Struggling to gear up for Coachella

by Ben Wener

The Orange County Register (MCT)

9 April 2007


It’s shameful for any critic, particularly one with a steady writing gig, to admit he’s never been to South by Southwest, the Queen Mother of music conferences, held every March in Austin, Texas.

But there it is: I’ve still never been to SXSW.

This profoundly baffles most of my colleagues. With Desert Jeff, whenever I tell him I’m not going—again—it can lead to gasping fits of hand-waving exasperation, followed by lengthy tales of street-partying and late-night stumbling upon the Greatest Find Ever in the History of Rock. The details are incredible.

“How can you not go?!” he inevitably concludes, at wit’s end.

A week of club-hopping afternoons hearing all manner of oven-fresh and hot-once-more bands. Sounds like heaven, I know—like no other momentary music mecca on Earth, save for maybe the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

Oh, um, I haven’t been to that, either—an admission some of the shop-talking critics I bump into at shows would find deplorable.

“You going to Coachella?” I’ll ask Merkin by March.

“Nah. It’s always the same weekend as Jazz Fest. And if I’m gonna stand around for days in oppressive heat, I’d rather be in New Orleans.”

Then he’ll tell me once more about how deeply moving last year was. The Rebuilding Year, that is, when everyone seemed to perform with New Orleans blood coursing through their veins. Surely you heard about Springsteen’s historic performance—historic for the fest, for the Boss, for music as a weapon of social protest. For music, period.

I find it as deplorable as anyone else that I wasn’t there—and in all likelihood won’t be at any Jazz Fest in the conceivable future. Not unless the brains at Goldenvoice decide to move Coachella to late May. And seeing how this time they’re following an expanded Coachella with a country fest, Stagecoach, the very next weekend, well, the timing seems permanently locked.

As for why I never make it to SXSW, despite the best of intentions, I have a publicist friend who always sums it up the same way whenever we find we’re still here, not in Austin: “What do we need SXSW for when we’ve got Coachella?”

Especially now that Coachella boasts more than 100 acts over three days, a high percentage of which just played SXSW. OK, so maybe I didn’t pick up on the latest Blender or Pitchfork surprise, and maybe that puts me a few steps behind the hipper set.

Honestly, my head is so swamped with things to do right now—what with my wedding this month on top of two fests and the Killers and Muse this week—I hardly care.

I do get frustrated, though. There’s always too much for one pair of ears to keep up with in this biz, anyway, but in other years—weaker years—I can overlook that, trust that good music will find me, or vice versa.

However, when it just turned April and it already feels like one of the best years for music in a long while, with only more greatness looming—amazing new Wilco next month! (if you haven’t already found it)—well, my head tends to do Linda Blair spins out of anxiety.

I’m talking the complete spectrum of music here—the Coachella spectrum, if you will—not the mainstream. Any year that in a mere three months can deliver so much endlessly listenable stuff—so far including Amy Winehouse, LCD Soundsystem, Lily Allen and the Good, the Bad & the Queen—plus a few puzzles worth solving (Arcade Fire is, as expected, growing on me), well, that’s a year to lap up as much as possible, as eagerly as a kid turned loose in a Baskin-Robbins.

And, see, all of those acts I just named are at Coachella, as are dozens more I’m just discovering or getting reacquainted with. I just met a whole new Kings of Leon, for instance—not literally, of course, but you tell me if the Followill family isn’t trying to sound like an entirely different band on “Because of the Times.”

Seems like it’s leaving critics in a fuzz, by the way. Seen the latest Dischord column in the new Paste, in which two of the mag’s scribes square off on the debatable merits of a new platter? One side: “Rock Royalty.” The other: “Royally ...,” well, my editors always ask me not to use that word in print, even though your 6-year-old just said it about his brother.

I lean toward the positive, though the first play stumped me. At first it sounded like the Kings trying too hard to mature, to make a My Morning Jacket record, or an Arcade Fire or Wilco for that matter—heavy on murky mood and abstract street-prophet religiosity, light on instantly appealing hooks. Then the rolling thunder of “Black Thumbnail” hit me, and harder than Wolfmother covering the Raconteurs—and I realized the Followills are onto something potentially spectacular with this sonic shift.

Whether it fully pays off or not I expect to find out in Indio, where I’ll also learn if the new Fountains of Wayne album is better than I’d state right now. Another four years, another power-pop delight from the Jersey boys, but this one’s a letdown after the unerring wit and melodic delight of “Welcome Interstate Managers.” Half are automatic keepers: “This Better Be Good” is harmonic bliss, “Revolving Dora” is better than its pun, the title track is a grabber and I’m a sucker for “Planet of Weed.” The other half so far seems second-rate: too-clever lyrics, lazy rhymes (lazy for these masters, anyway) and scenarios that speak to little beyond the everyday details they describe.

About Ozomatli right now I have less interest, or concern for its continued local popularity. “Don’t Mess With the Dragon,” which arrived last week, is much too slick for my liking; sounds mostly like the Black Eyed Peas grew chops, and I prefer the airtight but raw Ozomatli that turns up at gigs. The multi-culti troupe will be nothing but fun in the scorching heat, but it took everything in me to get through its latest rehash. Time for a Buena Vista-ish stab at unfettered authenticity, guys.

That said, such disappointments are the exception, not the rule. I’m having fresh eargasms just about every other day lately. I can’t help myself getting a kick out of “Living in Cartoon Motion,” the debut from the Beirut-born, Paris-raised, London-based man called Mika, who worships Freddie Mercury with the panache of Scissor Sisters and, when he’s on, the vocal gymnastics and skyscraping of Robbie Williams and the Darkness’ Justin Hawkins.

New discs from Klaxons and Andrew Bird are still sinking into my psyche, but I’m already in love with the seizing fun of the Fratellis and Pop Levi. The former is a scruffy, scrappy UK trio whose pop-craft reminds me of the La’s but whose energy is drawn from the Libertines/Kaiser Chiefs/Arctic Monkeys pool. Like a nuttier, rawer Kooks. Levi, on the other hand, is a total kook, one whose souped-up rock `n’ roll (gleefully introduced on “The Return to Form Black Magick Party”) is five parts T. Rex to every one part of Robert Plant in his Zep days and Syd Barrett.

I could go on like this, but the litany of new titles I’m just getting to—from Sparklehorse, Stephen Marley, !!! (that’s chk-chk-chk to you and me) Busdriver, the Avett Bros., the Frames, the Nightwatchman, the new Placebo (finally) and on and on and on—well, they only prove my two overriding points:

1) Sure, other festivals are every bit as swell, and swelled with superb finds. But why bother going when I’ve got Coachella?

2) With so many more acts to at least scan before I leave for a honeymoon and then Coachella and then Stagecoach, will I ever be ready?

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