Coachella 2009: A Musical Oasis
This year the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival celebrated ten years of rockin’ in the So Cal desert. Unless you’ve been there, the locale may seem like an abstract detail—another dot on the map. Coachella’s domain, however, is integral to the experience of it. The territory it inhabits renders it a simultaneously brutal endurance test and a bizarrely dislocated cultural event. (The former will come to bear later on.) As to the latter, what I mean is that a music fest like Coachella, with its emphasis on indie rock and electronica, is entirely alien to the community in which it takes place.
Coachella itself happens at the Empire Polo Fields in Indio, California, a town that is essentially a suburb of Palm Springs. Frankly, it’s amazing that there are blades of grass in this arid environ that aren’t dedicated to the game of golf, because that’s apparently all anyone does here. That, and live in pristine condo communities and drive high-end automobiles to strip malls. The median age is ten years older than the rest of the United States, and even that profound statistic belies casual observation. These silver-haired folks don’t listen to the vast majority of the music being played at Coachella. In fact (and I do believe this to be factual), no one in the greater Palm Springs area has ever heard a note of music recorded after 1982. Four radio presets in my rental car are programmed for different oldies stations, because that’s the only viable format offered. So, when tens of thousands of mostly 20-something music obsessives descend upon the happily heat-stroked populace of the Coachella Valley, it must seem like a plague of locusts. These creatures do nothing but buzz and devour until the wee hours of the morning for three consecutive nights.
For the festivalgoers, of course, the focus is on the music and the partying. They don’t care much about what happens beyond the Polo grounds. This is especially true for the many devotees who put up stakes in the Coachella campground each year. For these people, coming here is a pilgrimage. They plan it months in advance, prowling the Coachella message boards and starting up threads like “The Official Party All Weekend Camping Group.” While these revelers remain close to the action, a great many others flock to the area’s motels, hotels, and rooms for rent. Trust me when I tell you that, even a month in advance, the only area lodging to be had is some 45 minutes from the Coachella grounds. Hello, Banning!
After driving in on I-10, with its barren landscape of hard dirt, wind turbines, and cheesy billboards, comes the slow crawl through Indio and into one of many parking lots surrounding the Polo Fields. Forget which one you park in, and suffer mightily come midnight. After lines of cars come lines of humans, already gleaming in the ninety-degree heat. Bags, packs, and purses are inspected, but the emptying of pockets and not-so-frisky frisking of years past has been abandoned. This greatly facilitates in the importing of contraband, which is prevalent. All of this driving and trudging and queuing is more than worth it. This is apparent as soon as you step inside the festival grounds. Coachella is a music lover’s nirvana, exuding promise and energy and glorious sonic fun. And beer. Get your drinky-drinky wristbands early; by late afternoon, the lines are nearly as long as those for the port-a-potties.
Also, do take one of the handy little fliers that includes a map of the grounds and a schedule of set times. Coachella has five stages, and there’s often music happening on all of them simultaneously. Set against the northern edge of the Polo Grounds, the main open-air stage greets festivalgoers as they enter. It is monstrously huge and cleverly named the Coachella Stage. On the other side of a food and beer area—and tucked into the northeast corner of the grounds—is a mid-sized outdoor stage, which is even more cleverly dubbed the Outdoor Theatre (the European spelling of which lends a silly air of pomposity to a very unpretentious setup; especially when viewed as a header above no-nonsense acts like Drive-By Truckers and Public Enemy).
The three other stages are all housed in identical large white tents, each of which is christened after one of the world’s great deserts. This trio of musical oases are aligned along the eastern border of the grounds and, fortunately, run in alphabetical order from north to south: Gobi, Mojave, and Sahara. The latter is almost entirely devoted to DJ and electronica acts, so you happy hardcore ravers can just head straight there, ingest the recommended dosage of hallucinogens, and move your body to the beat all the live long day.
For those armed with iPhones and iPod Touches, this year sees the birth of the Coachooser app. This free and nifty program essentially replaces the paper schedule and includes an interactive map that displays your location, as well as the coordinates of your buddies from the message boards. Also, if you happen to be writing an article about Coachella—or simply generate many Very Important Thoughts that need to be documented on the fly—then Simplenote is a handy and inexpensive text application. It presents a very tidy interface and the app automatically uploads all your notes to your website account each time your iPhone manages to find a Wi-Fi signal. l end up pecking into my Touch a large portion of the verbiage to come.
