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)
A Way To Move
If one word can sum up Coachella, it surely must be the one singer-bassist-guitarist Chris Richards, of the D.C. disco-punk trio Q and Not U, had inked on his right cheek: MOVE. As his band broke down the thick, hot Saturday afternoon into an irresistible whirlwind of dance and political discourse, it was clear that the imperative to move — move on, move your ass or move out of the way — was this year’s theme for the clean corporate fest we’ve grown to love.
Artists of sundry ilks spoke out against current ills with persistence, passion and anger. Saul Williams spat fiery verse through clenched teeth: “Where is that burning Bush?” Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips chanted a plea to “Say not ‘Fuck Bush!’ but ‘Stop Bush!’” throughout his band’s otherwise charmingly escapist performance. Q and Not U’s Richards suggested, “If you’re standing next to someone you love, whisper in their ear that Bush is lying.”
It felt encouraging to witness a commotion of minds, not just bodies. It felt good to see the hip-hop crew Hieroglyphics repeatedly admonish listeners not only to buy their merch but also to vote — a refrain picked up by Sweden’s (International) Noise Conspiracy, whose sexy mix of rock and radical politics was so hot, they were right to chide their semicomatose audience, melting in the heat, “If you can’t dance to these songs, it’s not our fault!” Moving, even when you’re stuck in the belly ‰ of a fiery furnace, is always the right thing to do, especially when prompted by young men unafraid to sing in falsetto and mix mega-grooves with apocalyptic trumpets and sultry sax (Brooklyn’s !!!), merge wit with rhythm (NYC’s LCD Soundsystem), or wiggle their skinny, urbane, disco-ravished frames to the beat (L.A.’s own Moving Units). Unmoving? A take on late-era U2 by Canada’s Broken Social Scene was pretty but unambitious. Britain’s ferociously talented Muse showed potential to overcome their current status as the poor man’s Radiohead if they learn to merge their many good ideas with the same elegance as their idols do.
And Radiohead’s moonlight-bathed performance was the clear climax of the event, a moment when songwriting, emotion, politics and showmanship came together in an experience heart-stopping in its multisensory sweep. The near-painful immensity and intensity of sound and feeling, after all, are what this festival is about.
Or mostly. As proceedings drew to a close, Le Tigre sasspot Kathleen Hanna released a sweetly poisonous parting shot: “Mediocrity rules, man!” She was, of course, absolutely right. But we dreamers felt we could change that. (Sorina Diaconescu)
Where’s Your Head At!
Day 1. For those who traveled from the Sounds to the Stills to Stellastarr to Junior Senior — those were happy trails, huh? I’m sure there were other smart tracks in the grass last Saturday afternoon, and there should have been: Coachella’s intense, choose-or-lose format keeps proving that music lovers at their best are creatures of free will, conjuring their own paths with the charm of spontaneity. Dark Side of the Moon be damned — nothing in music is obligatory, and Coachella sort of counts on you to discover that moment of courage and brilliance when you say to yourself, “Beck? So the hell what?,” and then end up in Junior Senior’s rockin’ big-top tent, where the B-52’s’ Fred Schneider showed up onstage for the group’s confection “Move Your Feet.” Like Junior Senior and many other Scandinavian groups, the Sounds have mastered an era-distinct vernacular of Anglo-American rock radio so dead-on that it’s both exhilarating and worrisome. Of course, nothing wrong with the fine tradition of Canadians sounding like Americans, particularly if they come with a beautiful set list like the Stills’. Stellastarr had their sweaty horde clapping rhythmically to “My Coco,” a pretty scene you just can’t get in their tirelessly cool downtown NYC haunts, and for lead singer Shawn Christensen to get away with this degree of vocal affectation just goes to show how truly sincere their music is, and why the Cure and the Pixies still headline to this day. Man, the Pixies . . . as one from the bitter generation, finally this monkey’s gone to heaven.
