Guns N’ Roses Crush Coachella to Reclaim Rock Crown

Coachella means different things to different people, but that’s only natural for what’s become the biggest music festival in the United States. Now occupying back-to-back April weekends with almost 100,000 attendees each weekend, the festival has become a massive enterprise. To some hipsters, it may be the most important music event of the year. To some anti-hipsters, the festival represents an overly-commercialized cash grab. But while Coachella is not without some indicators toward the latter, there’s quite a musical adventure to be had out in the Southern California desert.

“The idea of the festival is pretty insane. Drive hours into a very hot part of California and spend three days trying to avoid having your skin destroyed by the sun as you enjoy some of the most popular bands of your lifetime,” famed punk rocker Henry Rollins wrote of Coachella in a recent column for LA Weekly in which he simultaneously hailed the cultural value of music festivals in general while also thanking Coachella for temporarily aiding LA’s overpopulation problem. The heat, sun, wind and occasional dust storm are obstacles that must be strategized for, but battling the elements is part of what makes Coachella an adventure than a typical festival.

The elements aren’t too bad for the most part on this year’s second weekend though. A Friday afternoon windstorm destroyed a number of campers’ pop-up tents, but the temperatures aren’t too sweltering and festival paradise is readily obtainable. Of course one’s mileage may vary depending on affinity for the overall lineup, as with any festival. Coachella has come to lean heavily toward the electronic dance music realm, but there’s still enough rock, not to mention some jazz and hip hop, to make for a diverse lineup.

This year’s Coachella has a particularly significant draw for the rock ‘n’ roll crowd thanks to the long-awaited Guns N’ Roses reunion that unites mercurial singer Axl Rose and enigmatic guitarist Slash onstage together this spring for the first time in 23 years. For many fans, that’s all it took to make Coachella the must-see music event of the spring. For others, GNR is just a sideshow to the electronic dance party. But that’s part of what gives Coachella such a broad appeal — it’s a choose your own adventure story.

Many fans arrive on Thursday night so they can be ready to go when the music starts at noon on Friday, but any such large event will inevitably have stragglers who can’t help but arrive late for a variety of reasons. Those whose arrival at the festival campground was delayed until the sun was setting on Friday not only missed The Kills, they also had to deal with the indignity of being informed that the campground had basically reached capacity. Thus a long day of travel got longer as a line of cars were forced to keep waiting while a single festival employee drove around in the dark trying to find spots. This is where Coachella management warrants some criticism since they surely know how many spaces are available in the campground versus how many camping tickets they’re selling. Confiscating metal tent stakes because they could theoretically be used as a weapon also seems incredulous to some attendees, but this is apparently the price that must be paid for holding a large-scale festival in Southern California (plastic stakes could be purchased at the festival’s general store.)

But once a person is finally parked and settled, the festival is actually run fairly well, save for the puzzling necessity of beer gardens. One can only surmise that the large crowd is considered too potentially unruly to be trusted to get their drink on at the actual stage areas? It does however force one to be more strategic about drinking, and with the long hours in the hot desert sun, perhaps helps avoid a potential wave of passouts by rookies who don’t know how to handle their business. Phish fans on the other hand had no such problems when the Vermont jamband played the Coachella site for their Festival 8 event over Halloween weekend in 2009. Fans were allowed to drink wherever, though Phish admittedly draws a counterculture crowd of party professionals who could teach mainstream crowds a few things on how to do a festival the right way.

Friday night headliners LCD Soundsystem know how to handle their business, back on the festival circuit after a five year retirement and throwing down hot dance grooves like they never left. Unlike many electronic-oriented dance music acts, ringleader James Murphy and his cohorts bring an entire band to the stage and infuse their music with an organic quality that so many EDM acts lack. The set is highlighted by an incendiary “Losing My Edge”, with Murphy rapping about how hip he used to be. Far from losing it, the band rocks out on a sharp groove that keeps getting deeper with polyrhythmic percussion and psychedelic synths that have the crowd falling into one of those great collective trance dance grooves. LCD sounds like a modern-day version of the Talking Heads here and there’s few bands who can pull that off.