Friday, April 17th
The Hold Steady
There’s no such thing as a bad, or even a mediocre, Hold Steady show. Even in the early afternoon, inside the muggy confines of the Mojave Tent, these five Midwestern guys exude the same energy and joie de vivre that they do when headlining a bigger, air-conditioned hall at an hour more conducive to the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Despite being limited to a mere 50 minutes, The Hold Steady squeeze in most of their best songs, from Almost Killed Me‘s “The Swish” to last year’s “Sequestered in Memphis”, with second and third album favorites “Little Hoodrat Friend” and “Chips Ahoy” worked in, as well. It’s a shame they weren’t booked at the Outdoor, a stage which is more commiserate with the size of venues they regularly play these days. Regardless, the Hold Steady rock the house… er, tent.
Early evening is the perfect time to play the Coachella Stage. With the dipping of the sun, the heat is beginning to subside, but the day-lit air maintains the vibrant and open atmosphere that makes an outdoor music festival feel like a turbo-charged day at the park—exhilarating and relaxing all at the same time. A good mood permeates the grounds as Franz Ferdinand stroll out onto the stage. The usually natty and well-coiffed Alex Kapranos is surprisingly unkempt, dressed in a T-shirt and sporting a near-beard and bed-head hair that looks like he really did just roll out of his bunk on the tour bus. Appearance aside, he and the rest of the Glaswegian quartet are in fine spirits, which they channel into on one of their better shows. The band stick mostly to the hits—“Take Me Out”, in particular, induces much ecstatic dancing and shout-alongs. Franz finish with perennial closer “Outsiders”, with its always-entertaining shtick of all available hands crowding around the drum set and banging along with Paul Thompson’s rolling tom beat.
Atypically, the Coachella Stage is left vacant for an entire hour, meaning Leonard Cohen’s set at the Outdoor Theatre is free from the usual cross-programming pulse of sound that emanates from the billion watts of amplification and across the grounds. The reason for this becomes apparent as soon as Cohen and his band start playing. Even at the outside edge of the very crowded photo pit, directly in front of a massage stack of speaker cabinets, earplugs are totally unnecessary.
After three songs (and one barely worthwhile picture snapped by means of gymnastics and an ounce of luck), we are all booted out. Now 50 yards from the stage, the volume is so tame that I can easily hear the conversation next to me, during which it’s speculated that Cohen is singing along to a pre-recorded backing track. This is almost certainly untrue, but the basis for the observation is right on. While the performance isn’t exactly flat, it is pretty smooth. Coupled with the scarcity of decibels, it would be easy to shut your eyes and believe you’re sitting in your living room, listening to the new live Leonard Cohen CD.
Over the next two days, I will hear accounts from devotees who’d managed a close-in, central spot, and they will unanimously declare Cohen’s show among the weekend’s best. This goes to prove that no two Coachella experiences are alike, even of the same show.
Night has fallen at the polo grounds, lending extra drama (or, in this case, melodrama) to the Coachella Stage’s Friday night sub-headliner. The ex-Smiths singer has the audience enthralled, but Morrissey is clearly peeved by some feedback in his earphone. He keeps wincing and emitting glottal grunts. Not that this is wholly out of the ordinary. These are sounds he’s purposely produced on record many times. Mozzer seems intent on transmuting his pissy-ness into occasional anti-meat invectives. He professes the ability to smell the cooking of animal flesh from his stage-top perch. While I won’t discount his claim outright, the nearest grilling of meat (i.e., murder) is easily some 200 yards away from Morrissey’s nose. Also, it’s difficult to imagine being able to smell anything but body odor and the ever-wafting fumes of burning pot. Morrissey also indulges in great quantities of microphone cable abuse, as he whips his cord around like a surly cowpoke unable able to rope his steer.
The man’s sour demeanor is matched by a generally moody setlist. There is little of Years of Refusal‘s extroverted anger; instead, tonight, Morrissey broods through songs like “Seasick, Yet Still Docked” (Your Arsenal‘s mopeyest cut) and new numbers, “When Last I Spoke to Carol” and “Black Cloud”. The Smiths tunes peppered through the set elevate the mood, as the crowd joins in on “Girlfriend in a Coma”, “This Charming Man”, “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”, and an appropriately seething rendition of “How Soon Is Now?” to close the show. At that moment, Morrissey’s bottled-up frustration fits the moment just right.