Day 2. Onstage, the U.K.’s dizzying Dizzee Rascal is a blistering, confident onslaught of insurmountable gibberish. I half expected Air to bore me eventually, and although they bored in a very elegant, magical way, they weren’t a good enough reason to keep me from rushing over to catch one of my favorite bands of last year, the Sleepy Jackson, who nailed down much of the back-road dreaminess of their debut album, despite the lack of those cool falsettos. They already sound like the Flaming Lips, but maybe 10 years from now they’ll lighten up a bit and look like them, too — the Lips’ opening salvo, “Race for the Prize,” was one of those moments of sight and sound that you tell your dreams about in hopes of sleeping again. But the highlight of Day 2 was the unstoppable, engorged frenzy of the Basement Jaxx. Even without Siouxsie Sioux and Me’Shell Ndegéocello, the colorful carousel of vocalists simply ignited this side of the polo fields — I had to duck for cover when the crowd recognized the first three chords of “Where’s Your Head At.” With so many DJs in the dance tents spinning rock records as though they were trying to save their lives, the Basement Jaxx certainly offered the better revolution in the dance-music scene, launching a full-scale performance that was part dance, part indie-rock, part hip-hop, completely Coachella. (Tommy Nguyen)
By the time darkness set in at Coachella on Sunday, the grassy polo grounds resembled a battlefield of burnt-out bodies too tired to walk any farther or worry about being trampled by the more resilient festgoers who did continue the laborious hikes from tent to tent. It seemed the only patrons left with enough energy to really frolic by sundown were those lucky enough to acquire a wristband for the VIP areas, where shade and cocktails could be found all weekend, along with an excess of chatty scenesters (for whom even the biggie bands on the nearby main stage, such as Radiohead on Saturday and the Flaming Lips and the Cure on Sunday, seemed almost incidental) and some celebs, including Gina Gershon, Giovanni Ribisi, Jared Leto, Alicia Silverstone, The OC’s Adam Brody and Mischa Barton, Tommy Lee, and the dynamic duo of Vincent Gallo and Rick Rubin.
In the press tent, BRMC and Le Tigre conducted one-on-ones with laptop-wielding scribes, while the Pixies gave an actual press conference (in which Frank Black revealed the band’s new pre-show ritual: watching Harry Potter). The sea of gigantor designer sunglasses, teeny-weeny bikini tops, Paris Hilton–style miniskirts and sassy “statement” T-shirts (“I’m No Longer With Stupid,” “Misogyny Is a Bitch,” “Silicone, Collagen, Botox” were our faves) offered almost as much amusement offstage as on, but for the majority of fans — many of whom camped out in the heat the entire weekend — it really was all about the music. Most of the unshowered camper set made their presence felt (and smelt) in the steamy Mohave tent, where acts such as Josh Homme’s Desert Sessions and Junior Senior (both of which featured guest singers — Brody Dalle on Gary Glitter’s “Do You Wanna Touch Me?” and the B-52’s’ Fred Schneider on the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout,” respectively) raised the room temp even higher on Saturday, and in the Sahara tent, where techno heads dripped and danced to an assortment of DJs, including a pumpin’ set by the Crystal Method on Sunday.
Still, the outdoor areas had their own share of heat-induced drawbacks — rap act Atmosphere even had a musical meltdown. “Sometimes the records die in the sun,” said leader Slug, as he was forced to stop and start his flow when his DJ’s wax got warped again and again. Of course there were the requisite after-parties, namely the Urb mag “Sloppy Secs” shindig with DJ sets by the Rapture and Danger Mouse, and Spin mag’s “Rock Garden” soiree with 2 Many DJs on Saturday and a handful of less-publicized hotel-room bashes on Sunday, but after Coachella’s most-crowded two days of heat and hipster hordes ever, even the most enthusiastic music mavens we encountered were just too beat to dance to one more beat. (Lina Lecaro)