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Miracle in the Desert

Photos by Gregory Bojorquez

Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival at Indio Polo Fields, April 26 & 27

THE REAL ROCK ACTION

Sunday at Coachella: Night was falling, and the spotlights pointing skyward from the festival grounds' periphery were now fully visible, forming a dome enclosure by vector light. Wind hit the main stage's unmanned microphones, so that the sound of air itself was audible via the gargantuan speaker system. And then there they were: at left, Stooges enthusiast/bassist Mike Watt, arguably the prime mover behind this most extraordinary and unlikely reunion, in uncustomary T-shirt and studded wristband; at center, of course, drummer Scott "Rock Action" Asheton; and at right, Scott's brother Ron, the stoic guitarist in black. These three we had seen last year at UCLA's Ackerman Ballroom with J Mascis and a parade of demistar vocalists in a Stooges revue that was both credible and powerful. Still, no matter how much the music at Ackerman roared and dirged and just generally aggressed, the central fact remained that none of those singers was named Iggy Pop.


Queens of the Stone Age
We all knew this then, but it was only tonight that we could see what a gaping divide there is between Those Who Is Iggy and Those Who Ain't. From the moment he appeared behind the back walls of Marshalls, leaping and waving his long hair in circling, exotic-dancer motions, Iggy was the very vision of a mad desert banshee on an unholy yet sacred mission. Shirtless, bluejeaned and ridiculously well-cut, for 50 minutes this singular man (just turned 56 years old!) eschewed the stuntwork of his past, the things that at the time made him reviled but would later become the stuff of legend. Tonight, Iggy did not smear peanut butter on his torso, or dive into a pool of broken glass, or walk on his hands. Instead, on a stage ringed by some of the same rock-star Stooges acolytes (Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme) who had sung at that Ackerman show, in front of an audience of what seemed like every record-collectin' geek within 7,000 miles plus thousands of curious younglings, he did something absolutely miraculous: He didn't just turn back the hands of time — he cut them clean off, pissed on them and then danced on the fuckers in an elemental, primordial, impossible performance of pure shamanic will.

For the length of a perfectly built set of Stooges barechestnuts (opening with "Loose," taking on "I Wanna Be Your Dog" just three songs in!), solidly rhythmed by "newcomer Mike" and Scotty, outlined and elaborated on and fuzzed up by the unfortunately underamplified guitarist Ron, there Iggy was, singing and whooping and snaking and pogoing and shaking and leaping and strutting and undulating in ways that elude humans one-third his age. He pushed against the warm air; he did spells and tricks against time. He mounted the speakers, his androgynous humping motions writ large in silhoutte and shadow. Yes, this was the desert — palm trees and rusty mountains on the horizon, dust in your mouth and your nose and your eyes, merchants selling you 12 ounces of water for two dollars — but this was no hallucination, not even when saxophonist Steve Mackay surprise-appeared to reprise his hotwork for the Stooges' closing "1970/Funhouse/L.A. Blues." As Iggy sang, "We've been separated for far too long . . . I came to play/Let me in!," the lyrics had an obvious added significance: He was back with his old playmates, his anti-dignified elder statesmen, and somehow, together, in giving this collective no-mind middle-finger against decay, they had done something every bit as defiant and remarkable as anything these guys did three decades ago. Unbelievable, unforgettable, untoppable . . . The fuckin' Stooges! (Jay Babcock)

CANDYSNATCHERS

I thought it'd be cute to open a review of Coachella '03 by playing on Forrest Gump's famous saying. You know, Rock festivals are like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get. This was certainly the case on Saturday as 41 acts performed on multiple stages. Excited about an introduction to the music of U.K. bands Idlewild and South? Sorry, you'll wait out their back-to-back sets in the parking lot on a disgraceful two-hour queue. Interested in the prospect of seeing Queens of the Stone Age in their native high desert? Whoops, the group's massive rock will be rendered indistinguishable by the booming sound system. Psyched to hear the irresistible post-punk pop of Hot Hot Heat? Nope, they'll be too trebly for the sound engineers to handle. The best bet was to go a-wandering, treating the festival as a kind of See's Valentine Sampler for left-of-center pop.


