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Coachella in Review
The Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival could quite possibly be the greatest place on Earth.
For those who haven't heard of it, the Coachella music festival is a three-day event in the desert of Southern California, a once-a-year utopia that plays host to 100-degree heat, somewhere around 75,000 people and somewhere around a couple hundred of the most happening bands around. Over the course of the weekend, we rushed around in a fit of excitement to try to catch as many acts as possible, and as there are five stages, it is impossible to be everywhere at once. We managed to see 50 of those bands, which required us to repeatedly leave a set before we wanted to so that we could squeeze in a few songs of someone else somewhere else. It's hard to know where to start in recounting it all, so I'll take you through our odyssey chronologically. Some good stuff will inevitably be left off this list, but these were the highlights from our scrambling vantage.
Friday afternoon Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears kicked things off with some plugged-in, wake-the-neighbors blues music. Then we ran off to catch !!! do what a friend of mine aptly described as The Talking Heads on Red Bull. It didn't feel like !!! actually played any songs, so much as they seemed to crank out an ongoing crowd warmer-upper.
Shortly after that came what for me was the first eye-opening set of the weekend, delivered by The Morning Benders. They played a few new songs, which sounded exceptional and whet my interest for future recordings. They put out a very chill vibe, pristine in their instrumentation, an original brew that goes down smoothly. Their set struck me as something that the guys from Vampire Weekend would have appreciated. They also had two guys painting at either side of the stage while they played, which was cool.
When we arrived at the main stage to see Cee Lo Green, he wasn't there. He was supposed to go on a half hour before, and everyone around us was getting frustrated. When he finally showed up, it turned out he had gotten to the venue late. He was late for his own show, and on top of that, to my utter disbelief, he complained that "they should have given me a better time slot." He was left with only 20 minutes, but as it turns out, he didn't need even that much. The crowd sang along to his hit, but other than that one song his material was horrendous. Then he had the nerve to try to play past his allotted time, and I must admit, I laughed when they shut the sound off on him. I had never seen that before—someone getting the power killed for his blatant douchebaggery. In a sea of talent, Cee Lo was the one idiot.
Ms. Lauryn Hill was the next to hit the main stage, and she blazed with as much soul and intensity as she had 15 years ago. A version of "Lost Ones" went off at about twice the speed as it does on her record. I don't know if she did any Fugees material toward the end, since we had to jet.
The next hour served up the day's most frantic tent-hopping, as Kele (from Bloc Party), Cold War Kids and Sleigh Bells were playing at pretty much the same time. Kele's solo stuff was bright, positive and a lot of fun to dance to. We caught only a couple Cold War Kids songs before cutting back across towards Sleigh Bells, and as we did, Kele was in the middle of covering Bloc Party's "So Here We Are," which lit up my face. This is a perfect example of how satisfying and surprising Coachella can be. You're on your way to one thing and get pulled aside by something shiny and alluring, and you have to stop to take it in.
However, once we got to Sleigh Bells, we pretty much forgot everything that had come before. They crushed the barriers of the sound system with ultrasonic rumbling fuzz. If sound made on Earth could be heard from space, this would be it. I imagine someone on the moon might take it to be a distant atomic bomb going off. What's all the more impressive is that Sleight Bells is made up of two people—a vocalist and a guitarist—and the rest comes from programmed thunder-thump. That tent was absolutely throbbing with strobe lights and a seismic pulse. I will definitely be seeking them out the next time they come through my city.
Brandon Flowers turned out a classy bunch of ballads, looking quite dapper in his white shirt and black vest. For his last two songs, he surprised everyone by bringing out two members of The Killers to play "Read My Mind" and "Mr. Brightside." I've been to a few hundred shows, but I've seen very few crowds go as crazy as this crowd went for "Mr. Brightside," myself included.
