Roger Waters achieves another kind of awesome at Coachella

by Ben Wener

The Orange County Register (MCT)

28 April 2008


When they release the DVD of “Coachella `08” - which all parties involved might want to consider doing by, say, September, the better for their festival-wide mission to have any impact in an election year - it will be a three-disc special edition akin to the job Criterion did for “Monterey Pop.”

Disc 1 will be a three-hour (minimum) assortment of the best of the rest. From Friday: the Verve, the Raconteurs, the National, Sharon Jones, Jack Johnson, I suppose (they’ll want the thing to sell, after all). From Saturday: Portishead (at least a half-hour, more would be preferable), M.I.A., Cafe Tacvba, Rilo Kiley, Flogging Molly, definitely a twofer from MGMT.

Sunday will add little to the pile. Maybe there’d be the occasional one-shot - a drop of Duffy (the saner, less compelling Amy Winehouse) ... a dash of Metric rocking harder than you’d anticipate ... a helping of hip-hop courtesy of Murs and the Living Legends ... probably the final sparkling moment from the singer Sia ... definitely some color from the sprawling Swedish ensemble I’m from Barcelona and a brief cameo from Sean Penn, encouraging people to join his activist-inspiring Dirty Hands Caravan ... perhaps a moment or two to acknowledge that Love and Rockets regrouped for the occasion.

Still, most of the random Sunday material stored on the deluxe Blu-Ray edition of “Coachella `08” with carry-case created out of recycled Gatorade bottles and cigarette butts (limited-edition retail: $399), will come from three successive main-stage performances.

The Montreal troupe known as Stars would lead off, with frontman Torquil Campbell tossing flowers to the slow-to-rouse masses (it was a meditative Sunday after Saturday’s nonstop desert dance party) while Amy Millan thrums out chipper riffs on her guitar and harmonizes wistfully. Sophisticated but with force and a sure sense of groove, Stars’ set was like Belle and Sebastian with muscle - a very convincing display, and an ideal precursor to hearty, attention-commanding appearances from Gogol Bordello and My Morning Jacket.

The former’s lanky, aggressive madman Eugene Hutz easily ranks among the most colorful characters to ever grace this particular stage. Ironically dishing out the sound of oppressed-and-fed-up immigrants during the day’s most oppressive patch of muggy sunshine, the band’s poisonous dollops of Gypsy-punk jubilation went down smoothly, to distraact from how Hutz’s warped wisdom were grabbing you by the brain and squeezing.

My Morning Jacket hummed along with might and precision, attracting a larger and larger crowd as the day turned to night. I was very impressed by the opening half-hour - they’re not Wilco yet, but Jim James & Co. are instinctively honed now. Yet I still walked away to give some attention to Love and Rockets, when, honestly, the two bands might better have swapped spaces.

L&R played well, despite some bobbling of “Haunted When the Minutes Drag.” But the band’s controlled drone, Daniel Ash’s shards of fuzz guitar, and the trio’s regular flirtation with social commentary (whether in its cover of the Temptations’ dread-filled “Ball of Confusion” or one of the group’s own hits, “No New Tale to Tell”) arguably would have been a sharper complement to the Coachella-closing experience that followed. At the very least, a wash of visuals and bigger-bottomed sound would have kept L&R from sounding so dwarfed.

Anyway, about this hand-crafted, gold-dipped “Coachella `08” box ...

Disc 1 is all of the above. Disc 2 is that incredible Prince performance, complete with before and after footage, maybe mixed in with some discreet crowd shots to fully capture what was going on in the darkest places of the Empire Polo Field. (The number of people who may have conceived during Portishead’s and Prince’s sets seems inordinantely, and appropriately, high.)

Finally, Disc 3 will be devoted entirely to Roger Waters.

Control freak that he can be, I suspect he’ll want to release it himself, or perhaps select another set out of the handful of shows he’s given since last year. But he’d be a fool not to realize what kind of influential stuff he has on his hands, how much more of an intrinsic difference his music makes with people than Sean Penn can achieve by inspiring young people to activism via the about-to-launch Dirty Hands Caravan.

Of course there was no chance that Waters’ prog-rock lecture plus head-twisting would top Prince the night before. And yet it was still a performance worthy of the overused word “awesome,” and not just because his prop handlers released yet another inflatable pig into the atmosphere (this one endorsed Obama on its belly) or hired a confetti-dumping airplane to litter the sky during “Sheep.”

Rather, his appearance was significant in two ways. For Coachella, it was a jaw-dropping 2 ½-hour spectacle like it has never seen before. The longest set in the fest’s history (including all those endless DJ jams), it was proof that a) there’s room here for major attractions to do well no matter how little they adhere to current-cool tastes; b) none of us quick-to-hate types should have doubted Paul Tollett and Goldenvoice’s gut feeling about how this rerun would play at Coachella for a second, as it did so smashingly; and c) “The Dark Side of the Moon” and so many other Pink Floyd staples are classics for a reason - they say something to just about everyone.

For Waters, however, I wonder if this wasn’t an even more meaningful moment in his history of staging concerts in California. He’s been building to something this mammoth since he returned to touring at the start of the decade, seemingly eager to reclaim his work from the trio that carried on as Pink Floyd in the `80s. Waters hasn’t always gotten his due since then - perhaps because he can be chilly and hectoring, or because his solo work has been spotty, or because he hasn’t really embraced his past as much (and as robustly) as he has lately.

The way I figure it, he was overdue for such a glorious, fireworks-laden moment as this. Gilmour and that version of Floyd got to play the Coliseum and elsewhere enormous against Waters’ wishes. Now Waters can add this Coachella moment to his list of change-affecting performances, not far behind Live 8’s Pink Floyd reunion.

Indeed, it’s crowning achievements like this bit of surround-sound sensory overload that provide clarity - that weld together all of Waters’ Big Ideas (antitotalitarianism and the misuse of power, the death march of conformity, the need for civic vigilance and a gentler humanity) simply by powerfully presenting all those songs that still say so much to people.

And not just “Dark Side” gems, although “Us and Them” is forever one of the most intoxicatingly beautiful songs in the English language. Rather, all the best Floyd gets an airing - “Comfortably Numb,” the immense “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” the remarkably poignant “Wish You Were Here” - alongside personal choices both very old (“Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” was made for the hazy desert-afire atmosphere here) and those that are viciously conveyed (“The Fletcher Memorial Home” sequence, for starters, at times barely bottled his rage).

Plus, you know, one is dumb to deny the potent pull of “Dark Side.” Every new generation finds it, every new generation declares it godhead.

And Sunday night was the best possible and most cinematic reproduction yet of Waters’ ultimate testament to his past. For me, on my third go-‘round with this show, its size and scope is what strikes me now, not necessarily what he plays. I mean, here I was at the Prince-declared “coolest place on Earth,” watching an incredible midnight movie of sorts, as if in IMAX, at the world’s largest drive-in.

Quite an encounter, I must say.

Now I’d like my DVD, please.

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