Beastie Boys

 

The sets were programmed in such a way that there was in fact a method to the madness. The Coachella Stage featured big-name acts (Beastie Boys) and those with cross-genre appeal (N.E.R.D.). The Outdoor Theater had hippies (Spearhead) and hip-hop (Talib Kweli) and goodtime music (Kinky). Three auxiliary stages appealed to hardcore showgoers — the cavernous Sahara Tent for boom-chick-boom-chick dance music, M.C. Escher projections and laser light shows; the Mohave and Gobi tents for emergent and underground sounds. With attractions ranging from the Stones Throw DJ crew and Badly Drawn Boy to the Libertines and Amon Tobin, the Mohave and Gobi tents should have offered a joyous afternoon of buzz bands, but the shows were marred by bad sound (HHH), cranky performers (BDB), too many attendees (Ladytron) or too few (Stereo Total). Late in the evening, technical difficulties reared their ugly heads, throwing the proceedings off schedule and causing the Libertines to abort their set after only two songs.

The hipster tents, though, did have their highlights. At dusk, Stereo Total's internationalist pop drew two dozen concertgoers onstage for an impromptu dance party. Midafternoon, the Rapture performed an inspired set of post-punk fueled by dub-and-disco rhythms; the less-than-ideal sonics only amplified bassist Matt Safer's obsessive-compulsive riffs, and, thankfully, you weren't meant to understand guitarist-vocalist Luke Jenner's yelped lyrics. Theirs was a brighter, less politically charged rendition of PiL and Gang of Four. In times like these, some darkness and rhetoric would be welcome, but utility player Gabriel Andruzzi with his sax, his cowbell and his silly little dance just made you want to move. There's time for that too, eh?


The White Stripes
Early in the afternoon, Fugazi's Ian MacKaye conducted a Q&A in the Gobi tent, and dismissed the possibility of a Minor Threat reunion by telling the starry-eyed kids in the audience, "Old bands can't change anything, new bands can," but fact is, it was the old standbys that were most at home here. Blue Man Group's 10 p.m. set at the Outdoor Theater parodied arena rock traditions with overblown lighting, special effects and even a multimedia tutorial in "rock concert movements." It was oddly satisfying to watch tens of thousands simultaneously trying to perfect #1) the head bob, #2) the one-armed fist pump and #3) the up-and-down jumping motion. Subversive, perhaps, but in the context of Coachella, it seemed more like an effort to indoctrinate fans into a new genre of proto-fascist stadium rock. Their last song was a cover of The Who's "Baba O'Riley," and the audience sang in unison: "It's only teenage wasteland/Teenage wasteland/Oh, oh."

In general, the whole Coachella vibe was way more Leni Riefenstahl than D.A. Pennebaker. Cordoned-off, transgressive art filled the midway; the VIP section was dotted with PlayStation 2 consoles; blond SoCal residents outnumbered gnarly post-apocalyptic Lollapalooza wannabes 5-to-1. And was it just me, or did all 30,000 attendees flock en masse to Beastie Boys' headlining performance? The Beasties cruised through a tight, crowd-pleasing set filled with greatest hits and some bland political protest ("In a world gone mad it's hard to think right . . . It's not the politicians but their actions I despise," sayeth their MP3-only protest anthem. Okay, but what do we do about it?) All in all, I was reminded of a praline truffle. They taste great going down, but consume too many and you'll get fat and lazy. (Alec Hanley Bemis)

TOASTED

At least 30,000 people descended on the polo grounds in Indio last weekend, shuttling madly between two stages, three tents, a zillion merch booths (and too few Port-O-Pottys) to celebrate the joy of music. Who cares if it was hotter 'n a rat's ass, or that the sound system occasionally sucked or that the sets ran a bit behind schedule? There's something life-affirming about dodging freaks, scenesters, celebs and thrill seekers on smooth lawns as desert winds buffet your sunburned face. If Coachella does have a negative, it's the embarrassment of aural riches being unearthed simultaneously. What's a frazzled fan to do?