There was plenty more to see on Friday—such as Flogging Molly's bar-stomping Celtic punk—but for some attempt at brevity I'll skip ahead. I will say, however, that as we were leaving late that night, we stumbled into a tiny tent in the middle of the festival grounds where we saw a group of more than a dozen dancers on a small stage twisting and gyrating to electronic music draped in garb and dark sensuality that would make any burlesque show look as tame as a high-school play. A man was hanging from the ceiling and spinning while his body hung limp. Women were dancing with fire. I had no place in my brain to categorize what had just popped up in front of us. This wasn't even on the schedule. Just one of countless instances at Coachella where you get your head blown off accidentally. Give me an hour to go on about it and I wouldn't even scratch the surface of the unexpected comets glimpsed along the way. Walking toward the car, with the Chemical Brothers' electronic assault tearing the final wounds in the night sky, it was hard to believe this was only day one.
Saturday we started with Freelance Whales, who were quite good, and then bounced around the tents and watched some of Delta Spirit before getting a good spot for Erykah Badu. I saw Erykah about eight years ago, and she hasn't missed a step. She's just as confident, just as hard to take your eyes off. For lack of a better adjective, the woman is as cool as they come. She belted out loose cannons while her backup singers stuck the hooks.
Then commenced Saturday's portion of running around with too much to do in too little time. We stopped off to watch Cage the Elephant do a few while their singer ran around in a red dress. (He's a dude, by the way.) Their music sounded to me like chicken being pulled loosely from the bone. They would have fit in nicely at Woodstock in 1969.
Broken Social Scene was next. I was fortunate enough to see them play in Central Park last fall, which made it much easier to swallow that we didn't have time for their whole set. Luckily, the part that we caught included a few of my favorite songs: "7/4 Shoreline," "All to All" and "Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl." "All to All" has to be one of the prettiest live songs I've heard in a long time, and listening to it with the sun going down over the mountains while thousands of happy people drink up its last rays is not a bad way to go.
Things kept getting better as we found a place close to the stage for Elbow. These charming gentlemen from Manchester and their elegant female violinists display utter professionalism, true masters of their craft. They played some cuts from their new album Build a Rocket Boys!, opening with "The Birds," a lilting, atmospheric beauty that provided me a moment or two of transcendence. They then launched into the rocking single "Grounds for Divorce," and to my ears they could basically do no wrong. Guy Garvey, the singer, has to be one of the smoothest, most charismatic men I've ever seen address a crowd. If I were being welcomed into a banquet hall where all my closest friends and family members awaited me, I wouldn't mind if he and Brandon Flowers were the first to greet me in their black and whites.
If we were to have any regrets for this weekend—mind you, I said "if"—one would be that we were able to take in only a couple songs by Bright Eyes. The version of "Lover I Don't Have to Love" that they played was angry, disjointed, a little trippy, and just so fucking good. It really surprised me. It's been a while since I've heard the album version of that song. This was something altogether different, and as fresh as a campfire that kisses a forest goodbye.
Only at a music festival can you see a band play as you're walking to see another band play. This was us listening to The Kills without altering our path to One Day as a Lion, the latest project from Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha. I detected a bit of a fever in the air before One Day as a Lion, which will probably be swirling about anytime time this fiery MC grabs hold of a microphone. Zack still has the goods, but One Day as a Lion is very different from Rage. It is angry (well, no difference there), fragmented and intentionally discordant. The drums crash like a series of waves that don't let you get air in between gulps of saltwater, and the electronics are fuzzed out. There was so much reverb on Zack's vocals that you couldn't understand what he said in between songs half the time, let alone in the middle of a verse.
For the rest of the night we were camped out at the main stage. Mumford & Sons closed out their set as we snaked our way toward the front. They were very good, and very grateful for the love they were receiving from the biggest audience they'd ever played for. A soft chorus of voices echoed the chorus of "Little Lion Man." I imagine it must be quite the feeling to hear a crowd with no discernable edges sing your own poetry back at you. And as soon as they closed, the great push began.
Every night at Coachella, as it starts to get close to the headlining act's time to shine, there occurs a glorious clusterfuck as fans from the band that just ended try to escape the throng and fans for the upcoming names push forward to get as close as they can. If you're not expecting it and get caught in the logjam, it can be a bit of a burden, but it can also be thrilling to see your view improving with each sweaty body you slide by. Just don't expect to use your arms, since they'll be crushed up against your chest. Small price to pay if you ask me, but then again, I have the advantage of being six feet tall. For the girls who come up to my shoulders it's a decidedly different situation.
