Lady Gaga Gets Epic, The Strokes Shrug It Off: Friday At Lollapalooza

The Strokes offer a low-key alternative to Gaga's over-the-top theatrics at Chicago fest's first day.

CHICAGO — For 19 years now (off and on), the basic theme of Lollapalooza has always seemed to be that there was no theme, that Perry Farrell could take as many incongruous bands as he wanted, throw them all on a bill, and let the chips fall where they may. And by that standard, Lollapalooza 2010 is shaping up to be a real classic.

Because for every streamlined, pneumonic tune by Devo on Friday (August 6), there was an equally rusted-out, hairy one by the Black Keys. For every smooth, soulful moment by Raphael Saadiq, there was a spastic, shameless one by Foxy Shazam. It was basically opposite day. And that was perhaps best exemplified — and amplified — by the night’s headliners, Lady Gaga and the Strokes, who duked it out across Grant Park with sets that were as drastically different as they could possibly be.

While Gaga filled the Chicago night with strobes and searchlights, fireworks and flames, about as inspired as the Strokes got with their production was projecting a game of “Pong” on the screen during “Someday.” Gaga talked long and loud, with messages of inspiration and pride, while Julian Casablancas barely spoke at all, and when he did, it was just to mutter something like Jeff Spicoli or Mitch Hedberg (“Yeah. what is up?“). Needless to say, it made for a pretty interesting — and entertaining — opening night face off.

Lady Gaga was definitely the overwhelming favorite. All day, though there were plenty of other acts on the bill, the buzz on the ground surrounded mainly one of them: her. Fans walked around the grounds in homemade T-shirts, face paint and various accessories in devotion to the star, and the crowd in front of the stage where she performed swelled early in the afternoon in anticipation of her set.

And the hardcores — especially those who sat in front of the stage all day waiting for Mother Monster to kick off her show — were not left disappointed. Gaga (who, earlier in the day, dropped in during a set by her friends the Semi Precious Weapons ) brought a truncated version of her Monster Ball tour to Lollapalooza, retaining some of the narrative elements but dropping some of the bigger set pieces. But she filled in the blanks with a handful of special moments, included an extended run through her me-and-a-piano tunes “Speechless” and “You and I,” both of which saw her talk extensively to the crowd about the origins of the songs and her message of freedom, individualism and ultimate self-expression.

There was also a visit from Lady Starlight, her former collaborator who actually performed with Gaga when she was last on a Lollapalooza stage in 2007. The pair came out and danced a choreographed routine to Metallica’s “Metal Militia,” which provided an entertaining if slightly surreal halfway point to the show. And by the time Gaga finished up her set with the pounding, anthemic “Bad Romance,” the estimated 80,000 people gathered were pretty well danced out, and they wandered out of Grant Park in a euphoric haze.

Meanwhile, across the park, the Strokes took the opposite tact, seemingly going out of their way to provide an alternative to Gaga’s polished professionalism. They wandered on stage some 15 minutes late-to the strains of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” — joined eventually by Casablancas, who strolled to the mic dressed in a studded leather jacket (and a bizarre patch of green dye in his tossled mane) and blew into the opening lines of “New York City Cops.”

And over the two-ish hours, Casablancas and his mates proved that, during their near three-year hiatus, they’d actually turned into a really great Ramones tribute act (except for the fiery solos by guitarist Nick Valensi), with each successive song plowing along with gleeful disregard for precision and an increased focus on excessive volume. “What Ever Happened” was extra skuzzy, “The Modern Age” chugged along like a rusty engine, and “Vision Of Division” got louder and louder, until it boiled over into a feed-back powered freak out.

In that same vein, Casablancas has somehow morphed into a combination of Joey Ramone and Liam Gallagher, professionally disheveled (and disinterested) yet still cocksure and swaggering. One minute, he’d be draped over the mic, pouring his voice into the thing, and the next, he’d be standing with his back turned to the crowd, nodding confidently, seemingly somewhere else entirely (somewhere nice.) He’d mumble an extended thank you to the audience, then crack a joke about Lollapalooza being a “land of dreams. Where Nirvana and Pearl Jam played their sh-” (and in true above-it-all fashion, only half of that statement was actually correct).

And yet, in all that, and despite not trying all that hard, the Strokes still pulled it off. The songs had power and punch. Valensi’s solos were highlights. Albert Hammond Jr.’s rapid-fire chugging, too. And Casablancas was a boorishly charming ringmaster. They seem to be a better — if not happier — band than they were in 2007. It’s good to have them back with us. They might not have won the night, but at least they’re (sorta) trying once again. Because, make no mistake about it, they were still great. Maybe the second-greatest band on Friday at Lollapalooza. They just weren’t Gaga.

Lollapalooza 2010 is happening now — make sure to check out MTV News’ Lollapalooza Live, streaming Saturday and Sunday at 5 p.m., right here on MTV.com. And follow all of Lollapalooza on the MTV Newsroom blog.