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One could easily bellyache about the logistical nightmares of Coachella: exorbitant prices for tasteless food, the daunting exodus from the parking lot and subsequent gridlock, will-call purgatory, the downwind stench from the Port-o-Pottys around 6 p.m. after the feces reached critical mass. But those minor aggravations have nothing to do with Coachella's mission: great music -- loads of it.
Whatever foothold the MCs had on Saturday, they blew it. Pharcyde were so late they ended up playing only seven minutes to a sardine-packed Sahara Tent. "It wasn't our fault, y'all, it was all this shit with the airlines," a contrite J-Swift pleaded. The fans were too hot to be pissed off. Good ol' Chris Parker, the mad oracle known as KRS-One, got with head-nodding boom-bap and b-boys flipping off trampolines so he could drop black mysticism: "When they killed Frederick Douglass, I came back as Marcus Garvey/I used to be Malcolm X, before I came back as KRS." To the ladies: "You aren't a bitch, you're a goddess." But Parker grew progressively like an interpreter for the hearing-impaired: "I'm an MC -- rapping is something you do; hip-hop is something you live!" Yo, Chris, ix-nay on the ecture-lay. A different stage and eight hours later, Jurassic 5 crooned their G-rated rhymes like a barbershop quartet. Babu's velvety deep voice alone was worth the wait, but the mid-gig scratch battle was all speed and no inspiration -- welcome to the new drum solo. Cursed be the promoters giving the acid-tongued, ultrawitty Princess Superstar an early-bird time slot of 12:30. What a way to bury the freshest new voice in the game.
Balls-to-the-wall rawk is alive and well, but not with the usual suspects: Sweden's The (International) Noise Conspiracy, together with Aussies the Vines, constituted a mini non-English invasion. Lassoing his mike cord, gyrating his pelvis and leaping from a stack of amps, T(I)NC's Dennis Lyxzén has more rock-star panache in his little finger than Sunday's great white hype, the Strokes, will ever have. Someone yelled "Bullshit!" when he began the story of a 19-year-old gunned down by the police. "No, this happened," he said, suddenly grave. Keyboardist Sara Almgren and crazed four-stringer Inge Johanssen took the edge off Lyxzén's Marxist diatribe with a druggy '60s groove.
Earlier in the Mojave Tent, all hailed Kosheen vocalist Sian Evans, the Scottish Diana Ross: "Do you want to hear some drum & fucking bass?" she yelled. The sexy chanteuse shouldn't have pigeonholed herself, because Resist is one of the best dance albums this year regardless of genre. With a live drummer, an electric cellist and Evans' piercing pipes, the Glaswegian trio had soul to spare. Sasha and Digweed held sway later with a dexterous balance between happy hypnosis and bad trip. That other English duo, Groove Armada, went for the hip shakes, not so much head games; it didn't help that their Laserium-caliber visuals were wasted on samey amoebas.
Now she's in purple, now she's a turtle: Siouxsie Sioux looked dapper in a gray business suit before stripping down three songs into the Banshees' set, which began on the main stage just after dark. She seemed bitter: "We're seven for seven in the seven-year itch -- we have no sponsor, no label, no radio, it's just us." The band favored the obscure stuff as Sioux's drummer husband, Budgie, flailed precisely against Steve Severin's enormous bass throbs and Jon Klein's lovely/forbidding walls of guitar. Old punks never die, they just get more goth.
To all who attended Coachella, give yourselves a hand. You were sensibly dressed and attractive. And polite. Both communal and disconnected, the vibe was pleasant but unnecessarily tame. Where were all the freaks?
>> DUSTBOWL OF CHERRIES
A raver, his white Adidas visor reversed, awkwardly danced to Blonde Redhead's mournful "Hated Because of Great Qualities." A duo of gothed-out girls gaped, awestruck, as Mos Def assaulted them with his foxy "ghetto rock." These were a few of the juxtapositional joys to be had at the Coachella fest, one of the few events this side of the Atlantic to offer such a diverse and dynamic cross section of the music universe. Under a monumental desert sky, the festival reveled in its hybrid vivacity: Ozomotli warming up a crowd for Belle and Sebastian? Jurassic 5 taking the stage from the Beta Band?
Mixmaster Mike and Z-Trip knew the score. With more eclectic crowds than at any club, these DJs spun Jay-Z with Alice in Chains, Led Zeppelin with Beastie Boys, and generally challenged where rock starts and hip-hop ends. As Z-Trip slapped down "Two Turntables and a Microphone," an unscheduled Beck joined him onstage, sliding and jiving to the inspired beats.
Anachronistic Siouxsie and her gray-haired Banshees -- clearly aware that the '80s were over, and pissed about it -- were a surprising highlight on Saturday. Though she snarled a lot between songs, Siouxsie's echoing howl was undiminished, and, as if appreciating her plight, the sun dropped behind the mountains, turning a surprisingly cool day into a warmish night. "Are you having fun in the dust?" Siouxsie spat at her rapt audience. Yes, in fact. Across the field, The (International) Noise Conspiracy's painstakingly rehearsed spasms of chaotic leftist hardcore closed out the night with a very different type of beauty.