Arcade Fire was the headliner, but before they went on, Animal Collective blew minds, fried brains, reset consciousness. Before they even walked out, a giant metal structure caged in on the stage that must have been more than 100 feet wide and 100 feet long, and it flickered with bright lights as a supersonic, space-age electronic introduction took about ten minutes to build, explode, coalesce and then fold in on itself. It's not often you lose your mind before the band even starts. Some musicians may have had trouble living up to such a buildup, but in this case it was just the beginning. Listening to Animal Collective on record, in my opinion, falls far short of what the band does live. There were only four of them up there, and yet they pushed their psychedelic symphony into such overdrive, it would have left the members of Pink Floyd scratching their heads. I had a feeling watching them that was similar to my first time watching Radiohead, where I could see these guys playing their instruments and yet could not understand how they were creating that sound. It's a good thing Arcade Fire was up next, because only a handful of acts could have gone on after that without leaving me feeling like we'd taken a step backwards.
I'd seen Arcade Fire play twice before, and they always deliver. With ten people in the band and nearly every member switching instruments and lending vocals, their shows come across more like an army, a spiritual revival on the march, than a mere band playing. And they couldn't have been more grateful to be there. Frontman Win Butler told the crowd, "If you'd have told me in 2002 that we'd be headlining Coachella with Animal Collective playing before us, I'd have told you you're full of shit, so we're really happy to be here." Their first album Funeral is still a fan favorite, and we got a heaping helping of those songs. Easily the greatest moment came during the song "Wake Up," with which they closed their pre-encore set. As they were playing it, we looked up to see a deluge of white inflatable balls spilling from the roof of the stage. Hundreds of them, big enough that you couldn't wrap your arms around one. We reached up to bat them into the air and back through the crowd. We reached, we batted, and more just kept coming. Almost instantly, everyone was covered in a ceiling of white, and you had to keep reaching and punching and pushing and laughing just to keep up. As I looked at the faces around me, people could not believe how much fun they were having. Like ecstatic children who have yet to discover self-consciousness. When the avalanche finally ceased, we looked up at the video screens to see aerial shots of this scene and discovered that each of these balls had an individual, synchronized light inside it. They lit up in a blanket of green, then purple, then blue. It was so goddamn beautiful.
By Sunday afternoon you can understand that we were a little tired, so we were content to lie back in the grass and listen to City and Colour play some very relaxing acoustic stuff. Then Jimmy Eat World came on and tried to see how many nearly identical sugar-infused pop-rock songs they could squeeze into 50 minutes. They had a lot of fans, but I was much more interested in what Nas & Damian Marley were doing on the main stage, so we slid over that way. Those two complemented each other wonderfully, with Nas laying down quality rapping and then Damian Marley (who has the longest dreadlocks I have ever seen) hitting you with Rastafarian rhyme. They closed with a cover of Bob Marley's "Could You Be Loved," which of course was well received.
Death from Above 1979 was far from my favorite performance, but they had their fans worked up with palpable anticipation and got them rocking to their two-piece metal-esque hailstorm of guitar and drums. They had to be ditched, though, because The National was about to go on on another stage.
My interest in The National went through the roof when High Violet came out. To my delight, their set was heavy with material from that record. Each of us avid fans had our own handful of songs we really wanted to hear, but The National could have tossed all the songs from their last three albums in to the air and played the first 10 to hit the ground. No one would have complained. From opening with "Bloodbuzz Ohio" on through, everyone yelled their heads off as soon as they recognized the first notes. One of the elements that I think sets this band apart is that they're able to play such rich, lush, soothing fuzzy-grayness, melting over you like a warm current, and then rise up with unexpected triumph, crushing out the thought of bad blood or dark clouds, reminding you they're a rock band. I could have listened to them play for three hours.