N*E*R*D
The shit in the Middle East might be last week's news, but political consciousness was alive and well in the hip-hop camp, featuring Talib Kweli stepping to the White House: "You're a patriot, got the flag on your car too/Do any congressmen's sons fight, though?/Naw, fuck you . . ." From the beastly Brooklyn boyz who used to spray beer and prop up float-sized dicks at their concerts, Mike D's stump was loud and clear: "Not to put it on the soldiers, because we got mad respect for anyone who serves our country, but we don't think attacking other countries benefits the U.S." Yes, activist cred is rad, yet showmanship rules, and there was no equal to the Hives in this department. While his holy-roller paroxysms evoke a Pentecostal preacher more than a front man, Howlin' Pelle Almqvist is ingenious as a self-promoter: "We know you're here to see the Hives, and you might even want to check out a few other bands, but it's the Hives who will give you your money's worth." He's a cutup, all right, but when you least expect it, he'll distill rock stardom's essence: "Up here I feel like I can do anything."

 

Amon Tobin — Brit-Brazilian superjock and king of the Ninja Tune roster — was lucky to have gotten a headlining time slot, but he was up against Beastie Boys, and you can imagine how lifeless the Mohave tent was at 11 p.m. Still, Tobin mixed the best parts of his discography and, swear to god, mashed up the Velvets' White Light/White Heat and Hendrix's Electric Ladyland for 20 minutes. And somebody seriously underestimated Ladytron's wattage, squeezing them into the Mohave tent as though they're some nu-jack electroclashers; that didn't stop their rendering the crowd dumbstruck, especially now that ice queen Helen Marnie has learned to unleash the womanly side of her vocal powers. The drum & bass was banging with Dillinja & Lemon D and its auxiliary circle of hardcore kids flipping pop-'n'-lock hybrids and this one freakish cat who was, like, vibrating.

All in all, an excellent though grueling day of high-quality sights and sounds, perhaps best summed up afterward by one screaming young woman in the 5-mile-square parking lot: "We've been looking for the car a fucking hour and 15 minutes!" Sunday was off the hook, too; big up to my German wiggaz Mouse on Mars. (Andrew Lentz)

SCENE

"It's all so overwhelming," summed up HOT HOT HEAT's DANTE DECARO about the alternative frock 'n' stroll circus otherwise known as Coachella, and the Canadian guitarist was just talking about the VIP area. Though the fenced-off section boasted shade, cocktails and a bevy of familiar faces sporting more trucker hats and ass-crack than a Teamsters convention (as well as dressed-down thespians DREW BARRYMORE, CAMERON DIAZ, Camy's ex JARED LETO, JULIETTE LEWIS, ANDY DICK, a bikini-clad MICHELLE RODRIGUEZ and a black-tressed ALICIA SILVERSTONE; rockers TOMMY LEE, TRENT REZNOR and OGRE; and Silver Lake royalty including KEITH MORRIS, SPACELAND's MITCHELL FRANK and JENNIFER TEFFT, THE PURPLE CIRCLE salon crew, and VIDA's FRED ERIC and his very preggers gal pal ROLLER), the more exclusive backstage/trailer area offered an even swankier oasis. Many of our well-connected pals wore a veritable rainbow of wristbands (the coveted colors being blue, green and orange), but our pink press band proved limiting the first day, so on Sunday we opted to work our way 007-style to the promised land, where the upper echelon of hangers-on enjoyed free grub, games and couches galore amid artist's trailers complete with personalized décor (QUEENS OF THE NEW STONE AGE's room boasted vintage deer wallpaper, while RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS were given a mini-yard complete with a blow-up swimming pool) and golf carts for cruising the perimeter of the site — a delightful alternative to hiking from tent to stage to tent. Still, we walked the walk a lot over the weekend: to the film tent, where CLUB BANG's PIPER FERGUSON's NYC music-scene flick Our Time wowed throngs of Yeah Yeah Yeahs­worshiping, spiked-belt babes; to the sweltering Mohave tent, where newbies S.T.U.N. and IMA ROBOT woke up the early risers and THE LIBERTINES got a second chance to rock after being bumped Saturday; and to the Gobi tent, where IAN McKAYE answered questions about livin' la vida straight-edge and why he agreed to participate in an event that charged $80 a ticket. (The answer? Patti Smith once told McKaye that if he's given a forum to express his views, he oughtta take it.) Alas, no unscheduled performers took the stage (Radiohead was the big rumor), unless you count a mo(ck)hawked KELLY OSBOURNE sorta jamming with N*E*R*D. Or was that just a mirage? (Lina Lecaro)


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