The festival grounds also score highly with the gorgeous Indio setting, including a dazzling array of custom-made art installations surrounded by the mountains, palm trees and lush psychedelic lighting. There’s no doubt this is one of the great festival sites in America.

Saturday – The Rock ‘N’ Roll Crowd Takes Coachella

The Saturday lineup has the most rock bands in the mix, making this the big day for the rock ‘n’ roll crowd. Some people say it’s not cool to wear the shirt of the band you’re going to see, but don’t tell that to the legion of fans sporting GNR shirts all over the grounds. Tonight will be the band’s seventh show since the reunion launched with an April 1 stealth gig at the Troubadour in LA, followed by two shows in Vegas, last weekend’s Coachella show and then two in Mexico City. But for most fans, this will be their first time seeing Slash and Axl and Duff McKagan together in 23 years or ever. It’s a long awaited event and the fanbase isn’t shy about being incredibly psyched for it.

GoGo Penguin kicks things off at the Gobi Tent in the 1 pm hour with a set that gets the good vibes flowing with a jazzy rock flavor that’s perfect for starting the day. The piano/bass/keyboard trio shares a sonic profile with Medeski, Martin and Wood but bring a sound that’s a little more melodic. The Do LaB provides a unique smaller stage where fans can find some shade, block-rocking beats and eye candy with an elaborate psychedelic setting. This is a great spot to hang whether one wants to chill or keep dancing. Run by the team behind the Lighting in a Bottle Festival, the Do LaB brings that vibe with lots of fun-loving party people, not to mention beautiful women too numerous to count. There were also hose blasters from the main stage and misters all around, making the Do LaB one of the best places at Coachella to cool off.

Moon Taxi gets the main stage rocking in the 2:30 slot with a high energy set that draws a decent crowd. There’s no shade to be had but the temperature is only in the high 80s and doesn’t seem so wicked, especially with these Nashville rockers cranking out guitar rock. The band closes their set with a blazing rendition of Rage Against the Machine’s “Sleep Now in the Fire”, in tribute since Rage headlined the first Coachella in 1999. It’s a surprising left-field bustout but Moon Taxi proves worthy as they throw down the first big headbanging jam of the day.

Gary Clark Jr. follows on the main stage and turns the heat up another notch with a smoking set that clearly makes a deep impression on those catching his live set for the first time. You can hear his stylistic diversity on his records, but Clark’s higher level guitar skills must be experienced live to gain full appreciation of what a talent he is. There are several bluesy jams that recall the power of Jimi Hendrix’ Band of Gypsys, with air guitar fans tearing it up. Then there’s some funk and rhythm and blues material that demonstrates how Clark is more than just the latest blues prodigy from Austin, Texas. Like his hometown music scene, Clark dabbles in an eclectic array of genres and it’s not hard to see why he was tabbed to open for and jam with the Rolling Stones last year.

After a hot set like that, nothing hits the spot like a cold beer. Most of the beer gardens however sell only corporate swill like Heineken, Dos Equis or the drinkable but overly ubiquitous Lagunitas IPA. This is a shame since the nearby Coachella Valley Brewing Company could easily provide local sourcing for all or at least most of the festival’s beer needs. But Coachella at least provides the Beer Barn, where fans can get a variety of craft beers and enjoy some shade while charging their phones. One bar serves a wide variety of craft styles for $11, not bad for concert standards. Then there’s also the Rare Beer Bar. The 7 oz pours for $13 aren’t a great value, but the bar lives up to its name with hard to find barrel-aged sours, Belgian ales and the like that make quite an eclectic selection. You’re not gonna drink many of these, but one of them might go perfectly with the lemongrass chicken and garlic noodles you’re buying right next door.

Over at the Mojave Tent, Atlanta indie rockers Deerhunter deliver a vibrant set that mixes up post-punk alt-rock with psychedelic art rock for one of the weekend’s most unique sonic flavors. The band sounds a bit like Pavement at times, but with perhaps a more eclectic stew of influences. This is also where the Here Active Listening System earbuds come in quite useful. Across between earplugs and in-ear monitors, these earbuds are used in conjunction with the Here app on your cell phone that enables one to adjust the real time mix of the band. Want to hear more of the keyboardist or sax player? Just raise the mids on the app’s equalizer. Want more high-end guitar and less bass for a crisper mix? As simple as adjusting the equalizer again. The app didn’t seem to work so great toward the end of LCD Soundsystem’s set at the main stage, but here at a smaller stage with a more confined sound, they work like a charm. The fact that you have to use them with your phone might not be ideal in the festival setting with concern about one’s phone going dead from being used all day, but the Here system seems like a great 21st century technological development for clubgoing audiophiles.