On undersold Sunday, Blonde Redhead seduced a smallish crowd at the second stage with sexy tunes mostly from their latest album, Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons. Kazu Makino's trembling voice acted as a siren's call across the grass, magnetically drawing people toward the stage. Unfortunately the mournful qualities of the performance seemed undercut by the early-afternoon sun; the act would have resonated deeper in the shaded confines of the Mojave Tent. Meanwhile, Mos Def and his bass-heavy blues/rock/rap outfit Black Jack Johnson riled the crowd to fever pitch with his seamless mixtures of musical styles and unbeatable stage charisma. The miracle of his act was that, even as he oscillated between blues, hip-hop shout-outs, punk rock and smooth reggae, Mos Def, an easy smile on his lips, made the audience intuitively grasp the underlying interplay between these varied musical forms. But this was no music-appreciation class; as he leapt onto the towering speakers and worked his magic on the crowd, Def was seizing black rock & roll back from Elvis (not to mention kicking pathetic Linkin Park and other cracker rap-rock acts to the pavement). After Def left the stage, his insanely talented band spiraled into a Sonic Youthworthy distortion session. (When a tall guy shoved his way forward and shouted for the Strokes, he barely escaped getting smacked down. "Man, you just won the stinky white motherfucker award for stupidity!" he was informed by a bristling fan.)
Strokes lead singer Julian Casablancas took the stage in awe. "Mos Def is fucking cool, huh?" Perhaps Casablancas had been studying Def from the sidelines, because he seemed more at ease than usual, his rock-star histrionics less self-conscious. With guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. leading the way, the typically wooden Strokes managed to get over themselves and cut loose. As the riotous crowd screamed the lyrics even to the catchy new batch of songs, Casablancas threw himself into the masses, where he was gently held aloft. "In the sun, sun, having fun," Casablancas wailed during "The Modern Age." Indeed, indeed.
>> AN ARMY OF WE
Now 3 years old, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has passed through its infancy and entered its awkward phase. Is it a festival that exists as a quixotic model of genre harmony; a post-Lollapalooza, where an Intelligent Dance Music act can easily coexist with an emo band without the assistance, interference or inspiration of corporate sponsors; or is it a plain old fact that a music utopia simply cannot exist without huge Heineken banners and Virgin Megastore tents? Returning to the two-day format, Goldenvoice beefed up the sound quality and presented fewer experimental acts, thereby offering less opportunity to stumble onto something that'd truly blow one's mind. And while maybe thinking less is more, they're also getting big enough to invest in superlarge video-projection screens -- something we all wanted to avoid.
The polo fields were as trim and comfortable as a plush carpet; hours could be rolled away chilling out slurping on frozen lemonades, but if you wanted to hear Kosheen you were gonna have to move over to the Mojave Tent. Kosheen, an act that floats between electronica and jungle, served it up band-style, with singer Sian running around like an '80s pop star. With a tight version of "Hide You" (an old track that is surprisingly a new hit), Kosheen had the kids mashing up the floor.
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Just when you thought you'd witnessed the most amazing vocal performance, there was another. Siouxsie, the original punk rock diva, was taking the stage, and she was about to show us that she was far from old hat. "They've got you packed in here like sar-fucking-dines, don't they?" she taunted, then ridiculed her audience for showing up like "a bunch of sheep." While asserting her punk rock cred, her songs got a successful make-over, and she remains the queen of darkness.
Whoever came up with the idea of having Björk follow Siouxsie gets an apple, because the transition couldn't have been better. You didn't have to be a major fan to feel the magnitude of her set, perhaps the most memorable performance of the year so far. With a full string section, harps and electronics, she was Cole PortermeetsJohn Cage and Goldie. After her ailing computer was rebooted, she performed "Army of Me," and closed out with a simply astounding Beatles cover, a baroque tribute to George Harrison's "Blue Jay Way" -- it was bliss. If nothing else, Coachella was a triumph for female vocalists (throw in Blonde Redhead and Zero 7).
Things weren't nearly as exciting on the breaks side, however. Yes, the Chemical Brothers are consummate professionals who assemble strong sequences and cosmic visuals (they even play from inside an orb that looks like the DJ booth in Thank God It's Friday), but there was something about their incessant "It began in Africa-ka-ka-ka-ka" vibe that got quite annoying. And then there was the "return of Prodigy." Where do you go after you've been a pyromaniac and a domestic abuser? Nowhere, really. Their brand of heavy metal/breaks doesn't work without the snickers. MC Maximum Reality reminded us over and over in between bad King Diamond screams, "I'm not here to play, I'm here to feel the pain!" Okay, sure. Though they kick out a lotta faux anarchy, the Prodigy didn't get gobbed on; instead a proliferation of glow-necklaces rained onto the stage. Perhaps that says it all.