On the Coachella boards, the anticipation level for McCartney’s slot ran surprisingly high. Not that he’s undeserving, mind you. But, for the younger attendees, Macca is their grandparents’ music. That just goes to prove the lasting vitality of rock music. Twenty years ago, few young Gen Xers would have been excited to see, say, Dizzy Gillespie. The Beatles, of course, remain highly relevant today. All lines through guitar-based pop/rock intersect at the Fab Four. So, here we are, in copious amounts. Humans are pressed tightly together, which helps offset the chill in the desert’s night air. All varieties of the world’s peoples are here, from young Latinos to white Boomers. Everyone buzzes with excitement, as we watch the roadies hoist McCartney’s own lighting rig up into the stratospheric realms of the Coachella Stage’s exoskeleton. It’s hard to believe that the house lighting isn’t adequate.
It is rare for a Coachella show to begin late, but that is what’s happening here. Ten PM comes and goes, and we audience members—rendered immobile by our proximity to one another —begin to slip into the seven stages of pre-gig grief: Fatigue, giddiness, texting, anxiety, contact highs, leg cramps, and grand delusions of taking the road crew manager hostage and demanding that the show start “right now, goddamnit!”
Of course, the show does eventually start. A spry and still impish Paul McCartney saunters on stage with backing band in tow and performs a funny little pantomime about wondering why there are so many thousands of people smiling and staring up at him. Then, once he remembers that he’s quite possibly the world’s most famous living musician, he and his five mates launch into “Jet”, a power pop hit from his Wings years. Plucking away at his iconic, Hoffner bass, McCartney is in a rock ‘n’ roll mood. This becomes more apparent when he switches over to a red guitar adorned with leaping bodies painted in primary colors. He even rips into an abbreviated instrumental version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady”, taking the solo himself. Next, of course, comes the piano segment, and “The Long and Winding Road”.
It’s a grand and pretty song, but it has been a long and tiring (if not exactly winding) day, and my earlier leg cramp has endured. Risking sacrilege, I slowly begin picking my way back out through the seemingly endless crowd, eventually catching a small train of other cold and weary sojourners who have gotten their taste of a pop music legend and are now retiring for the night. Do I feel even more sacrilegious when Paul announces, to my retreating backside, that this day marks the 11th anniversary of Linda McCartney’s death? Yes I do. Nonetheless, pacing is the key to maximizing the Coachella experience, and this is only day one. Had I stayed, another 25 songs would have awaited me, 18 of them Beatles tunes. Alas.
Saturday, April 18th
These days, Bob Mould looks more like a history professor on casual Friday than a rock star, but that hasn’t slowed him down one bit. Just a year after District Line, he has issued another album of all-new material, Life and Times. The record incorporates the many phases of Mould over his 20-year solo career, but this show in the Gobi is pure grunge-era power pop. In other words—and to no one’s disappointment—every song sounds like Sugar. Now, that’s a good idea.
Led by George Harrison’s son, Dhani, Thenewno2 are a UK quintet who play warm and spacey dream pop somewhere just north of shoegaze on the catchiness scale. They are joined at the Gobi by a comely singer named Antonia, whose high backing vocals and lazy hip sways add to the band’s allure. Thenewno2 are at their best when soundtracking a hazy afternoon. When they crank up the shimmering fuzz, it becomes a bit too apparent that they’re leagues away from My Bloody Valentine.
Back at the Mojave, Portland’s Blitzen Trapper work through a very fine set of indie rock infused with the spirit of the Band. It’s a little annoying to see two singers from a West Coast metropolis so blatantly copping Bob Dylan’s drawl, but these guys so adeptly kick out the close harmonies that all is quickly forgiven.
One of the best indie rock bands of the ‘90s, Superchunk mostly faded away in the new millennium, allowing leader Mac McCaughan to concentrate more on running Merge Records. Happily, the band is back with a solid new EP, Leaves in the Gutter. They’re also playing right now at the Outdoor Theatre, knocking out one catchy, riff-filled and fuzz-toned tune after the other. Hopefully, this is the kind of show that will induce today’s casually interested attendees to check out Superchunk’s great back catalog.