Back out at the main stage, Chvrches deliver one of Coachella’s most triumphant sets in the 6 pm hour. Charismatic singer Lauren Mayberry and her Scottish synthpop group draw a massive throng for their high energy set of hooky tunes that have the ladies dancing and singing along like this is the main headliner. It’s hard not to be seduced by Mayberry’s good vibes and the band’s infectious sound, even if you favor guitars and wonder if this band even has a guitarist. It’s synthpop done right with melodies that hit the heart chakra, pulsing beats and an adorable singer with a great voice who seems like she’s connected to some kind of higher power. Mayberry sports some silver sparkle makeup around one eye that makes her look related to Jeri Ryan’s Seven of Nine character from Star Trek: Voyager and it’s not hard to imagine her touring the galaxy playing benefit concerts for peace and justice on distant worlds. She’s even an ardent fan of Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now news program.

“In a time where it seems increasingly hard to find honest, impartial and responsible reporting in the media, this show is a ray of light and I can’t recommend it enough,” Mayberry says of Democracy Now in a recent Instagram post. This is what the pop music world needs more of, artists who are out to help their fans cut through the pervasive propaganda of the corrupt mainstream media matrix. The fact that Mayberry possesses a master’s degree in journalism explains a lot here, making her a rare breed in the modern music scene.

Then it’s right over to the adjacent Outdoor Theater for Australian rocker Courtney Barnett, who brings a guitar-driven garage rock sound that is a stark contrast to Chvrches. Barnett has been all over rock radio for the past year, but she doesn’t draw even close to as big a crowd as Chvrches. Things start to feel a bit weird because the effervescent vibe from Chvrches’ triumphant set actually makes it hard to switch gears here. Maybe it was just that point in the day where one needs to sit down and rest. But then Barnett and her band tap into the zeitgeist with her hit song “Depreston”. It’s a laid-back bluesy number, but it’s got a melodic soul-soothing hook that’s just what the doctor ordered for the weary festival-goer as twilight arrives and a cool breeze blows in from the scenic mountain landscape.

Hip-hop icon Ice Cube draws a massive crowd to the main stage for his 9 pm set and it’s easy to see, even from a distance, what an impactful set he’s throwing down. He’s got a funkier sound going than one might expect and there’s a major party going on that even has passersby dancing across the back of the field area. It’s tempting to blow off the Silversun Pickups and upon later hearing about the special guests and the “California Love”, hindsight becomes 20/20. But if you’re gearing up for GNR, then maybe you want to see some guitar-driven rock in the warm-up slot. This is what the Pickups deliver at the Mojave Tent, throwing down their grungy, psychedelic alt-rock tunes to a truly adoring audience. The band is in high and playful spirits, with singer/guitarist Brian Aubert assuring the internet audience that GNR will be coming up soon. When they end their set with breakthrough hit “Lazy Eye”, the jubilant crowd claps along in another triumphant Coachella moment. When Aubert sings, “I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life”, it feels like the perfect pre-GNR song because it seems like a lifetime since Axl and Slash last toured together.

The Triumphant Return of Guns N’ Roses

When Guns N’ Roses hit the main stage just four minutes past their scheduled 10:30 pm start time with “It’s So Easy”, it’s like setting the flux capacitor for 1993. Slash is soon melting face on the groovy guitar solo to “Mr. Brownstone” and it’s plainly apparent that one of the greatest rock guitarists of all-time is at his best when he’s sharing the stage with Axl Rose and Duff McKagan. Axl may look a little worse for wear and tear at age 54 and it’s a damn shame it took so long to thaw the ice of modern rock’s longest running estrangement. But hey, we’re lucky these guys are even still alive as they each suffered near-death experiences during the band’s original run. “What a beautiful night, with 90,000 friends”, Axl observes sincerely before tearing through “Welcome to the Jungle”. It’s readily apparent that the legendary musical synergy between Slash, Axl and Duff is still in tact and then some. There’s a stupid number of people holding up their cellphones to record it, but the crowd is loving every minute. When Axl shouts “I wanna hear you fucking scream”, the throng responds with one of the great howls of recent concert memory.

