop got bleary-eyed festgoers bumping and grinding at 12:15 in the afternoon. Brazilian Girls were bawdy and ballsy, and Girl Talk mashed up beats (and packed a huge crowd) while flanked by two (fake) leaf-blower-wielding cops, who pelted enraptured partiers with confetti, glitter, silly string, toilet paper and, at the end of the set, inexplicably, a full-sized river raft.
Chromeo and the Black Kids performed at adjoining stages and had pretty much everyone throwing their hands in the air with reckless abandon. Saul Williams did his usual death-disco thing. The National were somber, reedy and solid as always. Mark Ronson threw everything but the proverbial kitchen sink into his evening set (including one of the dudes from Phantom Planet). And Lolla faves Gnarls Barkley — sans matching costumes this time around — slinked their way through a soulful, simmering set, highlighted by Cee-Lo's keening take on Radiohead's "Reckoner."
And when you've got all that — plus so, so much more we didn't even get to mention — who needs the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee? Kanye, Trent and Obama in a three-way battle for fest-closing bragging rights? That probably would've been overkill.