TV on the Radio
Though several rungs down from The Killers’ headlining slot, TV on the Radio have drawn a sizable crowd to the Coachella Stage. Musical mastermind Dave Sitek hides behind horn-rimmed specs and a trio of horn players, while twin vocalists Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone stand at the fore, trading leads and singing together. Now with three albums under their indie rock belts, TVotR pack nothing but great songs into their 50-minute set. These guys deserve better billing.
At this point, the wise move would be to catch Fleet Foxes at the Outdoor. The following day, the one-word review most often used to describe that band’s performance is “amazing.” Although it smarts to hear about great gigs after the fact, the grind of shuffling from one stage to the next is fatiguing. Sometimes, the best is to plop down on some unoccupied square of lawn and casually enjoy whatever act is playing on the main stage. If this happens to be Thievery Corporation, well, that hardly sucks. By the way, watching the sun seep into the horizon makes for a great video accompaniment to “The Heart’s a Lonely Hunter”.
Something just seems wrong here. Sri-Lankan-cum-British rapper M.I.A.‘s set starts promisingly, with glow-in-the-dark dancers and a confident strut from the star. Then the show gradually unravels. Maya Arulpragasam wanders, my stomach growls, she babbles, I fall back from the crowd and trudge toward the pizza stand. Now she’s poking fun at Coachella pullout Amy Winehouse (by saying “no, no, no” to playing the Oscars), but still isn’t doing much to captivate the crowd. For sure, repeating the same synth sample and bugle blast over and over isn’t helping. In fact, this car alarm-like mantra is only driving me further and further away.
Former child actor, half-time Rilo Kiley band member, and sophomore solo recording artist Jenny Lewis is doing a much better job at winning and keeping her Outdoor Theatre audience. Though the last two albums she’s made—Rilo Kiley’s Under the Blacklight (2007) and her own Acid Tongue (2008)—were uneven efforts, the songs from those LPs are hitting the sweet spot tonight. Lewis also plays a few tracks from her excellent 2006 debut, Rabbit Fur Coat. The evening’s standout song is the title track from Acid Tongue. She’s joined by a choir of friends and fellow musicians from backstage, who sing beautiful harmonies and transform the refrain’s simple rhymes into gospel poetry: “liar”, “fire”, “tired”. The person standing next to me is dead right when he says, “Now that was a Coachella moment.” It proves so deeply satisfying that I don’t bother indulging my curiosity over The Killers. Somehow, I think they’ll get along fine without me.
Sunday April 19th
Live, Vivian Girls sound exactly as they do on record, which means the band lies closer to The Shaggs than The Go-Go’s on the girl-band proficiency continuum. At an early afternoon gig in the Mojave, the three ladies chug away on bass, guitar, and drums, as they sing and shout along. They are for lovers of K Records style DIY pop—audiophiles and serious instrumentalists should probably just keep moving along. Fans of unpolished exuberance, step inside.
The main stage is a fun zone to occupy early in the day, especially when a retro hip-hop act like The Knux are proffering beats and floating rhymes. The vibe is mellow and buoyant, especially compared to the frenetic energy that occurs nightly on the same terra firma during the headlining acts’ shows. If these guys truly do represent the coming trend in hip-hop, it is a welcome one, indeed.
It’s now mid-afternoon at the Coachella Stage, and Okkervil River conjure the perfect atmosphere ‘neath this fierce and fearsome heat. Their Americana-rich indie rock swells sweetly into the air and across the shiny, panting crowd. There’s something about trumpet, banjo, and strummy acoustic guitar that invites cooling breezes. As lead singer Will Sheff invokes the Beach Boys in “John Allyn Smith Sails”, the barometer seems more Pacific and less like the circa-100 degrees projected for Indio today.
Swedish electro-pop artist singer Lykke Li must be feeling out of her element. The Outdoor Stage’s southern exposure has turned this environ into a pizza oven. However, her twinkling tones and cooing vocals usher in a smidgeon of her temperate homeland. Lykke’s got a full band with her—drums, guitar/bass, and synths. She also has own crash cymbal, which she loves to bang away on. I’ll admit, I expected a more timid persona. This woman is kinda wild, and the hooting crowd totally digs it. Li pumps a lot of energy into her tunes, most of which come from 2008’s delightful Youth Novels, her debut. Amidst the spry pop songs, she devotes a bluesy, Nina Simone-like number to all the females who’ve ever had a bad lover (there are lots of cheers to this). Feisty and captivating, Lykke Li is one of the weekend’s best acts.