Axl’s comment about the beautiful evening is downright refreshing, because what the world needs now is a kinder, gentler Guns N’ Roses. This is not to say a softer GNR, just one that recognizes this summer tour’s special opportunity to reclaim the band’s immense legacy. Axl seems like he’s taken such matters into account, ready to deliver the goods with no drama. It’s too bad original rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin apparently wasn’t interested in being involved with this historic reunion, but his presence is still felt as the band absolutely crushes his incendiary rocker “Double Talkin’ Jive”. Duff and drummer Frank Ferrer hammer home a furious groove while Slash and guitarist Richard Fortus slay the song’s molten hot riffage as Axl delivers one of his most menacing vocals. GNR is a genuine force to be reckoned with here, making Slash’s bluesy outro solo all the sweeter. And then how many bands can shift gears from such an aggressive rocker right into an epic heartfelt power ballad like “Estranged” and pull off both flawlessly? Not many!

It’s a little strange seeing Axl confined to Dave Grohl’s rock throne, on loan since Axl broke a bone in his foot at GNR’s April 1 warm-up gig at the Troubadour. But he makes the best of it,, delivering some wickedly deep screams during “Live and Let Die” that he attributes to only being possible due to being seated. Is there a little nostalgia involved for Gen-X fans in the house? Of course. But to witness the rock heroes of your youth delivering that powerful music again at full throttle fury is truly something to behold. There’s a rejuvenating energy which can overcome the soul and truly make one feel 25 years younger. And then there’s the tunes. GNR wrote great songs and they continue to resonate with a timeless quality.

It may seem strange to recall the Grateful Dead lyric “Strangers stopping strangers just to shake their hand” from the classic “Scarlet Begonias” during a GNR show, but this is the vibe as strangers rock out with strangers and exchange air guitar riffs and high-fives during classic tunes like “Rocket Queen” and “You Could Be Mine”. GNR unites like-minded rock ‘n’ rollers in a special way. When the band throws down “Coma”, the epic Use Your Illusion I closer about Axl’s near-death experience due to an accidental overdose, the crowd is taken on a sonic voyage of which few bands are capable. The heavy groove has the crowd headbanging furiously until the otherworldly psychedelic bridge brings things down, with Axl taking the audience for a deep head trip until the hard-hitting riffage kicks back in for the journey home. Slash puts on a guitar clinic while Duff delivers some of the deepest bass tones known to mankind. There’s not many bands that write songs like this anymore and it’s part of what led Rockline’s Bob Coburn to describe the 1991 Use Your Illusion albums as the White Album of hard rock.

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Photo: Brian van der Brug (Los Angeles Times / TNS)

“Sweet Child of Mine” is sheer triumph with the crowd on cloud nine as the band delivers the smash hit that rocketed GNR from buzzband to megastars. There’s nothing else quite like Slash ripping off those classic licks with his sweet signature tone provided by the Seymour Duncan Alnico II pickups in his ‘59 Gibson Les Paul. He’s not just going through the motions either, adding extra embellishments and making every note count. He even throws in some Hendrix-style “Star-Spangled Banner” riffs at the end, a fitting prelude to the utterly electrifying “Civil War” that follows. It’s easily one of the band’s greatest songs and a tour de force here that speaks to society’s ills just as deeply now as when first unveiled in 1990.

“Better” and the title track from Chinese Democracy both shine with Slash and Duff pumping up the sound, showing that Axl still had some mojo working while creating the 2008 album (although fans will always wonder what the hell took so long to get it done — 14 years?!) An instrumental version of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” gives Axl a breather and sees Slash stepping out with some sacred classic rock riffage, much to the delight of the congregation. GNR always had a bit of a psychedelic quality from the Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin influences, something that set them apart from their contemporaries in the ‘80s hard rock scene.