The next three acts we saw all fell into the category of getting our heads blown off accidentally. I had checked out a little of Phantogram before the festival, but had no idea they'd be as good as they were. Their sound was kind of an electronica-trip-hop-shoegaze-rock amalgam, with female vocals laced into a very full and moving slow-motion tornado. They're one that I'll be looking more into very soon.
Because we happened to be passing through, we saw the last few songs by Lightning Bolt, a two-piece that hit upon two different themes that reoccurred throughout the weekend. One theme was a band with only two people making an ungodly amount of noise, which they shared with Sleigh Bells (who still took the cake) and Death from Above 1979. The other theme was drummers singing, which we also saw with Death from Above and a little bit with Animal Collective. The drummer in Lightning Bolt was perhaps the most talented musician I saw the whole time. His drumming was insanely fast, with his arms blurring all over his kit at a speed that made it hard to believe he was screaming at the same time. That screaming was filtered through a crazy-looking mask he was wearing that distorted his voice and looked like something between a gasmask and part of a Slipknot costume. Their music was too terrorizing to appeal to many, but it sure was impressive.
When they ended, we bounced off to Leftfield, where I danced harder than I did anywhere else. They played the kind of set that sounded like you were listening to all electronics but was actually almost entirely created by musicians. I'm really picky when it comes to dance music, but this was top shelf.
We took a peek at PJ Harvey but then ran off to make sure we saw the opening of Kanye West's show. And we were glad we did. Now, my opinion of Kanye before this weekend had been formed mostly by the idiotic things he has said and done, such as running on stage to protest Taylor Swift's VMA award or tweeting things like, "Damn, these fish is hungry!" (I made that one up, but I wouldn't be surprised if he actually wrote that.) But people forget about that crap pretty quickly when you play the kind of monster show that Kanye played. Some are apparently calling it the best rap show ever. I haven't been to a lot of rap shows, but it's entirely possible. It certainly blew away what I saw Jay-Z do at the All Points West festival in 2009, even taking into consideration that Jay-Z had live musicians and Kanye did not. Personally I think that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is overrated, mostly because Kanye sounds flat in several spots, but he nailed those songs in person.
He opened with some kind of operatic grandeur for which I have no frame of reference, accompanied by a troop of modern dancers who seriously added to the theatrics, and then popped out of the ground on a crane that raised him up over the crowd to the refrain of "Can we get much higher?" When he performed "POWER" (and yes, Kanye requires that all those letters be capitalized), fireworks shot into the air every time he said the word "power." To me, that was definitely the best song, and the first segment of his show was easily the strongest, but I've got to hand it to the guy for holding our attention through the whole thing, considering I'm not really into his music. The song "Heartless" has made me want to tear my hair out numerous times hearing it in the grocery store, but in the context of his live show, even that one didn't bother me. Kanye may have one of the biggest egos on the planet, but to a certain extent, I think that's working to his advantage.
Well, if you've read this far, I commend you, and I hope you feel as exhausted as we did at the end of the weekend. But of course, no matter how much detail I go into in breaking down the music, there's no way to really communicate the experience of being there and sharing such a unique place with all those people. At Coachella, you're surrounded by thousands of strangers all the time, and yet you've never been so free to be yourself, go wild, let your plumage flap in the breeze. We saw some of the most creative and colorful dress—a group of friends dressed like Day-Glo Native Americans, girls dolled up like fairies, full-body animal costumes—on people whose only responsibility was to drink enough water not to get defeated by the heat. As soon as we landed in New York, I immediately missed the place.
Not only are the people attending the festival elated to be there, it was crystal clear that all the bands were deeply grateful to be there playing their hearts out for everyone. There are a finite amount of these kinds of days, where the musicians and the fans get shot through the Milky Way together, deciding along the way which songs shine brightest, which moments become part of new constellations. There was no doubt in my mind that, for those three days, there was no better place to be on Earth. The joy is so overwhelming, it can't be fully processed while you're in the middle of it. On the flight home, as I closed my eyes to doze off, images of crowds with their hands in the air, cheering, were projected over and over on the back of my eyelids. Looking back at all of it, a line by The National comes to mind: "I don't even think to make corrections."