Antony and the Johnsons
Antony and the Johnsons
Antony Hagerty and his band, the Johnsons—a string trio, acoustic guitar, and a guy handling keys and electronics—make even less sense on the pre-nocturnal Outdoor Stage. Despite which, great music transcends its spatial realm. Hagerty’s gothic chamber pop does this. His warbling, operatic tenor is transportive, as he mixes in cuts from his three Johnsons albums with some synthed-out tracks from his many side projects and guest appearances.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
The latest album from Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz!, is a smoothed-out, synth-heavy platter that seems to indicate an intriguing new direction for a band that got its start dishing out spiky punk-pop. Well, here on the Coachella Stage, in front of palm trees and hills turned pink by the setting sun, Yeah Yeah Yeahs prove that they haven’t given up the grit altogether. The first half-dozen songs buzz with guitars and the sharp enthusiasm of the early aughts post-punk revival. Later in the set, Karen O and Co. cool their jets with some newer tunes, but Nick Zinner continues to grind on his guitar; the effects are just a bit wetter, is all. Of course, a YYYs gig wouldn’t be complete without the lovely and levitating “Maps”. Though I thought Ms. O just said it would be the final song, the band follow with two more: New album highlight “Heads Will Roll” and Fever to Tell classic “Y Control”. Perfect.
My Bloody Valentine
Although they’ve played a few shows in recent times, it’s still a rare treat to see the reunited kings and queens of shoegaze. Under cloak of night, the foursome take the main stage, and it remains dimly lit throughout the set, with the band bathed alternately in eerie blue and creepy crimson. This suits a group who’ve set the tone for so many after-hours hangout sessions illuminated only by lava lamps and the sparking of bongs.
My Bloody Valentine funnel us back into 1991, when their shows were legendary for their bruising loudness. Tonight, the Coachella Stage’s ample sound system allows the band to pummel the wall of people standing before them. The vocals—handled by Bilinda Butcher and Kevin Shields –—are as soft and sleepy as ever, while Debbie Googe’s bass and Colm Ó Cíosióg’s kick drum act like crashing tectonic plates. The fault line runs through the body cavities of everyone within two hundred yards of the stage. Lest you survive the internal hemorrhaging, Shields and Butcher’s warbling guitars will do their best to rupture your eardrums. Is it masochistic to encourage this sonic mutilation? Yeah, but we cheer all the same. And what is our reward? A 15-minute finale of pure noise, courtesy of twin buzz saw guitars, jackhammering bass, and the relentless abusing of drums. Whew!
There’s just enough time between sets for everyone to regain their equilibrium and to work up a froth of excitement for The Cure. After taking the stage, Robert Smith and his bandmates spend the first set volleying back and forth between songs from their recent pair of albums and instantly recognizable hits and album tracks from their most commercially (and, arguably, artistically) successful era: 1985-1992. By the second encore, the band are breaking the midnight curfew while dipping into early ‘80s material. For the third encore, The Cure take it all the way back to 1979 and their first, poppy, post-punk ditties. Festival management aids this time warp by shutting down the PA system during “Boys Don’t Cry”, leaving the band alone with their amps, just like in the early days of playing the UK club scene.
This nostalgic moment seems oddly well suited to a weekend where so many acts are either past their heyday (Paul McCartney, The Cure, Public Enemy) or relying solely on reviving the music from another era (My Bloody Valentine, Throbbing Gristle). Of course, there are also plenty of bands who are still radioactive on the blogosphere (Los Campesinos!, Fleet Foxes), as well as the biggest alt-radio acts of the aughts (The Killers, TV on the Radio, Franz Ferdinand). There is something for everyone at Coachella, and seemingly everyone was here. Despite the recession, the festival has drawn 160,000 folks, beating out last year and coming in second only to 2007. Back in 1999, bringing a bunch of alternative acts to a big patch of lawn in the middle of a retirement community must have seemed like a crazy idea. Tonight, as we all drag our tired bodies away from the grounds, the brilliance of Coachella shines on.