In the video for New Order’s “Crystal”—which opened the veteran Manchester dance-rockers’ twilight set on the first day of Lollapalooza—there is a fake band called the Killers that inspired the name of the real band known as the Killers, who headlined the southernmost stage in Chicago’s Grant Park on Friday night. Those who spent the evening parked in front of that stage were treated to four hours of blissful, rhythmic, guitar-based pop that tapped into Lollapalooza’s spirit of eclecticism and brotherhood.
Even in their first-album youth, the Killers have always played the role of a big rock band—they seem custom-built for festival headlining slots. They did not disappoint; their 90-minute Friday finale was a gimmick-free charge through their impressive, hook-filled back catalog.Frontman Brandon Flowers worked the tens of thousands in front of him like a Vegas lounge revue, strutting and pounding through neutron bombs like “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me,” and in a charming bit of hero worship that brought the evening back around for a resolution, he welcomed New Order frontman Bernard Sumner to join the Killers for a cover of Joy Division’s “Shadowplay,” which they turned into a spry, jittery singalong.
In fact, the transformation of Joy Division songs might have been the highlight of Friday’s festivities. New Order finished their performance with three nods to the band they used to be, ripping through “Atmosphere,” “Transmission,” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” as a tribute to late JD frontman Ian Curtis. In a remarkable bit of alchemy, Sumner (with a healthy assist from a game audience) turned “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” a downer of a song written by a guy who hanged himself, into a (pardon the pun) joyous anthem. Maybe that’s just the power of New Order, who ripped through a hit-filled set of effervescent synth-powered janglers like the dreamy “The Perfect Kiss” and a thudding “Blue Monday.”
In the other headlining slot on Friday, Nine Inch Nails made their first American appearance since their Jay Z-style retirement tour in 2009. Mastermind Trent Reznor had promised a whole new stage show and a handful of new tunes from the band’s upcoming album Hesitation Marks, and while the Killers were giving Lolla-goers what they wanted, Trent was content to give them what he thought they needed.
NIN’s set was visually fascinating, with the band members regularly backlit so as only to appear in shadow. Four movable screens shifted throughout the performance, providing light and video backdrops for every moment of the set. It was ambitious, but almost willfully alienating: Most of the effects took place at stage level, which murdered the chance for most of those gathered to see much of anything, and for what must have been aesthetic reasons, the screens on either side of the stage were never activated.
Musically, the band sounded impeccable, and new songs like the set-opening “Copy of A” and the single “Came Back Haunted” are both cinematically dense and freely anthemic, but the show lagged a bit during its atmospheric second act and only picked up again when the balls-out rockers “Wish,” “The Hand That Feeds,” and “Head Like a Hole” showed up at the end. Nine Inch Nails’ indoor fall tour will likely be a remarkable aesthetic experience, but Reznor’s ambition stretches way past the confines of a festival environment.
Emeli Sande, on the other hand, kept it simple during her early afternoon set. Sande’s voice is most of the story, and its powerful soul swept effortlessly across a sun-baked Grant Park. There’s a lot of throwback funk and Motown sweetness in Sande’s sound, but there’s also something very ‘80s about it—the popping basslines and gospel influences suggest early Whitney Houston. That was especially evident during the new song “Lifted,” which begins as a torch song, morphs into a rave-up, and could easily become the crossover smash Sande has been waiting for. But even if the pop charts elude her, her charisma is undeniable; with green hair blazing, she led call-and-response sections that somehow weren’t obnoxious, and seemed genuinely jazzed to be partying in Chicago.
Sande handed the party off to Icona Pop, who don’t have the same performance skills as Sande but do have electric style to spare. They attracted the weekend’s first truly huge crowd, who fist-pumped and clapped with every snotty beat. The girls played a bunch of tunes from their forthcoming full-length debut, each one sounding like an indie club smash with fantastically hedonistic themes (one was introduced with the confession, “We love making out with strangers! We love it so much!”). The rain came down hard during Friday’s lone weather incident, but that only made the refrain “I don’t care!” during the set closing “I Love It” better.
The weather cleared up for Smith Westerns’ jangly slackerdom, and their breezy, shambling pop tunes like “Varsity” and “Weekend” provided a healthy comedown from the early-afternoon theatrics. Jessie Ware might have provided too great a respite; though she was clearly putting in work, the crowd gathered at her stage seemed to constantly be drifting away. Many of them ended up at the opposite end of the field for Band of Horses, whose southern-fried licks were greeted with superstar-level adoration. They’ve got some good songs—“Ghost in My House” is a delightfully dynamic bit of twangy space rock—but mostly they seem like the Lynyrd Skynyrd version of Wilco.
But nobody—including the headliners—got the ovation scored by Imagine Dragons on Friday. Playing to a crowd that spilled into every available walkway on the park’s south side, they had to overcome a near-disastrous technical snafu when they lost power right in the middle of “Amsterdam.”
They didn’t start up again until 10 minutes later, and like a veteran act, they used that anticipation to their advantage. By the time the hits rolled around—especially the titanic set-closer “Radioactive”—the throng gathered were in full hysterics. It’s the sort of reaction that stadium-fillers get, and once Imagine Dragons get another album under their belt, it sounds like they’ll have no trouble drawing hundreds of thousands onto football fields across the country. Handling Lollapalooza, even without power, was no sweat.