The Arcade Fire Go Big, Soundgarden Get Heavy: Sunday At Lollapalooza

Arcade Fire and Soundgarden go head-to-head with powerful Sunday night sets

CHICAGO — Over the past three days, there’s been no shortage of power from the big stages at Lollapalooza, though usually, it was coming from one side of Grant Park or the other. On Friday, it was Lady Gaga who provided the surge , and on Saturday, it was Green Day . But on Sunday (August 8), during the final night of Lolla 2010, we finally got dueling dynamos, as the Arcade Fire and the reunited Soundgarden squared off across the park with sets that packed a wallop, not just sonically, but physically, and emotionally, too.

This wasn’t showmanship — neither band really brought out the big lights (or the even bigger explosions) like Gaga or Green Day did — this was old-fashioned, roll-up-your-sleeves, sweat-on-the-stage rock and roll, the kind that makes the genre so intoxicatingly compelling, and, yet, is sadly in short supply these days.

The Arcade Fire — who just celebrated the release of their The Suburbs album with a pair of sold-out shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden — took the stage in stately silhouette, while the orchestral strains of the title track swirled around them, and quickly proved that they had learned a thing or two from their recent gigs: namely, that their big, bawling new anthems sound best while played at very loud volume.

“Ready To Start” rolled along theatrically, getting bigger and bigger with each passing bar. “Rococo” started ominous and hushed, then built with each repetition of the chorus, husband/wife team of Win Butler and Regine Chassagne letting their voices become progressively more entwined, while the crowd chanted along in unison. And “The Suburbs” was jaunty and strong-limbed, stretching and expanding with Butler seated behind a piano and Chassagne on a second drum kit for added oomph.

They sprinkled their older stuff throughout, and it was just as life-affirming as it ever was, in particular “Neighborhood #2 (Laika),” which was even huge during the lilting verses, “No Cars Go,” which had the crowd chanting “Let’s Go!” while the band broke into an extended jam, and a swooning, smashing take on “Crown Of Love,” which crescendo-ed until it toppled over on itself, all melodramatic and overwrought, and left the tens of thousands in the audience waving their hands back and forth.

But in a set where so much was so massive, there were a pair of moments that stood out as not only the hugest of the night, but probably of the entire weekend. And they came within minutes of one another. The first occurred towards the end of their 90-minute set, when the band let “Neighborhood 3 (Power Out)” come crashing directly into “Rebellion (Lies),” a wave of sound that got downright spiritual, at least judging by the amount of arms thrust skyward, and then tore through “Month of May” a fiery burner off the new album. At the conclusion, with feedback still drenching the air, fans pressed against the barrier could be seen bowing to the band. They deserved it.

And then, for the encore, they (of course) did “Wake Up,” which has become their defacto anthem, and the band didn’t even have to provide the “Woah-Oh-Oh-Ohs!” (it was probably the only moment of the show where they weren’t working overtime). Instead, Butler instructed the crowd to sing so loudly that they could “hear it on the space station.” And they probably could. That’s the power of old-fashioned rock and roll, after all.

And while all of this was happening at the north end of the park, Soundgarden were providing the power down on the south side, though they preferred to do so with brute force and maximum sludge. Playing only their third show in 12 years, the Seattle quartet rolled through a similar set to their Thursday night (August 5) show at the tiny Vic Theater just a few miles away in Chicago. But while that performance was compact and internal (matching the intimate nature of the venue), the Soundgarden that showed up to play the main stage at the close of the festival was the stadium-sized monster that most people remember from the “Black Hole Sun” days.

By far the most low key band to headline their particular stage all weekend (especially considering Lady Gaga’s bombastic theatrics and Green Day’s penchant for crowd-friendly spectacle), Soundgarden did what they do best: Grind out vicious, sludgy anthems designed to hit the listener square in the gut. Just as they did a few nights prior, the band opened with the Badmotorfinger dirge “Searching With My Good Eye Closed,” which set the tone for a truly harrowing night of pounding, aggressive rock. While recognizable hits like “Black Hole Sun” and “Rusty Cage” got the biggest reactions, the crowd was appreciative of grinders like “4th of July” and “Let Me Drown,” which captured the same kind of energy the band kept in reserve back when they last headlined Lollapalooza (they played the main stage on the touring version in 1996).

“This is the millionth time we’ve played Lollapalooza,” frontman Chris Cornell announced to the crowd. Really, it might as well have been ’96, as the group have not lost a step (in some ways, they sounded better than they ever have). Soundgarden are about the closest thing Lollapalooza has to an institution, and though no songs played during their festival-closing set were written after ’96, there’s something to be said for tradition — really, really loud tradition.

Soundgarden capped off a busy Sunday at Lollapalooza, which saw schizophrenic jumps from the over-the-top theatrics of X Japan to the grooviness of Erykah Badu to the stout riffage of Wolfmother to the gardening-friendly hip-hop vibe of Cypress Hill. An eclectic, sometimes wholly disjointed lineup, to be sure, but one that will live on in Lollapalooza history — and founder Perry Farrell wouldn’t have it any other way.

Were you at Lollapalooza? What was your favorite part of the weekend? Share your reviews in the comments!