Photos by Wild Don Lewis
You and whose army?
Two days, two vibes— that’s what defined Coachella in 2004. The festival’s now-familiar musical vision of providing one venue to a diverse constituency of pop outsiders may have remained unwavering throughout the sun-baked weekend. But it couldn’t mask the disparity between Saturday’s historic music for the masses and a Sunday stroll around a nice city of little communities. Don’t believe me? Ask the scalpers who were short of tickets on May Day but couldn’t give them away 24 hours later.
Which goes to show that, as great a reputation as Coachella organizers Goldenvoice have developed for throwing together one of the world’s premier music festivals, its true secret weapon is a discerning audience that knows and acknowledges what it likes to see on a Grande stage. On Saturday, that audience united for the headlining triple bill of the Pixies, Radiohead and Kraftwerk — to the point that N.Y. punk-disco revivalists the Rapture and ageless indie drone-pop auteurs Stereolab rocked their respective stages but had no crowd to show for it. But you couldn’t blame the audience for missing these performances — they were too busy participating in Events.
The Pixies reunion, a happy accident from the get-go, tapped none of the ’80s nostalgia detractors have been grouping it with, basking in the power and glory of something that remains unique and ahead. As Dave Lovering counted off “Bone Machine,” Frank Black shrieked, Joey Santiago’s guitar howled, and bassist Kim Deal provided harmonies that made the grotesque groovy. The band’s hourlong set was met with equal portions of young reverence and youthful reawakening, and while the glow of recognition may have occurred on different songs, you could see it at work. “See you at the Kraftwerk tent,” said Kim as she walked offstage, giving voice to the synchronicity flow between the performers and the field.
No one left before seeing if Radiohead could seize its own moment. Was there a doubt? Showing no sign of the throat ailment that put the group’s only U.S. appearance of the year in jeopardy, Oxford-born Thom Yorke defined carpe diem. Acknowledging the Pixies before pulling “Creep” out of the closet, conceding Kraftwerk’s invention of the musical computer world on every electronic-rock jam off Hail to the Thief, sticking the political-minded “You and Whose Army?” and its defiance of empire into the encore slot, Radiohead played an extraordinary set even by its own high standards. Then everybody went to see the robots.
Or it sure felt like everybody. Except for Beck’s afternoon hootenanny (which included Kinks and Daniel Johnston covers that endearingly betrayed his romantic state of mind), none of the tent shows had the crush of Kraftwerk’s late-night multimedia dance party. Tweaking the Greatest Hits Remixed set they’ve been performing since 1997, the quartet of men-machines informed suddenly loose-limbed rockers about funk, simultaneously touching upon techno, electro, house music, hip-hop and synth-pop, and proving that Ralf and Florian’s 30-year-old definition of futurism still applies.
Kraftwerk also exhibited the power of re-arranging and -orchestrating a proven commodity, musical values espoused by Josh Homme and Scott Herren earlier in the day. Stone Age Queen Homme stood out in front of the first live appearance by his Desert Sessions community, directing a high-desert metal production that reveled in groove-oriented bombast while imagining Zeppelin as a world-pop group. Herren reorganized the laptop Gypsy folk he recorded with Catalan singer Eva Puyuelo under the name Savath & Savalas into a jazz-rock octet that created noisy jams from Miles Davis’ and Brian Eno’s directions. And the audience swayed and lurched accordingly.
By contrast, there was more waiting around than bodily movement taking place Sunday. A second day of heat could have been to blame, but the uneven performances and the micro-cultural natures of most artists left non-devotees with little to get excited about. Flaming Lips singer Wayne Coyne crowd-surfed the audience in a plastic bubble and led a spirited election-year sing-along, but also spoke too much to ever get the group’s psyche-pop set going. British hip-hop wunderkind Dizzee Rascal took the stage late, and had trouble pulling back an audience that had been ready to turn him into a star 10 minutes earlier. And Belle & Sebastian was a perfect soundtrack for a late-afternoon lollygag under the sun. But is that a reason to hang out in the desert with 50,000 people?
There were, of course, infusions of energy to be found, but they too preached to the converted. Basement Jaxx performed a rare live set, augmenting their stadium-sized house music with live guitars, drums and wonderfully foul-mouthed disco divas, uniting a delirious international club-kid crowd. Scottish post-rock troupe Mogwai made a mountain of guitar-noise that left indie rockers happily dazed. And Le Tigre preached gender politics under the auspices of shaking asses. Happy moments, but hardly populist fare.
Robert Smith could have fixed this by setting free the post-punk pop jukebox that is the Cure’s catalog, and instigating ’80s karaoke. But he opened with a song from the group’s yet-to-be-released new album, and the soft, meandering psychedelia his band played was no match for the pull of the Sunday-evening escape. Judging from the emptiness of the main field during “Boys Don’t Cry,” many people heard the all-hits encores from the lot. (Piotr Orlov)