The crowd at Perry's on Sunday
The crowd at Perry's on Sunday Credit: Clayton Hauck

In the media tent at Lollapalooza and the stories and blog posts that came out of it, the focus tends to fall on the festival’s obvious hooks: the canonical band with a reputation to uphold (Depeche Mode’s Friday-night headlining set spanned their career), the high-profile schedule change (the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who replaced the Beastie Boys after Adam Yauch announced his cancer diagnosis, played a bit of “So What’cha Want” in tribute), the potentially derailing injury (No Age guitarist Randy Randall took the stage with his arm in a sling after dislocating his shoulder in a dance contest), the band-on-band drama (when Animal Collective cut into Tool’s set time, Tool started playing along to Animal Collective’s set).

Personally I often prefer the show happening offstage. Dedicated people watchers know that big festivals like Lollapalooza—where enough freak-flag-flying fans to populate a small city are fenced into a space the size of, well, Grant Park—provide top-notch entertainment for amateur sociologists. Some of the stuff I noticed last weekend didn’t do much more than make me laugh or scratch my head—Viking helmets were weirdly popular this year, for instance, and I saw quite a few jock dudes inexplicably wearing MGMT-style face paint. But keeping an eye on the crowd often rewards you with some genuine insights.

Hippie-dippiness was much in evidence last weekend: tie-dye, face paint, and headbands all over the place. The presence of Sound Tribe Sector 9 on the bill and the fact that any music festival, regardless of its lineup, is going to attract a certain number of hippies explained some but obviously not all of it.

This year’s Lolla hippies could be pretty fairly divided into three distinct groups. On one hand you had your classic hippies. Dreadlocks, Birkenstocks, Frisbees—a formula that’s been attracting middle-class college kids for generations now.

You’ve also got your metal hippies, who mostly came out for Tool—less carefree than the original flavor, more likely to live in small towns and do Robo trips. I like them because they sketch out most other concertgoers with their weird heavy vibes.

And now there are also neo-hipster hippies, who are a whole ‘nother thing. Both their prevalence at the dance/DJ stage and their collective sartorial choices—more vivid, fewer earthy colors, skimpier, less flowy lines—suggest not only that they used to be American Apparel nu-ravers but also that their transition was particularly influenced by MGMT.

Tellingly, I didn’t see any neo-hipster hippies in the audience at Ben Harper’s set on Saturday, which I had to wade through a couple times due to a miscommunication with some friends I was trying to meet. There weren’t even as many as I’d expected watching Animal Collective, who are shaping up to be the 2Ks’ Grateful Dead and are thus among the leading repopularizers of tie-dye—they were playing across the park from Harper, the 2Ks’ Bruce Cockburn.

No, a lot of the fest’s new-breed hippies had bailed on AnCo for Diplo at the Perry’s stage, which I don’t blame them for at all. AnCo’s jams were too flimsy to cut through the muggy air, while Diplo was slaying with a giddy rave set, his usual kuduro and baile funk cuts shelved for the time being in favor of more accessible beats.

Any question as to whether or not rave is back should’ve been put to rest by this weekend’s goings-on at Perry’s, Diplo’s set in particular. Within a couple minutes of my arrival, I saw several dudes in pulled-down-low visors, a guy in a Mad Hatter hat, a handful of people in goggles, and (neatly summing up the crossover between ravers and neo-hipster hippies) a long-haired, shirtless guy wearing a pacifier on a necklace of carved wooden beads.

But it wasn’t just the clothes and Diplo’s house-heavy set that made Perry’s feel like 1997 again. The whole area was crackling with ecstatic energy—not necessarily pill-induced either, though let’s just say I saw a lot more than one pacifier. It was the same kind of we’re-all-in-this-together party vibe that for me balanced out rave’s many, many downsides.

That feeling—or rather the way people can act when they’ve got that feeling—ended up providing one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had at a concert. I was wandering through the Perry’s crowd, just kind of taking in the scene, when I ran across an unexpected mosh pit dozens of yards from the stage, in the middle of the mob gathered for Diplo. Maybe eight guys, all with buzz cuts and most of them shirtless, were slamming into each other with much gusto. I was barely done thinking “This is kind of weird” before it turned into a straight-up fistfight.

It was a bad one. They were way out in the crowd, where there wasn’t any security at all, and the brawl was far longer and more severe than the almost perfunctory fights I see in less-packed venues, which are always immediately broken up. Faces were bloodied, elbows were deployed, and any guy who ended up on the ground got the shit kicked out of him. It was so chaotic I couldn’t even tell who was on what side, or if there were sides at all. The reaction among us spectators went quickly from startled to slightly amused to sickened.

The scrawny young hippie-ish raver guys standing around the pit could’ve just taken off. The crowd was dense, but it would’ve been possible—though it probably would’ve panicked a bunch of people and made the situation worse, and of course it wouldn’t have addressed the fact that someone was likely to end up seriously injured. After things passed some critical point, a bunch of them decided to take control of the situation: they jumped into the brawl and started dancing as hard as they could.

In seconds there were so many dancers surrounding the fighters that they couldn’t see one another. They apparently decided that beating up all these dancers to get to their targets—no matter how easy it probably would’ve been—would’ve taken too much effort. One buzz cut chased another out into the crowd, but otherwise the fight just evaporated.

“Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect” was a popular motto with ravers back in the day. It was supposed to sum up everything that raving was about, though it was more often a wish list rather than a description of what was actually happening. It’s never felt realer to me than when I saw the kids at Perry’s defuse a bloody brawl with nothing but positive vibes.