The full sonic glory of GNR is on display again during “November Rain”, with Axl on baby grand piano and fans holding their lighters in the air like it was 1991 again. Slash rips off another magnificent solo on the “Layla”-esque coda with fireworks streaming from the stage for an extra level of rock grandeur. Axl even cracks a smile at the end, obviously pleased with the way the band is clicking. A surprise bustout of “Out Ta Get Me” thrills the assembled further, one of the classic tracks from Appetite for Destruction that had yet be played in the first six shows of the tour. GNR’s trademark cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” hits home powerfully as well. Like Jimi Hendrix making “All Along the Watchtower” his own, GNR transform this ballad into a powerhouse anthem that takes the song to a higher level.

Throughout the set, old schooler Dizzy Reed and new schooler Melissa Reese add keyboards to round out the band’s sound and fit in perfectly. Whether Steven Adler or Matt Sorum will make a guest appearance on drums this summer is unknown, but Frank Ferrer kills it all night. Duff also makes a noticeable statement with a sticker of the recently departed Prince’s glyph symbol on his bass. Axl apologizes for not having time to work up a proper tribute cover, but says the band is dedicating the whole show to Prince, including the sound that comes next, a train horn signifying the raucous high-octane set closer “Nighttrain”. The band destroys the classic song about West Coast boozing with Slash and Duff laying down the smoking hot riffage as Axl spins the beloved yarn about getting wasted on cheap wine.

The fun’s not over yet though as there’s surely still a big encore to come. The band mixes it up again, starting with a gorgeous “Don’t Cry” before moving into a playful bustout of the Stonesy “Used to Love Her” that has the crowd singing along in joyous unison. An absolutely incendiary cover of the Who’s “The Seeker” fits Axl’s persona so perfectly, with Slash and Duff crushing the classic rock jam with a modern power that lights up the Coachella desert. Then they top it off with the obligatory “Paradise City”, delivering the anthemic goods with a vengeance. Slash slays the outro solo, one of the most insane ever recorded, and the band sprays the crowd with confetti during the ending jam as if we’ve all just won the national championship game. It feels appropriate because GNR is back as one of the most powerful rock bands on the planet and a force to be reckoned with in 2016.

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Photo: Brian van der Brug (Los Angeles Times / TNS)

Sunday Funday

For the rock ‘n’ roll crowd, Saturday was easily the main event. But there’s still some worthwhile music to catch on Sunday once fans get themselves together again. Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats have the main stage rocking at 2:30 pm with their sassy rhythm and blues stylings, but the hot sun seems to call for another kind of music. There’s been a rising buzz for jazz artist Kamasi Washington and he shows why at the Outdoor Theater in the 3 pm hour. The saxman and his 10-piece band “The Next Step” deliver a dazzling set of funky space jazz jams that easily make this set one of the weekend’s top highlights.

Washington is touring behind his triple-album masterpiece The Epic and his band’s energetic and groovy sound shows a star on the rise. Washington and some bandmates are dressed in satin robes with gold trim that make them look like graduates of the Sun Ra Arkestra, as the band skillfully blends some of that avant garde cosmic vibe into acid jazz jams that have the crowd getting down. Washington’s father guests on one stellar jam, renewing a jazz tradition of family jamming. The band delivers the top Prince tribute of the weekend at the end of their set with a jam that blends their own Malcolm X tribute “Malcolm’s Walk” with Prince’s funky party anthem “1999”. It’s a triumph and there’s no doubt Washington is going places in popular music where few jazz artists have succeeded in crossing over to in the 21st century.

English alt-rock band Wolf Alice rocks the Outdoor Theater next and the group commands immediate attention with a psychedelic opener that recalls some of the Smashing Pumpkins’ more eclectic work from the early ‘90s. Singer/guitarist Ellie Rowsell is a dynamic talent with a great voice, though she occasionally seems to waste it with excessive screaming. But Wolf Alice rocks out and the sky’s the limit when a band has the ever-rare strong female vocalist who can also play an instrument.

There’s plenty more music and dancing for those who have been pacing themselves, but those who went all-in on Saturday night could well be inclined to exit stage left to beat the traffic and get home to rest their weary bones. Those who like to rock and roll all night and party every day will find few festivals with more opportunity to do so than Coachella.

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